Brian Kakuk, the dive safety officer on the expedition, begins his descent into a Bahamian cave. Divers will hit depths of up to 400ft and explore a series of underwater caves in the cliff-face that once formed Bermuda. *Photo by Jill Heinerth (www.IntoThePlanet.com)
Brian Kakuk, the dive safety officer on the expedition, begins his descent into a Bahamian cave. Divers will hit depths of up to 400ft and explore a series of underwater caves in the cliff-face that once formed Bermuda. *Photo by Jill Heinerth (www.IntoThePlanet.com)
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FRIDAY, JUNE 10: An elite team of SCUBA divers are in Bermuda to make an exploratory expedition to the outer limits of the island’s sea-mount.

The team, made up of the best divers in the world, will explore the edge of what used to be Bermuda at the time of the last ice age.

They hope their research will reveal significant data on rising sea levels that could affect global thinking on climate change.

The expedition involves some of the most extreme SCUBA diving ever attempted in Bermuda and a specialist crew of doctors from King Edward VII hospital will be on board in case of emergency.

The divers will hit depths of up to 400ft and explore a series of underwater caves in the submerged cliff-face that once formed a spectacular Bermuda coastline.

Using mixed gas re-breathers — hi-tech diving equipment that allows them to hit depths that were previously unreachable — the divers will collect rock, coral and water samples from the caves.

Tom Iliffe, who is leading the expedition, said it was risky diving ‘by any standards’. But he insisted: “Everybody in the group is a true explorer. We are inquisitive people and the only way to find answers to the questions we are asking is to go beyond where people have gone before. If you stay within the limits of what everyone else has already done you are not going to find out too much new.”

The Texas A&M professor has assembled a team of world class divers for the expedition.

Brian Kakuk, the dive safety officer on the expedition, has decades of experience in technical diving. Based in the Bahamas he has done dive safety on films including Pirates of the Caribbean and Into the Blue, where he helped stunt-men in chain mail to film shark attack scenes.

Mr Kakuk’s job was to physically haul the sharks off the divers if he feared their arms could be broken.

A less strenuous part of his job on that movie was to teach the film’s star — Jessica Alba — to dive using Nitrox gas.

Sharks are less likely to be of concern in Bermuda, though Mr Kakuk warns that deep divers always have to be wary of potential threats.

He once fended off an Oceanic White Tip shark with a small baton for 45 minutes during a dive in the Bahamas as it harassed him during a decompression stop.

The sheer depth of the dives causes a slew of potential hazards. It is impossible to breathe air at 400ft below the surface because the increased pressure makes the oxygen toxic.

Instead the divers breathe a mixture of nitrogen, helium and a much smaller amount of oxygen. The mix would be lethal at the surface — but under 400ft of water it is life saving.

The four-person dive team expect each mission to take around four hours. Of that time only 15 minutes is spent doing the actual work. The rest is spent hanging on to a line at various depths while the gasses work their way out of the system.

Surfacing too soon would be lethal. The tiny time window means the researchers will have to hit their target first time.

Professor Iliffe has visited Bermuda on two previous occasions to survey the underwater cliffs — using sonar technology and remotely operated cameras to identify caves.

This is the first time anyone has physically visited the cliff face. One of the aims of the project, says Professor Iliffe, is to collect rock samples and to identify ‘wave notches’ which will help establish how quickly sea level rose in Bermuda in the distant past.

“That could give us some indication of how fast sea-level might rise in the future.

“It’s not just island communities that are threatened. Most of the major cities in the world are close to coastlines. We see sea-level as a fixed thing but there have been huge changes throughout geological time.”

The research will contribute to a ‘giant jigsaw’ of independent projects that are helping to fuel global policy on climate change.

Professor Illiffe also hopes to establish a connection between the deepwater caves and Bermuda’s inland caves.

The expedition is being supported by a host of Bermuda groups, including BIOS and the Aquarium as well as international organization NOAA.

Local cave divers will provide safety support and Grotto Bay-based Triangle Diving’s new tech-unit is providing logistical support.

Graham Maddocks, who runs the dive centre, said the expedition was a new step for his company and for Bermuda.

“It’s a huge pleasure to work with these guys and to help facilitate what is probably the most extreme diving expedition ever to take place in Bermuda. We’re talking about four of the world’s best divers doing groundbreaking research.”

 

Dr David Wakely hopes his role in the expedition will be limited to sitting on a boat in his board shorts and floppy hat and reading a book.

If his services are required it will mean something has gone badly wrong.

Dr Wakely is part of a three-man team from King Edward VII hospital who will be on hand during the deepest dives to offer medical assistance in case of emergency.

The grim role of the hospital team, which also includes Peter Babeckas and Dr Pete Malan, has been to plan for every possible ‘worst-case’ scenario. From the remote possibility of shark attack to underwater injuries and decompression sickness, the doctors have considered everything that could go wrong. “These are extremely experienced divers but we have to be prepared for the worst case,” said Dr Wakely.

The team has loaned a high-speed boat from BIOS to enable them to make a 15-minute dash to land  in case any of the divers are forced to make a swift trip to the surface and need to be treated for the bends. Staff at the hospital will be informed the minute the divers drop into the water and as soon as they exit safely.

Docking points close to the hospital have been pinpointed to ensure a stricken diver can access a life-saving hyperbaric chamber as quickly as possible.

The complex nature of the gas mixes used in deep diving means that an equipment failure or diver error could be fatal.

“Our side of things has been to talk about doom and gloom and destruction all the time. We’ve been heavily involved in the planning stages — it’s our job to say ‘what happens if?’

“You have to put all these measures in place because if something where to happen that we hadn’t thought of then somebody gets badly injured.”