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Underwater Cave Diving: Choosing Passion Over Risk | Nat Geo Live


Kenny:I think there’s been a
big trend in expeditions
that are geared towards sciencethat’s also geared
towards conservation.
I can rationalize, you
know, why I take risks
for scientific reasons,
for conservation reasons.
But, I would be lying to you.It’s just amazing to
get into these places.
( audience applause ) I regularly get asked
for some of these trips “Why do you keep going on
these sorts of expeditions? Why do you keep going on them?” And it’s cliché, but this
is why we go on them.We go to these amazing placesfrom a aesthetic and
cultural standpoint.
And I got to go all
around the world
I used to work as–
in commercial diving.
So I was sent to remote areas,
which is sort of my specialty.
It’s just, you realize
that we’re living in a different kind of world and
you’re just drawn in to them. And then… all of a sudden,
you’re jerked out of that world and you end up, you know,
like this. ( audience laughter ) And the irony of this
particular accidentwhich is, I had
been diving all day
in one of the deepest
known caves in the world. Six hundred and sixty three
feet deep and we were doing… what objectively,
is pretty risky diving. And after three days of working
in this hole in the Bahamas I climbed up on the roof
of a three story building to take a picture of a rare
tree that was blooming and I fell off the roof. ( audience laughter ) So, you know,
our objective versus subjective risk assessment is not,
you know, not so great. In the beginning,
I was motivated by adventure. I wasn’t motivated by these
more rational excuses and I was never kind of analytically motivated
as a child.You can see, I think that’s
my high school report card.
Yeah, so my analytical
skills were, you know somewhat under-developed,
to put it nicely. -( audience laughter )
-( Kenny laughs ) Alright. There’s some
kids in the audience… Hey, come talk to me after. But, I was motivated
by other things. ( audience laughter ) Actually, that’s… the
real cover from 2015 issuethat I just found
out before the show
that was one of the top
selling off the shelf covers.
My only explanation is
that I think the stoners must have kept buying
it over and over. ( audience laughter ) They didn’t remember
that they bought it. But, anyway.
But, I was very much motivatedby the ocean and surfing and…I actually tried to get into
the Navy and the Coast Guard.
And I kept doing the
psychological test and it said “Unfit for vertical
chain of command.” ( audience laughter ) It’s like, kinda
stuck in my head. But, I did end up going
to school in California on and off at UC Santa Barbara,
mostly motivated by the surfing.But, I was really into the ocean
and anything to with adventure.
I ended up getting jobs
in the film industry
doing stunts and
coordinating stunts and… And that, you know,
I found out, oh wow! You can make a
living off of adventure.But it was, once I started
getting into the diving
that’s what opened up really,
the world of science to me.
You go into this insignificant,
tiny little muddy hole
and you realize, beneath my feetis this whole other world
that’s unexplored.
And, my realization of this and the increase in some
of my diving skills coincided with me
meeting Wes Skiles.And he really guided me,
as a mentor
as a friend,
when I was 19 years old
into what the world of
professional diving was like. And he was the photographer
on our expeditionto The Blue Holes
of the Bahamas.
That was a cover story
in August of 2010.
And that’s a shot, you can seethere’s four divers in
that picture, actually.
And Wes, in this tragic irony,
he died just a few days before the magazine with
his cover shot came out. And… it was devastating
to all of us, but it’s– To me, being up here
is very much also telling my friend’s stories. And it’s not just Wes,
who’ve passed away in expedition
related activities. It hits close to home as well. This was from one of my… I have a little boy,
his name’s Lincoln and this was in kindergarten. That is not his handwriting.It’s like a free association,
I guess.
So, when he came up with sad, it
kind of rubs your nose in it.
You know, it hits home and…It’s this battle in my own brain of what’s worth it
and what’s not. And every once in a while
it just gets too much and at some point, 20 years ago,
I went back to school because I felt like,
okay I need something a more substantial career. I’m very interested
in the science this mix of ecology along with,
with human behavior. And that’s how I ended up in
Environmental Anthropology. And I was only in school for
less that two semesters when I get this
letter in the mail from some of you may
know Doctor Bill Stone he’s an explorer
and an innovatorinviting me to join theUnited States deep caving team.And this is where we went.So, it was in Southern Mexico,
in Oaxaca
in what’s called the
Huautla plateau.
And we all drove
there independently and we were set to meet at a
certain date, it was pre-GPS. So, actually, that’s the
map that we were given saying where to go.
( laughing ) You know, “Don’t be late!” ( audience laughter ) “Bring your money.” But, you know, we’re driving
through the lowland jungle and you come around the corner
and this is what you see.This massively uplifted
limestone plateau
and the cave entrance
we were gonna work on
was at the top of this plateau.And that’s the view
from the cave entrance.
And the mouth of the
cave is quite small
but it creates a
giant micro-climate
because of different
temperatures and pressures.
This is the entrance,
so you drop down…
I think, you can see the person.And so here’s the cave system.So, you have the jungle
drop I just mentioned.
You start doing day tripswhere you’re dropping
all the equipment.
You’re dragging everything by
rope, it’s a very vertical cave.
And when you have enough
equipment at the depot
you stop making day trips and
you start living underground.
So, Camp Three was
our main base camp
Camp Five was where we
would start the diving.
But, you can send only two
people at a time to Camp Five because the area
was really small and you’re hanging
over the water. So, most of the activity
was at Camp Three.And you’re going
down and down and…
Some of these drops are
a few hundred meters.
Really, you’re
confined to the dark
and you’re stuck with people,
some of whom, you really love
and some of whom…
well, you know.
And then, from there you reallykeep going down
and keep going down
and you go through these canyonsthat are just amazing
with crystal clear water.
You get to roaring
waterfalls and
you can’t even hear
yourself think.
And in fact, Camp Five was at
one of these roaring waterfalls. And so, we used to wear
balaclavas and earplugs.And I ended up down at Camp Fivewith my very good friend,
Ian Rolland.
And he… he and I were kind
of the team pranksters. So, Ian and I really teamed up. We were the two youngest and
we really got along very well. So, when we were down there,
it was our turn we were lower on the totem
pole to get a chance to dive and the other team… the other
team members hadn’t had luck at cracking the sump, cracking
this underwater passageway full of some tight
restrictions and you can’t see more than about… really about
what’s in front of your hand. And so, I got to dive
first and I went on. This is… this gives you a
good sense of the machine.It’s two redundant rebreathersthat you’re wearing
on your back.
There’s about ten valves that
you’re constantly changing.
There’s two computersthat you’re constantly
monitoring and changing.
So, it’s a–
it was a complex very experimental
system at the time. And then, you’re also
doing all the cave diving which is running a
constant guideline tons of other caving
related equipment. So, Ian and I were down
there and it was really… probably, that time was the most
fun I’d ever had in my life. Everything was going
like clockwork we’d been working together
for two or three months we traded jokes,
we didn’t even have to finish each other’s sentences. I mean,
we were quite close. And I made it pretty
far on the first dive I got through what had,
apparently been stopping people. And… made it far,
came back excited. We fixed up the rebreather because we were sharing
one rebreather and then Ian took off. And… he made it a little
bit further and he said “I think it might
be sloping up.” And then came back
and then I went and I actually made it all
the way through the sump and came up into a big air
bell with a big giant sandbar. And I… literally, felt like
I was on another planet. It had this
otherworldly feeling, this otherworldly silence. And I was so excited and Ian was
a better dry caver than me. So, I wanted to get back, it was little less than half
a mile swim back. So, I made it back to Camp Five
and… “This is it. We did it.” And Ian took off on
the next dive and… he took off,
I remember he had his helmet and he had his kid’s
teddy bear… taped onto his helmet or tie
wrapped onto his helmet. And, you know, we had it said,
if he’s not back in six hours… literally, the words were
“call the cavalry”. And two hours go by I was expecting him at
about three or four hours. Five hours, six hours and…
no Ian. So I… I left the hot pot of
tea, a light, a pulley system so you could get yourself
out of the water and I headed back a few
hours up to Camp Three. I got there at about one in the
morning and woke everyone up and said,
“We have to go on a rescue.” Ian was probably the…
one of the most experienced with this machine and…
But, he also was a diabetic. So, there was a
question in my mind was he having some kind
of diabetic incident. And… I got into quite
a fight with the team. But, to make a very,
very long horrific story, short I ended up going back down,
making the dive and found Ian on the other
side of the sandbar back in the water where he
had started diving again with a cave diving reel
with a line in his hand. And I found him at the bottom with just the reel right out
of his hand, very peacefully. So, it was… you know,
all of a sudden to go from the highest high
to the lowest low you can imagine…
in about the lowest point you can ever imagine literally,
was devastating. You have to block
that out of your mind and I made my way
back to Camp Five where Bill was waiting for me. And… it took six days to get
Ian back out to the surface. And it ended up, I was, ended up
being underground for 21 days. And that’s what it looks like,
after 21 days underground.But, when we came out and
we came out with Ian’s body
the Mazatec village…
and I’ll never forget this
and I’m still forever grateful.They had carved out
steps in the cornfields
and the whole village came
in and accompanied us out.
And we went right into the
local, small cathedral.
Where we–
it was really a combination
of an indigenous religion
along with catholicism.
And had an extremely moving
ceremony, right there. And… it was… I don’t have to tell you how
it was. You get the idea. But, for me I was,
I don’t even know I hadn’t slept for days and days and ended up the National
Geographic film team with my friend Wes,
had just gotten down there a couple days beforeand somehow, we decided
to go back into the cave
for a few days and just kind of
try to get a grip on things.
We got caught in a flash floodand ended up getting
trapped for four days. It ripped all of
our rigging out. We ended up having to ration
food and lighting stuff. By the way, if you ever
are short on things and have to ration, don’t
tell anyone you’re rationing. They just… it creates
instant hoarders. ( audience laughter ) But, we got out of there
and at the end of that I was really… I was done
and I left the expedition. And Bill was very
gracious in that. In fact,
most of the expedition was gone. But, Bill and Barbara am Ende who was one of the leaders
on the expedition. She and Bill decided to go on and they did what
was in my opinion one of the most audacious
exploration feats. So, Ian and I had stopped
at that deepest point.They went by themselves, all
the way to that furthest point
which at the time, was
the deepest point known.
And there was no chance of
anyone ever rescuing them. That’s them at the deepest
point, right there.And this was in the 1995 issue
of National Geographic.
And here’s a picture
of my friend, Ian.
And… you know, I kept in touch
with his family over the years.
And his wife remarried someone from the same
mountain rescue team. But, this is his two year old,
Connor, now.Who’s become a British caver, a
very well known British caver.
And we hadn’t met for…
he’s now 24 years old
and he came to Florida,
two weeks ago.
So, we spent ten days togethertraveling around Florida,
diving together.
So, I mean, as hard as it is
for me to tell this story it’s… kind of in a strange
way it’s come full circle. And it was–
we had a really great, great time together.

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