Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Exploring the world’s grossest caves

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“When I was 5, I would say I wanted to be an explorer, and people kept telling me the entire world has already been explored,” she says. “Turns out, that’s not true.”

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Since 2014, Gibb and her dive associate, Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, have found greater than 55 miles of caves beneath mangrove swamps close to the border of Mexico and Belize.

Scuba diving in any cave is extraordinarily harmful (and requires years of specialised coaching), however Gibb’s caves are next-level terrifying — and gross. For one factor, they’re typically stuffed with dissolved hydrogen sulfide, a toxic substance that may be absorbed by means of the pores and skin and trigger complications, dizziness and nausea.

Plus, it makes you scent like rotten eggs. “People are like, ‘You know, you need to take a shower,’ ” she says. “And I’m like, ‘No, I just took a shower. I’m off-gassing.’ ”

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Also gross: Gibb typically emerges from dives lined in black slime — the stays of microbes that hitched a trip on Gibb and died the second they touched the oxygen-rich water of the estuary. “For them, oxygen is poison, and hydrogen sulfide is just fine,” she says.

Gibb went on her first dive in 2003 whereas on trip in Florida. Four years later, whereas touring in Mexico, she was persuaded to go on a guided cavern dive. (Caverns are like caves with massive open mouths, so that you’re by no means removed from the entrance or the floor.)

“Before the dive, I thought cave divers were crazy. Afterward, I was like, ‘Okay, I am going to be a cave diver. I’m going to have my own cave diving center, and I’m going to train cave divers, and I’m going to explore caves.’ ”

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Gibb achieved all these targets inside a couple of years, even discovering a small cave system. But her greatest discovery got here in 2014, after getting a tip from a fisherman, who mentioned there was a gap deep in a mangrove swamp. Gibb and Rouquette-Cathala rented just a little boat, discovered the gap and found a cave at the backside, however the entrance was solely about one foot broad — too small to swim although.

Gibb had a hunch there have been different caves in the space, so she checked out Google maps and observed that the water above the gap had a yellowish hue. She searched the map for similar-colored water close by and systematically started checking them. For years, Gibb stored discovering tiny peepholes into what regarded like a big, interconnected system of caves. Then in early 2019, she lastly discovered an entrance she may wriggle by means of — barely.

“I couldn’t see anything, so I was swimming blind. But I felt water flowing toward me, and so I swam against the current. Then I felt water pushing up from underneath me, so I nosedived down into this hole. About 25 feet down, I go through another entrance and find myself in a big chamber completely covered by bright orange sponges.”

Gibb and Rouquette-Cathala needed to swim backward to get out of the cave, and Rouquette-Cathala refused to return in. “I said, ‘Yeah, it’s like really poor visibility and it’s a little unstable, but I haven’t spent the last five years looking for this place to not dive it,’ ” Gibb remembers.

She did two extra dives alone, pushing farther into the cave every time, and finally discovered what she was in search of: an anaerobic (with out oxygen) ecosystem stuffed with hydrogen sulfide and surfaces lined in layers of microbes. Gibb collected microbes and despatched them to scientists at Northwestern University to research. So far they’ve discovered DNA from historical single-celled organisms known as archaea (pronounced ahr-KEE-uh).

When she’s not in search of caves, you could find Gibb in her dive store in Tulum, Mexico. Tulum has cenotes (si-NO-tees) — picturesque, crystal clear caverns which are comparatively protected for newbie cave divers. The cenotes are fairly, Gibb says, however she a lot prefers the mucky, pungent, harmful caves that she has found herself.

“I get to see places that no human on Earth has ever seen before,” she says. “How cool is that?”

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