GALVESTON — A Texas A&M University at Galveston professor is part of a diving team that descended 462 feet in a West Texas cave, believed to be the deepest underwater cave in the United States.
Tom Iliffe, professor of marine biology and one of the world’s most experienced cave diving scientists, led a diving team on a seven-day trip to explore, map and investigate the depths of Phantom Springs Cave, located near Balmorhea. Team members went as deep as 462 feet and recorded the dive on cameras but still did not find the end of the cave.
“There’s really no telling how deep it is or how far the cave goes,” Iliffe said of the Jan. 8 cave dive.
The team ended its dive in a tunnel 30 to 40 feet wide and 20 feet high that continued as far as their lights would penetrate. The only casualty of the dive was a $7,000 diving scooter that imploded because of the extreme pressure and sunk to the bottom in the deepest section of the cave where it still remains.
“This is also one of the longest underwater cave systems in the country,” Iliffe said. “You have to swim horizontally for over a mile at an average depth of 30 feet before arriving at the spot where the cave passage begins to stairstep down, getting deeper and larger all the time. The cave water is significantly warmer than what would normally be expected for this area, thus suggesting this geothermally warmed water almost certainly originates from deep below the Earth’s surface.”
Iliffe’s team consisted of 10 expert divers coming from Texas, Tennessee and Florida. In addition to two deep divers, other team members specialized in cave mapping, video photography and lighting and scientific investigations.
Phantom Springs Cave is located about 120 miles southwest of Midland. The nearest town is Balmorhea, population 435, and the cave is on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Few people have ever been in the waters of Phantom Springs Cave, and a scientific permit to investigate its deep waters is not easy to obtain. The Bureau of Reclamation firmly restricts access to the cave for environmental reasons and to preserve the very sensitive ecosystem.
Iliffe and the team hope to return to Phantom Springs later this year to continue mapping and exploring the cave and to identify various types of cave-adapted organisms.
“Divers have been exploring this cave for more than 30 years, but there are still parts of it that no one has entered,” he said. “It just goes on and on. No end has been found in either the deep sections of the upstream tunnel or, at the opposite end of the cave, far downstream where the passage size becomes much smaller and flow rates increase drastically. Both ends present different types of challenges — either diving to extreme depths upstream or fighting against strong currents to get back out of the downstream part of the cave.”
The project was supported by ADM Foundation, Karst Underwater Research of Florida and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Iliffe has explored more than 1,500 underwater caves, more than anyone else in the world. During his 35-year career, he has discovered more than 300 species of marine life.