University research can take many forms.

To many, the idea of a college professor doing research involves test tubes and beakers or, perhaps, pouring over musty manuscripts in a dimly lit library, or maybe going out into the field to examine new crop growing techniques or animal breeding methods. All of it’s good, solid research and I commend them all.

Then there is what I do — cave diving.

Diving into underwater caves is research like none other. When my cave diving partners and I go into a cave, we are often about to see things no other human has ever seen — or been. I have explored more than 1,500 such underwater caves in the last 40 years and I can tell you the experience can be breathtaking. When you are down 60 to 100 feet in a cave that has zero light and is 20 miles long, you never know what is about to stare you in the face as you turn the next corner.

Now that’s exciting.

From Australia to the Mediterranean, from Hawaii to the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean, cave diving has taken me literally around the world.

Thrilling work? Absolutely.

Dangerous? Positively.

The list of what can go wrong in a cave dive could fill your event planner.

Equipment or light failure, leaking scuba tanks, broken guide lines, getting lost, cave collapse, stirred up silt resulting in zero visibility, poisonous gas mixtures — you get the idea.

It’s research that can be a matter of life or death. I have had some close calls over the years, and sadly, have lost several good friends and researchers in cave accidents.

To put it mildly, underwater caves can be very non-friendly. One such cave — Jacob’s Well in Central Texas — has claimed at least nine lives, according to Associated Press reports, and there are other examples in Florida and Mexico.

Most of the time, human error is to blame, when divers don’t follow the rules they should or lack essential training and experience in cave diving.

My wife has gotten used to the idea that what I do is not always a walk in the park. She knows that since I’m 68, I stress safety, being physically and mentally prepared, and that I never break the cardinal rule of cave diving — that you never, ever dive alone. We usually go into a cave with teams of 2 to 3 divers and constantly look after each other to see if there is anything going wrong during our dives, which usually last about 90 minutes, but can be as long as 3 hours or more.

So why take such risks at this stage of my life?

The short answer is, it’s worth it. It’s like the Star Trek mantra come true — to boldly go where no man has gone before. The chance to discover new forms of marine life and organisms, to view never-before-seen underwater formations and cliffs and canyons, to see some of the bluest and purest water on Earth, I will take that sort of research and its challenges any day.

Yes, it can give new meaning to the old line about “publish or perish.” But it’s what I do, and I love it, and I will tell you with all honesty, I can’t wait until my next trip.

Tom Iliffe is a professor of marine biology at Texas A&M at Galveston.

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