1000 Hours Under Earth and Phil Short’s Other Adventures

From Wikimedia Commons

He has spent over 3,000 hours underwater[1] and just recently spent “1000 Hours Under Earth”.  And, as he told our mutual contact, he’d “…be happy to correspond, having just spent three months in Mexico using Rebreathers for exploration 8 kilometres underground.”

He is Phil Short, a UK technical diving consultant with a fancy for cave diving.  I had originally been interested in Short for an article I am working on for Oceanus magazine, due out in the fall.  A teaser: underwater archaeologists look for Mediterranean shipwrecks on the trails of Cousteau using the latest dive technology. Short trained the archaeologists in the advanced dive techniques and equipment used to complete the project.

But something else about Phil piqued my interest. In the age of unmanned vehicles, there’s something to get excited about when real live humans are still in the field carrying out boundary-pushing research.[2] That, and he’s an adventurer often recruited by scientists to get the job done.

I connected with Short last month via Skype, and was able to sneak in a few questions on his latest adventures, his work with scientists, and his take on being a science “drone.”   Enjoy.

It sounds like you’re all over.

Yeah it’s pretty crazy. I’m in France at the moment teaching cave diving.

And you just got back from a trip as well?

Yeah, the big exploratory trip with Discovery TV to Mexico.

I was reading your blog post. It sounded amazing.  Was that the first time you had worked teaching divers for science?

No, I’ve done several projects for the US National Park Service for the submerged resources center…and a lot of training for the UK Police search and rescue service.

You guys were actually circumnavigating some of the islands [circumnavigating underwater in Greece for the Mediterranean project], is that something you had done before or are you mostly in cave diving?

Funnily enough, we did circumnavigate Antikythera island, 36 kilometers of submerged DPV [DPV=diver propulsion vehicle, like an underwater scooter] runs on the rebreather* equipment.  I’ve done similar things to find cave entrances on small islands elsewhere in the Mediterranean, but this was the first time I’ve done a circumnavigation of a small island with regards to trying to find ancient shipwreck sites.

(*For the purposes of this article, Rebreathers are some of the most sophisticated diving technology on the market.  While they used to be considered quite dangerous, technological improvements and updated safety procedures are rendering them an amazing tool for explorers and scientists.  Again, more later.)

Was it different working with shipwrecks?  I guess you had worked with them for the National Park before as well.

Yeah, with the National Parks and also, I worked with the Fisher Corporation on the Atocha and Margarita project in the Gulf of Mexico [The Fisher Corporation is a treasure hunting firm.  The Atocha and Margarita are both 1600s Spanish shipwrecks] and a lot of the UK diving is wreck based, so it wasn’t something that’s completely new to me.  Cave is my passion, so to speak.  That’s what I enjoy the most so I put my personal time into cave, but working on wrecks is pretty normal for this industry.

What’s the longest you’ve been underwater?

Eight hours

What were you doing?

It was one of the survey dives in Guam for the Fisher Corporation.  It was quite a deep dive and a lot of decompression* associated with it.  Its basically not as bad as it sounds.  You’ve got a lot to do all of the time so you don’t find ‘wow this is a long time’ you’re just getting on with stuff and running safety procedures.  It flies by.

*A simplified lesson on decompression: when you dive, nitrogen bubbles accumulate in your body.  They’re small when you’re under the pressure of the ocean, but when you come up they get bigger due to the lessening of pressure.  Decompression is essentially the act of coming up slowly or making stops to give the bubbles time to exit your body.

I know a lot of researchers get ideas for what they want to look at underwater and then come to you to find out how they can do it. Have there been things you’ve seen in caves or underwater and you wonder why scientists aren’t looking at them?

Generally the cave people—the scientists—don’t go there because it is a much more difficult, uncomfortable, unpleasant and hazardous environment so they tend to leave the acquiring of data to the Speleologists [cavers], the people like myself who do it as a hobby.  But we are used a lot.  The project in Mexico was run by a guy called Bill Stone who works for NASA so we were doing saliva samples for analysis of the effects of long term sensory depravation by being underground, on the immune system and things like that.  We quite often do water samples and life samples and all these other bits and pieces.  So the scientists effectively use us as drones to go down and bring back what they need—measurements, data, samples etc.”

What is the science process like for your project in Mexico?

Well basically NASA wanted saliva samples for a seven day cycle pre-trip, a seven day cycle pre going underground, a seven day cycle whilst underground for a period longer than two weeks, and then a seven day cycle once on the surface. They’re looking at changes in the body’s chemistry and makeup to see if being deprived of sunlight, the normal body clock schedule that we live on on the surface, has any effects on the immune system for research they’re doing for long distance, long duration space missions like Mars missions and things like that.

LESLIE BAEHR is a science writer currently based out of Woods Hole, MA.  For her latest work covering Shark Week behind the scenes see here.  For more blog posts see here.

[1] These are Short’s hours only on closed circuit rebreathes.

[2] Not to knock unmanned vehicles or anyone working on them.  Having recently completed a story on some amazing engineers and scientists using autonomous underwater vehicles to track and film great white sharks, I have the utmost respect.

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