I’m not an explorer. There are some qualifiers to that, I suppose. But in the conventional sense of cave exploration… I just don’t care. You wonder what it must have been like to explore the caves of Mexico or Florida in those early days when there was a well-known hole in the ground. Like Everest, they were hard to ignore - standing out, demanding attention. Hard to imagine oneself looking at something that’s been right there, all this time, and not thinking, as Muir said, “I must go." I’ve got a pretty good swath of friends who were active in that era. Folks who have the most incredible stories of finding, lining, pushing, and naming passages we all take for granted now. Folks who tell tales of derring-do involving equipment that most of us, today, would take one look at and say, “Well… if you bring that underwater you’re obviously going to die.” But they forged a path for us all to follow - and richer our lives are for it. Today’s exploration is a different animal. To a degree, anyway. Some of those stories told by the folks mentioned above involve jungle hikes, machetes, and donkeys. But just as many are, “So this farmer had a pretty pond right in front of his house and…” Today’s exploration involves fewer donkeys (as far as I know), but there are a lot of miles of jungle and a lot of machetes that need to be whetstoned. All to dunk into a hole that might go for miles, and might go for 30 feet and pinch off like a poorly-rolled joint. There are also wasps (like the tarantula hawk, which is supposed to have the second most painful envenomation of anything in the entire animal kingdom). And ants (which have the first). And mosquitoes… so many mosquitoes. There’s heat. And more heat. And humidity. And trudging back and forth to the vehicle that is parked somewhere within an hour or two’s walk. There are GPS coordinates to be followed. Spanish to landowners that is still (by my own fault) beyond my capacity to be spoken. Or maybe Mayan which, let’s be honest, I’m never, ever going to speak. There’s the need for long pants and good boots to prevent a twisted ankle. And there’s heat. There’s always heat. Fun geological fact: Karst geology (the geology that allows for solution caves) happens where there is limestone. Limestone is, typically, formed by ancient coral reef. Coral reef happens where it’s hot. Ergo, if you’re cave diving, you are somewhere that it is normally hot. Believe you me, if there was a ton of cave diving in Brooklyn, that’s where Nelly and I would still be. But there isn’t. So we live in Mexico now. So there’s heat. I hate heat. I hate sweating through my clothes and needing to drink four gallons of water just to keep from fucking dying. And, above all, I hate carrying heavy shit around. I’m lazy as hell. Considering all this: the idea of having to walk back and fourth with a buttload of tanks and scooters and whatever else, through the heat and the wasps and the uneven, ankle-twisting ground is the least appealing thing I can think of short of having to host a dinner party with Yitzhak Rabin and Hitler. And, after all that, the big thrill (or so I hear) is that you get to see something no one else has ever seen. Until your buddy swims up behind you and ruins it by seeing it too. I’ve been on a couple of modest exploration projects. You know what my entire response to that moment of popping into a room that no-one has ever been in before is? “Hmm. That’s pretty cool,” then I just keep swimming. My “thrill of exploration” lasts for less time than I enjoy the first bite of breakfast. Hardly worth the fucking effort, I say. Conventional exploration, that is. “Either everything is sacred or nothing is,” goes the quote. I lean towards the former. As such, I can happily stare at a formation I’ve swum past a hundred times yet again, and enjoy the perfection of it yet again. For me, exploration is the constant appreciation of the now, of the beauty in front of me in any given instant. I explore moments in great detail. I explore caves and diving through perspective and meditation. A stone dense with shell fossils and coral skeletons standing alone in the middle of a room otherwise bare of anything otherwise notable. Why this one stone? A tangled web of blank, crumbly passage has a single transept of preposterous decoration. When the hell did this happen? For the last 30 minutes I’ve been swimming through an ever-constricting zig-zag when, suddenly, the floor and walls disappear into distant darkness. Well… that was weird. I don’t mind that there’s already line there. I don’t mind that I didn’t have to get attacked by two jaguars and a troupe of monkeys to find myself there. I’m simply happy to be there to float and to let my mind reach out into the ether in wonder. There are times, in my more cynical moments (let that sink in for a second… I have MORE cynical moments) that I think that the whole world might have been better if we, as humans, hadn’t spawned too many explorers. What became of the exploration of Africa? Blood diamonds, ethnic cleansing, a century of junta bloodshed as millennia-old tribal warfare was armed with modern weaponry, vast species extinction as habitats are destroyed for mining, farming, and urban development… generally just not great shit. Would have been far better if Leopold had died of SIDS. The exploration of the Americas? See above… different minerals. South Pacific? South, East, and/or Southeast Asia? Ditto. In each of these places there were already people there doing their own thing. Just took a bunch of mooks from Western Europe where shit was getting too crowded to show up all, “We’re here to save you!” to ruin fucking everything. “By exploring we contribute!” To what? I always figure most explorers were musty, turn-of-some-century dudes who just hated being stuck in whatever shithole they were born into. And we, as a species trying to share a planet with a bunch of other species, probably would all have been a hell of a lot better if those jerkoffs had it nicer at home. So fuck exploration. They didn’t find shit. They just identified shit that was already there for exploitation. Don’t get me wrong (reeling the point back in): I don’t hate cave exploration. I simply hate the idea of me having to be the explorer myself. I’m glad there are cave explorers. Otherwise we wouldn’t have anywhere new to go swimming. I do love these places. I love to visit them, I love to share them with people, I love to come back from them and discuss what we’d seen and how and why and when it might have gotten there. I love reading about and asking about and talking about the formations wrought by tens and hundreds of millennia, one drop of water at a time, throughout passages that took ages longer to be carved away in the first place. Some people are explorers. And we’re lucky to have them. Some people are photographers, who can capture at least some aspect of these hidden corners of reality. And we’re lucky to have them, too. Some people are geologists, or hydrologists, or hydrogeologists, or chemists, or biologists who can research and analyse and predict what was, is, and will become of them all from one aspect or another. Lucky to have them. Some are conservationists who can take the combined work of others and make the case to the authorities to defend the caves. We’ve very lucky to have them. Some are great speakers or presenters who can make the case for our places’ protection. Without them our dives sites would probably be ruined toot-sweet. Some are educators who can teach the next generation of divers who might be able to contribute in any of these ways. And without them we’d not have anything. And some rare few are some combination of these things. Renaissance men (and women). Me? I like to write. I explore the world of ideas. I don’t need to go far for that. It’s just as easy for me to giant-stride right out of the back of the truck into Naharon where I can swim only 1/2 hour to a quiet bit of cave where I can float and stare, awestruck, by a composition of absolute transcendence that may have been glanced at by thousands of eyes, but never really seen, and let my mind alight with a million inchoate, tantalising thoughts. I do not explore the jungle. Too many bugs. And fucking heat.
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