With its dusty desert climate and cactus-filled vistas, West Texas is not usually thought of as a center for cave diving, but the area has some of the world’s most challenging underwater caves anywhere, and a researcher from Texas A&M University at Galveston is leading a team to explore Phantom Springs Cave farther and deeper than anyone has ever gone.
Tom Iliffe, professor of marine biology on the Texas A&M-Galveston campus who has explored more than 1,500 caves around the world, recently headed up a team that investigated Phantom Springs Cave, located about 120 miles southwest of the Midland-Odessa area. Iliffe was joined by Texas A&M graduate students Sepp Haukebo and David Brankovits, along with expert divers from two Florida dive groups, the ADM Exploration Team and Karst Underwater Research, and spent a week investigating the cave, which is on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The purpose of the expedition was to explore and map the extensive underwater cave and its habitat, conduct comprehensive photo and video documentation, use radio locators to pinpoint significant biological features, and record the distribution of species within the cave.
Few people have ever been in the waters of Phantom Springs Cave and a research permit to investigate its deep waters is not easy to obtain. The Bureau of Reclamation restricts access to the cave for security reasons and to preserve the very sensitive ecosystem. But Iliffe says it is an underwater world that is certainly nothing like the terrain above it.
“The cave is very long and deep,” Iliffe explains. “One of our goals was to map it and see how far it extended. We went about 8,000 feet along the guideline laid out through the cave, about 1,500 feet farther than anyone had ever gone before. And it was believed the cave was only about 60 to 70 feet deep at most, but we went down to 240 feet with the cave passage still trending ever deeper and larger.”
The team noted several species of fish in a small pool at the cave entrance, including the Comanche Springs Pupfish and the Pecos Gambusia, two types of tiny fish that are both on the endangered species list and endemic to West Texas. The two springs for which these fish were originally named have since dried up so that they now occur only in a few isolated locations, Iliffe explains.
“It’s one of the reasons that permits are so difficult to get to enter the cave – the ecosystems found there are extremely fragile and the government wants to prohibit recreational dives to protect the life down there,” he points out.
Iliffe says the cave is especially interesting because of its geology. Phantom Springs Cave has pure white limestone walls with black chert (a silica based mineral) which occurs as irregular nodules protruding out of the cave wall and resembling elk horns.
“One troubling aspect of the cave is that the water level in it has gone down because of the drought and also because of irrigation in the area,” Iliffe notes, adding that the current drought is one of the worst ever recorded in the state.
“Due to the drop in water level in the cave, the roots of some plants getting water from the cave and providing a source of food for cave animals are now completely high and dry. Even the fish in pools at the cave are in danger and water needs to be pumped from the cave so as to prevent these pools from drying out.
In addition to Phantom Springs Cave, Texas contains two other prominent underwater caves – Goodenough Springs under the waters of Lake Amistad near Del Rio, and Jacob’s Well near Wimberly. Goodenough Springs is the deepest explored cave in the United States, reaching 515 feet, while Jacob’s Well has a reputation for being the most dangerous cave in Texas. At least eight divers have died exploring the cave.
Iliffe and the team hope to return to Phantom Springs later this year to continue mapping of the cave and to identify more 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 adds. “It just goes on and on. It is now the longest underwater cave in the U.S. outside the state of Florida. ”
The team’s investigations are funded by a cooperative research grant between Texas A&M and CONACyT, Mexico’s national science foundation.
For more information about Phantom Springs, go to http://www.admfoundation.org/projects/phantom/phantomcave.html
For more about Iliffe’s work, go to http://www.tamug.edu/cavebiology/