Uncovering Mysteries of the Deep

Professor Leads Record Diving Expedition in Texas Cave

Even the world’s most experienced cave divers have yet to locate the mysterious end of Phantom Springs Cave.

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 in West Texas.  Team members went as deep as 462 feet and recorded the dive on cameras, but still did not find the end of the cave.

Iliffe has explored 1,500 underwater caves – more  than anyone else in the world. His cave diving adventures have brought him all over the globe and led him to discover 300 new marine species. Iliffe has several marine species named after him, such as the Sphaerosyllis iliffei, an eyeless and depigmented worm. There is also a type of shrimp, Typhlata iliffei, and a type of crustacean, Iliffeocia illifei.

“This is one of the longest underwater cave systems in the country,” Iliffe adds.  “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 team ended its dive in a tunnel 30-40 feet wide by 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 due to the extreme pressure and sunk to the bottom in the deepest section of the cave where it still remains.

“There’s really no telling how deep it is or how far the cave goes,” Iliffe says of the Jan. 8 cave dive.  “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.”

Iliffe has explored 1,500 underwater caves and discovered over 300 marine species across the globe.

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.

“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.

Iliffe and the team hope to return to Phantom Springs sometime later this year to continue mapping and exploring the cave and to identify various types of cave-adapted organisms.

“When you explore a cave that probably no one has ever entered and you find a type of marine life that no one knew existed, it is quite an exciting time,” Iliffe says. “I’ve been lucky enough to discover many caves that no one has ever entered before,” Iliffe adds. “It’s like going to the far side of the moon. You turn a corner and you realize you are seeing things no one has ever seen, and these include strange, alien creatures. It never ceases to be an amazing experience.

The project was supported by ADM Foundation, Karst Underwater Research of Florida and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.


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Michael Morelius ’98,
Director of Development, College of Science
(979) 862-4944 or (800) 392-3310

Shaun Milligan ’06,
Director of Development, Texas A&M University at Galveston
(979) 862-4944 or (800) 392-3310


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