Underwater cave biology as a field is still relatively new, and Iliffe sees himself as an evangelist, responsible for promoting as many areas of research within these unique environments as possible. As a result, he spends a lot of time in the field, and not nearly as much in the lab, so he needs to collaborate with a variety of more specialized researchers. “When I find something really cool, I try and get the best people in the world to work with me,” Iliffe says of his strategy to do good science across multiple fields.
Alvarez, a crustacean biologist, is one of these experts. After Iliffe’s dive into the Crustacea system, the shrimp specimens he gathers will go back to Alvarez’s lab to be identified and studied. Iliffe relies on the expertise of microbiologists, geologists, other marine biologists and even archaeologists, among others, to complete his work.
Collaboration is also something Iliffe encourages in his students. “He finds students and identifies what their interests might be, and then he tries to align those interests with experts he knows from his years of interaction and experience in the field,” says Pohlman. Case in point: Pohlman, who is now a biogeochemist for the U.S. Geological Survey, studies global distributions of methane deposits, stored in the seafloor as solid methane hydrates, and how the destabilization of those deposits could impact climate change. Currently, he is informally co-advising Brankovits, who is investigating energy inputs for microbial life within the caves.
Playing It Safe
Preceded by a swirl of air bubbles, Brankovits emerges from Crustacea. He lost sight of Iliffe moments earlier. Unable to see through Crustacea’s polluted water, Brankovits was hoping his adviser was still right behind him. But it’s a few suspenseful minutes before Iliffe emerges. He’s unscathed — and unaware he was missed.
“Where were you?” Brankovits asks.
“Oh, I was just following a shrimp,” Iliffe says.
Despite the occasional distraction, Iliffe has managed to stay safe for more than three decades diving into environments that have claimed nearly 400 lives since 1969 just in the U.S. Among cave divers, it is often said there are no accidents, only fatalities.
Knowing when to turn around keeps Iliffe alive, says Jill Heinerth, an underwater cave filmmaker and explorer who has dived with him for years. Just last year, Iliffe traveled to Christmas Island, a remote spot in the Indian Ocean, for a high-profile, National Geographic-funded expedition to discover life in the island’s underwater caves, and in particular to find a small crustacean called a remipede. It was an expensive expedition — the entirety of which was documented by professional underwater filmmakers, including Heinerth — for a potential TV special. But conditions weren’t right for finding the remipedes and, when his window of opportunity for diving closed, Iliffe left empty-handed but undaunted.
Iliffe is a persistent scientist, but he also knows when to step back. “That’s the earmark of a good explorer,” says Heinerth. And it’s the mark of a researcher in it for the long haul: Iliffe returns to Yucatan’s coastal caves this summer, hoping to unravel more of their secrets.