This story appears in the July 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Explorers lie, at least to themselves—myself included. We rationalize our monomaniacal passions and risktaking under the guise of discovering new forms of life, identifying remedies from nature, measuring climate change, or testing physiological limits.
The truth is that some genetic defect drives us to do things that make most people uncomfortable. During the colonial era, ego-based ventures were fueled by the search for “gold and glory.” But explorers today are increasingly motivated by a wider set of goals, including conservation and education.
In December I was involved in a National Geographic Society expedition supported by the Bahamian government and local organizations. Our goal was to map one of the world’s unique ecosystems: underwater caves, aka “blue holes.” Their biogeochemistry creates hot spots for extremophile life-forms.
They also contain fossils from previous inhabitants, and their geologic features allow us to reconstruct the climate from hundreds of thousands of years ago. What’s more, they hold our most precious resource: freshwater. Call it one-stop shopping for exploration science.
Underground, we collected imagery for virtual reality models of cave features and surveyed using cutting-edge equipment. While the divers were underwater, schoolkids tracked them with radiolocators, crawled through a constructed cave, “explored” underwater with VR headsets, held fossils and living creatures, and sampled medicinal plants.
On most expeditions the goal is to go farthest or deepest. But working with these kids—and sharing the adventure of the environment that will be theirs to manage—was the most memorable exploration achievement for many of us. By applying new technologies and empowering locals, we can discover more about our world, and ourselves.