I peered down the vast hole. A beam of light from the warm paradise sun snuck into the otherwise pitch-black alien world beneath. I watched as my team jumped into the depths like their lives weren’t in jeopardy. I wasn’t in the water quite yet, but I could feel the perspiration dampening my wetsuit. First went Dave, with his classic “good luck charm” holler echoing until he splashed down into the water ten feet below. Then there was Elise whose silent plummet carried more fear than any forced screech Dave ever exhaled. And lastly there was me, teetering on the edge of the unknown.
“Come on Phil. You’re not going to wuss out on us, are you?” Dave yelled up, cupping his hands around his lips as if the cavern hole’s echo didn’t carry enough.
My name is Phillip Moore and I’m a professional cave diver. At this point about seven years ago, it was only my third dive I’d ever taken, and the first on which I’d be searching for a meaningful discovery. We had set out on a mission to explore a fraction of the many kilometers of undocumented caverns lying beneath the desolate islands of the Bahamas and answer some of the region’s most pressing questions. Most people think of the Bahamas as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation or a paradise resembling heaven on earth, but biologically speaking it is anything but a thriving paradise: it’s a barren wasteland devoid of animal life. Our team had come to answer the question: why? But in cave diving, as in many facets of life, this time we dove too deep.
This Earth is a rather mysterious place. Even after hundreds of thousands of years living on it, humans have yet to discover many of its nooks and crannies, most of which are hidden deep beneath the ocean or in our case, mostly submerged caves. And sometimes mother nature decides she doesn’t want us finding those answers. Some things are meant to be kept shrouded in mystery.
“Come on Phil! The water’s great!” Elise shouted. She dipped her head under the water, then came back up for air with a “woo”.
Beside their cheering was our somber ground team lowering the steel Luxfer AL80 double air tanks down the hole. Once Dave secured his, I had a clear path to jump. I bent my knees and let my feet glide off the edge. Dirt cascaded down the sides of the cave entrance, followed by chunks of grass and small pebbles. In a cloud of dusty dirt, the air whipped around my legs, torso, then ears and held my mouth shut. I secured my feet together midair, then plunged into the murky depths. After a second or two of sinking with the muted salt water bubbling around me, I flapped my arms twice and ascended for the surface.
“Woo!” Dave cried out, cupping his hands around his mouth again.
I forced a smile that didn’t involve my eyes, then dragged my hands over my closed eyes to wipe the water droplets off my eyelashes. I couldn’t tell if Dave was as fearless as he let off or if he was more terrified than either of us. These cave diving missions sure are important to science, but by my third dive, I still hadn’t overcome the constant 80-minutes of stomach-twisting terror. Prior to my third dive, I wasn’t sure I ever would.
I grabbed my air tank as our team lowered it down, strapped it over my shoulders, then buckled and tightened the straps over my chest. “Alright, Elise, Phil – ready to make history?” Dave asked proudly.
“I was born ready,” I said. I didn’t mean a word of it. I checked my belt and harnesses quickly to ensure everything was secure. Both of my knives, check. My pressure gauge, check. Regulator – check. I took one more cautious tug at my wetsuit, making sure it was as tight to my body as possible.
Nearly simultaneously, all three of us secured the snorkels and masks over our faces. I didn’t tighten the strap on this one since I was fidgeting with it the whole ride over to the cave to make sure it was perfectly fitted before we arrived.
Dave secured a piece of nylon string from his dive reel around a pointed submerged rock. He used to be an eagle scout, so we always trusted Dave with these sorts of life-saving knots. We’d use the string to guide a path through the uncharted underwater mazes so we could find a way out.
Since Dave had the reel, he dove down first. Elise waited a moment for him to get about four feet down before she made the plunge. I took my last deep breath of fresh air I would for what I thought would be the next hour and a half, then followed her down. When I dipped my head into the cavernous pit I instantly forgot everything. Under the water there was no wedding planning to fret over. There were no nagging emails, no late mortgage payments, no elderly pets. All I had to worry about was scientific exploration, and my team’s safe journey both in and out of those Bahaman caves. Those two simple goals would prove harder than I could have ever imagined.
We moved slowly enough that a snail could have passed us if anything was alive at all down there. Diving requires a gentle touch, even more so than in surgery. Despite the sturdy appearance of the surrounding limestone rocks, they were fragile remnants of a world from long ago, most likely untouched in thousands of years and underprepared for one now.
Dave turned back and pointed with his beaming flashlight towards a path to his left. Elise and I both gave him a thumbs up, then cautiously followed him down the forked labyrinth. If we were moving slower than snails before, we were moving like glaciers now. The walls of the cave had greatly narrowed down the new path Dave brought us on. I couldn’t speak to him, but I internally questioned his judgement harshly. Squeezing through that tight unexplored nook was recipe for disaster. Entering an untapped cave was enough of a risk to begin with. I had hoped he’d have the sense to guide us down the path of least resistance, but I should have known better diving with Dave.
In a testament to our caution, the three of us managed to squeeze down that path successfully into a far more open cavern. I felt like I could finally breathe out – I’d never appreciated elbow room so much before, but I already dreaded the return journey down that same path.
Elise tugged on Dave’s left flipper. He stopped swimming and glided another few inches before he was able to pivot towards her. She glanced at both of us, then pointed her flashlight towards the cave wall, guiding its light in a line across the middle. It took me a moment to realize what she was pointing to, but then I saw it too: a thick, dusty red line circled the full cavern. It wrapped around like a ring from a Bahamas of approximately 12,000 years ago judging on the basis of our depth.
Dave secured another notch of the nylon rope around a rock he found near the tight corridor. We then followed Elise toward her astounding discovery. When we reached the red dusty belt, Elise carefully ran her finger over the resting sediment, kicking it up into a mini-dust storm around her dainty right hand. We all knew what it was immediately: it was a layer of iron from long ago. The iron most likely covered all of the Bahamas on the surface many years ago in place of the coral surface we descended from ten minutes earlier. I took the lid off an empty small plastic container and handed it to Elise. She carefully scooped the red dust into it and nodded at me. Though Elise couldn’t properly smile with her lips wrapped around a snorkel, her excitement resonated from her gleaming brown eyes beneath the mask.
Elise secured the lid over the plastic container. She raised it to her face and shook it lightly causing the sediment to swirl again. I could tell she saw something in it she didn’t mean to collect. Her hand stopped shaking the container, and her expression quickly turned from glee to bewilderment. Elise raised the container to Dave, then to me. His eyes and wrinkled forehead followed the same sudden changes as hers, only further raising my interest.
There they were – our first bones. Buried shallowly in red sediment in that round plastic container were what looked like the chewed femur and ribs of small lizards, arranged neatly together. Those bones not only confirmed the existence of a small extinct lizard, but a predator to go along with it. For a brief, my fear all but vanished, and ancient sediment along with the thrill of scientific discovery washed over me.
Elise and Dave hadn’t finished their silent celebrations of excited hand gestures before I saw the next discovery – one even greater than the iron dust or lizard bones. Poking out from the soft sand beneath was a shapely figure I was instantly drawn to. I waved one arm in front of Dave and Elise to garner their attention, then with the other pointed my flashlight towards the cave floor.
Dave was unsure of what we were looking at, but Elise caught it right away. He kept glancing between us, slightly annoyed that he didn’t spot it first or even second.
We carefully swam down towards it, this time with me in the lead. I let go of the string, making sure not to get it tangled between our shifting positions. Even with my immense caution I approached it too quickly. Sand and dust whirled into a tornado beneath my approaching shoulders.
Once the sand settled, I pushed my fingers into it and wiped little by little, gradually revealing the object. My heart pounded and eyes locked on. I’d momentarily forgotten all about the dangers of cave diving. I even forgot the fact Dave and Elise were hovering behind me, watching my every move.
Finally, I grabbed the object when I saw enough of its eye socket that I could grab onto, then lifted it from the sand. The sand whirred and danced again, hanging in the water around me. This time I didn’t care. I twisted and turned the skull in my hand. It was more than I had ever dreamed of – an ancient massive crocodile skull, almost perfectly intact with many of its razor-sharp teeth still lining its long snout. Only a few of the back teeth were broken on the top and bottom. The only strange markings outside the mouth on the skull was a row of jagged holes lining the nasal. I initially assumed it was some pattern of decay, but soon remembered that no bones decay in the blue holes of the Bahamas – there wasn’t any oxygen. In a short thirty minutes we’d found evidence of lizards, owls, and now crocodiles that once roamed the Bahaman islands. My head felt warm under the otherwise cold waters. My eyelids fluttered, almost incapable of grasping what we had found.
But then the question we had come to answer began to come back to me: why wasn’t there any wildlife in the Bahamas?
Remembering my colleagues, I swiped at the water with my free hand to spin myself around towards them. I couldn’t wait to catch some more of their celebratory punches and other hand gestures through the water. While I was spinning around, I saw one of their flashlights begin to move. At first I followed the light to see if they’d found something else. It would have to be dinosaur bones if it was going to beat my discovery. But then I noticed its movement wasn’t aiming towards anything…it was falling.
I swung at the water again and spun around faster. The flashlight continued its steady spinning descent towards the ground until it smacked down, pointed away from me. I swiped with an open hand, attempting to feel if Dave or Elise were where I’d left them in the darkness – nothing. My fingers made an arc around my body, unobstructed. There was no movement, no living creature besides me.
With the skull still in my hand, I tightened my grip on my discovery’s eyesocket. If I was going to die, it’d at least be a benefit to science.
In that moment, I thought of Gwen. I could picture her frantically running around the house we’d just bought, looking for a pen to write down something a vendor on the phone was telling her – some sort of mishap with the flower arrangements. She would later tell me they were supposed to be lemonade pink, but they only had crepe. “It won’t contrast against the daisy-white seats the same way,” she’d say. She would fret about the amount of plates, the quality of the band, the dresses on her bridesmaids. But all that stress would have been better than what she’d have to do next – sob over an empty casket for her fiancé who never came out of that cave. Sometimes mother nature decides not to let us know the answers to science’s greatest questions. On that day she’d employed her ancient underwater tropical labyrinth to conceal her darkest secrets.
While I grasped harder on the almost-perfectly preserved skull, my fingers shifted over that jagged row of holes again. I noticed the slightest curvature in the holes’ formation as they wrapped around the nasal and eventually below the attached mandible. And then I remembered the chipped teeth. Something had wrapped around the crocodile’s head and put an enormous amount of pressure on it – enough to break tooth bone. Resentfully, alone in that pitch-black cavern I began to answer the question we had come to the Bahamas for: there was something ancient that had lived amongst the once exotic collection of species – something capable of wrapping its mouth neatly around a 2,000-pound crocodile’s head. And if it could overpower a crocodile so easily, it would have been capable of eating every animal within its reach.
Suddenly, something whizzed past my head. I heard the rushing water and felt a whirling push as it glided past me. I looked down to the light emanating off the fallen flashlight, trying to see if I could see anything of significance in its cone. With the skull still in one hand, I frantically swam towards the flashlight, flipping my feet faster than I had ever before. Usually I’d worry about snapping the nylon line or disturbing the environment, but fear trumped any professional caution I might usually practice.
I reached the flashlight, only around 8 feet away from me and picked it up with my free hand. The coiled cord on the flashlight that had once clipped to someone’s wet suit was snapped. With the flashlight in hand, I spun back around to where I’d last seen Dave and Elise. Neither of them was anywhere to be seen, but in their place blotches of red liquid suspended in the water around me like a floating crime scene. The creature that had eaten that crocodile wasn’t as ancient as I assumed – it lurked the depths among us. By sliding through that narrow crevice, my team had poked at the dormant beast we were looking for, but also the one we’d never want to find.
I tried not to breathe quickly, but it was no use. I was depleting the dual oxygen tanks faster than I needed to. It’d mean I had less time to escape. But as I whipped the flashlight back and forth and my body shook in the cold depths with unmitigated terror, the thought of a return journey never crossed my mind.
This time with half the cave illuminated, I once again felt a lengthy mass zip behind my back. And this time its slimy figure whipped against my calves. I kicked and squirmed upon contact. I wanted to move anywhere – anywhere but wherever the beast was. The problem was I still hadn’t seen it. All sense of diving safety measures left my body faster than I could imagine. I would have hoped my 500 hours of training and additional studies would have prepared me, but the idea of a crocodile-eating deep sea monster wiped it all away instantly.
I looked for any crevice I could – somewhere I’d hide until it passed. But then I caught a glimpse of a femur resting between two moss-covered rocks. This time it wasn’t that of a lizard, but a human. A collection of red dusty iron sediment lined it, with some collecting like an ant hill on one side. It lay so peacefully for evidence of such horror.
Then a gust of water reached over my back like a falling tree. It cascaded over me and nearly pushed me to the floor. I flapped and pushed against the sudden force, and in my efforts finally dropped the bitten crocodile skull. My fears finally trumped whatever scientific accolades I might have received. I hardly took notice as it dipped back to the sediment beneath me.
Once I successfully fought the wave, I turned around with my joints locked and stomach bloating with panic.
And then I saw it. The more I spun around, the more scales saw. The first glimmered against the angled light in a sort of bluish tone. Once I faced it more directly, the scales turned to a more light-black tone. After around 2 feet of scales I didn’t need to see any more – I couldn’t. I exerted a muffled scream that nobody would ever hear and frantically began flapping. A piece of limestone loosened from the cavern ceiling above the creature and began to fall. I kicked and pushed with one arm, starting to move in an unintentional spinning motion away from the behemoth.
Then the water suddenly grew warm. It felt like I’d just swam over a budding hot spring. Glancing back with my flashlight, I caught the glimmering white fangs showing from the creature’s mouth. Each front tooth I could see was at least four inches – wide at the top and curving down into a knife-edge bottom. A long snake-like tongue slowly crept from its mouth.
I kicked harder. My tank was gradually depleting as I breathed and moved quicker. Gwen would soon be a widowed without a marriage to show for it.
The tongue continued to reach, extending faster than I could swim. It was almost touching my flipper. The falling limestone finally made its way cutting through the water towards the creature’s gigantic head. Its 5 lifeless enormous eyes glowed a pale green in the dark. It only swam towards me with a morbid confidence it could catch me no matter how far or how fast I tried to get away. I suddenly lost sight of its tongue as it was covered in a yellow dust and fragments of falling rock. Soon the water surrounding me was all that same dusty yellowed coloring. I could see even less than before. The flashlight couldn’t pierce the water well enough to help past six inches in front of my face.
Suddenly I felt something taut pulling against my waist. I looked down. The first sense of relief finally hit me even as the creature lurked just behind the dust looking for me. I found a piece of nylon string tied to a sharpened rock. There was finally some hope.
I didn’t grab onto it in order to keep a free hand and instead tried following it up from the knot. I recognized the knot well – one of Dave’s Eagle scout ties.
I heard a shrieking that echoed as loud as a whale, but at an ear-piercing pitch. It rang through the cavern and rang loud enough for all of the Bahamas to hear. It twitched and flailed and snapped its jaws in frustration. The limestone dust began to subside partially and I saw what was troubling it so harshly – the dust had gotten in three of its eyes. It viciously but fruitlessly slashed its noodle-like limbs back and forth until one struck me at speed. I spun like the flashlight before me through the water until I smacked into the cavern wall. A slight crack reached my ears immediately followed by a sharp sting shooting from my ribcage. I nearly bit a hole in the snorkel from my wincing bite.
Suddenly the creature jerked again and screamed once more. Somehow it seemed louder this time, shrieking for all the world to here. Then a cloud of blood began to rise from its protruding spine. Behind the creature, a fin emerged, not different from the ones on my feet. Attached to the fin was a set of human legs and then Elise swimming closely behind the flailing creature.
She waved her arms and pointed upwards towards the crevice we came from. She squirmed towards it and I followed closely. As claustrophobic as the crevice felt earlier, it felt like a snug blanket on the way back. I’d rather be in that narrow opening than the jagged mouth of an ancient monster.
When we finally emerged from our eighty-minute horror, I ripped my mask off and caught the sweet fresh air I’d longed for. My body shook against the pain of my cracked ribs and trembling fear.
Elise let out a nervous groan and said, “Are you okay? Did it get you?”
Through labored breaths I said, “Mostly. It got my ribs pretty bad, but I’m alive. You?”
“What’s going on down there?” one of our crew called down. His voice echoed through the hole.
I snapped back and forth. The panic rushed over me again, but this time for a much different reason. “Wait a minute – where’s Dave?”
Elise bit her lip, but didn’t answer.
“Elise, where is he? Where’s Dave?”
“It um…” she stammered. “It took him.”
Along with my throbbing ribs came an overwhelming sense of regret. Perhaps Gwen would be lucky enough to have her marriage still, but Dave’s family wouldn’t be so lucky. He had a wife and ten-year-old son at home who weren’t prepared to lose their father. And what were we supposed to tell them? We left the Bahamas with everything we’d come with besides our brazen leader. No bones, no evidence, not even a bag of iron dust. It was all lost at the bottom of that hellish cave.
Our sponsors concocted some half-ass story about how the falling limestone trapped him in a crevice and it was too narrow to extract the body. But we left knowing the painful and horrifying truth. That creature – whatever it was – had ripped the flesh from his bones like a popsicle stick and made sure to never let the truth escape those tropical islands alive.