COLLEGE STATION, Oct. 22, 2013 – Tom Iliffe may be the best friend an underwater cave ever had. For that and other efforts, he’s one of Texas A&M University’s top news sources, prompting the institution to present him its 2013 Newsmaker Image Award.
The award, established in 2006 by the Division of Marketing and Communications, goes to a faculty member who has “gone the extra mile” in assisting Texas A&M with its media efforts and for helping to promote a positive image of the university by demonstrating the highest ideals and goals of the institution.
The Texas A&M University at Galveston marine biology professor has explored, researched and protected underwater caves since his first dive in 1972 in Florida’s Manatee State Park. Since then, he’s been in more than 1,500 underwater caves, the most of anyone in the world, and along the way he has found time to discover more than 300 forms of marine life, several of which have been named for him.
Last year, he and nine other divers descended 462 feet into Phantom Springs Cave in West Texas, the deepest dive ever attempted in a cave in the United States. It’s no wonder that his work has drawn media attention from around the world and why such outlets as The National Geographic Channel and The Discovery Channel have featured him on their shows.
Previous winners of the Texas A&M Newsmaker Image Award include John Moroney, professor of economics; Bonnie Beaver, professor of veterinary medicine; and Dean Bresciani, former vice president for Student Affairs. Also, group awards were presented to members of the College of Architecture’s Hazard Recovery and Reduction Center and to five entities (Department of Oceanography, Texas Sea Grant College Program, Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG), The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M University at Galveston) for their efforts in responding to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
State Climatologist and atmospheric sciences professor John Nielsen-Gammon won the award in 2011 for his work on Texas’ historic drought, and last year, anthropology professor Mike Waters claimed the award for his work on discovering the arrival of early humans into North America and eventually Texas.
Iliffe was born in Erie, Pa., and went on to earn degrees from Penn
State, Florida State and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
He says the thrill of entering a cave “is really a big rush because to begin with, you are probably the first human ever to go into it in the first place,” he explains.
“When you are down there, you are seeing things no one else has ever seen, and you may be seeing a new species of marine life that no one knew existed. It’s sort of like going to the far side of the moon. When you turn a corner, you never know what you will see. It never ceases to be an amazing experience for me.”
Sometimes, it’s a tricky experience. Diving in a pitch dark cave with zero light, 400 feet below the surface, can be dangerous.
“The first rule is, you never, ever dive alone,” he notes.
“You have to have a buddy system and we always take several other divers with us. Also, we take extra equipment in case something goes wrong. The main idea is that you want to take care of yourself first before anyone else has to.”
His longest cave dive has been five hours, but most last about 90 minutes.
His cave journeys have taken him all over the world, from off the coast of Italy to Australia, India, Africa and all points in between. He rates the caves in the Bermuda area as the most beautiful, followed closely by those in the Canary Islands and the Bahamas, which has more underwater caves than anywhere else.
“It’s important that we protect the cave we enter,” he adds.
“Some of these marine organisms we find live in one cave only, so if the area around them is contaminated in any way, they can perish.
“Less than 10 percent of the known underwater caves in the world have ever been explored,” he says, “and even the ones that have been entered have tunnels extending from them that have never been entered. So there’s still a lot of new things to be seen and new marine life to examine.
“We want the world to be able to see what we see, so we always try to take lots of photos and video,” he points out. “It’s important that the public knows what is down there as we are seeing it. People are entitled to this new knowledge.”
For more about his cave work, go to http://www.tamug.edu/cavebiology/.