UK scientist has her lab in underwater caves

Scientist wants to get back to lab: underwater caves

jwarren@herald-leader.comMarch 15, 2011 

  • Explore her work

    You can learn more about Stephanie Schwabe and see videos of her work by going to Blueholes.org.

Stephanie Schwabe is a University of Kentucky scientist and lecturer with a tongue-twisting job description — geomicrobiologist — but she's no staid, laboratory-bound academic.

Schwabe, 53, likes to spend time in scuba gear, prowling around in pitch-black water at the bottom a flooded caves, investigating aquatic environments.

She is a cave diver who a few years ago became the first scientist ever to probe the secrets of the mysterious Black Hole of South Andros, a flooded, 150-foot vertical shaft in the Bahamas. She has won awards, been the subject of books and documentary films, and is the author of the 2009 book Living in Darkness. Diver International, a British group, named her one of the world's top 40 cave divers.

"I saw recently that some other group says I'm considered a legend. I thought you had to be dead for that," Schwabe said, laughing. "Maybe they know something I don't."

Such joking aside, Schwabe takes her work very seriously. She has to. One mistake deep inside a flooded cavern could be a diver's last. Schwabe has lost friends diving in caves. Her husband, British diving pioneer Rob Palmer, died on a pleasure dive in the Red Sea in 1997.

Palmer had barely survived a dive in an Australian cave a few years earlier, accounts of which became the basis for the recently released movie Sanctum, produced by James Cameron of Avatar fame.

Indeed, cave diving is one of the world's most dangerous endeavors. But Schwabe, who teaches in UK's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said she dives because it furthers her research, not for thrills.

"I think it surprises people to hear it, but I'm always afraid when I dive," she said. "The moment you lose your fear doing this you're dead. My husband lost that fear; he'd gotten away with too much, and he became cocky. Now he's no longer with us."

Schwabe — friends call her Steffi — has always followed her own road, albeit a winding one. Born in Germany, she has lived all over the world. She completed a law degree at the University of Queensland in Australia, took undergraduate and graduate degrees at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and Mississippi State University, and received a doctorate from the University of Bristol in England.

She has raced sailboats, has been a competitive swimmer and now wants a helicopter pilot's license. Faster way to reach remote caves, you know. She keeps fit with daily triathalon training.

James Carew, a geology professor at the College of Charleston, was Schwabe's undergraduate adviser there. They've collaborated on research and still talk regularly.

"She had a lot more knowledge of things than most students that age," Carew said. "She was more mature, but because of the way she grew up, she was maybe less adept at social interaction.

"But I saw the raw talent and encouraged her to go to graduate school."

Schwabe took up cave diving about 25 years ago, she said, purely as a scientific tool.

"I was finishing up my master's degree, looking at caves located above sea level," she said. "But I realized that to get the answers I was looking for, I had to go into underwater caves and see what was going on down there."

After she and Palmer met and married in the 1990s, they spent time diving the Bahamas' so-called "blue holes," submarine caves or flooded sinkholes named for their pristine blue water. After her husband's death, Schwabe founded the Rob Palmer Blue Holes Foundation, a non-profit that promotes scientific exploration of the blue holes.

Schwabe's big discovery came about 2000, when she dove into the Black Hole on South Andros Island in the Bahamas with an Australian film crew.

About 50 feet below the water's surface, Schwabe reached what appeared to be the bottom. It actually was a meter-thick layer of hot, dark purple bacteria with roughly another 100 feet of oxygen-depleted water beneath it.

The bacterial layer, which persists year-round, is incredibly hot, nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and contains dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin released by the tiny organisms. The bacteria also generate the high temperatures in the layer.

Schwabe named the new bacterial species Allocromatium palmeirr in honor of her late husband.

"It's like a pitch black thermal blanket," she said. "When I first reached into the layer, my hand just completely disappeared. It's very unusual."

Schwabe's discoveries in the Black Hole shed new light on the geology of the Bahamas, according to Carew.

Schwabe said she has been told that the experiences she recorded in her book have the makings of a feature film. But she says that, "after Sanctum, I don't think I'd let Hollywood have my story."

Schwabe said that while she has not watched Sanctum all the way through, she's not impressed with the movie. Scriptwriters took too many liberties, she said, and the film has little in common with the actual events of the dive in which her late husband participated.

Meanwhile, Schwabe is switching focus after two years at UK, looking for ways to finance a return to full-time research.

"Right now life is still giving to me ... and I need to get back to doing more of what I love doing," she said. "There probably are many life forms out there that have yet to be discovered, and I'm not getting any younger. So I'd better hop to it."

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.

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