UM Anthropologist Explores ‘Blue Holes’
Kenny Broad doesn’t fit the stereotype of a university research scientist – thick-rimmed glasses, white lab coat and shy demeanor.
He wears goggles instead of glasses, scuba gear instead of a white coat and he’s laid-back and outgoing. And Broad, an anthropologist at the University of Miami, does his work hundreds of feet under water, often in dark caves where one wrong move can be fatal.
“Cave diving is about risk management, with a dose of denial thrown in,” Broad said. “Preparation and over-preparation help.”
As the director of the University of Miami’s Leonard and Jane Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, Broad, 45, has been involved in exploring “blue holes” in the region. These are inland, underwater caves that appear on the surface to be crystal-blue lakes.
When Broad and his team put on their gear and slip beneath the surface, they delve into a vibrant, mysterious world filled with tunnels that branch out in all directions like an intricate underwater subway system.
The reason Broad and his team dive these holes is to find mineral samples that are tens of thousands of years old and discover species of aquatic life that no one has seen before.
“I can think of no other environment on earth that is so challenging to explore and gives us back so much scientifically,” Broad said in the August 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine. “It’s an alien world down there that keeps pushing us beyond our dreams.”
The National Geographic cover story focused on the 2009 Bahamas Blue Hole Exploration, an endeavor conceived by Broad. He and his hand-picked team explored a blue hole named Stargate on Andros Island.
Such explorations, which require months and sometimes years of training and preparation, are not for the faint of heart. That’s because the clock is ticking every second they spend underwater.
A complication such as faulty equipment or the unpredictable release of gasses that disrupts visibility among team members can turn their scientific work into a struggle to reach the surface before oxygen runs out. Tick, tock.
Yet there’s no place Broad would rather be than in the water.
“I first went scuba diving when I was 11,” said Broad, “and all I ever wanted to do since then was” to be “in or under water.”
As exciting as cave-diving is, there are other aspects of Broad’s research that are just as crucial to learning more about the planet.
“He doesn’t just stick to one niche like most scientists do,” said Gina Maranto, a colleague of Broad’s at the Abess Center. “He goes around to multiple fields. He’s very charismatic and well-versed in various areas of science.”
Broad also focuses on the theories of communication and participation in terms of how people find, interpret and react to information about environmental issues.
“I need the mix of classroom and field to keep my sanity,” he said.
Broad is also co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1999. He also has a master’s in marine science from the University of Miami and a bachelor’s in literature from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“Kenny is very free form, a great brainstormer,” said Amelia Moore, another University of Miami colleague. “He’s very enthusiastic about new things, exploring things that he’s never seen before.”
Another project that Broad and his Abess Center colleagues are excited about is a hands-on program that aims at getting people more involved in the environment around them. One activity of the Citizens Science Initiative will be “shark-tagging,” in which participants put trackers on sharks and then follow their movements via home computers.
Broad has earned many honors during his career. Perhaps one of the biggest was his being named, with his late friend, Wes Skiles, as 2011 Explorers of the Year by the National Geographic Society. Skiles, who photographed the Bahamas Blue Hole with Broad’s team, died in a diving accident in 2010 off the Florida coast.
“I find the term ‘explorer’ a bit pretentious,” Broad said. “On the one hand, it’s a bit embarrassing, particularly when I look at amazing accomplishments in many fields that individuals are doing.
“On the other hand,” he said, “the recognition from Nat Geo, an organization I hold in high esteem, is quite meaningful. As an individual, the only recognition I should get is for choosing great collaborators and team members.”