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Phantom Spring

In 2011 Dr Tom Iliffe, a professor of biology at Texas A&M University, asked Brett Hemphill and Andrew Pitkin to assist him with the exploration and mapping of an ecologically sensitive site in west Texas, Phantom Spring.

Phantom Spring has been owned by the Bureau of Reclamation since 1948 because of its historical importance for local irrigation, but as increasing groundwater withdrawals in the area have reduced the output of the spring to zero, its focus has changed towards conservation of a threatened species of fish, the Comanche Springs pupfish. This rare freshwater fish is known to exist at this location and one other, Comanche Springs near Fort Stockton, which has already ceased to become a viable habitat.

In 2011 about 6300 feet (2100m) of upstream underwater passage had been explored, to a maximum depth of 65 ffw and and average depth of around 40 ffw. A smaller, high-flow downstream conduit had also been mapped for about 1800 feet. Dr Iliffe's interest was to investigate the invertebrates and their habitat within the cave, and any additional knowledge of the cave's geography would help frame the larger environmental issues.

On our first trip to Phantom Spring in January 2012 the team was met with an unusual amount of snowfall that rendered the normally dry bed of Phantom Lake a muddy quagmire. Despite the freezing conditions outside, the water inside the cave was a very pleasant 78F and they looked forward to mapping and further exploration as they started to carry their equipment into the cave. Due to the fall in water level, there was and currently still is about 80 feet of wadeable air passage before the cave roof goes under the surface. Near this point, the Bureau of Reclamation have installed a pump to supply water to a surface pool that the pupfish can survive in.

Brett and Andy set off to place safety cylinders in the cave to support further exploration and then proceeded to the end of the line upstream. This was the end of the exploration done by Bill Tucker, who had tied off in a large room over 6000 feet upstream from the entrance. As Brett and Andy came into the room ('Bill's Room'), they both immediately saw the first real exploration lead, a passage low and to the left partially blocked with breakdown. They dropped their scooters, tied into Tucker's line and swam down through the breakdown into the bottom of another smaller , more circular room. Immediately they saw that the way on was a passage entering high on the right side, and swimming up into it they found themselves in beautiful phreatic conduit with pale silt on the floor and a flat dark roof. The passage continued to step down in depth and after about 500 feet of new exploration they had reached a depth of 130 ffw (twice the previous maximum depth) and turned around because they had reached the limits of their bailout gas. The following day they came back and again the passage continued to descend to a maximum of 237 ffw after which it ascended slightly into a small room at 215 ffw. From this point is became clear that the ongoing passage would continue to get substantially deeper and with only 30% helium in their diluent they turned around and surveyed the 450 feet of line they had laid on this dive.

A year later, in January 2013, they were back again. After a dive to place bailout gas in the cave, Brett tied his reel in where Andy had tied of the year before and they scootered down a steeply sloping passage which eventually leveled off at about 320 ffw. This was within the safety envelope of their dive plan so they explored about 200 feet of horizontal passage about 20 feet wide and 6-10 feet high. This passage terminated in the top of a large room formed by a transverse fissure which was at least 50 feet deeper than the passage that they had entered by. With no obvious continuation visible, and mindful of their bailout limits, Brett tied off in the ceiling of the fissure and they scootered out. After more bailout gas was placed for decompression in the event of a CCR loop failure, they scootered out into the fissure looking for the way on, which proved to be underneath them with a large opening in the wall of the fissure cutting back underneath the entrance passage. 

As they scootered down into this opening, it opened up into a large room with a flat floor covered with grey silt. Ahead of them, the only potential tie-off point was a brown formation, either chert or fossilized coral, protruding from the silt. As they approached it a strange but loud noise occurred. Andy immediately stopped, thinking some part of his equipment had imploded, but after checking everything it all seemed to be functional so he continued on to the formation where he tied the line off. Looking up, he could see a dark passage leading invitingly ahead about 30 feet wide and 12 feet high. With the depth already over 450 feet, it was clear that further horizontal exploration at that depth would be logistically impossible to accomplish safely with the equipment they had available at this time, so they decided to exit. As Andy reached out to pick up his Submerge Magnus DPV, he noticed a stream of bubbles emanating from the aft o-ring seal. Not surprisingly it was too heavy to lift, and with Brett shouting "Leave it!" into his mouthpiece Andy reluctantly abandoned his $6000 scooter and Brett towed him up to their first decompression stop. They had left a spare scooter in Bill's Room for just this eventuality so after an uneventful decompression they reached the cave entrance some seven hours after going in.

Meanwhile Jason Richards and Mike Poucher, along with Chrissie Richards, Becky Kagan Schott, Joel Clark and Corey Mearns, proceeded to survey the remainder of the known cave passage. Andy Pitkin was able to add a small amount of exploration to the downstream passage, which is a strong syphon and which remains smaller and shallower than the upstream passage.

Liquid Production's video of the 2013 project:

Phantom Springs Cave Expedition 2013 from Liquid Productions, Inc. on Vimeo.

Curt Bowen's video of the 2012 project:

Phantom Cave Spring 2012 ADM Expedition from Curt Bowen on Vimeo.