By Olivia Hayden '16
Space, the final frontier? While most people have their eyes to the sky as the last unknown, modern day adventurer Kenny Broad ’89 dives deep into Earth’s oceans to travel where no man has gone before.
To say that underwater cave explorer is not the safest of jobs should come as no surprise. With dangers like loss of visibility, getting lost in a maze of caves and equipment failure, tragedy can strike on even the most basic of cave dives where remotely-operated vehicles are often not an option. To learn about these underwater caves, someone must physically go there.
Broad’s work stands out from the rest with his interdisciplinary approach. He combines risk perception, exploration, and environmental anthropology to attack problems such as climate change and inequality in natural resource management. Through teaming up with other professions, such as hydrologists, biologists, oceanographers, climatologist and psychologist, Broad hopes to see the big picture and find the best solutions.
On January 8, 2017, Broad will return to UC Santa Barbara as part of Arts and Lectures National Geographic Live series. Find out what drew Broad to UCSB, what his student life was like, and how he ended up as a multi-awarded underwater explorer.
I was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Miami, where you’re surrounded by water, including underground in the aquifer beneath your feet. Unlike California, the ocean’s warm year-round and all you needed was a mask and you could transport yourself to another planet.
I actually wasn’t too interested in going to college, but I drove out to California with a friend of mine and we visited another friend at UCSB arriving to watch the sunset and see whales breaching with surfers in the foreground and all of a sudden the concept of academia appealed to me, so when I went back home I crammed for the entrance test and squeaked my way in. I had a California driver’s license because I had worked there the summer before so I qualified for in-state tuition and that sealed the deal.
Like most of my decision, I stumbled into doing a PhD. I was working in diving and film, primarily for science projects, but always attracted to the human dimension of environmental issues. I was also having doubts about a full time career as a cave diver as I had already lost some close friends. By chance, I was introduced by a friend to an anthropologist from Columbia University and he convinced me of the flexibility of the career and the methodology jibed with my draw to distant lands. It seemed like the right combination of social and natural sciences involving real-world problems that had never ending possibilities. Living in NYC was of course the opposite of life in UCSB bubble, but NY is a great place for an anthropologist and I loved the contrast of working in remote pacific atolls and then coming back to a megacity.
By dumb luck I was living (and surfing) in Peru in 1997-98 for my thesis work on El Nino and climate impacts in general when the biggest event of the century up to that point hit, so my work that probably would still be in a dusty corner somewhere was timely and got some attention. If you can’t be smart be first or be lucky.
After my first semester in grad school, I was invited in 1994 to join the U.S. Deep Caving Team led by Dr. Bill Stone and participated in an expedition to dive the deepest known cave in the world at the time in Huautla, down in Oaxaca Mexico. Bill had invented a new mixed gas rebreather and all sorts of gadgets. It was a life changing experience that included the death of my close friend Ian Rolland almost a mile underground. The expedition was sponsored in part by Nat Geo and covered extensively in the magazine. I ended up working on many Nat Geo projects subsequently. They are one, if not the only group I know of, that will fund high risk, high reward projects that allow us to get pilot data to compete for more traditional, large scale grants. They also care deeply about the outreach and education aspects related to exploration and conservation so it’s very fulfilling working with them at every level.
Winning the explorer of the year award was bittersweet. I won it with my mentor and one of my best friends, Wes Skiles, who was a pioneer in technical diving and filmmaking and changed the way we looked at the underworld from a water conservation perspective. We had just worked on a major project that was the cover story of Aug 2010 Nat Geo Magazine and a one hour NOVA/NG special and he died the day the magazine hit the stands in a diving accident in open water in what for him was a relatively simple dive.
I’m psyched to get back to UCSB, but on the stage instead of taking notes in a lecture hall. I hesitate to offer advice to anyone, but if there’s one thing I would tell students, it’s don’t be afraid to try new things and say yes to a new opportunity, even if you’re not confident that you can pull it off. There’s only one way to find out. Academia is a great base for figuring out a lot, but real-life experience is what shapes us.
I’ve been in far-flung corners of our planet and run into UCSB graduates and there’s certainly something about a shared experience of being in a unique place that creates an instant bond. In fact I was just invited on an expedition with Bob Ballard where hopefully I can help with some of the amazing archaeology work of Prof. Lynn Gamble from UCSB, and I found out that Bob was a UCSB alum, too.
I like to wake up around 4:30am and try to do my thinking type work before my two boys, 9 and 13, wake up and then the rest of the day is a mixed bag that might include writing, teaching, surfing if there’s waves, but mostly meeting with PhD students. I had 9 in my lab up to last year and that was like running an insane asylum. A lot of time goes into planning the next expedition, an excuse to get underwater somewhere I’ve never been under the guise of research. My wife, Amy Clement, is a climatologist and is the one with brains in the family and we spend a lot of time together doing outdoor activities and also working on climate related issues. We used to teach together until she fired me and hired one of my smarter, former PhD students.comments powered by Disqus