Icebergs Ahead!

an interview with Cristian LASCUCristian Lascu is editor in chief of National Geographic Romania, a speleologist and researcher. His CV features a variety of activities and awards: he is a national judo champion, scuba diver, founder of the Group for Underwater and Speleological Explorations (GESS), discoverer of unusual subterranean sites, book author and environmental activist. His achievements have been awarded numerous national and international prizes, including accolades for photography and documentary film making. In December last year, he received a further two prizes for journalism and scientific achievement. “However,” Cristian Lascu observes dryly, “the science prize was given to me by journalists, while the prize for journalism – by scientists.”You are a great nature lover. What do you feel closer to: the mountains, the sea or the caves? Caves, definitely – it’s been a hobby since I was a teenager. I’ve wanted to become a speleologist since I was 14, but my father saw me rather as a doctor or an engineer and never took me seriously. My desire was too strong to be prevented, though – I studied geology and afterwards I worked as a prospecting geologist and I became employed at the Speleological Institute as soon as there was a free position. And still you’ve always considered yourself an amateur! Always! But by amateur I mean someone who does certain things only out of pleasure, not for money or other material benefits. You were saying you feel ill at ease when your name is mostly connected to the Movile Cave, that you discovered. Why is that? I think anyone who at some point achieves something in a certain field and then has to tell the story over and over again, starts feeling strangely theatrical. If you’re talking about the same thing every time, it’s very difficult to say something different. The discovery of the Movile Cave was a fortunate array of circumstances in which luck and professional flair played a major role. I didn’t accidentally fall into this cave; I supposed it might be there. Then I realised it’s like a time capsule where organisms live by chemical energy. This was yet another time when my favourite saying, Audaces fortuna iuvat, was confirmed. On the other hand, your name is also linked to National Geographic Romania, and I don’t believe you feel much discomfort there. Definitely not! I have the opportunity of meeting very interesting people – researchers, explorers, travelers, photographers – and I work with a highly qualified team; even banal-looking subjects are approached from a new angle, making you think. It’s not a relaxing publication, especially since it addresses the challenges of the future, crises and ways of finding solutions, as long as there is still time. The discovery at Movile was boosted by this cave’s particular destiny. Scientifically, it is very important for zoologists, as entirely new species were discovered inside it, and it is also significant for the biology of particular environments – the atmosphere inside the cave has little oxygen, but it is rich in hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and methane. And there is life in this extreme environment! Discoveries like the one at Movile delineate two opposing directions: the first one regards space, as all theories and hypotheses on extraterrestrial life are largely based on a Movile-type model. The second direction leads towards the depths of the earth. Recent research has outlined that the organic mass of the deep hot biosphere is greater than the terrestrial one. The theory of the deep hot biosphere appeared as a consequence of discoveries made in the second half of the 20th century; in the 70s, the hot springs on the bottom of the oceans were found. Life shouldn’t have been possible at such high temperatures and pressures of hundreds of atmospheres. And yet there were rich oases of life in that environment! The 80s were an important period for Romanian speleology. Whereas until ‘78 only a very small number of caves had been discovered, in 1990 there were already 12000! This period was spectacularly dynamic: Emil Racoviţă alone – a great scientist and famous explorer, a field man – unearthed about 500 caves identified by himself and his collaborators. Around 1967 there was an inventory of known caves where they came up with the figure of 980. Ten years later, a further estimate numbered 2000 caves. After that, keeping the cave cadastre became a systematic activity at the Speleological Institute, which received regular exploration reports from all the amateur speleology clubs in the country. The phenomenon of underground migration during a very bad decade at the surface – everyone was running as fast as they could wherever they could – was triggered by all those passionate and daring youngsters who needed to express their energy and creativity. They could also benefit from modern exploring techniques, that were becoming available in Romania in that period. While in Racoviţă’s time explorers took out into the field four donkeys laden with ladders and heavy material, today’s explorer can descend into a cave only with a the help of a string, allowing him to easily move up and down. Lights (very important), neoprene suits and scuba diving into caves have created considerable emulation. However, underwater speleology is a suicidal hobby. So why isn’t this field more visible? Because most of the times the discoveries made by explorers, researchers or speleologists aren’t very catchy for the press or for the general public. If someone dies in a cave or if a couple of speleologists get stranded inside, there will be an article about it straight away. Otherwise, explorations seem boring if there isn’t a little blood to go with it! For a long time, not even the Movile Cave had the media exposure that we would have wanted, although we had numerous attempts at making our achievement public. Three weeks after the discovery, I went to the Romanian Academy printing house, where my and my friend Şerban Sârbu’s book Peşteri scufundate (Sunken caves) was going to be published, and I added an extremely important bit of information in manuscript, which, being hypothetical, was also very risky: “A cave was discovered in Dobruja, where there is life based on hydrogen sulfide.” A couple of years later, a book on the Movile Cave was published in the characteristically poor graphic conditions of the period. Although the Speleological Institute sent this book to the main specialised libraries in the world, it didn’t catch anyone’s attention; not even the chapter presenting the scenario of the Movile phenomenon – a series of brave and subsequently confirmed hypotheses. Unfortunately, we came up against prejudice: people from other countries are used to double-check whether their underpants are still out there drying on the line if they hear Romanians are in the neighbourhood, so our book was perceived in the same way, as a “thing” wrapped in supermarket paper, looking like it’s going to fall apart at any second. No one spent any time paying attention to what lay inside it! Afterwards, when the cave had achieved “international star” status, I was invited to hold a conference on the topic in front of a French audience, which was completely enthralled by such a discovery. So I showed them our book in their shelves and I asked: “How come you didn’t know about it? The story has been right here for over three years!” Recently, another speleological finding in Romania, Peştera cu Oase (The Cave with Bones), containing, among other things, the oldest modern human skeletons in Europe, headed the news bulletins of international news agencies. As you were saying, the discovery of the Movile Cave was the outcome of fortunate circumstances. However, studying this unique, fragile and complex environment must have required special equipment and a laboratory, which means a lot of money. Was it also by chance that you came to it?It is actually very difficult to conduct research inside the Movile Cave, because man’s presence, or even breath, can perturb the ecosystem. As we didn’t intend to test the “supportability” of the cave or of its unique creatures, we decided to build a research laboratory where we would simulate the conditions in the cave. In order to do this, we needed sterile thermal sulfur water analogous to the water in the cave. Our first step was to ask the Mayor’s office in the town of Mangalia for the right to “exploit” the resources found in a 200-m-deep drilling. After that, we started looking for a strip of land and, of course, sponsorship. The first input came on a recommendation by the famous Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who I’ve had the honour of meeting. In the end, we managed to get the entire amount we needed. I think this was more my mission, getting the money. I’m a charismatic person, I knew exactly what to say and I was running all over the place. However, everyone involved contributed something to this project. A couple of my colleagues from GESS built the laboratory themselves with their bare hands – they stood there for two long summers until they finished it. Now we have a fully equipped three-level laboratory with microscopes and photometers, an underground level, a conference room for 40 people, etc.Do you think there are a lot of nature lovers in Romania? Do we really have the “cult of nature”, as we like to claim?Not at all. I keep hearing we are “great consumers of tourism”. In my view, tourists should have a particular view of the world, they should be curious to know other cultures, to see other places. We don’t know how to preserve nature. I remember reading about the discovery of the Titanic in a 1984 issue of National Geographic. The staggering grayish blue photos of the steel grave 3800 metres below water clearly evoked that tragedy. Now we know that although he had been warned about the many icebergs in the area, the captain didn’t reduce speed in order to prove the superiority of Titanic over the other competing ships. In other words, it was an unfortunate marketing decision! Now, when National Geographic Romania is writing about the accelerated destruction of habitats, about species that become extinct, about global warming, the environmental crisis and the ruthless exploitation of our resources, I feel like grabbing the binoculars, and shouting off the highest mast: “Captains of the world, I see icebergs ahead!” Sometimes I think we don’t care at all about nature. If our car is parked under a mulberry tree and mulberries stain the paint, we’d rather cut down the tree than move our car a few metres away. It’s a pity, we have such a beautiful country… Last spring I saw on older dream of mine come true: I went to the mountains at over 2000 metres in spring! The mountains were desolate, the clouds had the craziest of expressions, the sun shone in a very particular way, the colours and the vegetation were tainted in nuances you don’t see very often. It’s a fantastic experience – on an itinerary of only a couple of days, you pass thorough several seasons: there’s still snow at 2000 metres, as you descend, spring comes with crocus and snowdrops, while at the foot of mountains it’s plain summery!Will you be hiking through the same mountains in 10 years’ time?In ten years’, maybe. But in twenty, I doubt it will be the same. I won’t be the same myself, but unfortunately neither will they…

Dilema veche, 17-23 April 2008

Translated by Emanuel Vasiliu

by Ruxandra Tudor