For 26 years, Sacramento-area resident Mike Madden made a living in Mexico underwater – diving, teaching scuba and shooting programs for various television networks.
His years of diving and underwater camera work came into play earlier this year when he was asked to serve as director of photography for an expedition to recover the ancient skeletal remains of a teenage girl from a submerged cave in Mexico.
The job gave him a front-row seat on a historic find.
The nearly complete skeleton has been hailed as an “extremely significant” anthropological discovery that has helped explain the origins of the first Americans and their descendants. The recovery and analysis of the girl’s remains – more than 12,000 years old – made news throughout the world.
Madden had discovered the network of caves off the Yucatán Peninsula in 1987 and spent 14 years exploring it. But, prompted by the birth of his twin boys, he left Mexico in 2005 without discovering the cave containing the skeletons of the girl and several prehistoric animals. Hoyo Negro, which opens to an area the size of a football field, was discovered in 2007.
“I had gotten too old for the cutting edge of exploration,” said Madden, now 58, who had settled with his wife and boys in Rancho Cordova.
Madden was called back into action by the National Geographic Society, but there was a catch: It had to be now, and the dive had to be soon.
“I got the call in January and they said, ‘Can you go to Mexico in a week?’ ” Madden said.
The rush to do the job was at least partially due to concern that novice divers, ignoring markers, would contaminate the findings.
“It came together so fast it was amazing. They were concerned people were accessing the site illegally,” Madden said. “This was an archeological site too significant to be pillaged by people who are on vacation.”
The explorers were also worried about the silt the visitors would stir up. The exploration team used mixed-gas rebreathers that recycle expelled oxygen without spewing bubbles into the environment.
Madden had previously worked on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s “Planet Earth” series and diving programs for Spanish and French television. He called upon some of the most experienced divers in the world in assembling his team for the Hoyo Negro expedition.
“I basically had three weeks to get it together,” Madden said. “I said, ‘Hey, we’re getting the band back together.’ ”
With National Geographic’s backing, he also able to acquire cutting-edge camera and lighting equipment. The challenge was getting the equipment there and setting up a mammoth generator several kilometers from the highway where a hole in the ground serves as the entrance to the underwater caves.
A backhoe was used to transport the generator to the site, powering the 88,000 watts of light that illuminated the depths of the cave. The team of 30 spent three weeks at the site, with the dive team working 12-hour days.
“These discoveries are extremely significant,” said Pilar Luna of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “Not only do they shed light on the origins of modern Americans, they clearly demonstrate the paleontological potential of the Yucatán Peninsula and the importance of conserving Mexico’s unique heritage.”
The underwater cave also yielded bones from nine other species, including giant ground sloths and saber-toothed tigers, said officials with the National Geographic Society. Based on radiocarbon dating and other methods, the girl’s skeleton was determined to be one of the oldest discovered in the New World.
Alberto Nava with Bay Area Underwater Explorers was part of the team that first discovered Hoyo Negro in 2007.
“We had no idea what we might find when we initially entered the cave, which is the allure of cave diving,” Nava said in a news release. “Needless to say, I am incredibly proud to be part of the efforts to share Hoyo Negro’s story with the world.”
The expedition will be featured in National Geographic magazine and in a Public Broadcasting Service “NOVA” program in 2015.