Bil A. Phillips: an Explorer, a Teacher, and a Friend

For me this expression, while on a Nat. Geo. sponsored expedition in Belize, captures what made Bil one of the preeminent cave-diving instructors in the world. Every time I see it, I hear his voice saying ” You can do this better Ed.  Just remember what I taught you.”  And he had the uncanny ability to deliver that message with a smile.

Today, I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Bil A. Phillips, a great friend and a mentor to so many of us in the the Cave Diving community.

The research I write about on this blog would be almost impossible to do without help from lots of wonderful people, and I try to give them a shout of thanks wherever possible. But when it comes to Bil, words simply can’t express the incredible amount of encouragement, support, and guidance he has given us over the years.  He taught me to cave dive many years ago, when Trish was doing the work that became the foundation for her PHD. At the time I had no means of paying for the training, but this was, to him, irrelevant.  What he cared about was commitment, and passion for one of the most spectacular environments in the natural world.  Cave exploration was his life, so even the most exacting safety lesson (and there were many of those) was seamlessly woven into one of Bil’s real-life stories (of which there were many, many, more… )

There was a time when trips to ‘the Pit’ were a lot more challenging than they are today.  And if memory serves, I think Bil liked it better that way…

Our experience of his generosity is hardly unique, and the well oiled machine he created at Speleotech has been the pillar supporting an untold number of research expeditions over the years. And no element of the underwater work ever escaped his good-natured scrutiny because he was as much an explorer of ideas as he was of caves.  One trip would barely finish before he was tossing around mischievous plans for the next, and intense conversations about what needed investigation to protect his beloved caves, were as much a part of the diving experience with Bil as anything else.

The world has lost a true explorer, who mapped the Yucatan systems with a rare combination of technical mastery and a spirit for adventure.  I hope the Cave Pearl Project stands as a fitting tribute to the effect that man had on our lives.

Bil – we will miss you dearly.

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5 thoughts on “Bil A. Phillips: an Explorer, a Teacher, and a Friend

  1. Howie Reimer

    Great tribute. I knew Bil as a brother-in-law and a friend from his time before diving. He was a drummer, a construction worker and as warm a soul as many have described here. We briefly reconnected a couple of years ago, but hadn’t seen each other in some 30 years. I am surprisingly broken up about it and have been thinking about him and his smile, laugh and warmth all day.

    1. edmallon Post author

      Thank you for reminding me! As I learned under his wing, I didn’t know that many of the techniques and hardware I was being exposed to were things that he actually invented. Of course, he never mentioned this – they were simply presented as a safer way to do things. Fortunately, there were others who managed to pin him down in front of a camera once and a while.

      For example, Steve Bogaerts at Go Sidemount has a Youtube video of Bil talking about his Referencing Exit Marker:

      and he had a host of technique demos on youTube.

      He was also a font of outrageously funny variants of the standard American Sign Language gestures that divers use to communicate under water. But those are probably best discussed over gringas & beer at Tacos al Pastor…

  2. edmallon Post author

    I found an old Flickr archive with video/photos from coring practice we did with Bil (and Kim Davidsson). Hopefully this gives people an idea of the kinds of crazy stuff he was always willing to help with:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/14179358@N05/albums/72157623789325594

    This was just an early “practice session”, and input from both of them helped to refine the procedure and improve the team’s underwater communication for some very successful core-sampling trips later.

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