Becoming a Technical Diver: My Dive into GUE’s Tech 1
NextGen Scholar Annika Andresen details her experience taking GUE’s Technical Diver 1, regarded as one of the agency’s most rigorous classes. If the failures don’t get you, your helium bill just might. Dive in.
Text and images by Annika Andresen.
🎶🎶 Pre-dive Clicklist: Ocean Drive by Duke Dumont
I never thought of myself as a technical diver, I just wanted to dive to explore and be underwater as much as I could. Then, at one point, I was diving and could see the reef or the wreck that extended beyond my limits as a diver. That’s when I knew I wanted to go explore farther and discover more. And I knew just what to do.
The purpose of the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) Technical Diver 1, aka “Tech 1” course is to introduce a diver to the skills required for technical diving. It is designed to take you through a progression, gradually increasing the skill levels, beginning with simple manifold failures, and developing safe decompression gas handling, more complex failures, ascent protocols, and decompression management. Once completed, the diver is certified to use trimix to a maximum depth of 51 m/170 ft, and a maximum of 30 minutes of decompression.
Why Tech 1?
2015 was the first year I thought about the possibility of taking a technical diving course. I was diving the MV Rena, a container ship in New Zealand that ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef four years earlier. The wreck was split in two and the stern starts at 26 m/85 ft, continuing down the reef face to 70 m/230 ft. I remember so clearly sitting at my limit of 30 m/98 ft, thinking about what it would be like to explore the wreck properly. On that day, a little seed got planted. I needed to do some technical training so I would have the skills to extend my capability to dive this wreck.
I have been lucky enough to have known GUE Instructor Jamie Obern since I started working at Dive Tutukaka, and he was my instructor for my Fundamentals course in 2014. Since then, he has become my mentor and good friend, whose advice and support are always valued, especially when it came to encouraging me to apply for GUE’s NextGen Scholarship, intended to provide training, equipment, and travel funding to the next generation of divers. He continues to inspire me with his diving knowledge and the GUE community he has created here in New Zealand. When completing my NextGen scholarship application, one of the questions asks, “What course/s would you like to complete in your scholarship year?” This was an easy question to answer; immediately I wrote, “Tech 1.”
Valve Failures and Deco Procedures at Kai Iwi Lakes
After six years of thinking about doing Tech 1, it was finally happening. In June 2021, my teammate Josh and I loaded my Dad’s truck with six twins sets and four stages. We planned on having three days at Kai Iwi Lakes, a beautiful set of lakes in the far North of New Zealand. We arrived the night before, greeted by Jamie as we made ourselves at home before discussing how the week was going to run.
Josh and I are both open water instructors and often bounce between using singles and twins depending on the purpose of the dive and location. We went through all our gear thoroughly first, and Jamie closely inspected what we did or didn’t have. Once we were happy with our gear, we got our first introduction to valve failures. Jamie started tapping on our tank to indicate a failure while we talked through what we were doing. Starting with fixable failures, we ran through the drills until we could do it smoothly with just hand signals. We then set off for our first dive.
Kai Iwi Lakes is a perfect training ground for divers. As you enter the crystal clear water, the slope immediately drops away, reaching 10 m/33 ft without having to swim very far, then gradually slopes deeper. The bottom is covered in heavy sediment that can limit visibility, if disturbed, but settles quickly.
We started our descent by laying a line using a primary reel while being very aware of Jamie’s position, expecting a failure to happen at any time. He always chose the perfect moment; just as we started to relax into the dive, we would hear a rush of bubbles coming from our manifold. Josh and I took turns comfortably fixing each problem that arose, progressing to multiple problems at the same time. Over the three days at Kai Iwi Lakes, we gradually advanced to more complex failures and became more comfortable with the additional, unfamiliar gear.
My most memorable moment was on day two when I had an unfixable valve failure, Josh had lost his mask, then was out of gas trying to get Josh’s regulator so he could switch on to his necklace while having no vision and with both of us getting tangled in our line while Jamie dropped handfuls of sediment on top of us. It ended with all of us at the surface dealing with the problems Jamie gave us in fits of laughter. This was a moment of clarity when I realized that I was ready for this course. On the third day, although only 10 m/33 ft deeper, I found myself making mistakes on drills, which reflected both the increase in depth and tiredness from the previous big days.
In the evenings, Jamie would run presentations step-by-step. Math has never been my strong point, so the calculations turned into a game of my calculator versus Jamie’s brain. Most of the time Jamie won, and we eventually got there. Following the three days at Kai Iwi Lakes, we had a day off in Tutukaka before heading out on the boats for our final day of drills, practicing ascents, and deco procedures.
Practicing Ascents in Blue Water
Heading out with Dive Tutukaka, we arrived in South Harbour at the Poor Knights Island, dropping into 30 m/100 ft of water. Blessed with almost tropical blue visibility and surrounded by fish, I almost forgot we were on a course. Jamie’s bubble gun made an appearance, snapping me back into training. We eventually had an unfixable failure, and we called the dive and practiced holding our deco stops while managing our failures. We would ascend to 21 m/70 ft to stop and switch to our deco gas before holding deco stops every 3 m/10 ft until the surface. After completing four ascents holding our deco stops, we were given the thumbs up from Jamie to dive trimix the following day! Unfortunately, the weather had other plans.
After planning our trimix dives and analyzing our gas, the trip was cancelled the following morning. In the weeks after, New Zealand went back into lockdown after the delta variant spread to the community. Auckland was in a strict lockdown from the rest of the country trying to slow the spread, meaning we couldn’t finish the course until the border between Northland and Auckland reopened.
During this time, my scholarship gear from Halcyon arrived and was delivered to my door! I felt like a kid at Christmas opening the parcel. Inside the box contained a beautifully designed NextGen Scholar wing and Halcyon regs to accompany it. I received a can light and essentials to prepare me for my Cave 1 course and a bright new SMB and reel. I was beyond stoked to put my new scholarship gear to use for my trimix dives!
Finally, in February this year, we were able to reschedule our last dives. We decided as a group we wanted to do another day of practicing ascents before we launched into our trimix dives. With the nod of approval after our dives, we continued to plan our dives for the following day. The weather was expected to get worse, everything was feeling far too familiar, and we were concerned that the dives might get cancelled again.
Putting Practice into Reality!
We arrived at the dive shop ready to go at 7:45 am, and we were stoked to see the boats were going out! Although it was a bumpy ride, we tucked into a dive site called Middle Arch for our first trimix dive. Josh and I decided I would do navigation based on my time working at the Poor Knights and he was going to run our deco.
Over my five summers working on the dive boats at the Poor Knights, I had slowly ticked off all the dive sites around the Poor Knights above 30 m/100 ft. Finally, I was excited for my opportunity to explore somewhere new. There was a finger reef that projected southwest of Middle Arch that I had only seen from above. Now descending to 44 m/144 ft, I was able to see where this reef went! Immediately we were engulfed in schools of fish. Human-sized kingfish came up and checked us out. Sticking to our dive plan, our average depth was shallower than we had planned for, and as we started deco, we found that we hadn’t accumulated as much deco as we were planning for. Josh was doing deco in his head while I was comparing it to my dive computer. This was a great example for us to talk about after our dive as well as to plan our next dive with multiple options. Switching roles in our second dive, we were able to complete a 76 min dive with 30 mins of deco and a max depth of 45 m/148 ft.
As we returned to port, we were told that the boat was cancelled for the next week. Feeling so close, and disappointed that we couldn’t finish, we watched the weather closely and waited for our next chance. A couple of weeks later, all the stars aligned and we were able to head out for our last dive. We arrived at a dive site I had been to only a handful of times and what I knew as “Cleaner Fish Bay”. But what I didn’t know was that the dive site at 30 m/100 ft—called “Boarfish Reef”’—extended down to the sand at 50 m/164 ft. I was beyond excited about exploring a new site, knowing this was exactly the reason I was doing Tech 1.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous, but that soon disappeared as we got into the water. We made our way to 50 m/164 ft following the wall along. I couldn’t believe how light it was, how clear the water visibility was, and how large the sponges and encrusting life (including black coral!) on the reef. There were thousands of fish hovering above the reef, dancing into the light coming from my torch. We followed along the wall, averaging a depth of 47 m/154 ft and then started our ascent. Once we had switched onto our deco bottles, we continued our stops while following the wall back toward the boat. It was like diving two sites in one dive. This was my deepest dive to date, and I came up beaming! The best part was I felt so comfortable on the dive and during the deco stops that I couldn’t wait to do my next trimix dive.
Trimix Dives on Scooters
After the course was complete, the GUE NZ community had their monthly weekend dive at the Poor Knights. Wanting to put my new skills into action, I joined Jamie for a trimix dive on scooters, allowing us to find depth quickly and make the most of the time exploring on scooters before coming back along the wall for deco. I still can’t get over the life that can be found at 50 m/164 ft. We had kingfish joining us as if we had been accepted into their school. A curious bronze whaler shark also came in to say hello before swimming off into the blue. Stopping to take it all in, I looked up to see the most amazing wall dropping away to 70 m/230 ft and penetrating the surface above. Tech 1 has opened up a completely new world to what I already knew, and I’m so excited about all the opportunities ahead to explore more.
|Author’s Note: Thank you Global Underwater Explorers for supporting my training, giving me the ability to make this possible. Also thank you to my amazing sponsor Halcyon for my scholarship gear and for enabling me to spend more time underwater! |
A HUGE thank you to my instructor, Jamie Obern, for all your patience, ability to explain anything simply and believing in me. Thank you to Josh for being the best dive buddy and partner! And finally to Dive Tutukaka, there are no words to say how thankful I am for supporting my diving and me as a person.
See Companion story: Preparing for GUE Tech 1 by Guy Shockey
InDepth: Returning To Diving After A Concussion by Annika Andresen
InDepth: Jumping into the Deep End by Annika Andresen (On taking GUE’s Rec 3)
GUE’s first NEXTGen scholar, Annika Andresen was Head of Programmes for BLAKE NZ, connecting thousands of young Kiwis with their marine environment. Annika holds a Master of Architecture degree, where her thesis investigated the role architecture plays on the connection people have with their environment. During her studies, Annika worked as a dive instructor for Dive! Tutukaka, and was the President of the Auckland University Underwater Club. Annika has just been awarded the New Zealand Women of Influence Youth Award for 2019. Using her natural enthusiasm and infectious personality, Annika hopes to educate others to understand and cherish our unique environment and to better protect it for the years to come.
Why I Became a GUE Instructor
Jon Kieren had been an experienced tech diver and instructor for years when, curious, he took a Global Underwater Explorers’ Fundamentals class, a prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training. Soon, he didn’t just want to be a GUE diver. He wanted to be a GUE instructor. Kieren writes about the draw of GUE and why he started over with a new agency.
by Jon Kieren. Photos courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett.
I’ve had the pleasure of working in pretty much every aspect of the diving industry over the past 15 years or so. I’ve been an instructor and boat captain in the Caribbean, worked in the training department of a large training agency, served as a consultant for equipment manufacturers, and traveled all over the world teaching as a full-time cave and technical instructor trainer. Many would have said I’d reached the highest levels in the diving industry.
So when I decided to start all over from scratch to become a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) instructor, many of my friends, peers, and students scratched their head a bit and wondered why I would want to invest so much time, energy, and money to teach things I had been capable of teaching for years with other agencies. The answer was I wanted to commit to excellence. “Can’t you do that by teaching for other agencies?” they would ask. Not really.
Over the years, I had become quite frustrated with almost every aspect of the dive industry. Low-quality instruction, lack of accountability from agencies in accidents and quality assurance, manufacturers releasing equipment that created more problems than it solved, and dive shops and instructors at all levels racing to the bottom in terms of quality — all of it was making my blood boil. When I “saw the light,” it was refreshing, inspirational, and a huge relief. I finally found an answer to many of the issues I had been banging my head against the wall trying to solve for years. Here’s how it went down.
In 2016, I left my job in the training department of a large agency after five years of frustration. I realized I could make a larger impact on the industry working with one or two students or instructor candidates at a time. I moved from south Florida to north Florida’s “cave country” to teach full-time as an independent instructor. It was a bit scary to not have a guaranteed paycheck, but I was determined to make it work. I was hungry to improve as an instructor and knew I could do better. The problem was, after working at the highest levels with some of the biggest names in the industry, I didn’t really know where to turn.
Enter Mark Messersmith. He’s a GUE board director, instructor evaluator, chief operating officer of dive equipment manufacturer Halcyon, and one of the nicest guys around. I had gotten to know Mark a little bit over the years, and always appreciated his laidback and super supportive demeanor. When I approached him about GUE training, he asked, “Why?” Knowing my background, of course he knew the answer, but I think he wanted to hear it from me.
Fundamentals: Where the Fog First Lifted
I first started down the technical diving path when I was working in the Caribbean as an open water instructor and boat captain, and I came across GUE in my research. I was immediately put off by the standardization and team-diving philosophy, and decided other agencies would be a better fit for me. Of course I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my thought was, “There can’t be just one way to do EVERYTHING.” Plus, I really enjoyed solo diving at the time. After moving through the ranks over the years and working with hundreds of technical, rebreather, and cave students, I had the opportunity to work with several GUE-trained divers. Most of them had only taken Fundamentals, the prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training courses, but two things were consistent with all of those students: The classes were easier to teach, and they were way more fun. We would be able to start cave or tech diving straight out of the gate and not need to spend three or four days on basic skills. I wanted to know what GUE’s secret was to create such solid and consistent divers, and that’s when I approached Mark.
To answer his question, I was honest and told him I wanted to steal as much as I could from the Fundamentals course to incorporate into my classes. He just smiled through his mustache and said, “OK.” We scheduled a class, and I got to work watching all of the skills videos and practicing on my own in order to prepare. To say that I was nervous when class started was an understatement. I think I hid it pretty well, but what if I didn’t meet the highest standard for Fundamentals and get GUE’s coveted tech pass? What would that say about me as an instructor? Mark’s casual style put me at ease as we began, and I was able to focus. When Mark got to the third slide of the first lecture, it was like the fog had lifted and I could see everything clearly for the first time. I knew the trajectory of my career had just shifted and I’d be starting all over. “This is going to be expensive,” I thought.
So what’s on that slide? A simple statement that was the answer to all of my struggles: “End the disconnect between training and passion.” As Mark explained the issues in the dive industry, of which I was all too aware, he also explained how GUE addresses those issues. From the top down, GUE’s board of directors members and instructors are passionate divers and explorers, no exceptions. This changed everything for me. One of my biggest frustrations was recognizing that at the very top of the industry (senior managers of the agencies), almost nobody was an active diver. Presidents and VPs were diving once a year for social media posts to create an illusion they were still active and passionate—many of them with very limited teaching experience and making decisions on standards at the highest levels of technical, cave, and rebreather training when they had only been in a cave once or dove a semi-closed rebreather a couple of times back in the 90s.
This lack of passion filters down through the industry. It’s amazing how many instructors (technical, cave and rebreather included) refuse to get in the water if they aren’t being paid. Even with my limited experience at the time, when I went to work for the agency, I would have my head in my hands thinking, “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” when sitting in on big meetings as industry heads for all of the agencies were in my opinion focused more on how to keep standards low and profits high rather than on safety and quality.
A Commitment to Excellence
But now, staring at this slide, we discussed the ways GUE is focused on keeping quality at the highest level and inspiring divers to be passionate, competent, and capable of incredible conservation and exploration efforts. We discussed the global GUE community and all of the remarkable things they accomplish. It was so clearly the answer to everything.
I didn’t just want to be a Fundamentals diver. I wanted to be a GUE instructor. As I started on the path, I started to really realize why “Commit to Excellence” is printed on the back of our t-shirts. I was pushed harder than I had ever been in the past, with support and encouragement. The goal was always to improve, no matter what we were doing: from parking our cars at the dive sites to be courteous and leave room for others, to maintaining perfect stability in extremely task-loading situations, and developing the best instructional and evaluation techniques. There was never a time in any of my classes where I was told, “Good job.” It was always, “Good job, but here’s how we can make it better.”
My Tech 1 (and later Tech 2) instructor, Guy Shockey, made a statement that I remember every day. He explained that he chooses to be a GUE instructor because when he wakes up in the morning and gets ready to teach a class, he knows without a doubt that he has the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. So when I’m on my way to the shop or dive site to meet my students in the morning, I keep that in the back of my mind. I have the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. It not only gives me confidence, but keeps me honest. There are no excuses and no room for shortcuts. Commit to excellence.
We are held to that standard of excellence through several mechanisms. We have strict annual renewal requirements to ensure we are actively diving and exploring so that students are learning from someone still passionate about what they are teaching. These requirements go far beyond what is typical in the industry, and we are actually monitored for meeting them.
Staying Current (And Competent)
Most agencies have some form of “currency” recommendation, meaning you’re supposed to teach or assist a class every few years. However, there’s no oversight to ensure instructors are meeting this requirement. There’s loads of instructors out there (tech instructors and instructor trainers included) who haven’t taught a class in five-plus years. There’s nothing stopping these instructors from going out and teaching a class at their highest level. Sure, if something terrible happens, the agency and insurance company will likely drop the instructor, showing that they violated a standard by not remaining current. But at that point, it’s already too late. Students pay the price. Even if there isn’t an accident in training, it’s very likely that students will not have received adequate training and will be more at risk in their post-training diving activities.
GUE instructors need to show dive logs verifying we have conducted at least 25 non-training dives each year, half of which need to be at or above their highest teaching level. This ensures that when you sign up for a GUE class, you can be sure the instructor in front of you is still active, current, and passionate about what they are teaching you.
All GUE instructors, instructor trainers, and instructor examiners are required to be re-evaluated at their highest teaching level every four years. Nobody is exempt from this rule, as it means that we are consistently ensuring everyone is teaching the same things, to the same standards, without drift.
Scuba diving is a physically taxing activity, and the more aggressive the dive, the more physically fit the diver should be. Even on fairly benign dives, you never know when the current or seas might pick up, or when a failure could result in extended decompression times. We believe that having physical fitness requirements that are consistent with diving goals is extremely important. No smoking allowed for any GUE diver or instructor, and we require swim tests at every level of training.
Instructors have to meet pretty stringent fitness requirements each year. We have to be medically evaluated for fitness to dive, maintain a low Body Mass Index (BMI), conduct timed swims and diver tows, stair climbs and equipment carries over long distances, all of which verify our ability to assist our students in emergencies. This is surprisingly absent from other agency’s renewal requirements. There are lines in the renewal agreement about being fit to dive, but there’s no oversight, and they don’t even require a medical exam.
We also have a 100% quality assurance process, meaning every student completes a quality control form. This is not only so our QC director can identify any drift from the standards or issues with our conduct in class, but also to help provide feedback on how we can improve the training we offer. We encourage our students not to just tell us what we did well, but treat us how we treat them in the debriefings and include areas we can better support their growth, because there’s always some room for improvement.
I don’t mention all of the renewal requirements as a flex, but rather to show that it takes a significant investment for GUE instructors to remain in current teaching status. Someone who isn’t committed simply won’t remain current. It was a huge draw for me, as I had seen how the minimal standards typical in the dive industry contribute to the disconnect.
For me, as an instructor, the benefits of GUE go beyond the high-quality training, standardization, and community. The opportunity to work toward ending the disconnect between training and passion as well as the continuous commitment to excellence are what keep me motivated. Not a year has gone by since my Fundamentals course that I haven’t seen significant growth as an instructor, and I don’t see that changing until I hang up my fins.
InDEPTH: The Economics of Being a Tech Diving Instructor by Darcy Kieran
Other stories by Jon Kieren:
InDEPTH: I Trained “Doc Deep” by Jon Kieren
InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren
InDEPTH: Grokking The FATHOM CCR: My Dive into the Nuts & Bolts with the Inventor by Jon Kieren
Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his 13-year career to improving dive training. As an active TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS, and GUE Instructor and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep, extended range cave dives, as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favorite places to share with the world.