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By Amanda White
One of the great aspects of diving is building a community of friends that share your excitement for the underwater world. Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) has helped to promote this enthusiasm with students and instructors by encouraging them to join a community in their area or start one themselves. Creating communities like these helps to grow the number of opportunities to get in the water and helps build members’ confidence and skills underwater. Not to mention it’s just plain fun!
One community leading the charge to give its members the underwater opportunities they crave is GUE Belgium (BE). GUE-BE is a non-profit organization that provides GUE divers from Belgium, nearby Netherlands, and France with a community of like-minded divers. Their main goal is to bring divers together to have fun regardless of their experience and certification level. The community plans dives and projects as a stepping stone to helping divers gain the experience necessary to participate in the “big exploration projects” conducted by GUE heroes.
“GUE diving is about team diving and enjoying more of your dive,” President of GUE-Belgium, Ben van Asselt said, “We [GUE-BE] try to give our members the opportunity to participate in projects. Maybe they’re not the famous big push-dives or deep exploration, but by getting involved in these projects, our members can experience how cool project dives are, and they can collaborate within their own personal boundaries.”
Diving Into Wreck Documentation
The GUE-BE community engages in various types of projects to meet the desires of their 50+ members, offering everything from wreck documentation to conservation initiatives such as Project Baseline and Ghost Fishing.
Over the past few years, they have focused on creating opportunities for BE divers to participate in shipwreck documentation efforts. To promote learning, they encourage participation for all certification levels. They organize teams to balance experience levels so that they can still meet their project goals while allowing everyone who is interested to participate. The community has also developed internal training with a specific syllabus addressing the unique requirements for diving in the North Sea. GUE-BE also does a weekly training in fresh-water lakes so members can practice their diving skills such as: Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) deployment, ascending skills, s-drills etc.
“At the beginning of the season our key-project members arranged a nice training session where skills such as video and photo could be practiced,” van Asselt said. “Also they discussed how to approach and accomplish the goals of the various projects.”
The first major product that the GUE BE community undertook was a wreck documentation contest in Croatia a few years ago. “We documented the wreck Varese and built a complete informative website about her,” van Asselt said. “It’s a great tool for divers to prepare for their dives, but it’s also a good reference for non-divers that want to know all about wrecks that lie on the seafloor.”
In 2017, their team did a project on the wreck the Westhinder after receiving government approval from the agency protecting shipwrecks in the North Sea. “Our goals were to create a 3D model, a documentary, and a website,” van Asselt explained. “The results were bigger than we could have expected. We experimented with photogrammetry techniques and created a full 3D model of the wreck. Our work was featured in GUE’s QUEST.”
They completed the Westhinder wreck project in six trips with 120 dives, and 480 filming minutes to get all of the necessary footage (an average of 40 minutes of filming time per trip). As a result, the team created a 3D model of the full 30m/100 ft long wreck.
After they completed the Westhinder project, the board, as well as key project members, were invited to meet with the Belgium ministry that is responsible for protecting the North Sea.
“It was an interesting meeting. The ministry was fascinated by our style of diving, the way we approached the project, and the results, but a real collaboration was not possible on the Westhinder. Though the outcome may sound negative, they gave us contacts that could help us with future projects.”
Imaging The SS Kilmore
GUE-BE’s most recent project in 2018 took them to the wreck of the SS Kilmore, a wreck that was three times larger than the Westhinder and provided a new set of challenges for their community to deal with. The project was spearheaded by two GUE-BE members, Johan Wouters and Peter Brandt.
Interestingly, the Kilmore was a British cargo ship that sank close to the location of the lightship Westhinder on the morning of July 29, 1906. Note: a lightship is a ship that acts like a lighthouse in deep water. She was on her way from Antwerp to Liverpool with a load of pottery from a factory in Sarreguemines (the north of France). While the ships were trying to pass each other, there was a misunderstanding, resulting in the Montezuma hitting the Kilmore on the starboard side. The Kilmore sank within the hour. Her crew was rescued by the Montezuma.
The divers who participated in the Kilmore project were volunteers who paid for their own gas and boat fees. A single trip to the wreck costs about 150 euro per person. However, the GUE-BE board reserves and pre-pays for a full boat with 12 divers. This requires organization and communication with participants in order to make sure the costs will be covered.
For this particular project, the team wanted to publish the protected maritime heritage wreck with 3D videos and photos. “A lot of people think that doing a project such as the SS Kilmore is all about diving, but to be honest that’s not true. Running a project like this involves plenty or non-diving activities; for example, preparation, post-processing, and keeping project members motivated.” van Asselt said.
What is special about the Kilmore is that it has been lying on the bottom of the North Sea for 100 years and is protected as a maritime heritage site by the Belgium government. This classification prohibits fishing activities and anchoring on the wreck. It is also illegal to take anything from the wreck (take pictures, leave only bubbles). Luckily for the team, the Belgium government created an online system where divers can register 24 hours prior to diving. The team leaders had to make sure that their divers were registered online for each trip, otherwise, they could not participate.
The project also faced some challenges, as the North Sea is not known for calm waters. The team faced unpredictable weather and visibility and could not know the specific circumstances until they were on site. Fortunately, GUE-BE was able to collect everything they needed to tell the story of the Kilmore. You can learn more about the history of the ship and see the teams work here.
The SS Kilmore project was completed over only eight dives in four trips, which means approximately 320 minutes of footage of the wreck. Because of its size (90m/295 ft) as well as weather problems, it was much more difficult for the team to complete their goals than it was on the Westhinder. “We decided to experiment with a multiple camera setup to cover more distances, and we focused on the key elements such as the engine, bow, stern and boilers. We also got all the sonar data so we could make an accurate basic model on which we could paste all the details, which worked out pretty well,” van Asselt explained.
After the diving, there was still substantial work for the team to complete. The computers take hours, days, weeks to process the images and footage to create a 3D model, and there was a significant amount of research to be done to learn about the full history of the ship. Unfortunately, there was very limited information about the Kilmore to be found, but they were able to gather enough information to sketch out the history of the ship for the website and documentary.
The team would like to thank Agisoft for their support and free official licenses to use their software to create the models of the wreck.
Project members: Johan Wouters, Peter Brandt, Ben van Asselt, Erik De Groef, Laurent Miroult, Leon Joosse, Bart Hoogeveen, Gerrit Leman, Peter Zaat, Ted Schotte, Wannes Engelen, Koenraad Van Schuylenbergh, Olf Smetsers, Dennis ten Napel, Jan van Winkel, Kim Eeckhout, Stéphanne Riga, Raphael Fernandez, Anis Fetouaki, Lucas Marain, Jerome Descamps, Bernard Barre, Tony Neve, Jan van Winkel, Matthias Trappeniers, Melissa Vermeulen, Simon Van Schuylenbergh
Looking for a diving project to get involved with? Check out the GUE Project Calendar.
Interested in learning how to use photogrammetry in your diving? GUE offers a course in photogrammetry.
Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
A Journey Into the Unknown
Sailor, diver, and professional software implementation consultant turned adventure blogger Michael Chahley shares his quest to discover the unknowns of our world by stepping out of his comfort zone. Are you ready to take the plunge?
By Michael Chahley
The engine roars to life, launching me out of a deep slumber and into reality. “That’s not good,” I think out loud. Rocking in my bunk inside the sailboat, I realize the wind is still driving us against the ocean swell. We do not need to be using the engine right now, so why is it on? Bracing myself, I climb into the cockpit as Paul, the captain, swings us over hard to starboard while staring wide-eyed ahead into the darkness. We are on a collision course with an Indonesian fishing boat shrouded in darkness, and it’s close enough to violate the ceiling of a safety stop. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I count a handful of men staring back at us as they also take evasive action. One of them is standing at the railing brushing his teeth while we run parallel alongside one another for a moment.
Luckily for us we didn’t collide. I went back to sleep with another adventure to share. If you were to meet me today, working a full-time job in Canada alongside Lake Ontario as it freezes, it would not be obvious I spent two of the past four years traveling. Balancing a life of adventure with one of responsibility, I feel fortunate to have explored some very remote places in our world–both above and below the water. But before I was able to explore the Pacific Ocean, I first had to navigate a personal path of conflicting identities in order to find the confidence to jump into the unknown.
For my entire life, I have been more comfortable in the water than on land. My childhood memories consist of watching my parents dive under the water for hours at a time and swim in the currents of the Thousand Islands in the Great Lakes region of North America. I followed the predictable path of our society. I worked hard, achieved an engineering degree, and secured a job. Fortunately, I was able to continue exploring the outdoors with this busy life. Long weekends were spent diving in the Great Lakes or camping in the back-country. I was comfortable enough; however, there was no real satisfaction in my life. As the years ticked by, the gap between my reality and dream world grew. Something had to change, but I did not know where to find the catalyst.
Like any other armchair traveler, I idolized the explorers from the Age of Discovery. Adventure books weighed down my bookshelf while travel documentaries glowed on the TV screen in my room at night. I understood what made me happy, but I was unsure of what I stood for and believed in. I was living a life in conflict with the trajectory I wanted to be on, but I had no idea of how to become an ‘explorer’ who lived a life in pursuit of the unknown. While commuting to work each day in a crowded subway, I daydreamed of sailing the oceans and exploring the underwater world. As I grew increasingly more frustrated, one day I unloaded my concerns on a friend. They had the nerve to say I was ‘living in a dream world’ and needed to focus more on my real life. This hurt to hear at first, but then it dawned on me! If dreaming was a part of my life, then why couldn’t I make it a reality, too? This was the catalyst I needed.
I finally understood that even though others might see my dreams as frivolous, it was okay for me to follow a path that was meaningful for me. Like a weight lifted from my shoulders, I discovered it was okay to be uncomfortable with the status quo. With this in mind, I quit my job, packed a bag, and with no concrete plans, bought a one-way ticket to go halfway around the world.
One-Way Ticket To Ride
I found myself flying to the Marshall Islands with a one-way ticket to meet someone I had only communicated with over email. The customs officer did not find it amusing, but after some tactful negotiation, I was let into the country and even offered a free ride to the marina. It was 2016, and I was on my way to meet Tom, the captain of a 53-foot, steel-hull ketch named Karaka. Tom invited me to join his crew and help them sail across the Pacific. Even though blue-water sailing was new to me, for him it was a lifestyle. He was nearing the end of a 12-year circumnavigation after saving Karaka from a scrapyard in Hong Kong. Along the way, he would have crew join him as a co-operative, which is how I ended up spending eight months on his boat exploring the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.
When not visiting uninhabited atolls, the outer communities we visited were so isolated that we were asked to help out by delivering fuel, cooking oil, and mail. During this trip, our daily routine consisted of free diving on pristine coral reefs, gathering coconuts, and sharing meals with some of the friendliest people in the world. From spearfishing with the local fishermen, exploring the shipwrecks and ruins of World War II, and partaking in long walks on the beach or up a volcano, it was a new adventure every day. As a shipwreck enthusiast, I am incredibly grateful to have had an opportunity to free dive to within sight of the HIJMS Nagato in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and to dive on Japanese Zeros in waters of Rabaul. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined myself exploring these regions of the world; reality had transcended my childhood fantasies.
Just like diving is for many of us, once I started traveling, the passion grew and is now a core part of my identity. Flash-forward to earlier this year, and I am back in the capital of Papua New Guinea helping Paul and his partner repair their 34-foot sloop named Amanda-Trabanthea for a journey out of the country and into Indonesia. Adventurers themselves, they had just returned to their boat after sailing through the Northwest Passage. Over three months we managed to visit some of the most hospitable and isolated regions of Papua New Guinea and Eastern Indonesia. I was lucky enough to go diving in Port Moresby, the Banda Islands, Wakatobi, Komodo, Lombok, and Bali. By the time we survived the near-collision with a fishing boat, I had come to expect the unexpected and cherish the exciting moments in life.
Explore The Unknown
Diving and sailing share a lot of similarities. Both are perfect for getting off the well-beaten track to explore places of our world few have ever seen. We must be confident in our abilities and have the appropriate training to safely handle the unexpected. A strong technical understanding of the physics and equipment required to operate safely is very important. Meticulous planning is essential for completing long passages and technical dives. But most importantly, it is the adventure from exploring new places that makes it so fun and gives us reasons to continue doing this. I strongly believe that communities such as GUE play a pivotal role in society by encouraging and promoting exploration within the individual. With time, I will combine my passion for both diving and sailing to help discover some of the most remote and beautiful corners of our world. If you have never sailed before, I highly recommend it.
I am back in Toronto where this journey began. I’m working full-time; however, this time with a much more solid understanding of myself and as well as a greater appreciation of the world we share. Only by stepping outside of my comfort zone to explore our world I was able to overcome the uncertainty that kept me from living an authentic life. Author Dale Dauten put it succinctly, “Success is an act of exploration. That means the first thing you have to find is the unknown. Learning is searching; anything else is just waiting.’’
During my travels, I realized that we cannot let others define us. We must reach beyond personal boundaries, take a risk, and venture into the unknown. In doing so, we become explorers in our own reality, which is the only reality that matters. So, rather than daydream about future adventures, we need to believe we can incorporate those dreams into our lives. All we have to do is to dare to take that first step into the unknown.
Michael Chahley is a professional software implementation consultant and an industrial engineering graduate from the University of Toronto. A finalist for GUE’s 2019 NextGEN Scholarship, he is a passionate diver, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, and an experienced traveller. Founder of the online blog Nothing Unknown.com, Michael is on a quest to discover the unknowns of our world and share them with you. He lives in Toronto, Canada, and can be reached at @NUDiscover on social media or his email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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