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Building Community Through Project Diving



By Guy Shockey. Photos courtesy of Andrea Petersen

Several years ago, I wrote an article for Global Underwater Explorers’ membership magazine QUEST, titled “Passion, Partnership and Exploration: GUE and the local community.” In that article I talked about the importance of linking your passion to a purpose and keeping those two concepts connected. 

I suggested that those divers who did this would have a lifetime of adventure in the underwater world. Before I had even heard about Simon Sinek and his question of “What is your why?” I wrote that if you didn’t ask yourself why you learned to dive and then find a way to continue to feed that “why,” your diving interests would wane. 

In that article I also wrote that there were more and more GUE projects happening all around the world and predicted that “as GUE grows and matures, these opportunities will increase, and the concept of a global approach to exploration projects will become more and more common.” At the time, this seemed like a natural growth aspect of GUE, and I was very excited to learn about the new Project Diver curriculum, which is exactly that!  I should have bought a lottery ticket the day I wrote that article because it seems like I was looking into a crystal ball! 

I will make another prediction now, and that is that with the introduction of GUE’s new Project Diver program , we will see more and more GUE projects pop up around the world. There are always the pinnacle projects that capture our attention and motivate us, but now we are helping provide the tools that GUE divers need to start their own projects! For many of us, this will help feed our “why,” and will work to encourage our involvement in diving. And, it will result in significant growth in the number of opportunities for us to connect our passion with a purpose. 

While many of these projects will be generated by the various GUE divers themselves, there are also other ways to jumpstart projects. I touched upon this in the same Quest article, but because It’s such an important topic, and our Project Diver course is gathering momentum, I thought it would be fortuitous timing to revisit an opportunity that likely exists in many locations. 

Teaming Up With Scientists

Through a series of fortuitous decisions, I am lucky to live and dive on Vancouver Island, which is located off the West Coast British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver Island is essentially a large pinnacle protruding out of the Pacific Ocean, over 2,000 meters in the middle, and it is nearly bisected in several places by inlets that are not unlike the Fjords of Norway. Because of this extensive shoreline, it has a significant maritime history and tradition. The waters can also be quite treacherous, and I have been told by experienced sailors that the waters here are some of the most challenging sailing conditions in the world. Challenging conditions coupled with a lot of shipping means that our coastline is littered with over 5,000 shipwrecks. 

For someone interested in marine archaeology and exploration, Vancouver Island is a treasure chest of opportunity. And it just so happens that there is already a group on the island with a long pedigree of recognizing this opportunity. 

The Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) was formed in 1975, and it is one of the most productive avocational underwater archaeology groups in the world. After its formation, the UASBC began a methodical program of surveying wrecks off the coast of British Columbia and in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island. They have been incredibly successful in this and have published numerous books and articles on British Columbia’s maritime history. Along the way, they have developed some very good relationships with several organizations such as the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Parks Canada and have allowed the UASBC to provide much of their survey and research information to the Government of British Columbia. 

Nearly ten years ago, a group of technical divers on Vancouver Island began working with the UASBC to help document the wrecks that fell outside of the UASBC’s primarily recreational focus. There are historical records and underwater search telemetry from tools such as side-scan sonar and multi-beam sonar, which map the seafloor, but there is still no substitute for actual first-person observation that can provide sketches, photo, and video records. Because the UASBC had done most of the work available in recreational depths, until technical divers were part of the research projects, there was a limit to further new project work. 

For a while it seemed like the future was going to be very bright: there was a group of committed technical divers with a passionate wish to. to explore, and the UASBC had the targets that needed exploration. There was some collaboration, but not as much as could have been the case, and when one of the divers in a leadership role became more involved in their non-diving career, the relationship hiccupped for a short time until a few other local GUE divers took up the task of building this relationship. 

This time around, things have really taken off! Part of it is, no doubt, related to the growth in the size of the local GUE community and likely also because there are at least 15 new JJ CCR divers with a passion for exploration in our group, and another 15 just south of the border in the Seattle, Washington area. We also have two of our local members participating in the UASBC on their board of directors. I’d say we are firmly committed to this relationship, and we are already starting to see some amazing results from this collaboration. 

The UASBC has also been energized by our relationship, and they were spurred on to write a new “Underwater Archaeology for Divers” program that is specifically tailored to our waters. This has jumpstarted even more interest in UW archaeology and, at last count, I think we have produced at least 20 new graduates, many of whom are also GUE divers. 

Our GUE community has been part of recreational depth surveys and, in this past fall, we were the first to identify the wreck of the SS Admiral Knight and we are working on confirming the identity of a historically significant wreck off the waters of Gambier Island. As I write this, we also have a UASBC member recreational charter booked for late November, which allows GUE and non-GUE divers to get to know each other and dive together. 

We are also starting to flesh out our 2023 project and exploration diving schedule, and based on our successes in 2022, there will be multiple opportunities for GUE members around the world to participate in our projects. They will be published on the GUE website in the projects section, and we encourage GUE divers to participate to the level of their training and capacity.  

Our relationship with the UASBC is a function of serendipity and a little bit of luck, but there also exists similar opportunities around the world for GUE divers to work with existing groups to the benefit of both. This results in a synergy of purpose and, when the smoke clears, provides an opportunity for GUE divers to engage their “why.” As I wrote, “if you can identify an existing organization that shares similar goals, it can be easier to combine skill sets and resources for the benefit of both.” I suggested that you take a look around your community and see what resources exist. It’s very likely that much of the heavy lifting for starting up an exploration project has already been done. At the very least, you can jumpstart your project and build on the work of others. 

When I wrote my original article, I mentioned that it was likely that many of these groups would be unfamiliar with GUE. I think this has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and I suggest that most of these groups would now be familiar with our organization. Ten years of tireless effort and work has made quite a mark in the underwater exploration world! Now, with the addition of the new Project Diver program, I expect our initiatives will grow. 

I start every class by saying that this is a terrific time to be a diver, and there are more opportunities to connect passion with purpose than ever before. Good luck combining your community efforts with those of existing exploration groups and happy adventures!

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: Introducing GUE’s New Project Diver Program by Francesco Cameli

InDEPTH: How to Become an Explorer: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration by Guy Shockey

Guy Shockey is a GUE instructor and instructor trainer who is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of GUE divers. He started diving in 1982 in a cold mountain lake in Alberta, Canada. Since then, he has logged somewhere close to 8,000 dives in most of the oceans of the world. He is a passionate technical diver with a particular interest in deeper ocean wreck diving. He is a former military officer and professional hunter with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He is also an entrepreneur with several successful startup companies to his credit.

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The Aftermath Of Love: Don Shirley and Dave Shaw

Our young Italian poet-explorer Andrea Murdoch Alpini makes a pilgrimage to visit cave explorer Don Shirley at the legendary Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. In addition to guiding the author through the cave, Shirley and Alpini dive into history and the memories of the tragic loss in 2005 of Shirley’s dive buddy David Shaw, who died while trying to recover the body of a lost diver at 270 m/882 ft. The story features Alpini’s short documentary, “Komati Springs: The Aftermath of Love.”




Text by Andrea Murdock Alpini

Inside the Black Box of Boesmansgat’s dive archive (Dave Shaw memorabilia)

🎶 Pre-dive clicklist: Where is My Mind by Pixies🎶

South Africa, Komati Springs.

On October 28, 2004, two cave divers and long-time friends, Don Shirley and David Shaw, planned a dive at Boesmansgat (also known in English as “Bushman’s Hole”) a deep, submerged freshwater cave (or sinkhole) in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Dave dove to 280 meters, touched the bottom and started exploring. At that time, Shaw had recently broken four records at one time: depth on a rebreather, depth in a cave on a rebreather, depth at altitude on a rebreather, and depth running a line. While on the dive at Boesmansgat, he found a body that had been there for nearly ten years, 20-year-old diver Deon Dreyer. 

After obtaining permission to retrieve the body from Dreyer’s parents, the two friends returned three months later. They enrolled eight support rebreather divers (all of whom were close to Don) and Gordon Hiles, a cameraman from Cape Town, who filmed the entire process—from the preparation on the surface to the operation at the bottom of the cave. The surface marshal was Verna van Schaik, who held the women’s world record for depth at the time. Little did they know that Dave would not come back from his 333rd dive, one that he himself recorded with an underwater camera. 

Researchers have determined that while attempting the retrieval, Dave ran into physical difficulties with the lines from the body bag and the wires from the light head. The physical effort of trying to free himself led to his death for what is believed to be respiratory insufficiency (see video below). Don Shirley nearly died as well, and apparently was left with permanent damage that has impaired his balance. 

Nearly 20 years later, our own Andrea Murdock Alpini visits Don and has this to say: 

Dave and Don before a dive.

February 2023—I arrive at the mine owned by cave expert and pioneer of deep diving, Don Shirley. The place is fantastic—the wild nature, the warm water, and the dives are amazing. Every day I spend at least 230 minutes underwater, filming the mines and what is left of man’s influence in this beautiful and God-forgotten corner of Africa. Every day I have time to talk, plan dives, and prepare the blends together with Don Shirley. 

The following is a part of the story that links Don Shirley to South Africa. Stories and places intertwine between Komati Springs, Boesmansgat (or “Bushman’s Hole”) and then the fatal dive with his friend Dave Shaw. 

Monkeys arrive on time every 12 hours. They showed up last night at about 5:00. They came down from the trees in large groups. They start playing, throwing themselves from one branch to another, chasing each other. Mothers hug their little ones. Some of them play with oxygen cylinders, the smaller ones instead with methane gas tanks, the ones we use for cooking. We are surrounded by gas blenders of all kinds. 

A herdsman’s hat rests on the workbench. Two hands with delicate, thin skin take adapters, cylinders, and whips.They open and close taps. Notebooks report all the consumption for each charge, strictly written in liters with the utmost precision. Impressions: An Amaranth t-shirt, an unmistakable logo, that of the IANTD. A pair of jeans and then some boots. He has a slight physique, he is lean and athletic with a beard that is white now, and a few days’ old. 

While he works carefully, I do not disturb him, for I know well that when mixing, one is not to be interrupted, at least this is so for anyone who loves precision. Then, when he’s done, we have time to talk a little bit together.

Don Shirley with the author planning a dive at Komati Springs

We sit at his desk and then go to the board to plan the dive in the mine.

Don shows me the map of the first level. He explains some important facts to me, then his hands pull out a second sheet with the plan redesigned from memory of the second level at 24 m/70 ft deep. “This is the guitar level,” he says. 

At first I don’t understand. He chuckles. I look at the shape he drew and, yes, that floor plan is a cross between a Fender Stratocaster and a Picasso guitar. Anyway, it’s a guitar, no doubt.

We begin planning the dive together. It’s exciting to hear him talk; he speaks in a soft, elegant tone, and it moves me. I look at his index finger moving. I listen to his words, but I also look at his eyes. 

He gives me some advice but also tells me, “This mine is more similar to a cave. I have left it as it is. I want people to explore it and not follow any lines.”

Freedom of thought, plurality of choices. Acceptance of risk, inclusion of the other in what belongs to you. It’s clear that Don’s vision of diving is uncommon. Freedom is beautiful, but it is the most dangerous thing there is, if mishandled. 

An old map of Komati’s mine site

The next day, we have an appointment at 7 o’clock at the lake. Before diving this morning, we saw where the “Tunnel of Love” originates on the surface, a curious gallery which I came across underwater. There are two parts of the mine that survived the destruction of the mining facility after its closure. One of these is the tunnel where we are going, the other part is perched in the middle of the mountain.

Don explains that the tunnel is now frequented by the wild animals who go to drink there, so we follow their trail. The water has flooded everything up to just a few meters below the surface of the bush. Don cuts the underbrush that makes the path difficult. He wears his faithful herdsman’s hat and never takes it off. The ground begins to tilt slightly, a good sign that we are about to arrive. A series of stones suggest that here the path has been paved. “It was covered in wood,” Don explains.

The path that started from the building where the miners lived is now demolished. Following it, we arrive at what was called “The Tunnel of Love.”

The tunnel that was the mine’s main entry point. Narrow and difficult, the tunnel led to level one—now underwater at a depth of 18 m/60 ft.

We turn on the headlamps and enter. A small colony of bats flaps its wings upon our arrival. The water touches our boots. Some roots filter from the rock and stretch to the resurgence. The scenery is evocative.

The author and Marco Setti in the end of their explorations at Komati Springs

Don kneels, peering at the water, and something. He looks at the water and something changes within him. Something has changed in our shared dialogue.

It’s as if Don takes on another language as he speaks. He always looks straight ahead. His vocabulary changes, and with it his tone of voice. We talk about politics, economics, the future of Komati Springs, the origin of the name of the place, the history of the mine, but we never mention two topics: diving and Dave Shaw.

Don’s a real caveman. I know that those who love caves are not ordinary people. We who do are a little bit mad to do what we do and love, but he’s different. He is comfortable here; he has found his dimension.

I remember asking him a question when we were inside the Tunnel of Love, breaking one of the long silences: “What thoughts are going through your mind?” He seemed to have reached a meditative state, a kind of catharsis. He replied, “I am just relaxing. This is a peaceful place. “

Around nine o’clock, we travel again to the lake, leaving the dry caves behind. 

Exploring a tunnel in the flooded mine.

The first dive lasted 135 minutes, the second 95 minutes. Once the equipment is set up, I return to the cottage to dry everything and recharge the cylinders.

Don’s hands this time are again without gloves. Before we start mixing, we walk into his office.The walls are lined with articles he has published over the years. 

He shows me the medals for valor he got when he was on duty in the British Army. When we return to a small corridor that acts as a barrier, my eyes fall on two photographs. “Is that Dave?” I ask. “That’s him. We were here in Komati,” Don tells me. “You see? This is his hat,” and he points to what is on his head.

The pond above the mine and wild nature who surrounds Komati. A real wild South Africa scenario.

The Consequences of Love

These are the consequences of love, I think. A friendship that transcends time, life, but also death.

It’s time to prepare the blends for tomorrow. As the oxygen pumps out, Don asks me, “Have you ever seen our Boesmasgat’s diving slates?” Obviously, I had never seen the decompression tables of that famous and tragic dive to 280 m/920 ft depth at 1,600 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) altitude.

“Hang on a sec.” Don picks up a small black box with a yellow label and brings it to me. He opens it. “These are the original dive charts. These are mine; these are Dave’s.” The box also contains the famous blackboard with the inscription, (“DAVE NOT COMING BACK”) from the documentary, as well as a pair of underwater gloves used in that dive, and then the heirloom of his CCR computer that broke due to excessive hydrostatic pressure.

He exits the room. He leaves me with those emotionally charged objects in my hands. I can’t see them any differently. They obviously have historical value; but, for me, the human sense prevails. I look at the decompression tables, touch the gloves, and think about the hands that wore them, that read the various whiteboards, and I imagine the scenes of that time.

Early days of explorations at Komati Springs, Don Shirley with Dave Shown and their team 
Don Shirley wearing Dave’s old hat while scouting out the Tunnel of Love

I place everything back in the box. I hand it to Don as I would hand him a precious urn. In part, it is one. I find it hard to express myself in that moment. He understands why.

At this point I ask him, “What was the true meaning of that extreme dive that Dave wanted to do? Why did he do it?”

“He just wanted to explore the bottom of that cave,” Don said. “Wherever Dave went, he wanted to get to the bottom. That’s how we’ve always done it together. So that’s what we did here at the mine.” 

Don then tells me a series of details and information about that place, about the geological stratification of the cave; he talks a little about the owner of the land where the famous sinkhole is located, and finally he talks about many other aspects of their failed dive. I promised to keep it to myself, and I will do so, forever.

Such is a connection that endures over time.


Wikipedia: Dave Shaw

YouTube: Diver Records Doom | Last Moments-Dave Shaw

Wikipedia: Dave Not Coming Back (2020) A critically acclaimed film that centers on diver Dave Shaw’s death while attempting to recover the body of Deon Dreyer from the submerged Boesmansgat cave in 2005.

Shock Ya: Don Shirley Fondly Remembers Scuba Diving with David Shaw in Dave Not Coming Back Exclusive Clip

Outside: Raising the Dead (2005) by Tim Zimmerman

Other stories by the prolific Andrea Alpini Murdock:

InDEPTH: Finessing the Grande Dame of the Abyss

InDEPTH: Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

InDEPTH: I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas MineInDEPTH: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, published in the Fall of 2022.

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