by Dean Laffan
It’s almost 1:00 am as my taxi from Denpasar airport bumps to a stop at my warung in the sleepy little town of Amed, in the North-East coast of Bali, Indonesia. A ‘warung’ is your typical Balinese locally owned accommodation, often with an attached restaurant, all run by the family. Amed is far from the picture of a typical Australian Balinese holiday which is usually centred around the tourist mecca party towns like Kuta or Canguu. Arriving in Amed is like visiting the United States bypassing LA and New York and heading straight to small-town USA; a Balinese version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
The three-hour taxi ride follows a six-hour flight from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Everything I need for this trip to Bali is contained my single freediving gear bag. As a tech and cave diver, I still chuckle every time I pack my freediving bag. ‘Now let me see what do I need? Fins, booties, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, weight belt and … err what else? Well no that’s it! Cave diving this isn’t.
My room is ridiculously awesome. It is literally on the beach and the sliding glass doors face east out over the waters of Jemaluk Bay. I lay on the bed with my doors wide open, breathing in the warm Balinese air with the sounds of the waves washing gently onto the black volcanic sands of the beach.
As I fall asleep I’m still in disbelief I’m even here. Six weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of Amed and did not know where it was. So what am I even doing here? Though I’ve been a tech diver, a cave diver, I’m here to learn freediving from the best instructors in the world for a training camp called “Deep Week.” There are 80 students and 40 accompanying instructors here in Amed and we are here because of one man, an internet phenomenon named Adam Stern.
How To Make Deep Dives and Influence People
Adam is an Aussie from the New South Wales central coast, but he spends a lot of his time offshore in various tropical locales around the globe either running his freediving courses or competing in the various global freediving championships. He is the current Australian Champion in Constant Weight which means diving on a monofin up and down. He also scored a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2017 with a personal best (PB) dive to 106m/348ft. As he jokingly says in the introduction to some of his videos; “Hi, my name is Adam Stern. I hold my breath and dive really deep.” Funny and true. He’s seriously good.
In mid-2016, Adam began to upload various YouTube videos on freediving, sometimes of his own dives in competition, but he quickly started to build a library of useful ‘how-to’ videos for beginner freedivers. Tips like how to Frenzel equalise, how to ‘breathe up’ prior to diving, dry training tips etc.
When you watch him you instantly get his appeal. He is highly engaging, projecting endless levels of energy and fun, with a famously distinctive giggle. His laid-back delivery and loveable character combined with the highly insightful tips and hints he dispenses have made him a global superstar in the booming sport of freediving.
Let me throw a couple of numbers at you so you understand his astounding social media reach. When I first started to think about this article in mid-June, Adam had 70,000 YouTube subscribers, but now at the time of writing this piece only a month later, he has already grown to 80,000+ subscribers on YouTube, plus another staggering 167,000 followers on Instagram. But to be clear, his social media profile is not a result of him chasing ‘Likes’ but rather grown organically because he has ‘paid it forward’ and the community has responded.
By comparison, GUE’s own YouTube channel has just over 5,000 subscribers, TDI/SDI has just over 3,000 and PADI has 36,000. I’ll just let that sink in for a while. A kinda goofy, but highly likeable Aussie guy who makes his how-to videos in his backyard, shot and edited by his amazing wife Erin on the niche sport of freediving, has more than double the digital footprint of an industry behemoth and marketing powerhouse like PADI.
As another comparison, the current world championing in Free Immersion and Constant Weight (Monofin) the much loved and highly respected Alexey Molchanov has only 1,300 subscribers to his own YouTube channel. The landscape of elite freediving is a pretty small club, Adam and Alexey are great mates. Indeed Deep Week is run under the Molchanov School banner. So you would assume Adam must be doing something right and I’m here to tell you, he certainly is at that. Adam has done a brilliant job of building what Seth Godin calls ‘the tribe,’ a passionate group of followers who loves what he does and can’t get enough.
It Takes A Village
Over the next 24 hrs, I am slowly joined by my fellow students from literally all over the world. A few Americans but a veritable United Nations pile into Amed. Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian, Australian, New Zealanders, Middle Eastern, South African, French, Greek, Italian, Croatian, Belgian, you name a country and there’s probably one of them here. It’s my first time meeting a real live person from the home of Genghis Khan, Mongolia!
Before long we are all ready to begin the latest of Adam Stern’s famous Deep Week training camp. Oh and to further boggle your mind I am in the second Deep Week for this month, the previous one booked out within days, also with 80 students, forcing Adam to scramble and put in a second course. So, in less than a month, Adam has run 160 students through his week-long freediving program. A staggering number, especially considering he does four or five Deep Weeks per year. So annually the total numbers are around 400 students per annum.
One of Adam’s popular ideas has been to have a special guest instructor at each Deep Week. In the one just before my own course, it was the Croatian powerhouse of the pool, Goran Colak. In my week, it is the superb French National Champion Thibault Guignes. More on Thibault and his incredible teachings later. In November of this year, again in Amed, Adam will host the undeniable Weapon of Mass Destruction in global freediving, the incredible no-fins World Champion and record holder William Truebridge.
So at each Deep Week, it’s like learning Formula 1 from Lewis Hamilton, film directing from Ron Howard or dare I say, cave diving from Jarrod Jablonski! It’s mind-boggling that basic freedivers can access such world champions for training. And all the instructors work their butts off, both in the water and out. They are available at any time for in-depth questions on all aspects of freediving.
Hippy Hippy Shake
As a GUE tech and cave diver, I cannot emphasise strongly enough what a different vibe, freediving is to what I was used to in compressed gas diving. By its nature, freediving tends to draw a certain kind of character. I would guess that 80% of freedivers are practising either meditation or yoga. Yoga is highly beneficial to achieving the sort of relaxed state you need to attain to successfully free dive.
There is a definite ‘hippy’ vibe in the community, which are mostly younger people in their 20s and 30s, and in a major counterpoint to the tech diving community, easily half of the students are women. Furthermore, whilst you can skate a bit in terms of fitness when you have essentially limitless gas in big tanks or a rebreather, you cannot escape the need for good physical fitness in freediving. By nature, the sport self-selects to fit, healthy, motivated individuals. You simply cannot go very far, or deep if you are overweight, a smoker or are overly fond of beer.
Our time here during the course is split between two locations. On the beachfront is the freediving school and café called Apneista. All our shore dives begin here. Up the hill about 2km along the narrow blacktop, you come to the stunning facility called Blue Earth. Some students walk, but many rent a local motor scooter for US$4/day and use that to get around as many of the restaurants and other facilities are sprawled out along the coast road which runs for several kms.
Blue Earth is one of the most ridiculously beautiful and spectacular places you will ever see. Built in traditional Balinese fashion in a sprawl up and down the steep headland overlooking Jemaluk Bay. It features multiple levels of timber decks that jut out into space with sensational unobstructed views of the coastline and Mt. Agung. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and constructed entirely of local timber.
Along with two bars and a restaurant it also contains several large ‘shalas’ or yoga halls which function as our classrooms over the week. There are no chairs or tables all the shalas feature large piles of cushions and bedrolls that you pick up and sit on then put away at the end of class. They also have a brand spanking new 25m fiberglass lap pool in the middle of the facility used for training.
Oh lest you think this is some exclusive, expensive operation like a ‘Davos ‘for freedivers, the entire eight-day program which runs from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm over eight days is only US$695. Living expenses in Bali are crazy cheap, my amazing room on the beach was US$20/night. Typical tasty freshly prepared breakfast, lunch or dinner is about US$5. Local Bintang beer is US$1 So my entire trip including the course, flights, transfers, food, drink and incidentals was less than AU$2,500/ US$1,800.
A Day At Deep Week
On day one we all meet at Blue Earth in the biggest of the yoga shalas with an insanely spectacular view of Jemaluk Bay. Adam outlines how the week will go to the 120 odd people scattered all over the shala sitting on cushions on the floor in a lotus position. The vibe resembles a modern-day Woodstock for freediving. After the briefing is over we all have a massive group selfie and split off into each of our various student levels which in the Molchanov school are called ‘Waves’ and the first of the day’s concurrent theory sessions begin.
Each day starts with an optional yoga session which is very well attended. Then comes the morning theory sessions. By late morning students and instructors make their way down the hill to Apneista on the beach and get ready to dive. The first two-hour diving session starts at 10:00 am the second commencing at midday. There are about a dozen freediving buoys already setup and each buoy has a dedicated instructor.
The student numbers per buoy are capped at three students. So you get two hours of solid instruction, feedback and correction over multiple dives each day and the instructors are without exception, friendly and highly supportive and very capable. Occasionally you will hear a cheer from a nearby buoy and a lot of celebratory splashing as someone has surfaced with a PB dive to depth.
Spare a thought won’t you, for Adam’s cadre of instructors. They pull consecutive two-hour shifts in the water without a break. Consider the work rate. In a three student group on a buoy one student is diving, one is breathing up preparing to dive, and one is recovering having just dived. Each diver leaves every five minutes or so, which is 12 dives per hour, so in a two-hour session, a student should get in at least four dives and eight over the two-hour training session. Pretty doable right?
But the instructor has to safety every student diver. This entails the instructor diving down to meet the student at roughly one-third of their maximum depth. So in that four-hour block, the instructor would make 48 dives. At Wave 1 level these dives may only mean meeting the student at 6 or 8m. But at Wave 3 and 4 levels, the students are diving 40-50m so the safety is required to meet them at around 15-18m. Forty-plus dives to 15m in four hours, now that’s a workout. Oh, and it’s an 8-day course with a single rest day in the middle. On the final day, I spoke to instructor Julian De Hauteclocque Howe who had just returned from his final four-hour session. He commented that it had been, “a busy day.” A little prodding reveals he clocked 54 dives that day. Half of them ‘only’ to around 15m or so, but the other half ranging between 20m to 35m! No wonder the instructors are lean, mean diving machines!
By 3:30 pm we are back at Blue Earth for the afternoon theory sessions followed by an optional High-Intensity Training (HIT) session and finally a super relaxing guided meditation which is conducted by Adam’s amazing mother Andrea. This relaxing session is timed to conclude in the gloom of twilight and is the perfect way to end the day on a cloud of relaxed bliss.
By the early evening, people clump together in various social groups and either stay at Blue Earth for their excellent food and astonishing views or head downhill once more into town to one of the myriad warung restaurants that line the coastal road for several kilometres. Mercifully there is not even a single rowdy bar in Amed and by about 9:00 pm most of the warung restaurants are closed, lights are off and everyone has retired for the night.
You might suspect that the town comes alive at first light, but you’d be wrong. Certainly, just before first light the fisherman push off the beach in their outrigger boats, but by and large it’s a slow start to the day. You can’t even really get breakfast anywhere until 8:00 am. So if you need your 6:00 am coffee to get started, forget about it! This is ‘island time’ baby!
Hanging With Thibault
The next seven days pass in a blissful procession of deeply interesting theory sessions discussing topics such as advanced Frenzel equalisation, mouth fill technique for deeper diving, dryland training for freediving, stretching your chest and intercostal muscles for increased lung capacity. At this point, I must say that the classes by Thibault Guignes were incredible. Whilst the sport of freediving is in its infancy of education and some instructors can be a bit laissez faire, Thibault by nature is super organised and highly prepared. He has his own school called Freediving HQ Philippines in Panglao, the Philippines where he has ten instructors on staff and is booked out for months in advance at a time, I can see why.
I don’t have time here to recount all of his amazing lessons, but let me mention just two astounding moments. Part of his dry training exercises features a lot of stretching. The flexibility is crucial for staying relaxed in freediving, so part of his routine involves lying face down with a large plastic drink bottle between his sternum and the floor. Over time this and other stretching has loosened the ligaments that hold his rib cage together and allow him to greatly expand the maximum capacity of his lungs. Now that’s commitment!
Although slightly built, (he was previously an avid competitor in triathlons), he takes off his T-shirt to demonstrate some aspects of physiology and at one point takes a full breath. Jaws drop all round as we see just how much flexibility there is in his chest and how his entire thorax now looks like a bodybuilder! To further boggle our minds, he puts his palms against the sides of his chest and pushes in hard, bowing and compressing his entire chest and ribs. Gasps ripple around the room. Its heady stuff.
Now, before I talk about Thibault’s deep hangs, I would be remiss not to highlight some issues around safety. Thibault is a world-class freediver with multiple dives over 100m. He is an elite freediver. He was not recommending this for any of us students, but he was being very open in sharing what he does in training for his record dives His regime is meticulously constructed so he never has to push hard into the dangerous hypoxic territory.
This technique that I’m about to describe is a way to build-up to the actual dive to depth before he physically goes there. His safety divers who meet him on his ascent, are themselves world-class freedivers. All his dives are calculated precisely for travel time, he is very consistent in his travel times and he does not hesitate to turn the dive at any time if he does not feel right. Ok, so on we go.
He showed some screenshots off his dive computer (pictured below) The profile shows a precise downslope and a symmetrical matching upslope back the surface and in between, a dead flat bottom time. He explains that as he is training to go deeper than his current PB, he can ‘simulate’ that to some extent without physically going there. It’s a peculiarity that freedivers no matter what level from beginner to world record holders all travel both up and down in the water column at about the same speed which is around 1m/second.
The profile shows Thibault diving to 65m and then hanging on the line to simulate the travel to 120m and back 65m. Yes, you just got those quick maths right! Not only does the man dive down to 65m on a single breath, he then just hangs at depth for two minutes, before starting his ascent! Drawing further wide eyes and slack jaws was another of his dives to 90m with a lazy hang of 45 seconds before returning to the surface Talk about gobsmacked. This is just one example of the level of instructor Adam has been able to bring to Deep Week and why they are such an ongoing success, booking out in record time, every time.
Throughout the week there are also dedicated workshops on the different freediving disciplines. Let me break down the various acronyms for you.
CWT – Constant Weight. This means you leave the surface with the same weight you return with (no ballast or sled) at beginner level this is done with standard long-bladed freediving bi-fins, in advanced cases you may choose to use a monofin which delivers more power and greater speed with better efficiency than separate fins.
FIM – Free Immersion. In this case, you don’t need fins as you pull yourself down the line hand over hand until you reach negative buoyancy and begin to freefall, on the return you also pull up the line had over hand back to surface. You cannot mix FIM and CWT, it’s one or the other, or you are disqualified.
CNF – Constant Weight No Fins. As the name implies bare feet and hands. This is often performed with no mask or goggles, just a nose clip clamped over your nostrils allowing you to clear your ears hands-free, as your hands are needed to perform the regular breast stroke like hand action to propel you up and down in the water column.
VWT – Variable Weight. Divers ride to depth on a metal sled attached to the line and swim back up under their own power. This is a modern version of the classical Greek tradition where a rock was used by sponge fisherman to get quickly to depth. It is still practiced today, called ‘Skandalopetra’
NLT – No Limits. Divers ride a sled down like VWT, but ascend using a lift bag attached to their wrist via a lanyard. The rapid ascent rate allows the deepest attainment of depth.
It is worth a small detour here to mention that the current world record for NLT is currently held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch, at a mind-boggling 214m/702ft. If that’s not enough for you Herbert also ‘completed’ a deeper dive to the unbelievable depth of 253m/830ft in 2012, but blacked out on ascent and almost immediately after surfacing suffered a severe cerebral DCS which initially left him in a wheelchair but after months of therapy he made a substantial, though not complete recovery. That dive ended his competitive career, though he still freedives today for his own pleasure.
When diving deeper than 20m it is a usual safe practice to wear a tether to the downline. This is a 1.2m plastic-wrapped steel cable with a shark clip on the line end and a Velcro wrist strap at the diver end. The shark clip is oversized so it falls freely on the line. In any emergency where the line ever became an entanglement hazard, the diver simply rips off the wrist strap and ascends the line, though in practice this is very rare.
The other use for the leash is a little more serious. The downline terminates at a round aluminium plate about 0.3m in diameter. The shark clip cannot come off the end of the line. In an emergency where the diver has blacked out at depth, it is quite a speedy process for the surface safety to untie the down line at the buoy end and quickly haul the plate up and in so doing, recover the unconscious diver to the surface where resuscitation is usually successful.
According to the 99% rule of thumb, 90% of blackouts happen on the surface, 9% happen between 5m and the surface, and the remainder occurs below 5m. The danger is not the blackout itself, but the subsequent aspiration of water and possible drowning. To make things worse, they generally occur without no warning. That’s why breath-hold safety divers, in the case, the instructors, meet students at one-third of their max depth on the ascent. In the event of a blackout, the safety diver protects the student’s airway by closing the mouth and nose and brings the diver to the surface for resuscitation.
Whilst breath-hold deaths by spear fisherman, aka “spearos,” are not uncommon (over 50 per year in the US vs about 20 for tech divers), deaths in the world or national competitions are almost unheard of. Only two deaths have been recorded in the last decade. One was in 2017 when the Irish Stephen Keenan was rescuing Italian female champion Alessia Zecchini from 50m at Dahab’s Blue Hole. He successfully handed her off to other rescuing safety divers but in doing so, he suffered a shallow water blackout and could not be revived. This was the first death of safety diver in freediving history.
The only other death in the competition was in 2013 when American diver Nick Mevoli was competing at the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas. He surfaced from his 72m no fins dive (CNF), but soon after collapsed, stopped breathing and could not be revived. An autopsy later established he had suffered lung barotrauma at depth causing bleeding into the lungs. Further investigation revealed had recently suffered similar but less serious squeezes and this led to medical recommendations that freedivers suffering lung squeezes leave a much longer recovery period before recommencing deep diving.
Ahead of arriving in Bali you receive access to the online Molchanov website which includes a community board, a series of WoWs (Workout of the Week) and a detailed PDF manual covering the many aspects of the course including diving technique, history, physiology and safety.
To meet my Wave 2 criteria I successfully completed the following criteria in Amed:
2:30+ min Static Breath Hold
55m+ Dynamic With Fins
35m+ Dynamic No Fins
24 – 30m CWT and FIM in the open water
15m Constant Weight No Fins
Demonstrate Free fall technique
As I progressed through Deep Week, I’m struck by what a contrast freediving is to tech and cave diving. So much about what we learn in GUE is dealing with ‘stuff’ and situations and a lot of that is to do with gear. Riding your scooter, rotating your stages, making the gas switch, tying to arrows and cookies, communicating with your team. For sure it’s all great fun and very rewarding when it all comes together. But compared to freediving, it’s very much ‘externally’ focused.
You don’t need to consciously deal with what is going on inside your own body, it’s autonomous. You, you breathe in and out, it’s subconscious, your active mind is pinging out like a radar, where is buddy? where are we in the cave? how is my gas? how are my bottles riding?
Freediving is the exact opposite. Once you are tethered to the line and preparing to dive, there is almost nothing outside of your skin that you need to be aware of or care about. It’s a very singular pursuit, it’s only your own performance that you can affect and control. In tech diving, we need to deal with various degrees of equipment, in freediving you are the equipment. You get there and back based on your own body and mind. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
As a long-time tech diver, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the change-up from compressed gas to breath-hold diving. I have in previous conversations with non-divers described cave diving as a form of ‘moving meditation’ the art of moving carefully, slowly, gently through a delicate environment.
But freediving takes that moving mediation analogy to a whole different level. Yes, you need a base level of cardiovascular fitness, but it’s as much about training your mind as it is your body. The ability to completely relax in preparation for the dive, to remain calm and focused as the C02 driven contractions start to occur, keeping good form in the water and applying different ear clearing techniques as you descend deeper and deeper. It has been said that:
“The scuba diver dives to look around, the free-diver dives to look within.”
The thought has occurred to me that we as freedivers use our travel through the water column and it’s change in pressure on our body, to simultaneously take a journey within the mind. It’s a journey only possible by diving to depth on a single breath and feeling the big ‘hug’ of the pressure when you reach residual lung volume. It is both humbling and inspiring and you surface in elation, wanting to go again and again. In freediving, I have truly found a confluence of mind, body and spirit.
Home on Blue Water Planet
Deep Week concludes with an absolutely wild party at Blue Earth. Guys and girls who have been on their best behaviour, cut loose and it’s booze and dancing till late in the night. It’s after midnight when I make my way back to my warung. It’s quiet, dark as I walk along the narrow road and there is not a soul to be seen.
As I approach my room right next to the beach, I’m struck by a random thought. I walk the short distance to the water and peel off my shirt and shorts and naked as the day I was born I wade into the warm 32C degree water of Jemaluk Bay. I rock gently in the barely-there swells and float face up gazing into the sky … which is spectacular beyond belief.
There is zero light pollution in this far-flung country town so the entire sky is lit up with stars, bright and dense from horizon to horizon like a photograph from the Hubble. I can see white stars and also hints of other stars in red and blue light.
I spot the Southern Cross, though it’s not quite where it should be to my Melbourne born eyes, some constellations are recognisable, a few more I don’t recognise. I can see the misty swathe of galaxies I’ve never even seen before and I’m filled with peace and wonder.
I float there, my face kissed by the cool starlight of the cosmos, my body embraced by the warm ocean water and I’m reminded of something the British astrophysicist Brian Cox pointed out in his excellent TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe.’ That is: if you took every single grain of sand from every beach in the entire world, and counted them out, they would not even begin to equal the number of suns in our universe, never mind the planets that revolve around them.
Floating on my back with the sand grains of Bali beneath me and the endless stars of the universe above, I am sandwiched between our own blue water planet and the endless majesty of the universe. I ponder the irony of gazing into outer space, while floating in inner space. I feel at once incredibly small, yet also connected to the universe and feel lucky that we live on this beautiful blue orb, the only water planet in our solar system and I wonder if my life will ever be the same again.
I certainly hope not.
Contributing photographers: Adam Stern, Trista Fontana, Bridget Ferguson, Dean Laffan
To give you an idea of what human beings can accomplish, here are the current world records for each freediving discipline.
* For clarification Variable Weight means the diver can use weight to get to the target depth, usually a sled or similar device and returns to the surface via a combination of finning and pulling up the line by hand. No Limits uses the same sled device, but divers ascend by deploying a small lift bag secured to their wrist for a more rapid ascent and less effort, allowing a much deeper target depth.
Dean Laffan: Fuelled by a boyhood fascination with the books and TV shows of Australian diving pioneers like Ron and Valerie Taylor, Neville Coleman and Ben Cropp, Dean took a scuba course as soon as he left school and has never left the water since. After discovering GUE in 2001 he was instantly sure he had found his ‘tribe’. He was one of the organisers of the very first GUE class in Australia run by Jarrod Jablonski.
After many technical and cave dives including some ground-breaking cave diving expeditions to the Nullabor, it was only in 2018 that he finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to take up freediving, which has now become an obsession.
Dean lives in Melbourne Australia with his ever-patient wife and three beautiful children and remains eternally grateful to be born at a time in history when we can still find new frontiers to satisfy our endless curiosity of discovery.
Twenty-five Years in the Pursuit of Excellence – The Evolution and Future of GUE
Founder and president Jarrod Jablonski describes his more than a quarter of a century long quest to promote excellence in technical diving.
by Jarrod Jablonski. Images courtesy of J. Jablonski and GUE unless noted.
The most difficult challenges we confront in our lives are the most formative and are instrumental in shaping the person we become. When I founded Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), the younger version of myself could not have foreseen all the challenges I would face, but equally true is that he would not have known the joy, the cherished relationships, the sense of purpose, the rich adventures, the humbling expressions of appreciation from those impacted, or the satisfaction of seeing the organization evolve and reshape our industry. Many kindred souls and extraordinary events have shaped these last 25 years, and an annotated chronology of GUE is included in this issue of InDEPTH. This timeline, however, will fail to capture the heart behind the creation of GUE, it will miss the passionate determination currently directing GUE, or the committed dedication ready to guide the next 25 years.
I don’t remember a time that I was not in, around, and under the water. Having learned to swim before I could walk, my mother helped infuse a deep connection to the aquatic world. I was scuba certified in South Florida with my father, and promptly took all our gear to North Florida where I became a dive instructor at the University of Florida. It was then that I began my infatuation with cave diving. I was in the perfect place for it, and my insatiable curiosity was multiplied while exploring new environments. I found myself with a strong desire to visit unique and hard-to-reach places, be they far inside a cave or deep within the ocean.
My enthusiasm for learning was pressed into service as an educator, and I became enamored with sharing these special environments. Along with this desire to share the beauty and uniqueness of underwater caves was a focused wish to assist people in acquiring the skills I could see they needed to support their personal diving goals. It could be said that these early experiences were the seeds that would germinate, grow, mature, and bloom into the organizing principles for GUE.
The Pre-GUE Years
Before jumping into the formational days of GUE, allow me to help you visualize the environment that was the incubator for the idea that became GUE’s reality. By the mid-1990s, I was deeply involved in a variety of exploration activities and had been striving to refine my own teaching capacity alongside this growing obsession for exploratory diving. While teaching my open water students, I was in the habit of practicing to refine my own trim and buoyancy, noticing that the students quickly progressed and were mostly able to copy my position in the water. Rather than jump immediately into the skills that were prescribed, I started to take more time to refine their comfort and general competency. This subtle shift made a world of difference in the training outcomes, creating impressive divers with only slightly more time and a shift in focus. In fact, the local dive boats would often stare in disbelief when told these divers were freshly certified, saying they looked better than most open water instructors!
By this point in my career, I could see the problems I was confronting were more systemic and less individualistic. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that key principles had been missing in both my recreational and technical education, not to mention the instructor training I received. The lack of basic skill refinement seemed to occur at all levels of training, from the beginner to the advanced diver. Core skills like buoyancy or in-water control were mainly left for divers to figure out on their own and almost nobody had a meaningful emphasis on efficient movement in the water. It was nearly unheard of to fail people in scuba diving, and even delaying certification for people with weak skills was very unusual. This remains all too common to this day, but I believe GUE has shifted the focus in important ways, encouraging people to think of certification more as a process and less as a right granted to them because they paid for training.
The weakness in skill refinement during dive training was further amplified by little-to-no training in how to handle problems when they developed while diving, as they always do. In those days, even technical/cave training had very little in the way of realistic training in problem resolution. The rare practice of failures was deeply disconnected from reality. For example, there was almost no realistic scenario training for things like a failed regulator or light. What little practice there was wasn’t integrated into the actual dive and seemed largely useless in preparing for real problems. I began testing some of my students with mock equipment failures, and I was shocked at how poorly even the best students performed. They were able to quickly develop the needed skills, but seeing how badly most handled their first attempts left me troubled about the response of most certified divers should they experience problems while diving, as they inevitably would.
Meanwhile, I was surrounded by a continual progression of diving fatalities, and most appeared entirely preventable. The loss of dear friends and close associates had a deep impact on my view of dive training and especially on the procedures being emphasized at that time within the community. The industry, in those early days, was wholly focused on deep air and solo diving. However, alarmingly lacking were clear bottle marking or gas switching protocols. It seemed to me to be no coincidence that diver after diver lost their lives simply because they breathed the wrong bottle at depth. Many others died mysteriously during solo dives or while deep diving with air.
One of the more impactful fatalities was Bob McGuire, who was a drill sergeant, friend, and occasional dive buddy. He was normally very careful and focused. One day a small problem with one regulator caused him to switch regulators before getting in the water. He was using a system that used color-coded regulators to identify the gas breathed. When switching the broken regulator, he either did not remember or did not have an appropriately colored regulator. This small mistake cost him his life. I clearly remember turning that one around in my head quite a bit. Something that trivial should not result in the loss of a life.
Also disturbing was the double fatality of good friends, Chris and Chrissy Rouse, who lost their lives while diving a German U-boat in 70 m/230 ft of water off the coast of New Jersey. I remember, as if the conversation with Chris were yesterday, asking him not to use air and even offering to support the cost as a counter to his argument about the cost of helium. And the tragedies continued: The loss of one of my closest friends Sherwood Schille, the death of my friend Steve Berman who lived next to me and with whom I had dived hundreds of times, the shock of losing pioneering explorer Sheck Exley, the regular stream of tech divers, and the half dozen body recoveries I made over only a couple years, which not only saddened me greatly, but also made me angry. Clearly, a radically different approach was needed.
Learning to Explore
Meanwhile, my own exploration activities were expanding rapidly. Our teams were seeking every opportunity to grow their capability while reducing unnecessary risk. To that end, we ceased deep air diving and instituted a series of common protocols with standardized equipment configurations, both of which showed great promise in expanding safety, efficiency, and comfort. We got a lot of things wrong and experienced enough near misses to keep us sharp and in search of continual improvement.
But we looked carefully at every aspect of our diving, seeking ways to advance safety, efficiency, and all-around competency while focusing plenty of attention into the uncommon practice of large-scale, team diving, utilizing setup dives, safety divers, and inwater support. We developed diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) towing techniques, which is something that had not been done previously. We mostly ignored and then rewrote CNS oxygen toxicity calculations, developed novel strategies for calculating decompression time, and created and refined standard procedures for everything from bottle switching to equipment configurations. Many of these developments arose from simple necessity. There were no available decompression programs and no decompression tables available for the dives we were doing. Commonly used calculations designed to reduce the risk of oxygen toxicity were useless to our teams, because even our more casual dives were 10, 20, or even 30 times the allowable limit. The industry today takes most of this for granted, but in the early days of technical diving, we had very few tools, save a deep motivation to go where no one had gone before.
Many of these adventures included friends in the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP), where I refined policies within the team and most directly with longtime dive buddy George Irvine. This “Doing it Right” (DIR) approach sought to create a more expansive system than Hogarthian diving, which itself had been born in the early years of the WKPP and was named after William Hogarth Main, a friend and frequent dive buddy of the time. By this point, I had been writing about and expanding upon Hogarthian diving for many years. More and more of the ideas we wanted to develop were not Bill Main’s priorities and lumping them into his namesake became impractical, especially given all the debate within the community over what was and was not Hogarthian.
A similar move from DIR occurred some years later when GUE stepped away from the circular debates that sought to explain DIR and embraced a GUE configuration with standard protocols, something entirely within our scope to define.
These accumulating events reached critical mass in 1998. I had experienced strong resistance to any form of standardization, even having been asked to join a special meeting of the board of directors (BOD) for a prominent cave diving agency. Their intention was to discourage me from using any form of standard configuration, claiming that students should be allowed to do whatever they “felt’ was best. It was disconcerting for me, as a young instructor, to be challenged by pioneers in the sport; nevertheless, I couldn’t agree with the edict that someone who was doing something for the first time should be tasked with determining how it should be done.
This sort of discussion was common, but the final straw occurred when I was approached by the head of a technical diving agency, an organization for which I had taught for many years. I was informed that he considered it a violation of standards not to teach air to a depth of at least 57 m/190 ft. This same individual told me that I had to stop using MOD bottle markings and fall in line with the other practices endorsed by his agency. Push had finally come to shove, and I set out to legitimize the training methods and dive protocols that had been incubating in my mind and refined with our teams over the previous decade. Years of trial and many errors while operating in dynamic and challenging environments were helping us to identify what practices were most successful in support of excellence, safety, and enjoyment.
Forming GUE as a non-profit company was intended to neutralize the profit motivations that appeared to plague other agencies. We hoped to remove the incentive to train—and certify—the greatest number of divers as quickly as possible because it seemed at odds with ensuring comfortable and capable divers. The absence of a profit motive complemented the aspirational plans that longtime friend Todd Kincaid and I had dreamed of. We imagined a global organization that would facilitate the efforts of underwater explorers while supporting scientific research and conservation initiatives.
I hoped to create an agency that placed most of the revenue in the hands of fully engaged and enthusiastic instructors, allowing them the chance to earn a good living and become professionals who might stay within the industry over many years. Of course, that required forgoing the personal benefit of ownership and reduced the revenue available to the agency, braking its growth and complicating expansion plans. This not only slowed growth but provided huge challenges in developing a proper support network while creating the agency I envisioned. There were years of stressful days and nights because of the need to forgo compensation and the deep dependance upon generous volunteers who had to fit GUE into their busy lives. If it were not for these individuals and our loyal members, we would likely never have been successful. Volunteer support and GUE membership have been and remain critical to the growing success of our agency. If you are now or have ever been a volunteer or GUE member, your contribution is a significant part of our success, and we thank you.
The challenges of the early years gave way to steady progress—always slower than desired, with ups and downs, but progress, nonetheless. Some challenges were not obvious at the outset. For example, many regions around the world were very poorly developed in technical diving. Agencies intent on growth seemed to ignore that problem, choosing whoever was available, and regardless of their experience in the discipline, they would soon be teaching.
This decision to promote people with limited experience became especially problematic when it came to Instructor Trainers. People with almost no experience in something like trimix diving were qualifying trimix instructors. Watching this play out in agency after agency, and on continent after continent, was a troubling affair. Conversely, it took many years for GUE to develop and train people of appropriate experience, especially when looking to critical roles, including high-level tech and instructor trainers. At the same time, GUE’s efforts shaped the industry in no small fashion as agencies began to model their programs after GUE’s training protocols. Initially, having insisted that nobody would take something like Fundamentals, every agency followed suit in developing their own version of these programs, usually taught by divers that had followed GUE training.
This evolving trend wasn’t without complexity but was largely a positive outcome. Agencies soon focused on fundamental skills, incorporated some form of problem-resolution training, adhered to GUE bottle and gas switching protocols, reduced insistence on deep air, and started talking more about developing skilled divers, among other changes. This evolution was significant when compared to the days of arguing about why a person could not learn to use trimix until they were good while diving deep on air.
To be sure, a good share of these changes was more about maintaining business relevance than making substantive improvements. The changes themselves were often more style than substance, lacking objective performance standards and the appropriate retraining of instructors. Despite these weaknesses, they remain positive developments. Talking about something is an important first step and, in all cases, it makes room for strong instructors in any given agency to practice what is being preached. In fact, these evolving trends have allowed GUE to now push further in the effort to create skilled and experienced divers, enhancing our ability to run progressively more elaborate projects with increasingly more sophisticated outcomes.
The Future of GUE
The coming decades of GUE’s future appear very bright. Slow but steady growth has now placed the organization in a position to make wise investments, ensuring a vibrant and integrated approach. Meanwhile, evolving technology and a broad global base place GUE in a unique and formidable position. Key structural and personnel adjustments complement a growing range of virtual tools, enabling our diverse communities and representatives to collaborate and advance projects in a way that, prior to now, was not possible. Strong local communities can be easily connected with coordinated global missions; these activities include ever-more- sophisticated underwater initiatives as well as structural changes within the GUE ecosystem. One such forward-thinking project leverages AI-enabled, adaptive learning platforms to enhance both the quality and efficiency of GUE education. Most agencies, including GUE, have been using some form of online training for years, but GUE is taking big steps to reinvent the quality and efficiency of this form of training. This is not to replace, but rather to extend and augment inwater and in-person learning outcomes. Related tools further improve the fluidity, allowing GUE to seamlessly connect previously distant communities, enabling technology, training, and passion to notably expand our ability to realize our broad, global mission.
Meanwhile, GUE and its range of global communities are utilizing evolving technologies to significantly expand the quality and scope of their project initiatives. Comparing the impressive capability of current GUE communities with those of our early years shows a radical and important shift, allowing results equal or even well beyond those possible when compared even with well-funded commercial projects. Coupled with GUE training and procedural support, these ongoing augmentations place our communities at the forefront of underwater research and conservation. This situation will only expand and be further enriched with the use of evolving technology and closely linked communities. Recent and planned expansions to our training programs present a host of important tools that will continue being refined in the years to come. Efforts to expand and improve upon the support provided to GUE projects with technology, people, and resources are now coming online and will undoubtedly be an important part of our evolving future.
The coming decades will undoubtedly present challenges. But I have no doubt that together we will not only overcome those obstacles but we will continue to thrive. I believe that GUE’s trajectory remains overwhelmingly positive, for we are an organization that is continually evolving—driven by a spirit of adventure, encouraged by your heartwarming stories, and inspired by the satisfaction of overcoming complex problems. Twenty-five years ago, when I took the path less traveled, the vision I had for GUE was admittedly ambitious. The reality, however, has exceeded anything I could have imagined. I know that GUE will never reach a point when it is complete but that it will be an exciting lifelong journey, one that, for me, will define a life well lived. I look forward our mutual ongoing “Quest for Excellence.”
Jarrod is an avid explorer, researcher, author, and instructor who teaches and dives in oceans and caves around the world. Trained as a geologist, Jarrod is the founder and president of GUE and CEO of Halcyon and Extreme Exposure while remaining active in conservation, exploration, and filming projects worldwide. His explorations regularly place him in the most remote locations in the world, including numerous world record cave dives with total immersions near 30 hours. Jarrod is also an author with dozens of publications, including three books.
A Few GUE Fundamentals
Similar to military, commercial and public safety divers, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is a standards-based diving community, with specific protocols, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tools. Here are selected InDEPTH stories on some of the key aspects of GUE diving, including a four-part series on the history and development of GUE decompression procedures by founder and president Jarod Jablonski.
GUE Instructor Examiner Guy Shockey explains the thought and details that goes into GUE’s most popular course, Fundamentals, aka “Fundies,” which has been taken by numerous industry luminaries. Why all the fanfare? Shockey characterizes the magic as “simple things done precisely!
Instructor evaluator Rich Walker attempts to answer the question, “why is Fundamentals GUE’s most popular diving course?” Along the way, he clarifies some of the myths and misconceptions about GUE training. Hint: there is no Kool-Aid.
As you’d expect, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) has a standardized approach to prepare your equipment for the dive, and its own pre-dive checklist: the GUE EDGE. Here explorer and filmmaker Dimitris Fifis preps you to take the plunge, GUE-style.
Instructor trainer Guy Shockey discusses the purpose, value, and yes, flexibility of standard operating procedures, or SOPs, in diving. Sound like an oxymoron? Shockey explains how SOPs can help offload some of our internal processing and situational awareness, so we can focus on the important part of the dive—having FUN!
Like the military and commercial diving communities before them, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) uses standardized breathing mixtures for various depth ranges and for decompression. Here British wrecker and instructor evaluator Rich Walker gets lyrical and presents the reasoning behind standard mixes and their advantages, compared with a “best mix” approach. Don’t worry, you won’t need your hymnal, though Walker may have you singing some blues.
Is it a secret algorithm developed by the WKPP to get you out of the water faster sans DCI, or an unsubstantiated decompression speculation promoted by Kool-Aid swilling quacks and charlatans? British tech instructor/instructor evaluator Rich Walker divulges the arcane mysteries behind GUE’s ratio decompression protocols in this first of a two part series.
Global Underwater Explorers is known for taking its own holistic approach to gear configuration. Here GUE board member and Instructor Trainer Richard Lundgren explains the reasoning behind its unique closed-circuit rebreather configuration. It’s all about the gas!
Though they were late to the party, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is leaning forward on rebreathers, and members are following suit. So what’s to become of their open circuit-based TECH 2 course? InDepth’s Ashley Stewart has the deets.
Diving projects, or expeditions—think Bill Stone’s Wakulla Springs 1987 project, or the original explorations of the Woodville Karst Plain’s Project (WKPP)—helped give birth to technical diving, and today continue as an important focal point and organizing principle for communities like Global Underwater Explorers (GUE). The organization this year unveiled a new Project Diver program, intended to elevate “community-led project dives to an entirely new level of sophistication.” Here, authors Guy Shockey and Francesco Cameli discuss the power of projects and take us behind the scenes of the new program
Decompression, Deep Stops and the Pursuit of Precision in a Complex World In this first of a four-part series, Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) founder and president Jarrod Jablonski explores the historical development of GUE decompression protocols, with a focus on technical diving and the evolving trends in decompression research.