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By Amanda White
Photos by zen dive co. [correctly spelled with no capitalization]
January, 2020—Zen dive co., a Pasadena, California dive center, just opened in the midst of the global pandemic. Who are these crazy people? Kian Farin, Alex Caillat, and Francesco Cameli co-opened the shop after the concept had been in the works for several years. Each of them brings a different perspective as each is part of a different generation.
Kian, in his twenties, has been working in the dive industry for five years and has been an instructor for several agencies. He is a GUE Instructor Candidate. Alex, in his thirties, is a scientific diver and has worked on Ghost fishing projects and clean ups. Francesco, in his forties, is the self declared grumpy one and brings the tekkie side of things to the team as a GUE instructor and rebreather diver.
What possessed this trimix savvy trio to open a dive center in the midst of a viral tsunami that has claimed over two million lives and has impacted nearly every industry on the planet and most certainly diving?
“Initially, we realized there was a bit of a slowdown with COVID but,” Farin said, “at least here in Southern California, scuba diving is one of the sports people can still practice somewhat freely, though there have been restrictions of course. Boats have smaller loads and people can’t gather in big groups, but it’s one of beautiful things. Once you’re underwater, that’s it. And it’s helping with people’s stress.”
The team of three said the pandemic has given them the time they needed to sit down and create a plan for their business, build the shop, and then also have the opportunity to fix any bumps that come up along the way without being too busy with the day-to-day operations.
So why did they choose the name Zen?
“In the craziness that’s going on at the moment in the world,” Cameli mused, “there is one place where I can picture myself where I am truly calm, at peace, and relaxed. It’s in the water. So it seems fitting.”
See a Need, Fill a Need
The three divers have set out to fulfill a need they see in the California area for an innovative dive shop that inspires and supports the community. A self proclaimed “club house” for divers, equipped with its own espresso machine.
This team of hilarious and dedicated divers are trying to break all the preconceptions of dive shops and the industry. A major one is the color of their rental gear, which—GASP—has stepped outside of the black and grey scale. Their rental wings feature bright blue and orange. But also of interest, they rent only backplates and wings.
“We put a lot of thought into the experience that the diver will have at Zen,” Farin explained. “And additionally, everything in this building within these walls has had a lot of thought put into it as far as its modularity and its multiple uses. Just like our backplate systems that are very mission specific, you can put a different wing for a different dive and a different plate for a different dive, we can rearrange our entire space to accommodate anything from a West Coast GUE conference to a yoga class, to a diving course.”
So Is Zen Really That Different?
All of their introductory courses, whether it’s through PADI, NAUI, or GUE, are taught with a backplate and wing and are taught with nitrox (They only breathe air at the surface.). The courses, regardless of the agency, are taught to the shop’s standards. But what is the most interesting is their approach to instructors. Anyone is welcome to teach there, but they must meet the shop’s standards, not only for teaching and watermanship skills, but also in being stewards for the environment. Like GUE, all of their instructors will go through requalifications to teach at Zen.
“It’s not just what material is the agency teaching, it’s does the instructor fit what we are trying to do with diving here,” Caillat said. “It’s not just, is this person teaching proper trim, but it’s are they also being stewards of the environment? Are they teaching good ethics? So anybody can teach with us, as long as they meet our quality standards.”
The shop has also brought in distance learning to accommodate for COVID-19. Their classroom has state of the art technology that allows students to video conference with their instructor and a virtual black board.
Along with their approach to teaching. Zen has started a different process for gas fills that makes the life of a diver so much easier. They bank standard GUE gases, but also can blend you any mixture you would like on the spot. The coolest part, you’re paying by the cubic foot.
“It was something I drew inspiration from Extreme Exposure in Florida,” said Cameli, the gas blender. “Basically where you just back your car up, and we come and fill your tanks. You can even text me what you want. Don’t get out of your car, just pop your boot and I’ll make sure you get what you need. I can even make it on the spot, so I can just connect a hose and just fill you up and sell you the gas per cubic foot rather than, by the tank. It’s like filling up your car at the gas station.”
According to Cameli, designing and building Zen’s gas blending station was one of the most consuming tasks that the guys undertook to get the center up and running, that and, of course, selecting a suitably high-end espresso machine to fuel Zen’s coffee bar. Did I mention that Cameli is Italian? Ah, the diving dolce vita.
According to the team, the hardest part of opening during a pandemic has been keeping everyone healthy and safe. The second hardest part has been dealing with shipping, both incoming and outgoing.
Zen is also a partner with “Malibu Scuba Repair (MSR)” owned by Karim Hamza. Zen is now open by appointment only. You can find Zen here, and make an appointment: zendive.co. Soon you will also be able to shop their online store.
Take a Walk Through Their Shop
Amanda White is the managing 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 is a GUE Recreational Level 1 Diver. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she is the Marketing Director for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno with a minor in creative writing.
No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure
Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!
Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini
Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini
Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano
Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.
Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.
That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.
The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving.
At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment.
I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.
The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead.
However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it, the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).
My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions.
I managed to see a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.
The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What follows here is the first episode of the trip.
Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil
The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go.
I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.
I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.
Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.
The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her.
After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!
Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren.
Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.
On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I played a new playlist.
Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted, but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day.
The Road To Suha Dolca
I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!
I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.
Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.
My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.
Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.
I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.
The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.
The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave.
I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.
I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains.
At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and Italy was straight ahead.
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS 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. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.
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