Finland’s Newly Established Scientific Diving Academy
by Edd Stockdale
Header image: Antarctic research as part of Science Under the Ice project Photo by @scienceundertheice.
While exploring the aquatic realm, many divers often encounter objects of interest but are unaware of the historical or scientific value to the fields of archaeology, geology, or biology. Even if they suspect their find might be important, they are untrained in how to treat such a find with an investigative approach.
Scientific diving, separate from sport, recreational, or commercial diving, requires occupational training specific to science-led, underwater activities with the purpose of collecting data and/or samples. This type of diving is important both to research, as well as to policy making, because divers with this specific training and background can make the quantitative or qualitative-based assertions necessary to implement the findings. There is a necessary and important distinction between professional scientific divers and the “citizen science” trained divers who are essential in building public awareness, particularly in conservation projects.
The necessary training and the regulation of professional scientific diving varies widely from country to country, both in regulation requirements, as well as in practice. In many countries, scientific work is classified as commercial diving, and regulations are set accordingly. At the opposite extreme, underwater scientific activity can be conducted by anyone certified to dive.
Structured approaches were developed to mitigate the abuses that both of these approaches might create—one such approach was specifically from the American Academy of Underwater Sciences, formed in 1977. AAUS, in 1982, received an exemption from commercial diving standards through self-regulation. In Europe, the process of establishing a recognized training standard was slower because many different European countries had different regulations; however, in 2007, after collaborative efforts by leading researchers, the European Scientific Diving Committee was formed. This agency became the European Scientific Diving Panel (ESDP) in 2008. ESDP established the standards for both Advanced European Scientific Diver (AESD) and European Scientific Diver (ESD) that are recognized by its member countries.
One of the early members in the establishment of ESDP, Finland, has experienced a decrease in scientific dive training options but no decrease in the demand for trained divers because of the increased amount of marine research and monitoring Finland carries out. To fill this void in suitably trained divers and to develop a new generation of marine researchers, a group of leading representatives from various institutions have successfully sought funding to establish a new, centralized training center—the Finnish Scientific Diving Academy (FSDA) at the University of Helsinki Tvarminne Zoological Station. FSDA is located on the shore of the Baltic Sea.
The Academy’s primary objective is to train European standard professional scientific dive training for AESD certification, but this is far from its only goal. In addition to the six-week core program, plans are in place for adding dive training to undergraduate and early career research students to stimulate future generations of field-based marine researchers. Courses for divers who want to gain more experience or to develop skills for citizen-science-based projects with shorter timescales are also in the cards, making the Academy a truly centralized base for all aspects of scientific dive activities, one that can offer expertise across the disciplines.
With its location on the Gulf of Finland, this training will predominantly specialize in cold-water based approaches, though training options in other locations are always a possibility to cover different conditions. Taking advantage of the ice conditions in Finnish winter’s polar research dive training, which, combined with easier access and facilities already established, makes the option to train for polar projects—without the logistical hassle of actually getting to research stations in those regions—a realistic possibility.
Included into the development concept of the FSDA is not only the concentration on classical scientific diving protocols, but also a widening the scope. It is often ironic that all the different areas of diving contain techniques that can overlap to benefit each other but are not taught or communicated; for example, skills used in a cave diving survey could easily benefit an ecological study or archeological field work. Therefore, the coordinator position for the FSDA requires a background in not just scientific, but technical and other areas of diving with the aim to integrate these skills into these areas into the programs.
As a result, in the future, courses will likely be offered for specific evolving technological options, developing techniques, or specialist subjects that research teams need in order to carry out projects. Training may also be offered for more advanced diving, including mixed gas and rebreathers, to expand the ranges and environments to carry out scientific work.
At the other end of the spectrum, driven by the growing need for more studies of aquatic regions combined with reduced funds for research, citizen science or the involvement of non-professional volunteers becomes more relevant all the time.
Training options for divers looking to develop these skills vary dramatically, and they may not be familiar with research institutions where expertise is highly appreciated.
Due to the need for scientific consistency in work carried out, divers not only need high levels of diving ability, but also an understanding of the project goals that are important for the results to be valid. Such training is specialized, but done and implemented correctly, provides scientists with the resources of capable dive teams, which is one of the long term goals of the FSDA. These programs will also aim to cover more specialized fields of study or the application of different diving procedures, both from the requirements perspective of project leaders looking for teams of “citizen scientists,” as well as from the divers themselves.
Overall, the creation of the Finnish Scientific Diving Academy is exciting for both the scientific and regular diving communities, as it aims to address reduced access to specialized training while developing newer techniques and raising awareness of the importance of how research into the marine world is carried out, whether it is surveying a 400-year-old shipwreck or the ecology of a reef.
The FSDA has been initially funded by the Antero and Merja Parma Foundation and Weisell Foundation for three years with aims to secure more funding to remain long term and is coordinated by Edd Stockdale. The first courses will begin in April 2022. Queries should be sent to Edd Stockdale.
Edd Stockdale has worked in scientific and technical diving for over a decade and joined as Badewanne team member in 2019. He is the coordinator of the newly established Finnish Scientific Diving Academy at the University of Helsinki, which was established to develop scientific diving training to further research abilities and develop new approaches to data collection in cold water based science. When not working on research diving, Edd can be found exploring the mines and wrecks in the Nordic region or planning the next adventure. He is supported by Divesoft as well as Santi, Halcyon, and REEL Diving in Scandinavia.
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
🎶 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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