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by Richard Walker
For the first 10 years of my diving, I was a recreational diver. I dived on most weekends and had a great time. However, there was something in the back of my mind that wasn’t quite right. My training had been good, and I was a safe diver, but I was looking for more.
There was a gap between where I was, and where I wanted to be.
I read magazine articles about amazing wreck diving projects—things that really excited me. But I could not see how I could get to those projects. I tried different training courses and talking to people on the projects, but none of that made it possible for me to participate. It was probably because project managers don’t want unknown divers on their team. New members can be a risk. As somebody that now runs my own projects, I completely understand that mentality. I started to look for training that was delivered by active exploration divers and was designed to develop a project diver. That’s when I found Global Underwater Explorers (GUE). GUE had divers that participated and contributed to projects around the world. They were active all over the world. When I heard that GUE had a training program, I had to look into it.
To start training with GUE one must first take what is called a Fundamentals course. This course introduces already certified divers to the GUE configuration and GUE methods, and it makes sure that their basic skills are at the level needed to continue training.
Breaking Down Fundamentals
The most important component in any diving class is the diving. A GUE Fundamentals or “Fundies” class is the starting place for all of GUE’s technical diving courses and comprises at least six dives designed to challenge and refine your skills. It starts with a surprising element.
Proper neutral buoyancy and trim are the foundation of this course and the first thing the instructor will focus on. Most divers think they will have no trouble with this, but try it on your next dive. Get neutral and horizontal and then see if you can remain perfectly stationary. Do you track forwards, wave your hands, or have some other unwanted movement? GUE helps to teach the skills necessary to be able to achieve this.
Propulsion techniques for greater efficiency and preserving visibility are the next skill the course focuses on, with advice to improve whatever your level currently is. Instructors often use video of your dives to help you see your progress. So whether you have had 20 dives or over 100, you will get something out of this.
Dive two works on precision and control—the backwards kick, and how to adjust your position using the helicopter turn. This makes interacting with your team easier and enables stability for shooting photos, collecting samples, or making observations during a project easier. Without this precision, simple tasks take longer or can impact the environment and sometimes even your safety. Next, you’ll be ready to begin challenging your new stability. Regulator removals, exchanges, and mask clearing are part of this, but now you will be expected to do them while neutrally buoyant, in trim, and holding position relative to your team.
Dives three and four introduce the valve drill and the s-drill. These skills work on important safety elements such as gas sharing and manipulation of cylinder valves, and they provide a perfect way to develop your new buoyancy, trim, and positioning capability while task loaded.
Dives five and six introduce the surface marker buoy as a communication tool between the diver and the surface, and of course controlling an ascent while using one. Managing an unconscious diver, a no-mask swim in touch contact with your team, plus any skills that need more refinement to complete the class are also done during dives five and six.
There are classroom sessions designed to explain gas management, nitrox, and decompression strategies for recreational diving. There are field drills for practicing the elusive backwards and helicopter kicks, as well as sequence and team-based skills like valve drills and s-drills. Field drills allow you to learn the steps of a skill without the complication of being underwater. You get instant feedback, making your performance in the water significantly higher.
It’s a packed few days by any standard, but your instructor will support you all the way, giving you honest feedback combined with realistic suggestions for you to improve. “Go away and practice more” without explaining exactly what you need to change, and why, is not acceptable feedback.
Even if you’re a rebreather or sidemount diver, the GUE Fundamentals class will still make you a better diver. You can take the class in either a single or doubles backmount configuration. The course can be taken in one or two parts depending on the students’ preference. Now, let’s address some common misconceptions about the GUE course.
Elisha Gibson a NSS-CDS Basic Cave Instructor intern who recently earned a GUE Fundamentals technical passed said this about her motivations for taking Fundamentals:
“The appeal of GUE is that no matter where you are in the world, you can meet a dive buddy and both be ready to dive in the same configuration with the same set of rules. This undoubtedly makes the dive safer and less complicated.”
She took the Fundamentals class, GUE’s most popular course. It’s a four-day event, but your instructor can deliver it in two parts if prefered.
If you’re thinking there’s nothing new I can learn from this class…
“I wasn’t sure what to expect. My previous training had left me thinking that all I had to do was complete the tasks, and I would pass. With GUE, I found that there was always an improvement I could make on every skill. Every dive was an opportunity to improve. All of my debriefs included specific solutions for improving, not just ‘go away and practice.’ I discovered that whatever my starting level was, there was always a way to get better.
Other divers started to comment about how comfortable I looked in the water. They would ask me how I could make such controlled ascents. They said that diving became more comfortable, safe, and enjoyable when they dived with me.”
This constant improvement can only be delivered with high attention to detail, and by an instructor that has an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of scuba diving. They must know how to provide solutions that are understandable and easy for the student to digest
For an experienced diver, it might seem that taking a step back to look at some very basic skills like buoyancy and trim would be unnecessary. Surely you would expect a technical diver or instructor to perform any skill whilst maintaining their position in the water, wouldn’t you? Sadly, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to go back to basics and have a closer look at the things you think you know.
“After about a year of exclusively backmount diving, I still felt there was room for improvement in my skill set and comfort level. The GUE Fundamentals class seemed a logical choice,” Gibson said.
GUE divers think they’re better than everyone else.
Some say that GUE divers are elitist and consider themselves better than other divers. It’s easy to understand how that perception would exist. GUE divers often try to explain how we dive, as well as why we don’t do certain things that are common within the sport. Sometimes this comes across wrong.
“I never felt any elitism or superiority from any of the GUE members. The one thing I have noticed is a humble and simple approach to excellence,” said Luke Inman, who is a photographer/filmmaker and PADI course director explained. Inman recently took a GUE Fundamentals course.
Much of this perception of superiority comes from internet exchanges, which mask the true tone of a conversation. It’s always better to communicate in person!
“What finally pushed me to sign up for the class was the people. I have had the opportunity to dive with quite a few GUE trained divers over the past several years and they have all been exceptional buddies and divers,” Gibson said.
But I only dive sidemount or rebreather. Why should I take a “basic skills course”?
Many divers hesitate to consider GUE because they dive sidemount or rebreather. To focus only on the equipment is a mistake. One should focus on the skills. According to Gibson,
“The main reason I did not take Fundamentals earlier in my diving career is that most of my diving has been in sidemount, and Fundamentals is simply not taught in that configuration!”
The basics of buoyancy, trim, and propulsion are universal—even with a rebreather! The GUE approach to teamwork is universal. The simple and logical approach to emergency procedures can also be mapped back to any other configuration. For an experienced diver, learning GUE procedures would be a highly useful exercise.
“GUE shows how something sophisticated in theory can be simple in application,” Inman said.
It’s a cult. They will fill my head with nonsense.
Believe it or not, people hear that GUE teaches dangerous practices, removes your ability to think independently, and turns you into a robot. Sadly, the individuals passing along these rumors have rarely taken any training with GUE.
“Some of my best dive buddies had taken the class long after starting cave training and said it was challenging and beneficial to their diving level,” Gibson said.
A GUE instructor will take pride in explaining the logic and reason behind every piece of advice that they give. There is no “Kool-Aid” in a GUE course. GUE instructors present information, logic, and solutions.
My experience is not recognized!
If you’ve done a thousand dives in a range of environments, then you’re probably skeptical of training that goes right back to basics. You want something that will bring you forward in your diving, right? As Gibson explained,
“I felt as if my basic trim and buoyancy were not as good as when I first started my cave training. What better way to get this reset and return to the fundamentals of diving than with this class that is literally titled Fundamentals?”
This is one of the big differences between GUE and other systems. GUE instructors are not trying to tick a “required skills” checklist before certification. They are always trying to help a student improve, whatever their level. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get an advanced CCR cave class on your first morning of a GUE class, but it does mean that you will get coaching and feedback to improve your performance. In short, GUE training will make you a better diver, wherever you start. According to Inman,
“After 18 years teaching technical diving, the GUE valve shutdown is the perfect example of simplifying something others have complicated.”
When I went to Florida for my first cave class, I chose GUE for two reasons. Firstly, I’d experienced a range of instructors and wondered if this would be different. I was an instructor with several organizations and was curious to see their approach. Secondly, I’d researched my instructor and decided that his background in exploration would mean that I would gain knowledge from an active explorer, which is what I had been searching for.
By the end of the class, my world had changed forever.
I stopped teaching technical diving until I could dive like my GUE instructor. A year later, I started GUE instructor training, and the rest is history. I’m now a full-time instructor, only delivering the GUE curriculum.
My story is not unique. Luke Inman, whose quotes have been sprinkled through this article, has recently decided to become a GUE instructor.
“I remember taking a Full Cave course in Mexico and noticing that the GUE classes had a simple and distinct difference from the other agency’s courses. It is far more difficult to identify a GUE instructor and differentiate them from their students. Simply because the student standard is so high. The excellence shines through,” he said.
Before people have passed through their GUE training, they look at diving in a different way. They often have some very common worries when starting out.
“I worry that I might blow off some stops if I lose control of an ascent.”
“I don’t want to be worrying about buoyancy and trim when unknown or unexpected things happen.”
But after the class, these worries turn into an appreciation of the GUE system.
“It’s reassuring to know that everyone is on the same page. Everyone has the same working plan.”
From the least experienced diver to seasoned professionals, divers taking GUE training talk about real improvements in their comfort and capacity. Many of these divers join projects around the world. They bridge that gap between reading about exciting and important diving projects and being an active part of the story!
If you’re open to learning new skills, want to find out about GUE for yourself, or are ready to get started on your route to project diving, then talk to your nearest GUE instructor. They’ll meet with you for a chat and give you some honest advice. If you talk to me, I’ll get in the water with you for a quick dive, no strings attached, and show you what it’s all about. I know most GUE instructors will offer this service too.
What have you got to lose?
What have you got to gain?
It depends on where you want to be diving a year from now!
Rich Walker learned to dive in 1991 in the English Channel and soon developed a love for wreck diving. The UK coastline has tens of thousands of wrecks to explore, from shallow through to deep technical dives. He became aware of GUE in the late 1990’s as his diving progressed more into the technical realm, and he eventually took cave training with GUE in 2003. His path was then set, and he began teaching for GUE in 2004.
He is an active project diver, and is currently involved with:
Mars project, Sweden; Cave exploration team in Izvor Licanke, Croatia.; Ghost Fishing UK, Chairman and founder.
He is a fulltime technical instructor and instructor evaluator with GUE, which he delivers via his company Wreck and Cave Ltd. He sits on the BoD of GUE and several other industry bodies.
Diving Into The Famous Ressel Cave
Belgium service member, cave explorer and tech instructor Kurt Storms takes us for a dive into the Ressel cave system located in Lot. Get out your reels.
By Kurt Storms. Photos courtesy of K. Storms unless noted.
The Lot and The Dordogne areas of France have an abundance of beautiful caves suitable for all levels of diving expertise, situated in glorious rural locations. Sites are mostly found on three rivers: The Dordogne, The Lot, and Célé. The Lot area lies in the northern extremity of the Midi-Pyrenees region, which stretches from the confines of the Dordogne Valley to the highest peaks of the Pyrenees, forming the heart of South-West France. Cave divers from all over the world return to dive here year after year. With over 20,000 known caves, France is one of the premier cave diving areas in the world. One of the most interesting regions lies in the Southwest, around the rivers of Lot and Dordogne. Here you find a multitude of long and deep caves with mostly crystal clear and relatively warm water, offering superb diving conditions. The water temperature averages 14º C/57º F and the visibility normally varies between 5-30 m/15-100 ft.
Finally!!! We can go to the Lot again. The COVID conditions have thrown a spanner in the works. But because we are all now vaccinated, we can finally leave. This time, for a week of training and then a week of diving holiday with my wife Caroline Massie. Two students (Jo Croimans and Bram Van Gorp) are with me for the training. The next few days, they will be busy with skills and dry teaching. Theory has already been given in Belgium so that we can get the most out of our dives.
Why the Lot?
The area in France is popular because most European divers take cave classes there so they don’t have to travel to Mexico or Florida. One of the most famous caves around here is Ressel. Ressel is located in the village of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, in the heart of the Lot. Most pictures you can see online show huge, dramatic blocks of white rock, flat structures, and the shafts of this cave. The facilities are pleasant, we have a large parking area for our cars, and finally there is also a conveniently located building with a toilet. From the car park we have only to walk about 100 m/330 ft to get to the entry point on the River Celé where we can put all our equipment needed for our dive.
The Ressel was first dived in 1968, by two divers of the speleo club Auvergnat. Martin and Debras reached 150 m/492 ft. It was only in 1973 that the line was extended to 300 m/984 ft, with a maximum depth of 30 m/100 ft. In 1975, Fantoli and Touloumdoian reached Pit 4 and went to a depth of 45 m/147 ft. Further exploration continued over the years, especially by Jochem Hasemayer in the early 1980s, where at 1100 m/3609 ft into the system he planted his knife in the rock to which he attached his line. This knife is still there.
On August 12, 1990, Olivier Isler was the first to cross Sump 1. The total dive time back and forth was 10 h 35 min. End of Siphon 1 is at Lac Isler, and from there on you can continue to the next siphons. Ressel consists of 5 sumps, of which siphon 1 is the longest (1850 m/6070 ft) and the deepest (83 m/272 ft). From Pit 4 onwards, the deep section begins, which can only be done with trimix mixtures. In the following years, the further sumps were explored by gentlemen like Rick Stanton, Martin Farr, and Jason Mallison. In 1999, the end of Sump 5 was reached. The total length on the main line is 4415 m/14,485 ft.
Spectacular Views In The First Section
To be honest, the visibility is spectacular all around. More than 10 m/33 ft visibility, which was near zero before the start in the Celé River—quite a change. As soon as we got to the entrance, the water cleared like snow in the sun. The first thought that ever crossed my mind was: How on earth did they find this cave? How, with the visibility of the river, did anyone see a hole that is 6 m/20 ft below the surface on one side—which is frankly not that big. Enquiries with the locals revealed that when the cave is full of water, you can even see a geyser in the river! Another impressive detail.
There is a rope that runs from the point where you get all the way into the cave, and it continues to the main line; you don’t need a primary reel here—it’s really easy to find the entrance, at 6 m/20 ft deep. Then there is a huge tunnel with white giant boulders, which is impressive.
The first dives were only up to the T (180 m/591 ft penetration), where the obligatory skills were practiced, so that later one can widen the comfort zone. This is also a very beautiful part, especially because of the large blocks that lie here. There are even two exceptional phenomena visible; these are two blocks consisting of white limestone, with a large black spot in it. You won’t find these black spots anywhere else. It is wonderful to be able to admire nature like this.
My wife, the students, and I got in, and on the first dive, with a sidemount set consisting of 2×80 cf (dual 11 ltr) tanks, we did the first T, taking the left corridor. On the next T, we continued toward the shaft to a maximum depth of 30 m/98 ft to take a look. It is so impressive! We felt like we were going to the abyss, and actually we were, to the abyss below ground and underwater. But now they were even more curious about the famous Pit 4 of the Ressel.
To be able to do this dive, we had to bring the right amount of gases. The first dive was with Jo Croimans, my student; he had his sidemount configuration with an extra 7 ltr along, I dived with my Divesoft Liberty SM rebreather. There we went, all prepared. The way there is about a 28 minute dive. On the way, I showed Jo the shunt that goes to the deeper part of the first loop. Enjoying the ride, we continued until we reached the point of the shaft.
Here I asked Jo if everything was Okay, he indicated that it was, and we descended to a depth of about 40 m/131 ft. I could see in Jo’s eyes that he was enjoying himself. But we didn’t have much time to enjoy ourselves, because we had to go back again. If you have deco, you can do it all on the way back on a nitrox 50 (NX50). For the advanced divers, you can take your oxygen at 6 m/20 ft and finish any decompression on O2.
It’s actually a great dive, and the cave allows for a variety of dives, just by choosing different depths in the tunnels, to have different perspectives.
Once we got to the top, Jo couldn’t stop exclaiming about the amazing beauty of this cave, and especially Pit 4. This made Caroline want to go and have a look too. This dive was done a few days later, when both gentlemen had gone home. This time we did the dive by scooter, a big difference. In 13 minutes we were at the shaft, and again I saw a happy face. How nice it is as an instructor to be able to pass on your passion. This is what we do it for. Ressel is one of the most beautiful caves in Europe. It remains an easy, accessible system.
The Ressel is and will always remain a special cave. Last year, I did the deep loop (1160 m/3806 ft long, 73 m/240 ft depth) here with two friends. And I still enjoy it when I talk about it. We still have to come back to do the rest of S1.
X-Ray: Pushing the Ressel—A Cave Diving Expedition in Lot, France by Erik Wouters (2013)
YouTube: Cave diving in France: Emergence du Ressel (2016)
Kurt Storms is a member of the Belgium military, and is an underwater cave explorer and active technical/cave/rebreather diving instructor for IANTD. He started his diving career in Egypt when he was on vacation, and the passion never ended. Kurt is also founder and CEO of Descent Technical Diving. He’s diving on several CCRs such as AP, SF2, Divesoft Liberty SM.
Kurt is also one of the pushdivers that is documenting a new slate mine in Belgium (Laplet). This project was news on Belgium Nationale TV. Most of his dives are mine and cave dives. In his own personal diving, Kurt’s true passions are deep extended-range cave dives. His wife (Caroline) is also a passionate cave diver. In his free time he explores Belgium’s slatemines. When he is not exploring, he takes his camera with him, to document the dives.
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