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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.
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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