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You Mean Wreck? No, R-e-c-r-e-a-t-i-o-n-a-l
By Dorota Czerny
GUE is mainly known for its technical and cave diving courses, but recently the organization has been making a push to educate divers at the recreational level. Our goal is to give newer divers a stronger platform on which to develop their skills in order for them to be more confident underwater from the beginning. Hopefully, by providing them with more in-depth skill training, scuba will become a passion rather than just a hobby.
Taking the Plunge
The last day of our Recreational Diver Level 1 class started in the Arabian Sea with a wreck dive approximately 30 minutes offshore. It was just a perfect mix of environmental conditions: something interesting to see, abundant underwater life, and a few challenging conditions—a blue water descent with a line from 24 m/80 ft, with some current and varying visibility.
With our first dive being deeper, I was quite cautious with my students not to exceed the limits of the course (21 m/70 ft), especially since two young ladies were diving after just five days of entry-level training. Maintaining depth without an easy-to-follow reference is always a good test for buoyancy control for both self and team awareness. In spite of my concern, the dive went smoothly. There was a lot to see and the students performed well. I was content with their performance. When the time came to call the dive, we went back to the upline to ascend. I indicated to the students to hold onto the line, as the current had picked up a bit. I backed off, leaving them space to position themselves.
After we ascended a couple of meters, the students just let go of the line. My first instinct was to tell them, “hold on to the line!” But I didn’t. Instead, what I saw was a team of two trained divers, communicating clearly, maintaining the speed of ascent, maneuvering around the line in good trim using a backward kick, pausing on the planned stops, and looking very relaxed. I followed them up and even flooded my mask because I was grinning so much.
The moment we broke the surface I just said, “I am sorry.” They looked at me with a question in their eyes and I laughed aloud. “I am sorry because you do not know what good divers you are! If only you could see yourselves.” Their smiles became bigger and wider; the satisfaction of their achievement was just beaming out of them. I thought to myself, “How cool is that. The program really works!”
This first recreational course with GUE’s new curriculum proved to me that the concept of GUE recreational training works well, even if at first it may feel counterintuitive to some instructors. The knowledge and skills are delivered to students in small chunks, with time in between to allow them to practice and reinforce their newly acquired skills. Most of those are basic skills, like buoyancy control, position in the water, and propulsion/maneuvering.
Spending time practicing basic skills may feel stressful and counterintuitive to any GUE instructor who has a long list of skills to teach, but the initial dedication to building a solid foundation works out well for newer divers. Any additional skills will be easy to teach, and easy for students to learn when they begin with a good platform.
The original GUE recreational diving curriculum was created almost ten years ago in a huge effort lead by GUE Instructor Jesper Berglund, who at the time was GUE’s Recreational Training Director. Three programs were created: Recreational Diver Levels 1, 2 and 3. The Level 1 course was arguably one of the best courses crafted in the industry, but its weakness was its ten-day length and corresponding expense, making it difficult to implement. Because of this, GUE recently revamped and launched their new recreational course program to be more accessible while still maintaining its educational quality. The main change that was made to the course was breaking the first level into two parts.
Part One: Recreational Supervised Diver
The two parts of GUE’s complete entry-level recreational program are Recreational Supervised Diver and Recreational Diver Level 1.
The Recreational Supervised Diver course requires three to four days during which the students are learning the basics of in-water work, equipment handling, pre-dive procedures, dive planning, and dive theory. The course can be finalized at this stage with a certification allowing the diver to conduct dives under the supervision of a dive professional up to 12 m/40 ft using nitrox 32.
The divers are able to plan and execute their dives, including calculating their minimum gas requirements, properly analyzing and marking their breathing gas, as well as preparing and handling gear independently. The course is conducted using a single tank, GUE-configured equipment set with a backplate, wing, and long-hose regulator setup. If the students are trained in cold water, then they are using drysuits as soon as their third confined (pool) session is completed. For Recreational Supervised Diver there are a total of eight confined (pool) sessions before their open water dives.
The course includes foundational skills like:
- Buoyancy and trim
- Propulsion and maneuvering techniques
- The basic 5 skills: recovering, clearing and switching regulators, long hose deployment, mask clearing, mask removal and replacement, gas sharing scenarios including a gas-sharing ascent
- Basic rescue skills
- Basic equipment failure management
Recreational Supervised Divers complete a minimum of two open water dives as part of their class. After certification, the diving professional who will be guiding them is expected to take care of underwater navigation, advanced emergency handling, ascents using an SMB, and ensuring that the students build up their experience, which is such a critical part of the learning process. We recommend that these new divers dive with a GUE dive center and dive leaders, as it will enhance their skills, the post-training experience, and of course how much fun they have.
Part Two: Recreational Diver Level 1
The next stage in their training is a full GUE Recreational Diver Level 1 certification that builds on previous experiences and adds to the skills that will make them and their team qualified to execute safe dives to 21 m/70 ft on nitrox 32. The theory includes more detailed dive planning, environmental awareness, decompression theory, and reinforcement (i.e., review) of previously acquired knowledge.
The course includes two additional pool sessions for a total of ten, introduces SMB handling, additional equipment failure emergency management, advanced descending/ascending techniques, and full surface rescue skills. There are also four additional open water dives, making for a total of six, to add as much in-water experience as possible in order to reinforce the practical use of students’ newly acquired skills.
GUE recreational courses are not about “ticking off” skills on a list; they are more about letting the students practice the tools they have been taught in their class and showing them how to apply them to real dive conditions. More importantly, it’s about having FUN, feeling in-control, being confident, and making the right decisions based on their understanding of what is going on around them.
GUE’s entry-level training can be conducted as a continuous (single) course, leading to a Recreational Diver Level 1 certification, or as two separate courses. Typically it will take five to six days (or an equivalent of not less than 40 hours of instruction). Done all at once, the course can be demanding, but with dedication and good logistics, it is an enjoyable experience with fast and satisfying progression. As with all GUE classes, the minimum is defined, but maximizing students’ in-water time is encouraged and recommended. If more time is needed, well, then it should be granted!
Those who prefer to take the time and allow for more experience in between sessions, or who want to break the training into Supervised and Recreational Diver 1, are encouraged to do so. Gaining more in-water experiences between courses will only enhance students’ confidence and skills.
Our Goal? Create Confident Divers
With 10 pool sessions, six open water dives, and a good amount of theory, GUE entry-level training requires more time than a typical recreational class. For example, a PADI open water class requires five pool sessions and four open water dives, and on average is conducted over three to four days. We aspire not just to certify divers but to create confident divers. Completing a task list is not the goal; education, progression, maintenance of skills, and motivation to dive is. The certification is just a formality.
No practical or theoretical knowledge can endure without experience; nothing can be mastered without repetition, properly chosen corrective feedback, genuine and targeted positive reinforcement, and giving the diver an opportunity to apply it. Individuals who wish to become divers must be given enough time to process knowledge and have a proper environment to learn the needed tools. They also need a mentor (instructor) who takes the time and patience to guide their learning process, criticize when needed, and praise when deserved.
One added benefit of completing a recreational course through GUE’s program is the dive community that comes with it. Because we are team-based divers, we have strong communities in over 90 countries that are regularly diving. Having a team to regularly dive with is something that can be hard for new divers to find. GUE groups make that easy by welcoming divers at all levels of experience. GUE groups provide opportunities for those divers to get in the water and can connect new divers to mentors that will ease their way into the joys of diving.
Dorota Czerny has been an active scuba instructor for nearly 20 years. She started as a PADI instructor, worked in Egypt for almost 10 years in a busy dive center in Hurghada, and joined GUE in 2004 and never looked back. She is currently GUE’s Recreational Administrator (responsible for both recreational and foundational curricula), a member of the Board of Directors, and teaches GUE instructors, and recreational and technical diving.
A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR
Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.
by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert
“To err is human” Alexander Pope
In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.
Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.
Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.
Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.
By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.
[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]
So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.
The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.
Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:
Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.
My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.
The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!
Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.
I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact).
To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.
Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:
- PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
- Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
- Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.
Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.
These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]
Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:
- Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
- Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!
Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!
Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.
Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.
Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729
Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.
The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr
Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)
Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING
Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD, is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”
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