How Do Competitive Freedivers Stay Safe?
Breath-hold diving as a whole, particularly spearfishing, does not have a good safety record due to the large percentage of breath-hold divers who are untrained, but that’s simply not the case with competitive freediving.
by Dean Laffan. Header image courtesy of Justin Bruhn Pure Underwater Imaging
If it gets to the point in recreational or technical diving where you must hold your breath to reach the surface, something has gone very wrong. But there is one form of diving where not only is this accepted, but indeed mandatory. That is, of course, freediving.
The Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) system was fundamentally designed as a way for divers to conduct their dives in the safest possible manner—all while having fun! As said often by George Irvine, Director of the Woodville Karst Plains Project (WKPP) during their record breaking explorations in Wakulla Springs in Florida, “DIR is an attitude about diving that starts with safety. There is no reason for anyone to get killed diving.”
The term DIR itself—an acronym for “Doing it Right”—was an evolution of the Hogarthian approach to cave diving, and both contained many of the tenets of the modern GUE system. As we all know, those principles are just as applicable to recreational single tank diving as they are to more advanced diving such as mixed gas, rebreathers, and cave diving.
This attitude that Irvine mentions is based on, above all else, safety. As the old adage says, “Going down is optional; coming up is mandatory.” This is even more true when diving on a single breath.
It turns out there are some obvious parallels between the way safety is handled in freediving and GUE protocols. In cave diving, Sheck’s original Golden Rules as codified in his “Little Blue Book,” published in 1979, are still a wonderfully effective framework for safe cave diving.
1. ALWAYS USE A SINGLE, CONTINUOUS GUIDELINE FROM THE ENTRANCE OF THE CAVE THROUGHOUT THE DIVE.
2. ALWAYS USE THE “THIRD RULE” IN PLANNING YOUR AIR SUPPLY. ie., reserve at least two-thirds of your beginning gas supply for the exit.
3. AVOID DEEP DIVING IN CAVES [Ed. note: On air!] and;
5. AWAYS USE AT LEAST THREE LIGHTS PER DIVER.
But, there’s an unstated rule in Sheck’s book clearly recognized by the training agencies since the early days: Be trained in cavern or cave diving and dive within the limits of your training.
These days, of course, it is hard to imagine scenarios without a final rule: “NEVER CAVE DIVE ALONE,” at least from the GUE perspective. Mr. Irvine was also fond of saying that “Diving is a sport to be enjoyed with friends. There is never a reason to solo dive. Diving solo removes any ‘second chance’ you will ever have.”
So, what does all this have to do with freediving?
Ted Harty’s Freediving Summit
In early February of 2022, well known US freediving coach—who is widely accepted as the ‘World’s Greatest Evangelist’ for freediving safety—Ted Harty unveiled a virtual freediving summit with a stunning array of guests. The roster included legendary world champions such as Alexey Molchanov and William Truebridge, James Nestor (the author of the books Deep and Breath), author/podcaster Ben Greenfield, representatives from all of the major freediving training agencies, and many more freediving notables. There are over 30 hours of interviews, and you can check it out here.
Harty’s interviews and his focus on safety got me thinking about how the two fields of scuba and freediving approach the broad topic of safety. I’m also thinking about the specifics of safe diving practices in freediving, some of which may seem counterintuitive to scuba divers, but once understood, make a lot of sense.
Ted Harty is so passionate about and obsessed with safety for breath-hold diving that he created an entire free, online course to learn about those hazards! As his own site highlights, this is NOT a replacement for a real freediving course, but it’s a good primer and, in my opinion, has without a doubt saved lives and encouraged people to take proper freedive training courses.
InDepth chief Michael Menduno suggested I write this article since a lot of technical divers, who are a bunch of giant nerds, might dig on how the freediving family safely completes thousands of breath-hold dives, many to depths of over 100 m/328 ft, in such reliably safe fashion. It should be noted that there have only been two fatalities in competitive freediving over the last 30 years. By way of comparison, on average there have been about 20 rebreather fatalities annually over the last ten years, not including open circuit tech fatalities.
By way of background, I was originally, like many of us, a wide eyed, single tank, air diving ocean diver. I did some years of that, and then took a break from diving for a while as I found new obsessions: skydiving, skiing, and flying. But, I returned to my first love to pursue tech diving and mixed gas, but really fell in love with caves. After some more years doing that I finally semi-retired as family and my own business took precedence.
However, in 2018, I treated myself to a long overdue intro course to freediving (See InDepth: Deep into DEEP Week) and oh, man, I became instantly obsessed. So, I thought I might try and translate some freediving safety geekitude into something that might tweak the interest of you, the readers of InDepth, whom we freedivers fondly call ‘bubble blowers.’ Oh, sit down, rebreather divers, we get it. So away we go.
Everything You Wanted To Know About Safety In Freediving But Were Too Busy Breathing Up To Ask
Unlike Sheck’s Golden Rules for safe cave diving, there is no one Bible of safety in freediving, but there is a handful of generally agreed upon principles taught by the handful of major certifying freediving bodies, which could be summarised as:
1. Never dive or train alone.
2. Always practice ‘one up one down.’
3. Only dive with a buddy who can actually rescue you if required.
So, is freediving safe? It depends.
According to Harty’s research, at least 50-60 people die each year in the United States as a result of drowning while breath-hold diving. But wait, before you say “That’s a huge number,” let me point out that an estimated 90 percent of those deaths are by untrained divers, and the vast majority of them are spearfishers who have never taken a course. This is tragic because on Day 1 of the most basic freediving course, you learn all the counterintuitive ways in which you can die freediving and how to avoid them.
Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly how cave diving was viewed in the 70s and 80s? Untrained divers, sadly ignorant of a few simple rules, blundered into an seemingly benign environment that quickly overwhelmed them, and they perished. At the time, the public and the authorities considered cave diving akin to playing Russian Roulette. In Australia in the 1970s, the government was on the verge of banning cave diving outright.
Responsible training agencies quickly sprang up, such as the National Speleology Society-Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) in the USA and the Cave Diving Association of Australia (CDAA). By providing cave specific training for divers, they codified practices, procedures, and standards that took cave diving off the front pages. But far more importantly, the training agencies provided a safe path for divers to take knowledge from ocean diving and apply it to cave diving. Today, cave diving is a relatively safe activity. And, so is freediving.
The result of death in breath-hold diving is always drowning. But the precipitating factor is typically a hypoxic incident (AKA blackout) underwater, where absent a buddy, the result is almost always death by drowning. It is this hypoxic blackout which all of our safety procedures are geared to mitigate. Let’s look at how we do that. Unlike scuba, a large component of freediving happens in both the pool as well the ocean. Grab your towel, flip flops, and bathers, because we are going to start off our discussion of freediving safety in the pool.
Pool Training and Competition
Compared to open ocean diving to depth, training and competitions in pools are relatively straightforward. In a club or social setting, divers take turns actively diving/training in the pool while being observed by a fellow diver acting as a topside safety. This level of safety overview is easily achieved in 25 m/82 ft of a gin-clear indoor pool. However, other environments or larger pools may change the protocol. For instance, as the number of divers in the pool lanes increases, more safety/observers may be added as is appropriate. For some specific training exercises where a diver is pushing their hypoxic limits, their buddy may provide an active, one-to-one direct observation, swimming overhead on snorkel, just a meter above the diver, ready to assist in a second.
For this reason, Rule #1 in freediving is never dive or train alone. You are just as drowned alone in your backyard pool as you are on the open ocean where, in both cases, you passed out from hypoxia without a buddy there to perform the simple act of lifting your face out of the water.
In 2011, highly accomplished Belgian freediver Patrick Musimu was found drowned in his own pool following his practice of solo training. Patrick had previously achieved a No Limits dive to 209 m/686 ft, so he was far from a beginner.
Without a doubt, the most shocking accident was in 2015 when the legendary Natalia Molchanova disappeared during a private lesson in Spain. At the time, she was the absolute rockstar of all freediving. How good was she? At the time of her disappearance, she held 41 world records and 23 Gold Medals. In fact, her Static (STA) World Record of 9m:02s set in 2013 still stands today in 2022, and she holds the next four World Records under that.
The next closest woman in history to Natalia is Ericson Lotta with a breath-hold of 6:31. So Natalia was roughly 50% better than any other woman in history and was the first woman to cross 100 m/328 ft depth in Constant Weight (CWT). You may be familiar with this discipline, wherein a diver swims down the line on fins, and then back up wearing a monofin. Oh, by the way, Natalia did not even take up freediving until the age of 40! However, none of that superhuman ability was enough to save her on a solo dive that fateful day as she dove to the inconsequential depth of only 40 m/131 ft. Sadly, despite a lengthy search, her body was never recovered.
If solo diving and training can claim the likes of those elite athletes, it can certainly happen to anyone. If you have been cave and tech diving long enough, you know of (if not know personally) famous and not-so-famous divers who have perished on solo dives. To invert one of the most famous marketing slogans of all time, “Just (Don’t) do it!”
Tap. Talk. Blow
Recovery of a blacked-out diver might sound extreme at first glance, but in most cases is relatively straightforward. The diver is positioned face up out of the water. The buddy taps their cheek gently, says, “Breathe, Dean … breathe, Dean” and blows gently sideways across the face. Why blow across the face? We humans have receptors around the eyes, nose, and lips that are sensitive to air and water. When we submerge, these same receptors are what tells our lizard brain that we are underwater and contributes to our urge not to breathe.
These receptors are also what triggers the mammalian diving reflex that helps us freedive. The stimulation of both touch and talk combined with the air running over those facial receptors tell the lizard brain, “Hey you are no longer submerged; you can breathe now.” Breathing usually recommences with little trouble or ill effect. On rare occasions, the diver may need a rescue breath or two. The rescuer seals over the nose and mouth and gently blows. Occasionally, positive pressure O2 may be administered via a standard O2 mask. In spite of instant recovery, protocol insists that immediately following any blackout, the diver exits the water and is finished diving until the next day. This applies to competition diving as well as club and social diving.
Ocean Training and Competition
In depths shallower than 20 m/65 ft with good visibility, it is generally accepted that reasonably experienced freedivers can safely dive without a line and buoy. Deeper than that, experts recommend using a line. This is a simple system of buoy, 10 mm line, and a bottom plate to terminate the line at depth.
The top of the line is fixed to a float about the size of a car tire inner tube wrapped in PVC fabric or something similar. The diver wears a lanyard which is composed of a steel wire about 1 m/33 in long. One end of the lanyard has a Velcro wrap which affixes to the diver’s wrist, and the other end has a wide gated aluminium shark clip that snaps onto the line. The large gate size of the clip means it is free to run up and down the line with virtually no friction This lanyard ensures that no matter what happens to the diver, any safety diver going down the line MUST run into the diver at some point.
No Need for Speed
It is a curiosity that regardless of a diver’s gender, size, experience, or skill, thanks to the hydrodynamics of a human moving through water, we all make about the same speed of ~1 m/sec both up and down. This holds true for beginners to world champions. For example, during his world record dive to 130 m/427 ft on a monofin, Alelexy Molchanov took exactly 130 seconds to reach 130 m and 140 seconds to make the return journey to the surface. I travel at the same speed in the water column; although, sad to say, to barely one-third of that depth! The cool part about this is that we can therefore easily calculate on-the-fly when we, as safety diving buddies, need to leave the surface to meet our diver.
Let’s say Charly and Dean are medium-level experienced freedivers. Charly is planning a dive to 50 m/164 ft. The divers have agreed that Dean will meet Charly at 15 m/49 ft on her way back up. So, it takes very simple math to work out what we do. Charly will take 50 seconds to reach 50 m and another 35 seconds to reach 15 m on ascent. So, she will be at 15 on ascent 85 seconds after she leaves the surface. It will take Dean 15 seconds to dive down to 15 m from the surface, so if Dean leaves the surface at 85 seconds – 15 seconds (70 seconds after Charly commences her dive) they will both arrive at 15 m together, Charly from below, Dean from above. To ensure they meet as agreed, Dean simply pushes Go on the stopwatch function of his freedive computer as Charly submerges.
Shallow Water Blackout
It doesn’t really matter to what absolute depth you can dive; the point about risk is that if you can usually dive to 50 m and back, then the bottom at 50 m is only the halfway point of your dive. You are very unlikely to need rescuing here. It is the final part of the dive, where your PO2 levels are lowest due to consumption and decreasing ambient pressure, that the risk of blackout is greatest. The shallower the water, the greater the risk, for reasons many tech divers would understand intrinsically. But, newbie freedivers will not fully grasp the physics of the mechanism of this insidious danger—the one that claims all those lives of spearos I mentioned earlier—which is Shallow Water Blackout (SWB). This article by Harty on Deeper Blue has some great commentary but also check the short video of two actual spearfishing blackouts. Very sobering to see.
Even anyone completely untrained in any form of diving can appreciate that if you hold your breath long enough, and deny the urge to breathe long enough, you may pass out from hypoxia. This is your classic pool tragedy of teenage kids playing in their own backyard pool, or a swimmer at the local pool observed to be doing laps underwater and minutes later is found in that crowded pool to be drowned on the bottom. This is not SWB, it is simply hypoxia. You can also cause yourself to do that by just lying on your bed or sitting on your couch holding your breath. The critical difference is that you are not underwater. So, on the couch, after a few brief seconds, you gasp back to consciousness perhaps not even aware that you blacked out.
SWB is the sudden onset hypoxia caused by falling arterial PO2 due to rapidly declining surrounding hydrostatic pressure, which drives down the partial pressure of O2 available to the cells. The diver leaves the surface with a single breath of air—and, therefore, a finite and limited amount of O2 in their bloodstream to drive physical activity and brain function. Even if they have depleted their O2 levels significantly at, say, 30 m, they are still under the hydrostatic pressure of 4 ATA so their PPO2 is elevated by that fact. The problem occurs when, as they ascend, not only do they continue to consume their O2 by exertion, but the rapidly decreasing hydrostatic pressure means their PO2 is dropping from that as well. So, it’s a double whammy. And, as we all know, it is in the last 10 m/30 ft that the percentage reduction of partial pressure is greatest, when 2 ATA at 10 m/33 ft becomes 1 ATA on the surface. That last 10 m creates a huge 50% reduction in partial pressure. So, you may not be surprised to learn that many blackouts happen even after the diver surfaces. They may even indicate they are OK before losing consciousness seconds later.
For this reason, I do not not ever take my eyes off my diver, at least for a minimum of 30 seconds after they surface. I’m talking to them, gauging their lucidity, assessing their verbal responses, watching their face and coordination of hand movements and looking for facial tics or other abnormal behaviour.
I also insist that my buddies and I perform the exact same surface protocol as competition divers.
1. Remove any facial equipment (mask or goggles and possibly nose clip)
2. Make eye contact with me
3. Give me the classic OK sign with circled thumb and finger
4. Say out loud “I’m OK”
Why do I do this? Well, if you do plan to take part in even club competitions, this is the protocol you must follow, and is the same for the world championships, so why not establish that habit from the get go? But, way more importantly, it gives me a benchmark of how you behave upon surfacing when you are not hypoxic.
Let’s say Charly has been diving with Dean for a year, and EVERY time Charly surfaces in either the pool or the ocean, she performs the above protocol in that exact order every single time. Then one day she performs the hand signal OK and the verbal OK in reverse order, or gives the hand signal and does not verbalise at all—maybe she just nods instead. That is a klaxon warning sign that Charly may well be on the verge of a hypoxic incident.
Why would she not do the very thing she has done hundreds of times in a row? Now, I’m going to watch Charly even more closely than usual and not leave her for at least 60 seconds. I might hand her a water bottle and suggest she take a drink just to observe her hand-eye coordination. With that, I’m gauging her speech and general responsiveness. Only when I’m happy will I go about preparing for my dive as she gets ready to safety me. Surface protocols are an excellent field tool for alerting a buddy when to pay particular attention to a possibly hypoxic diver.
We also weight ourselves to be neutral not on the surface, but at 10 m/33 ft. This means you have to work a little harder to get off the surface, but it also means that if you blackout at or around 10 m it is highly probable that your upward momentum will take you through 10 m where you will rise to the surface. This does not negate the need of a buddy, but it does make sure that if you blackout on the surface or even close to it, you will stay on the surface and will not sink out of sight into deep water and drown.
This is another risk factor for those ocean spearfishermen I mentioned earlier, who are notoriously overweighted, as their prevailing mindset is to get down to the fish as fast as possible. So, when they blackout out at 5 m/15 ft holding their prized fish, and the “same ocean” buddy is not there, they sink back to the ocean floor and are lost.
It is a fortunate wrinkle in human biology that when you blackout underwater, you do not immediately drown. When you hold your breath and submerge, you close your epiglottis so you are not containing the pressure of all that air in your lungs with your cheeks. Try it now. Take a deep breath and hold it. You can open your mouth and air does not come rushing out because you have sealed it in with your throat, not your mouth. When freedivers blackout, the glottis remains closed, and no water enters the lungs (almost always). So, when recovery is achieved, there is no coughing up of water or other near drowning complications—just a few deep breaths, a rapid clearing of the mind—usually followed by the words, “What just happened?” Most freedivers have no warning of the blackout and no memory of it afterwards.
World Class Competitions
Let’s finish off by reviewing what happens at high profile events such as Vertical Blue run by the legendary Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) multiple world champion William Truebridge. William has run his event in Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas since 2008. It is the Wimbledon of freediving.
In the 90s and into the early 2000s, there was a period where it was not uncommon for freediving organizers to have closed circuit rebreather (CCR) divers stationed at various points in the water column to act as safeties in case something went wrong on very deep dives. Over time, it became apparent that this was a limited safety concept. Getting a deep CCR diver into position in time for the athlete to begin their dive meant that the CCR diver had already incurred a significant decompression obligation for their entire dive. Plus, in practical terms, they were limited in how far up and down they could move in the water column before endangering themselves. As Mr. Mackey from South Park might say “Yo-Yoing at 80m is bad, M’kay?”
When you also understand that the danger is in the top of the water column, you don’t often see deep CCR or open circuit support divers in freediving anymore. All safeties are highly capable freedivers who are able to arrive ‘on station’ on time at predetermined depths and provide any help required to get the diver to the surface.
In fact, the major global certifying agency for freediving, AIDA—Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA), in English, the International Association for the Development of Apnea—has specifically disallowed the use deep CCR or scuba safety divers. However this is one notable—and completely understandable—exception to this practice, and that is Kirk Krack.
Krack is the founder of Performance Freediving International (PFI). Apart from being an early leader in freedive training in general and the man who (literally) wrote the book on freediving safety, he is also the pioneer in the field of what he has coined as “technical freediving.” Krack’s interest in using nitrox as a pre-breathe in freediving came as a result of his decades of experience as a leading technical diving instructor trainer and diver.
It is Krack’s unparalleled expert knowledge of mixed gas diving that makes his Deja Blue freediving competition the only one in the world where deep CCR and scuba support divers are sanctioned to operate. Aside from all that, he is also the ‘go-to guy’ in Hollywood for working with actors on breath-hold. He has trained the likes of Tom Cruise and Margot Robbie, and has just come off a marathon three year job of directing all the breath-hold work for James Cameron on his upcoming Avatar 2 film, a large portion of which is set underwater. All the actors had to perform on breath-hold. More on that in a future article. If you ever get the chance to meet Krack, don’t pass it up!
Bring on the Scooters
As cave divers discovered 20 years ago, scooters are a silver bullet when it comes to moving through the water efficiently. These days, when you watch a diver coming up the line from a deep dive, often the first support diver to haul into view of the Dive Eye camera is on a scooter. The advantages are obvious to us who have used them—speeds of up 60-100 m/min with zero exertion to the diver, reduced O2 consumption by the safety diver, and increased capacity to either hang for a diver arriving late to the pre-agreed spot or better provide physical assistance if required.
Safeties appear in a staggered fashion. On, say, a 100 m dive, the first deep safety may arrive at 40 m, then another at 30 m, and one more at 20m. The lead safety diver is right in front of the diver, face-to-face only 1 m away. They are highly experienced and looking for tell-tale signs that a diver is struggling. They watch them like a hawk all the way to the surface and stay right beside the diver until they complete their surface protocol and get a white card.
If you watch the videos on the surface you will see that the safeties all have their hands up in the air above the water. This indicates to the judges that no one is supporting the diver under the water. If a safety even touches a diver, the diver is DQ’d. So they maintain a watch but from a safe distance.
Worst Case Scenario
So, no matter how unlikely it is that a diver may be rendered unable to swim at, say, 90 m/294 ft, what if it happens? When you watch the likes of Alessia Zecchini, Alexy, and Thibault Gignes dive to 100 m/326 ft plus and back on YouTube,who is taking the video? Well, in the last five years, an underwater camera system has been perfected called Diveye, which looks like a torpedo on a tail-mounted cable. The cable provides both raising and lowering of the device, sends video up, and allows control by the remote operators. This camera means the judges and safety team have a real-time view of the diver even in the dark of 130 m/424 ft out of sight of the surface.
When you look at a deep freedive on YouTube, you will see that white dive line disappearing down into the deepening blue. But this is just part of a simple, yet very effective diver safety system called a counter-ballast. You may have noticed that the bottom of the line terminates in a large round plate of between 200-300 mm/1 ft in diameter. This plate sits horizontally in the water on the end of the line which means the shark clip connecting the athlete to the line cannot jump off that line at the bottom. When that dive line exits the water at the surface, it runs up vertically a few feet then into a pulley mounted on an arm. It exits the pulley horizontally, travels a few meters to another pulley where it goes vertically back down into the water. A heavy weight is attached to this end of the rope, and friction brakes lock the rope into place.
In the extreme scenario—if a diver needed rescuing from depth—the topside safety director would call for the counter ballast to be dropped. When the order is given to release the brakes, the weight falls down at the non-diver end of the counter-ballast and, in doing so, rapidly pulls the other end of the rope up. No matter where the diver is in the water column, at some point the plate will collect his shark clip, and the diver— along with the plate—will be hauled to the surface. Recovery speed is about 1.2 m/sec. Smaller versions of these counter-ballasts are also available for sport divers.
Even in a club diving environment, the scenario is similar. We use the same sized bottom plate and shark clips to attach to the line. The top of the line attaches to a buoy via a very simple pulley with a one way friction lock. If a diver needs rescuing, the topside buddy simply puts one foot on the buoy near the pulley and hauls in the rope, hand over hand. Again, this is deceptively easy and quick. We are not pulling up the actual weight of the diver, but his submerged weight—about 10 kg/22 lbs at most. If one diver gets tired from hauling, another takes over. Recovery is approximately 1m/3 ft per sec.
Let me conclude this article by answering my original question: Is competitive freediving a safe sport?
In all the various competitions conducted throughout the world in the last 30 years, there have only been two deaths. In 2002, French freediver Audrey Mestre tried to break a No Limits world record set by Tanya Streeter, a British-Caymanian-American world champion. When Audrey reached the bottom at 171 m/558 ft, the lift bag, which was to transport her back to surface, would not inflate. It appears that the gas cylinder wasn’t appropriately checked before the performance—it was empty—an oversight that was the subject of speculation, but was never shown to be more than horrific human error. The mistake cost the diver her life. It was the first, but unfortunately not the last, real death in competitive freediving.
In 2013, leading American freediver Nick Mevoli died while competing at Vertical Blue in the Bahamas. Two days prior to his fatal dive, he had attempted a dive to 96 m/315 ft but had to turn back at 80 m/260 ft after suffering an upper respiratory squeeze. Two days later, he attempted a CNF (Constant Weight No Fins) dive to 72 m/236 ft. He began to turn back at 68 meters, but appeared to change his mind and dived downward again, he then did turn the dive and regained the surface under his own power. However, he was immediately visibly distressed and within seconds passed out. Safety divers immediately grabbed him and recovered him to the platform, but he instantly lost pulse and respiration. Resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful, and he died of pulmonary edema. Subsequently, it became known he had experienced prior squeezes which may have predisposed him to the fatal injury on that day.
I don’t personally know of any club level/sport freedivers who have died while diving with friends. Like tech and cave diving, the freediving tribe is a fairly close family, so deaths among trained sport freedivers are, in practical terms, unheard of and as rare as that in competition.
So, as you can see, we freedivers have a wide range of very effective safety protocols which we use to conduct our dives safely. However, sadly, humans do not possess gills, so every time—whether we submerge ourselves via single tank ocean, twin tank cave, rebreathers at 100 m, or freediving—we never forget our training. We do not take chances, and we do not break hard won rules. The underwater realm is a beautiful place to be, but we are visitors, only afforded that journey by our training and discipline. It’s important to respect that at all times.
InDepth: Is Freediving Safe? by Ted Harty
InDepth: Deep Into DEEP WEEK by Dean laffan
Thanks to Ted Harty for the inspiration and advice for this article
Big thanks to Kirk Krack for providing me with some ‘inside baseball’ on the safety procedures at major freediving events and his own Deja Blue competition in the Bahamas.
I am very grateful to all of those who gave permission for me to use their awesome photography.
Deeper Blue Deeper Blue
To explore additional stories, videos and webinars on freediving click: FREE
Dean Laffan: Fuelled by a boyhood fascination with the books and TV shows of Australian diving pioneers like Ron and Valerie Taylor, Neville Coleman, and Ben Cropp, Dean took a scuba course as soon as he left school and has never left the water since. After discovering GUE in 2001, he was instantly sure he had found his ‘tribe.’ He was one of the organisers of the very first GUE class in Australia run by Jarrod Jablonski.
After many technical and cave dives, including some ground-breaking cave diving expeditions to the Nullabor, it was only in 2018 that he finally fulfilled a long-held ambition to take up freediving, which has now become an obsession.Dean is also the co-host of the OZDive Show Podcast, with Sue Crowe and Michael Menduno, which features great one hour presentations by outstanding experts in technical diving, cave diving and freediving. Find the OZDive Show Podcast here.
Twenty-five Years in the Pursuit of Excellence – The Evolution and Future of GUE
Founder and president Jarrod Jablonski describes his more than a quarter of a century long quest to promote excellence in technical diving.
by Jarrod Jablonski. Images courtesy of J. Jablonski and GUE unless noted.
The most difficult challenges we confront in our lives are the most formative and are instrumental in shaping the person we become. When I founded Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), the younger version of myself could not have foreseen all the challenges I would face, but equally true is that he would not have known the joy, the cherished relationships, the sense of purpose, the rich adventures, the humbling expressions of appreciation from those impacted, or the satisfaction of seeing the organization evolve and reshape our industry. Many kindred souls and extraordinary events have shaped these last 25 years, and an annotated chronology of GUE is included in this issue of InDEPTH. This timeline, however, will fail to capture the heart behind the creation of GUE, it will miss the passionate determination currently directing GUE, or the committed dedication ready to guide the next 25 years.
I don’t remember a time that I was not in, around, and under the water. Having learned to swim before I could walk, my mother helped infuse a deep connection to the aquatic world. I was scuba certified in South Florida with my father, and promptly took all our gear to North Florida where I became a dive instructor at the University of Florida. It was then that I began my infatuation with cave diving. I was in the perfect place for it, and my insatiable curiosity was multiplied while exploring new environments. I found myself with a strong desire to visit unique and hard-to-reach places, be they far inside a cave or deep within the ocean.
My enthusiasm for learning was pressed into service as an educator, and I became enamored with sharing these special environments. Along with this desire to share the beauty and uniqueness of underwater caves was a focused wish to assist people in acquiring the skills I could see they needed to support their personal diving goals. It could be said that these early experiences were the seeds that would germinate, grow, mature, and bloom into the organizing principles for GUE.
The Pre-GUE Years
Before jumping into the formational days of GUE, allow me to help you visualize the environment that was the incubator for the idea that became GUE’s reality. By the mid-1990s, I was deeply involved in a variety of exploration activities and had been striving to refine my own teaching capacity alongside this growing obsession for exploratory diving. While teaching my open water students, I was in the habit of practicing to refine my own trim and buoyancy, noticing that the students quickly progressed and were mostly able to copy my position in the water. Rather than jump immediately into the skills that were prescribed, I started to take more time to refine their comfort and general competency. This subtle shift made a world of difference in the training outcomes, creating impressive divers with only slightly more time and a shift in focus. In fact, the local dive boats would often stare in disbelief when told these divers were freshly certified, saying they looked better than most open water instructors!
By this point in my career, I could see the problems I was confronting were more systemic and less individualistic. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that key principles had been missing in both my recreational and technical education, not to mention the instructor training I received. The lack of basic skill refinement seemed to occur at all levels of training, from the beginner to the advanced diver. Core skills like buoyancy or in-water control were mainly left for divers to figure out on their own and almost nobody had a meaningful emphasis on efficient movement in the water. It was nearly unheard of to fail people in scuba diving, and even delaying certification for people with weak skills was very unusual. This remains all too common to this day, but I believe GUE has shifted the focus in important ways, encouraging people to think of certification more as a process and less as a right granted to them because they paid for training.
The weakness in skill refinement during dive training was further amplified by little-to-no training in how to handle problems when they developed while diving, as they always do. In those days, even technical/cave training had very little in the way of realistic training in problem resolution. The rare practice of failures was deeply disconnected from reality. For example, there was almost no realistic scenario training for things like a failed regulator or light. What little practice there was wasn’t integrated into the actual dive and seemed largely useless in preparing for real problems. I began testing some of my students with mock equipment failures, and I was shocked at how poorly even the best students performed. They were able to quickly develop the needed skills, but seeing how badly most handled their first attempts left me troubled about the response of most certified divers should they experience problems while diving, as they inevitably would.
Meanwhile, I was surrounded by a continual progression of diving fatalities, and most appeared entirely preventable. The loss of dear friends and close associates had a deep impact on my view of dive training and especially on the procedures being emphasized at that time within the community. The industry, in those early days, was wholly focused on deep air and solo diving. However, alarmingly lacking were clear bottle marking or gas switching protocols. It seemed to me to be no coincidence that diver after diver lost their lives simply because they breathed the wrong bottle at depth. Many others died mysteriously during solo dives or while deep diving with air.
One of the more impactful fatalities was Bob McGuire, who was a drill sergeant, friend, and occasional dive buddy. He was normally very careful and focused. One day a small problem with one regulator caused him to switch regulators before getting in the water. He was using a system that used color-coded regulators to identify the gas breathed. When switching the broken regulator, he either did not remember or did not have an appropriately colored regulator. This small mistake cost him his life. I clearly remember turning that one around in my head quite a bit. Something that trivial should not result in the loss of a life.
Also disturbing was the double fatality of good friends, Chris and Chrissy Rouse, who lost their lives while diving a German U-boat in 70 m/230 ft of water off the coast of New Jersey. I remember, as if the conversation with Chris were yesterday, asking him not to use air and even offering to support the cost as a counter to his argument about the cost of helium. And the tragedies continued: The loss of one of my closest friends Sherwood Schille, the death of my friend Steve Berman who lived next to me and with whom I had dived hundreds of times, the shock of losing pioneering explorer Sheck Exley, the regular stream of tech divers, and the half dozen body recoveries I made over only a couple years, which not only saddened me greatly, but also made me angry. Clearly, a radically different approach was needed.
Learning to Explore
Meanwhile, my own exploration activities were expanding rapidly. Our teams were seeking every opportunity to grow their capability while reducing unnecessary risk. To that end, we ceased deep air diving and instituted a series of common protocols with standardized equipment configurations, both of which showed great promise in expanding safety, efficiency, and comfort. We got a lot of things wrong and experienced enough near misses to keep us sharp and in search of continual improvement.
But we looked carefully at every aspect of our diving, seeking ways to advance safety, efficiency, and all-around competency while focusing plenty of attention into the uncommon practice of large-scale, team diving, utilizing setup dives, safety divers, and inwater support. We developed diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) towing techniques, which is something that had not been done previously. We mostly ignored and then rewrote CNS oxygen toxicity calculations, developed novel strategies for calculating decompression time, and created and refined standard procedures for everything from bottle switching to equipment configurations. Many of these developments arose from simple necessity. There were no available decompression programs and no decompression tables available for the dives we were doing. Commonly used calculations designed to reduce the risk of oxygen toxicity were useless to our teams, because even our more casual dives were 10, 20, or even 30 times the allowable limit. The industry today takes most of this for granted, but in the early days of technical diving, we had very few tools, save a deep motivation to go where no one had gone before.
Many of these adventures included friends in the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP), where I refined policies within the team and most directly with longtime dive buddy George Irvine. This “Doing it Right” (DIR) approach sought to create a more expansive system than Hogarthian diving, which itself had been born in the early years of the WKPP and was named after William Hogarth Main, a friend and frequent dive buddy of the time. By this point, I had been writing about and expanding upon Hogarthian diving for many years. More and more of the ideas we wanted to develop were not Bill Main’s priorities and lumping them into his namesake became impractical, especially given all the debate within the community over what was and was not Hogarthian.
A similar move from DIR occurred some years later when GUE stepped away from the circular debates that sought to explain DIR and embraced a GUE configuration with standard protocols, something entirely within our scope to define.
These accumulating events reached critical mass in 1998. I had experienced strong resistance to any form of standardization, even having been asked to join a special meeting of the board of directors (BOD) for a prominent cave diving agency. Their intention was to discourage me from using any form of standard configuration, claiming that students should be allowed to do whatever they “felt’ was best. It was disconcerting for me, as a young instructor, to be challenged by pioneers in the sport; nevertheless, I couldn’t agree with the edict that someone who was doing something for the first time should be tasked with determining how it should be done.
This sort of discussion was common, but the final straw occurred when I was approached by the head of a technical diving agency, an organization for which I had taught for many years. I was informed that he considered it a violation of standards not to teach air to a depth of at least 57 m/190 ft. This same individual told me that I had to stop using MOD bottle markings and fall in line with the other practices endorsed by his agency. Push had finally come to shove, and I set out to legitimize the training methods and dive protocols that had been incubating in my mind and refined with our teams over the previous decade. Years of trial and many errors while operating in dynamic and challenging environments were helping us to identify what practices were most successful in support of excellence, safety, and enjoyment.
Forming GUE as a non-profit company was intended to neutralize the profit motivations that appeared to plague other agencies. We hoped to remove the incentive to train—and certify—the greatest number of divers as quickly as possible because it seemed at odds with ensuring comfortable and capable divers. The absence of a profit motive complemented the aspirational plans that longtime friend Todd Kincaid and I had dreamed of. We imagined a global organization that would facilitate the efforts of underwater explorers while supporting scientific research and conservation initiatives.
I hoped to create an agency that placed most of the revenue in the hands of fully engaged and enthusiastic instructors, allowing them the chance to earn a good living and become professionals who might stay within the industry over many years. Of course, that required forgoing the personal benefit of ownership and reduced the revenue available to the agency, braking its growth and complicating expansion plans. This not only slowed growth but provided huge challenges in developing a proper support network while creating the agency I envisioned. There were years of stressful days and nights because of the need to forgo compensation and the deep dependance upon generous volunteers who had to fit GUE into their busy lives. If it were not for these individuals and our loyal members, we would likely never have been successful. Volunteer support and GUE membership have been and remain critical to the growing success of our agency. If you are now or have ever been a volunteer or GUE member, your contribution is a significant part of our success, and we thank you.
The challenges of the early years gave way to steady progress—always slower than desired, with ups and downs, but progress, nonetheless. Some challenges were not obvious at the outset. For example, many regions around the world were very poorly developed in technical diving. Agencies intent on growth seemed to ignore that problem, choosing whoever was available, and regardless of their experience in the discipline, they would soon be teaching.
This decision to promote people with limited experience became especially problematic when it came to Instructor Trainers. People with almost no experience in something like trimix diving were qualifying trimix instructors. Watching this play out in agency after agency, and on continent after continent, was a troubling affair. Conversely, it took many years for GUE to develop and train people of appropriate experience, especially when looking to critical roles, including high-level tech and instructor trainers. At the same time, GUE’s efforts shaped the industry in no small fashion as agencies began to model their programs after GUE’s training protocols. Initially, having insisted that nobody would take something like Fundamentals, every agency followed suit in developing their own version of these programs, usually taught by divers that had followed GUE training.
This evolving trend wasn’t without complexity but was largely a positive outcome. Agencies soon focused on fundamental skills, incorporated some form of problem-resolution training, adhered to GUE bottle and gas switching protocols, reduced insistence on deep air, and started talking more about developing skilled divers, among other changes. This evolution was significant when compared to the days of arguing about why a person could not learn to use trimix until they were good while diving deep on air.
To be sure, a good share of these changes was more about maintaining business relevance than making substantive improvements. The changes themselves were often more style than substance, lacking objective performance standards and the appropriate retraining of instructors. Despite these weaknesses, they remain positive developments. Talking about something is an important first step and, in all cases, it makes room for strong instructors in any given agency to practice what is being preached. In fact, these evolving trends have allowed GUE to now push further in the effort to create skilled and experienced divers, enhancing our ability to run progressively more elaborate projects with increasingly more sophisticated outcomes.
The Future of GUE
The coming decades of GUE’s future appear very bright. Slow but steady growth has now placed the organization in a position to make wise investments, ensuring a vibrant and integrated approach. Meanwhile, evolving technology and a broad global base place GUE in a unique and formidable position. Key structural and personnel adjustments complement a growing range of virtual tools, enabling our diverse communities and representatives to collaborate and advance projects in a way that, prior to now, was not possible. Strong local communities can be easily connected with coordinated global missions; these activities include ever-more- sophisticated underwater initiatives as well as structural changes within the GUE ecosystem. One such forward-thinking project leverages AI-enabled, adaptive learning platforms to enhance both the quality and efficiency of GUE education. Most agencies, including GUE, have been using some form of online training for years, but GUE is taking big steps to reinvent the quality and efficiency of this form of training. This is not to replace, but rather to extend and augment inwater and in-person learning outcomes. Related tools further improve the fluidity, allowing GUE to seamlessly connect previously distant communities, enabling technology, training, and passion to notably expand our ability to realize our broad, global mission.
Meanwhile, GUE and its range of global communities are utilizing evolving technologies to significantly expand the quality and scope of their project initiatives. Comparing the impressive capability of current GUE communities with those of our early years shows a radical and important shift, allowing results equal or even well beyond those possible when compared even with well-funded commercial projects. Coupled with GUE training and procedural support, these ongoing augmentations place our communities at the forefront of underwater research and conservation. This situation will only expand and be further enriched with the use of evolving technology and closely linked communities. Recent and planned expansions to our training programs present a host of important tools that will continue being refined in the years to come. Efforts to expand and improve upon the support provided to GUE projects with technology, people, and resources are now coming online and will undoubtedly be an important part of our evolving future.
The coming decades will undoubtedly present challenges. But I have no doubt that together we will not only overcome those obstacles but we will continue to thrive. I believe that GUE’s trajectory remains overwhelmingly positive, for we are an organization that is continually evolving—driven by a spirit of adventure, encouraged by your heartwarming stories, and inspired by the satisfaction of overcoming complex problems. Twenty-five years ago, when I took the path less traveled, the vision I had for GUE was admittedly ambitious. The reality, however, has exceeded anything I could have imagined. I know that GUE will never reach a point when it is complete but that it will be an exciting lifelong journey, one that, for me, will define a life well lived. I look forward our mutual ongoing “Quest for Excellence.”
Jarrod is an avid explorer, researcher, author, and instructor who teaches and dives in oceans and caves around the world. Trained as a geologist, Jarrod is the founder and president of GUE and CEO of Halcyon and Extreme Exposure while remaining active in conservation, exploration, and filming projects worldwide. His explorations regularly place him in the most remote locations in the world, including numerous world record cave dives with total immersions near 30 hours. Jarrod is also an author with dozens of publications, including three books.
A Few GUE Fundamentals
Similar to military, commercial and public safety divers, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is a standards-based diving community, with specific protocols, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tools. Here are selected InDEPTH stories on some of the key aspects of GUE diving, including a four-part series on the history and development of GUE decompression procedures by founder and president Jarod Jablonski.
GUE Instructor Examiner Guy Shockey explains the thought and details that goes into GUE’s most popular course, Fundamentals, aka “Fundies,” which has been taken by numerous industry luminaries. Why all the fanfare? Shockey characterizes the magic as “simple things done precisely!
Instructor evaluator Rich Walker attempts to answer the question, “why is Fundamentals GUE’s most popular diving course?” Along the way, he clarifies some of the myths and misconceptions about GUE training. Hint: there is no Kool-Aid.
As you’d expect, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) has a standardized approach to prepare your equipment for the dive, and its own pre-dive checklist: the GUE EDGE. Here explorer and filmmaker Dimitris Fifis preps you to take the plunge, GUE-style.
Instructor trainer Guy Shockey discusses the purpose, value, and yes, flexibility of standard operating procedures, or SOPs, in diving. Sound like an oxymoron? Shockey explains how SOPs can help offload some of our internal processing and situational awareness, so we can focus on the important part of the dive—having FUN!
Like the military and commercial diving communities before them, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) uses standardized breathing mixtures for various depth ranges and for decompression. Here British wrecker and instructor evaluator Rich Walker gets lyrical and presents the reasoning behind standard mixes and their advantages, compared with a “best mix” approach. Don’t worry, you won’t need your hymnal, though Walker may have you singing some blues.
Is it a secret algorithm developed by the WKPP to get you out of the water faster sans DCI, or an unsubstantiated decompression speculation promoted by Kool-Aid swilling quacks and charlatans? British tech instructor/instructor evaluator Rich Walker divulges the arcane mysteries behind GUE’s ratio decompression protocols in this first of a two part series.
Global Underwater Explorers is known for taking its own holistic approach to gear configuration. Here GUE board member and Instructor Trainer Richard Lundgren explains the reasoning behind its unique closed-circuit rebreather configuration. It’s all about the gas!
Though they were late to the party, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is leaning forward on rebreathers, and members are following suit. So what’s to become of their open circuit-based TECH 2 course? InDepth’s Ashley Stewart has the deets.
Diving projects, or expeditions—think Bill Stone’s Wakulla Springs 1987 project, or the original explorations of the Woodville Karst Plain’s Project (WKPP)—helped give birth to technical diving, and today continue as an important focal point and organizing principle for communities like Global Underwater Explorers (GUE). The organization this year unveiled a new Project Diver program, intended to elevate “community-led project dives to an entirely new level of sophistication.” Here, authors Guy Shockey and Francesco Cameli discuss the power of projects and take us behind the scenes of the new program
Decompression, Deep Stops and the Pursuit of Precision in a Complex World In this first of a four-part series, Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) founder and president Jarrod Jablonski explores the historical development of GUE decompression protocols, with a focus on technical diving and the evolving trends in decompression research.