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How to Become an Explorer: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration

How does one become an explorer? It’s a question that has nagged diving educator and innovator Guy Shockey for more than ten years. Last year, he decided to answer that question by collaborating with the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) to create a unique six-day course titled, “Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Diving.” It’s for divers of all stripes, which he conducted in the shipwreck riddled waters of Vancouver Island in DEC 2021. Here he discusses his strategy in designing the course and what is entailed. What’s more,the five brave students—four recreational divers and one tekkie who took that first course—weigh in on their experience and tell us exactly what they learned.



Text and images courtesy of Guy Shockey.

Header image Sabrina Figliomeni directing the recording of measurements.

A little over ten years ago, I wrote an article for Quest entitled, “Passion, Partnership, and Exploration: GUE and the Local Community.” In that article, I talked about how I had often asked divers the question, “Why did you learn to dive?” And that, based on my experience, the most common answer has always been, “A desire to explore the underwater world.” Then I commented on how it was an exciting time to be a GUE member and how exploration projects were starting up all over the globe. 

I went on to report that, while most projects GUE divers participated in were conceived by GUE members directly, there were other opportunities for divers to keep that initial passion for exploration alive. I suggested that one pathway was to find and develop relationships with like-minded groups who shared the same interest in exploration. I used our Global Underwater Explorers British Columbia (GUE BC) relationship with the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) as an example of synergy and stated that, “By joining forces with the UASBC, we have been able to keep our passion for underwater exploration alive, and at the same time to provide a useful service to an existing organization that shares similar goals.”

What I didn’t write in that same Quest article was that, newly armed with this exciting information, nearly every single student diver would then ask, “How do I join one of these projects?”

I couldn’t answer that question easily—not then, anyway. That’s because most of the projects that generate the lion’s share of interest are “pinnacle” projects that require significant experience and training to attend. This is not surprising really, as gathering skill and experience is a necessary feature of advancement in everything from military and government service to becoming a journeyman carpenter. However, what makes these examples different from what exists in the diving world is that there is a roadmap of how to go from “private to sergeant” or from “apprentice to journeyman.”

In the diving world, while there exists a clear pathway for the dive skills training ladder, there is no readily recognizable means of going from diver to explorer. Telling the student diver to “go out and get some experience exploring” wasn’t really that helpful, because how were they going to get the experience exploring if they didn’t know how or where to start? 

This seemed to be a problem to me, and it continued to gnaw at me for those 10 years. Finally, nearly two years ago, I turned to this question with purpose and asked myself why couldn’t we teach students how to be explorers? I started to break down the skill sets that were necessary to participate in some of the projects I had been involved with and then pondered on how we could teach divers to gain these skills. What started as a thought experiment rapidly gained traction, as it started to become clear that it was indeed possible to provide the means with which to help divers continue to engage the passion that had originally driven them to dive.

At the same time, in the spring of 2020, as Zoom shares skyrocketed and a good portion of the population started to work and learn remotely, I started to work with learning formats that had not really been around 10 years before. I took the early Covid 19 lock down phase as an opportunity to learn about some new learning formats and put the classroom components of my courses onto an eLearning platform. This proved to be successful, and it looked to me that this platform was ready-made for a new “how to be an explorer” course. 

Erin Tempest

“Diving is everything I hate: being cold, the dark, changing clothes, wearing anything restrictive. Keeping myself in it has been a challenge. As the newest diver in the group, to get an opportunity to do something like this and be successful—even on a small scale—made me think that maybe I’m not so rubbish at this. To be able to try out this course and be proficient at it was a huge motivator; my team saw value in me being there, and I was able to come out of this with an appreciation for an aspect of diving I didn’t know I was passionate about beforehand.”

A critical component of this endeavor was something I had written about in the original Quest article when I had mentioned our group’s growing relationship with the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC). It was to the UASBC that I now turned again. 

I approached the UASBC and asked if I could combine their delivery of the underwater archaeology training program they had licensed from another organization with my idea of building an “explorer” program. Their response was decidedly positive but, in a way I hadn’t seen coming. Little did I know but at the time, the UASBC had become more and more interested in developing their own “Archaeology for Divers” program that was more specifically suited to the environment here in the Pacific Northwest. When they were formed in 1975, they had developed such a program but then switched to a pre-packaged course.  My injection of interest encouraged them to revisit their plans, and the Director of Exploration for the UASBC, Jacques Marc, set out to create an entirely new program which he called “Underwater Archaeology for Divers” (UAD).

My plan was to wrap my exploration course around their UAD course and create something unique in the diving world. Participants would learn how to “explore” while conducting real world archaeology diving on known historical wreck sites. In this way, they could learn the various skills and knowledge needed to explore and then use those skills and knowledge in a real archaeology project! At the same time, the entire experience allowed them to connect that original passion that got them into diving with opportunities to do just that.

Divers recording measurements on the Robert Kerr.

When Opportunity Meets Preparation

They say that when opportunity meets preparation, good things can happen. And there were multiple things that combined to give this project some legs. First, I was lucky to live on Vancouver Island, Canada, and to be able to dive in a part of the world that has a long seafaring heritage. The waters in the Pacific Northwest can be challenging for mariners, and for this reason, we have a litany of shipwrecks and maritime accidents. This environment has thus created extensive opportunities for diving on known wrecks as well as continued prospects for searching for wrecks that have not yet been found. 

Second, not only did I have a relationship with the UASBC, but the timing was fortuitous in that while I was looking for some way to collaborate, the UASBC was considering revamping their underwater archaeology training program. Third, my knowledge of eLearning and my experience with using that platform for diving training meant that I had a means of packaging everything up in one bundle and taking advantage of all the things that modern eLearning education can provide. Finally, I am what you might call a “mature” diver, and I can look back on many years of lessons learned to provide some seasoning to what would otherwise be, a more theoretical discussion of exploration. I could provide some real-world experience and give feedback such as, “Yeah, that didn’t work,” or, “We found this to work” and incorporate that into our plans.

In the beginning of 2021, things had finally gathered significant momentum and, while the UASBC was writing their new Underwater for Divers (UAD) program, I started serious work on fleshing out the outline I had been building for the previous year. I am lucky in that I have some terrific relationships with some of the brighter lights in the diving world and when I reached out to them and explained what I wanted to do, they offered to help. Thus, I knew that I was going to have world class experts participate in the delivery of some of the materials that I thought needed to be included in a program such as the one that was starting to take shape. 

The program would start with the UAD course developed by the UASBC and then examine various aspects of exploration diving that were common to nearly all projects. The UAD materials were delivered by Jacques Marc himself, as well as Ewan Anderson, a professional archaeologist from Victoria, BC. I would draw on my 40 years of diving experience to write the primary topics of Logistics, planning, safety and preparedness, and risk assessment. These areas could be broken down into multiple subtopics and, as I put the course together, many of these topics seemed to almost write themselves. 

I was an early adopter and supporter of The Human Diver (THD) programs developed by Gareth Lock, and I had followed up on this to become one of his first instructors who were certified to deliver THD courses. I couldn’t imagine a better environment to talk about Human Factors (HF) and non-technical skills than the team-based exploration and archaeology program I was developing. It seemed a natural fit to include a heavy emphasis on HF throughout the entire program and Gareth himself volunteered to write, record, and deliver some of the eLearning modules within the course!

I knew that any project needed to be able to generate something at the end of the project, whether it was a written project report, an article, or even a video or something similar. In my view, this was necessary in separating a “project” from simple tourism. To this end, I used the example of including Gareth directly in the program, and I asked my good friend, world-class author and writer, Michael Menduno to help. Michael has been a writer for Scientific American, Wired and Outside magazines, the creator and editor of aquaCORPS Journal and is the current editor of InDepth magazine. He is also involved with innumerable other writing projects where his writing skills and turn of phrase are second to none on our planet! Michael offered to produce a chapter of the program on some of the considerations involved when writing for magazines, social media, or science journals. 

Investing In Exploration

None of this was going to work without me making a substantial financial investment in my belief that this was going to be a program that would attract people from around the world. To this end then, I purchased a 15m (47’) boat from which to run these projects on. I had earlier purchased a 6m Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) as a chase boat, so these two boats would form the backbone of what I needed to get to the wreck sites and dive them safely. 

I chose to go a slightly different direction when I was searching for a suitable diving vessel, and I’m sure part of that decision is based on my untold hours of pounding through the ocean on open boats that were terrific diving platforms, but not exactly providing a lot of “creature comforts”. Here I took a page from my safari boat friends in the Red Sea and I found a boat that would work as both a dive platform, a comfortable, warm, and dry travelling vessel, and even a floating classroom as needed. I spent a good part of the summer of 2021 refitting the boat I purchased and taking what was basically a very comfortable cruising yacht and turning it into something that would suit our needs. We upgraded all the navigation, communication, and sonar to state-of-the art equipment and repurposed existing spaces to create a covered dive deck. We also added a proper diving ladder to the back of the boat and the MV Thermocline was born!

“One day my partner said that Guy had invited us to this course. We had no plans, so we went. Personally, prior to this I had seen no reason to dive wrecks, I always preferred looking at marine life. When you start learning more about the components and construction of these ships and how wrecks are formed, it gives you a reason and a purpose to dive them. Our team worked together on this course to aim for a higher standard, not only individually, but to improve the skills of those around us.” —Donny Michelangelo

We ran our first program just before Christmas, 2021 and this was basically a beta-test of the course.  I was lucky in that I knew I could trust the five students who were basically our guinea pigs to provide some honest feedback we could then use to examine what worked well, what needed to be improved, and how to improve it. If the quantity of useful feedback I received was any indication of a successful Beta program, then we were successful indeed! 

The terrific thing about creating an environment where Human Factors concepts are recognized, nurtured, and encouraged is that critical feedback is a natural byproduct of the system, and I took two weeks after Christmas 2021 to revisit and rework many parts of the program in recognition of the valuable feedback provided by the first group of participants. 

Finally, our Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Diving program is ready for prime-time, and we have scheduled several courses throughout 2022. The syllabus consists of approximately two days of eLearning, followed by six days face-to-face learning. Those six days include two days of land drills and shallow water practice consolidating those skills and techniques first introduced in eLearning, then practiced on land. We also learn how to plot our collected data. We then do three days of actual survey and data collection on a historical wreck site off the East Coast of Vancouver Island from the MV Thermocline. We finish up the program with a day of final survey data plotting, learning how to fill out a shipwreck survey form, discuss artifact conservation and then consider how to present our findings as a report for a magazine, social media, or the like. 

If all the courses are as successful and as much fun as the first one, then the future augurs well for the Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Diving program! It was truly fascinating to watch the teamwork and comradery that developed in the six days the group was together. The program is open to all divers; however, I think that having at least an advanced open water certification and 50 dives worth of experience (or equivalent) will make for a better and more comfortable learning experience.  

It is easy to get task loaded as a newer diver, and a good level of situational awareness is an important part of being able to free up some brain processing power to be able to record and document wreck findings. I chose early on to make this available to divers of all persuasions, and this was part of my agreement with the UASBC. The first group were all GUE recreational divers with only one having GUE technical training. It was clear that having superlative buoyancy, trim, and propulsion skills was a definite “plus” however, this same group came from various backgrounds of experience with one diver having very little boat diving experience. Overall, it was a great cross section of skills, experience, and abilities and the feedback from everyone was invaluable. 

Inaugural class. “Ok, everyone take your seats.”

Several members of our local GUE community were involved with the Beta class and we are all looking forward to this year’s courses. One of the biggest rewards was watching a “group” of divers turn into a “team” of divers and become more and more proficient at accomplishing their tasks while still having a boatload of fun!  I have always believed that “community” is one of the most important parts of GUE and it was great to watch a course like this help grow our community. 

Part of our plan was always to create a schedule of projects for graduates to continue to participate in. This will help provide “purpose” for the “passion” that got those divers into the water in the first place.  Our biggest hope is that participants will have many opportunities to explore and then take the skills they learn to start and promote their own projects at home. Maybe one day, one of the “Everest” divers will be able to trace their steps back to their open water class and see a clear pathway from that first breath underwater to the day they were a senior diver on a world class expedition! ###

“Since completing our dive training, we never had a chance to see our training in practice; our skills were just abstract. On this course, we were able to learn new skills and actually dive as part of a cohesive team, and it gave a ‘why’ to the way we were trained in order to execute projects. I enjoyed running the team as Team Leader and seeing how the team adapted to various situations, such as an aborted dive and shifting the leadership role as needed.” —Charlie Chaudchat

Erin Tempest recording critical measurements.

Learning To Explore

By Sabrina Figliomeni, Charlie Chaudchat, Brad Harris, Donny Michelangelo, and Erin Tempest, 

We’re sitting instead of sleeping in the living room of our AirBnB at 1am  before the last day of class. Three Seattleites, two Calgarians, a comical number of snacks, and a lingering sadness that our project is wrapping up. Our group of five have spent the past six days wrestling measuring tapes, juggling slates, figuring out how to signal our teammate to “move the bloody tape back to the last survey point” underwater, and make it to the boat on time (not our fault, the Universe was messing with us a bit). We are the fortunate, the task-loaded, the punny and perpetually hungry—we are the inaugural Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Diving class.

Guy Shockey designed this program, and it includes a core component of underwater archaeology written by the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) This course bridges a rather large gap between the wreck exploration community and the scientific archaeology community. Designed for those with an interest in Avocational Archaeology (as in an interest in Archaeology for fun), this course takes you deep into exploring the methods and processes required to plan and execute wreck exploration, and the inevitable data processing afterwards (which is quite satisfying).

Practicing with a drawing frame on a training dive.

Before heading out to Vancouver Island, we were sent the digital portion of the course curriculum to work through in advance so that the remainder of the course could be reserved for classroom Q&A and fieldwork. This course encompassed important topics such as wreck formation, resources for identification, maritime regulatory compliance, survey techniques, managing the actual logistics of an expedition (also called Advanced Cat Herding), and the application of Human Factors or non-technical skills required when facilitating wreck exploration projects. 

Working together as a team of divers towards a common goal turned out to be a challenging but rewarding journey. Prior to the course, for example, we decided to share accommodations. In hindsight, this turned out to be very beneficial: it encouraged team bonding, allowed for after-hours collaboration on project deliverables, made it extremely easy to eat a ridiculous amount of Italian food cooked by one of our teammates, and enabled an environment of psychological safety. Canadians even managed to teach the Americans how to read Metric with measuring tapes and candles in the living room! 

We spent our first two days practicing our survey skills both on land and in Maple Bay, before setting out on the Thermocline – Indiana Jones hats and all. With Guy’s guidance, we put academia to the test on the wreck of the Robert Kerr. We learned how to strategize and refine the execution of our surveys. At the surface, we discussed which artefacts to measure, our plans for capturing the data, and who would hold which end of the tape. Once underwater, we adapted to the shifting operating environment, and adjusted our communications on-the-fly, improvised signals and all. 

Brad Harris

“I was surprised how hands-on this was. Aside from an appropriately timed lecture or two, everything was field work. There was a lot of leadership involved; you’re leading an exploration. It was similar to being the head chef in a busy restaurant, and everyone is yelling at you. I was the unintended fifth wheel on this course, which turned out to be a good thing, creating the ideal team set-up. The online modules and lectures from both Jacques Marc and Ewan Anderson with the UASBC, Guy with Gas Planning and topside logistics (boats, risk assessments, safety), Gareth Lock on human factors, and Michael Menduno on publishing and deliverables got me excited for this week: some of (if not all) the best minds at their craft of underwater adventures in an online platform and class? YES PLEASE!”

Over three days of boat dives, our team explored the wreck site and got our bearings on what exactly we were looking at. After being inadvertently towed onto Danger Reef in March of 1911 and sinking, the Robert Kerr is still identifiable as a ship, though it is showing its age. Resting on her starboard side, the wood has been weathered and eaten through, metal components are encrusted, and debris is scattered about in interesting places after over a century of water movement (and sadly, some human activity). 

We worked to identify key features of the wreck for surveying, grabbed our measuring tapes and writing slates, and headed down to the wreck to begin our tasks. We each took turns acting as the Expedition Team Leader, setting up our dive team to survey specific areas and artefacts on the wreck, collecting the data, and preparing it for plotting. There was some seasickness, an aborted dive which was reset in record time (shot line may have ended up slightly far away from the initial target), and a first stage that didn’t want to do what it was supposed to do. Yet, in the end, we managed to get some pretty good measurements and gained a lot of experience doing it. 

Back on dry land, between rescuing two teammates from a stuck elevator on the same day (two separate occasions no less), tragically running out of lemon cake cookies, and showing up in public wearing surf change robes, we plotted our data and began to make sense of it. We ended up with a map that pretty closely resembled key features shown on previous UASBC surveys, and we all were extremely stoked when a rectangular object we surveyed actually turned out rectangular on our survey drawing! We plotted, re-plotted, verified and re-verified measurements, leaving behind a map of the portion of the wreck we surveyed, completely to scale. For the next divers taking this course, hopefully your data jibes with ours.

The big question after all the diving, data collection, amalgamation, plotting, eating, cookie-baking, teammate rescuing is where do we all go from here? This is a struggle a lot of divers run into after completing training of any type: how do I take these skills and apply them somewhere useful? This is where we found this experience to be different. With this training, we can now join the UASBC on future wreck surveys, within our skill level. 

The people we met gave us an avenue to pursue (when we’re ready) to start looking at upcoming projects underway and seeing where we can apply our skills. Whether you’re an Advanced Open Water diver or a Technical Diver,  there are projects out there for you. We realized that this opened avenues for us in more than just wreck exploration. One of our team members realized that this was the final puzzle piece on whether she should pursue cave training. Turns out she really likes surveying and data collection in spicy conditions, and suddenly the thought of wrangling survey gear in caves was thrilling. 

Our group gained a lot of clarity on the interests we all held by the end of the course: discovery of unseen wrecks, data collection on an incredibly precise scale, the research and report-writing component—all of these areas of interest are important to these projects—and not every diver likes to do them all. Identifying your interest area, your strengths, and how to pursue that captivation was one of the most rewarding parts of this course, and something that future divers taking it will undoubtedly experience. Wreck survey and exploration aside, the human skills we developed over the course of this week of training proved to be one of the most unexpected outcomes. Regardless of whether we go on to continue applying this specific skill set, we left as better divers, more effective leaders, and stronger teammates overall.

Sabrina Figliomeni

“Every kid has had an Indiana Jones costume in their closet at some point in their childhood (or maybe that was just me – might still have one). To be able to take two things I love in different ways—hands-on history and being in the water—and be able to apply them in a meaningful way, was mind-boggling for me. I could not have asked for a better team environment; our group quickly created a culture that allowed us to challenge each other and to work through our different approaches to running a project. Not everyone gets to take a childhood dream to fruition, but I got to do just that, and I can’t wait to do more of it. Now where’s my hat…”

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Dive Deeper:

Quest 12.4: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration: GUE and the Local Community by Guy Shockey

Guy Shockey is a GUE instructor and instructor trainer who is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of GUE divers. He started diving in 1982 in a cold mountain lake in Alberta, Canada. Since then, he has logged somewhere close to 8,000 dives in most of the oceans of the world. He is a passionate technical diver with a particular interest in deeper ocean wreck diving. He is a former military officer and professional hunter with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He is also an entrepreneur with several successful startup companies to his credit.


The Aftermath Of Love: Don Shirley and Dave Shaw

Our young Italian poet-explorer Andrea Murdoch Alpini makes a pilgrimage to visit cave explorer Don Shirley at the legendary Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. In addition to guiding the author through the cave, Shirley and Alpini dive into history and the memories of the tragic loss in 2005 of Shirley’s dive buddy David Shaw, who died while trying to recover the body of a lost diver at 270 m/882 ft. The story features Alpini’s short documentary, “Komati Springs: The Aftermath of Love.”




Text by Andrea Murdock Alpini

Inside the Black Box of Boesmansgat’s dive archive (Dave Shaw memorabilia)

🎶 Pre-dive clicklist: Where is My Mind by Pixies🎶

South Africa, Komati Springs.

On October 28, 2004, two cave divers and long-time friends, Don Shirley and David Shaw, planned a dive at Boesmansgat (also known in English as “Bushman’s Hole”) a deep, submerged freshwater cave (or sinkhole) in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Dave dove to 280 meters, touched the bottom and started exploring. At that time, Shaw had recently broken four records at one time: depth on a rebreather, depth in a cave on a rebreather, depth at altitude on a rebreather, and depth running a line. While on the dive at Boesmansgat, he found a body that had been there for nearly ten years, 20-year-old diver Deon Dreyer. 

After obtaining permission to retrieve the body from Dreyer’s parents, the two friends returned three months later. They enrolled eight support rebreather divers (all of whom were close to Don) and Gordon Hiles, a cameraman from Cape Town, who filmed the entire process—from the preparation on the surface to the operation at the bottom of the cave. The surface marshal was Verna van Schaik, who held the women’s world record for depth at the time. Little did they know that Dave would not come back from his 333rd dive, one that he himself recorded with an underwater camera. 

Researchers have determined that while attempting the retrieval, Dave ran into physical difficulties with the lines from the body bag and the wires from the light head. The physical effort of trying to free himself led to his death for what is believed to be respiratory insufficiency (see video below). Don Shirley nearly died as well, and apparently was left with permanent damage that has impaired his balance. 

Nearly 20 years later, our own Andrea Murdock Alpini visits Don and has this to say: 

Dave and Don before a dive.

February 2023—I arrive at the mine owned by cave expert and pioneer of deep diving, Don Shirley. The place is fantastic—the wild nature, the warm water, and the dives are amazing. Every day I spend at least 230 minutes underwater, filming the mines and what is left of man’s influence in this beautiful and God-forgotten corner of Africa. Every day I have time to talk, plan dives, and prepare the blends together with Don Shirley. 

The following is a part of the story that links Don Shirley to South Africa. Stories and places intertwine between Komati Springs, Boesmansgat (or “Bushman’s Hole”) and then the fatal dive with his friend Dave Shaw. 

Monkeys arrive on time every 12 hours. They showed up last night at about 5:00. They came down from the trees in large groups. They start playing, throwing themselves from one branch to another, chasing each other. Mothers hug their little ones. Some of them play with oxygen cylinders, the smaller ones instead with methane gas tanks, the ones we use for cooking. We are surrounded by gas blenders of all kinds. 

A herdsman’s hat rests on the workbench. Two hands with delicate, thin skin take adapters, cylinders, and whips.They open and close taps. Notebooks report all the consumption for each charge, strictly written in liters with the utmost precision. Impressions: An Amaranth t-shirt, an unmistakable logo, that of the IANTD. A pair of jeans and then some boots. He has a slight physique, he is lean and athletic with a beard that is white now, and a few days’ old. 

While he works carefully, I do not disturb him, for I know well that when mixing, one is not to be interrupted, at least this is so for anyone who loves precision. Then, when he’s done, we have time to talk a little bit together.

Don Shirley with the author planning a dive at Komati Springs

We sit at his desk and then go to the board to plan the dive in the mine.

Don shows me the map of the first level. He explains some important facts to me, then his hands pull out a second sheet with the plan redesigned from memory of the second level at 24 m/70 ft deep. “This is the guitar level,” he says. 

At first I don’t understand. He chuckles. I look at the shape he drew and, yes, that floor plan is a cross between a Fender Stratocaster and a Picasso guitar. Anyway, it’s a guitar, no doubt.

We begin planning the dive together. It’s exciting to hear him talk; he speaks in a soft, elegant tone, and it moves me. I look at his index finger moving. I listen to his words, but I also look at his eyes. 

He gives me some advice but also tells me, “This mine is more similar to a cave. I have left it as it is. I want people to explore it and not follow any lines.”

Freedom of thought, plurality of choices. Acceptance of risk, inclusion of the other in what belongs to you. It’s clear that Don’s vision of diving is uncommon. Freedom is beautiful, but it is the most dangerous thing there is, if mishandled. 

An old map of Komati’s mine site

The next day, we have an appointment at 7 o’clock at the lake. Before diving this morning, we saw where the “Tunnel of Love” originates on the surface, a curious gallery which I came across underwater. There are two parts of the mine that survived the destruction of the mining facility after its closure. One of these is the tunnel where we are going, the other part is perched in the middle of the mountain.

Don explains that the tunnel is now frequented by the wild animals who go to drink there, so we follow their trail. The water has flooded everything up to just a few meters below the surface of the bush. Don cuts the underbrush that makes the path difficult. He wears his faithful herdsman’s hat and never takes it off. The ground begins to tilt slightly, a good sign that we are about to arrive. A series of stones suggest that here the path has been paved. “It was covered in wood,” Don explains.

The path that started from the building where the miners lived is now demolished. Following it, we arrive at what was called “The Tunnel of Love.”

The tunnel that was the mine’s main entry point. Narrow and difficult, the tunnel led to level one—now underwater at a depth of 18 m/60 ft.

We turn on the headlamps and enter. A small colony of bats flaps its wings upon our arrival. The water touches our boots. Some roots filter from the rock and stretch to the resurgence. The scenery is evocative.

The author and Marco Setti in the end of their explorations at Komati Springs

Don kneels, peering at the water, and something. He looks at the water and something changes within him. Something has changed in our shared dialogue.

It’s as if Don takes on another language as he speaks. He always looks straight ahead. His vocabulary changes, and with it his tone of voice. We talk about politics, economics, the future of Komati Springs, the origin of the name of the place, the history of the mine, but we never mention two topics: diving and Dave Shaw.

Don’s a real caveman. I know that those who love caves are not ordinary people. We who do are a little bit mad to do what we do and love, but he’s different. He is comfortable here; he has found his dimension.

I remember asking him a question when we were inside the Tunnel of Love, breaking one of the long silences: “What thoughts are going through your mind?” He seemed to have reached a meditative state, a kind of catharsis. He replied, “I am just relaxing. This is a peaceful place. “

Around nine o’clock, we travel again to the lake, leaving the dry caves behind. 

Exploring a tunnel in the flooded mine.

The first dive lasted 135 minutes, the second 95 minutes. Once the equipment is set up, I return to the cottage to dry everything and recharge the cylinders.

Don’s hands this time are again without gloves. Before we start mixing, we walk into his office.The walls are lined with articles he has published over the years. 

He shows me the medals for valor he got when he was on duty in the British Army. When we return to a small corridor that acts as a barrier, my eyes fall on two photographs. “Is that Dave?” I ask. “That’s him. We were here in Komati,” Don tells me. “You see? This is his hat,” and he points to what is on his head.

The pond above the mine and wild nature who surrounds Komati. A real wild South Africa scenario.

The Consequences of Love

These are the consequences of love, I think. A friendship that transcends time, life, but also death.

It’s time to prepare the blends for tomorrow. As the oxygen pumps out, Don asks me, “Have you ever seen our Boesmasgat’s diving slates?” Obviously, I had never seen the decompression tables of that famous and tragic dive to 280 m/920 ft depth at 1,600 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) altitude.

“Hang on a sec.” Don picks up a small black box with a yellow label and brings it to me. He opens it. “These are the original dive charts. These are mine; these are Dave’s.” The box also contains the famous blackboard with the inscription, (“DAVE NOT COMING BACK”) from the documentary, as well as a pair of underwater gloves used in that dive, and then the heirloom of his CCR computer that broke due to excessive hydrostatic pressure.

He exits the room. He leaves me with those emotionally charged objects in my hands. I can’t see them any differently. They obviously have historical value; but, for me, the human sense prevails. I look at the decompression tables, touch the gloves, and think about the hands that wore them, that read the various whiteboards, and I imagine the scenes of that time.

Early days of explorations at Komati Springs, Don Shirley with Dave Shown and their team 
Don Shirley wearing Dave’s old hat while scouting out the Tunnel of Love

I place everything back in the box. I hand it to Don as I would hand him a precious urn. In part, it is one. I find it hard to express myself in that moment. He understands why.

At this point I ask him, “What was the true meaning of that extreme dive that Dave wanted to do? Why did he do it?”

“He just wanted to explore the bottom of that cave,” Don said. “Wherever Dave went, he wanted to get to the bottom. That’s how we’ve always done it together. So that’s what we did here at the mine.” 

Don then tells me a series of details and information about that place, about the geological stratification of the cave; he talks a little about the owner of the land where the famous sinkhole is located, and finally he talks about many other aspects of their failed dive. I promised to keep it to myself, and I will do so, forever.

Such is a connection that endures over time.


Wikipedia: Dave Shaw

YouTube: Diver Records Doom | Last Moments-Dave Shaw

Wikipedia: Dave Not Coming Back (2020) A critically acclaimed film that centers on diver Dave Shaw’s death while attempting to recover the body of Deon Dreyer from the submerged Boesmansgat cave in 2005.

Shock Ya: Don Shirley Fondly Remembers Scuba Diving with David Shaw in Dave Not Coming Back Exclusive Clip

Outside: Raising the Dead (2005) by Tim Zimmerman

Other stories by the prolific Andrea Alpini Murdock:

InDEPTH: Finessing the Grande Dame of the Abyss

InDEPTH: Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

InDEPTH: I See A Darkness: A Descent Into Germany’s Felicitas MineInDEPTH: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, published in the Fall of 2022.

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