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By Jarrod Jablonski
As Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) twentieth anniversary draws near, I am particularly proud of and pleased with the success we have had in building global communities of passionate divers. I am consistently impressed by the enthusiasm they exude and touched by their warmth and hospitality. Most inspiring is their commitment to furthering the projects that have been organized in support of GUE’s non-profit mission. I would not have dared to hope for the magnitude of this success when I began our adventure twenty years ago. In this article I hope to explore some of our successes as well as parts of GUE’s past that may have left a negative impression on some individuals.
During the 1990s we were a small group of extremely passionate diving explorers and researchers. We hoped to develop training that encouraged greater safety, allowed more fun and empowered divers with enough capacity to join a variety of projects, including our many conservation and exploration projects. I am proud of the innovations that we’ve made in diver education and the fact that many of these have been adopted to varying degrees by the dive industry. GUE helped create industry-wide awareness of proper buoyancy and trim and pioneered a team-focused approach including standardized equipment configurations and common protocols for gas switching and emergency procedures. We were the first to require instructor requalification and dive certification renewals as well as the first to eliminate “deep air” diving, include nitrox in all classes, introduce helium to recreational divers and prohibit smoking. These and many other initiatives were developed upon a backdrop of rigorous, capacity-based training that helped ensure qualified individuals were not merely paying for a card but developing reliable capacity.
Over the years, our educational initiatives and community building efforts have made it possible to support a wide range of exploration and conservation projects around the globe, beginning with GUE’s first expedition on the HMHS Britannic in 1999 and following with projects in nearly every aquatic environment across the world. More recent and ongoing projects include the “Battle of the Egadi,” off the western coast of Sicily, where we are discovering and documenting archaeological artifacts from the first Punic War in collaboration with Italy’s Soprintendenza Del Mare (Italian Government).
Some highlights from this rich history include the recent discovery and documentation of the U-576 from the Battle of the Atlantic in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as discovery and detailed research support for the Swedish warship Mars in collaboration with university and government entities. GUE divers also helped discover the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas at Hoyo Negro in Quintana Roo, Mexico, and far-reaching exploration projects at numerous caves in the U.S., Mexico, Croatia, China, Australia, France, and Turkey.
Federico De Gado uses a metal detector during the 2017 GUE Project: Battle of the Egadi. The second diver in the picture is Elena Romano. Photo Credit: Claudio Provenzani.
Perhaps most importantly, we have established thriving communities of passionate divers that graciously share their passion with divers of all experience levels. I am consistently impressed by the kindness, warmth and enthusiasm of GUE divers around the world. The fact that my overwhelmingly positive experience stands in contrast to the experience of those who hold negative feelings towards GUE is among my biggest regrets. This dichotomy is often the subject of personal deliberation and group discussion, having consumed countless hours over more than 20 years.
GUE’s early history is associated with events that were deeply offensive to some, leaving an atmosphere that colors the attitudes of some GUE and non-GUE individuals. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary I have been grappling with how best to contextualize our past and address the emotional energetics that were part of our formation. Failing to acknowledge this history misses key points in our evolution as an organization, and also obscures the chance to more clearly articulate our guiding principles and future aspirations.
To properly account for and learn from our early beginning, I would like to briefly dip into the highly charged history that surrounds GUE’s formative years. I entered the world of cave diving in 1987 when technical diving was just emerging and I was instantly hooked. In the decade leading up to GUE’s formation, I connected with a small number of equally motivated divers, and we began diving with near maniacal obsession. We were a diverse group of individuals with some notable similarities and exceptional variations. We had quiet, reflective thinkers and loud, emotive warriors and everything in between.
Jarrod Jablonski and Andy Kerslake. Photo Credit: Global Underwater Explorers.
Many among our early group of divers shared a common history; we conducted our first deep dives breathing air, and for the most part relied on a haphazard approach that left people to figure things out for themselves. We also witnessed many deaths during this period. I helped recover the bodies of numerous people that died in caves around the world and mourned the loss of leading explorers and dear friends along the way.
These experiences pointed to the need for changes in the diving industry. In addition, it made us realize that our dive training had left us unprepared for the dives we were undertaking. As a result, some of us made the commitment to change the things we perceived to be responsible for engendering an unreasonable number of deaths. As individuals with different personalities and sensibilities, we focused our efforts in different ways.
For me, the desire to improve diver training as well as having a passion for conservation and exploration, ultimately led me to establish GUE in 1998. Others were convinced that the dive training agencies and their leaders at the time were encouraging dangerous and irresponsible practices as a means to profit from an immature and uninformed community. They felt that these individuals and the associated practices (like deep air diving) should be attacked directly.
One person known for such an approach was George Irvine. He had a personality larger than life and a passionate, take-no-prisoners approach. George, among others, aimed to discourage what they considered unsafe or unethical practices including encouragement for deep air, solo diving or other risky practices. His internet-based campaign against these activities sometimes devolved into deeply personal attacks and created a notable divide in the developing technical community. In most ways, we were very different people but George was a friend and one of my most frequent dive buddies so it would be disingenuous to imply ignorance. I frequently disagreed with his use of personal attacks but also see these activities in a more nuanced light.
For some, the bitter fights waged on internet chat forums remain a familiar reference for the volatility of technical diving in the 1990s and the movement that would become GUE. Some might say that anything short of public rejection for this sort of behavior makes me and thus GUE responsible even though I doubt you could find a single disparaging post from me in more than 30 years of community engagement. Likewise, such behavior is forbidden by GUE standards and risks expulsion from the agency.
A group of GUE divers during the GUE Spain meeting in 2018. Photo Credit: Global Underwater Explorers.
Our focused approach is certainly not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we intend to exclude people. Our standards are meant to make us better, not to malign or otherwise degrade those who choose a different path. The tagline I chose for GUE, “Quest for Excellence”, does not presuppose universal correctness. Rather it is a quest for divers to get the most they can out of their diving and their lives. Likewise, our dedication to a standard approach is not meant to imply that nothing else will work but rather that teams of divers organized to use a common platform will reduce stress, encourage safety and have more fun. These teams of divers will also be more efficient when joining our numerous exploration and conservation projects.
Our communities are filled with people that find joy in the discipline of scuba diving and many of these individuals are engaged in far-reaching scientific, exploratory or conservation efforts. I fully respect the reality that some of our ideas will not be consonant with everyone’s personality but if you are curious about what we are doing then you are very much encouraged to introduce yourself to one of our many representatives. I feel certain you will enjoy a warm welcome and a chance to explore the details of our organization and its many community-based activities.
I like to think that we’ve developed a solid foundation over the last 20 years and greatly look forward to expanding upon our existing success in support of an activity we love and an environment we cherish. Hopefully, we will be lucky enough to enjoy another 20 years and I will see many of you at dive sites around the world.
Best Wishes and Good Diving,
Top Image Photo Credit: GUE Archives
Jarrod Jablonski 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 several world record excursions at 300ft to cave penetrations in excess of 24,000 ft/7 km; these dives include bottom times of 12 hours with total immersions near 30 hours. Jarrod is also an author with dozens of publications, including three books and several forthcoming, as well as several awards for lifetime achievement, including the 2018 DAN-Rolex Diver of the Year, 2016 Eurotek and 2015 Golden Trident.
Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community
In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.
by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.
In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered.
He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game: “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.
Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.
When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.
Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:
“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”
The Torbet Method for Managing Stress
Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”
Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:
“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.”
Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.”
There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,
“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment. I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”
In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques.
A Team of One?
Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations.
Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay.
In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces, the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]
“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.”
After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double.
Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.
Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start.
Why does he love being part of the stunt community?
“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.”
A Perspective on life
Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.
“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.
I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”
Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet
Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet
Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet
Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!
Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.
I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving.
Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion. You can sign up for my newsletter here.
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