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In Retrospect: Twenty Years of Global Underwater Explorers

A note from GUE founder and president Jarrod Jablonski on the past 20 years of Global Underwater Explorers.

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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,

Jarrod Jablonski

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.

Cave

No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!

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Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano

Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.

Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.

Freedom!

That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.  

The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving. 

At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere  in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment. 

I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.

The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead. 

However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by  the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it,  the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).

My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions. 

I managed to see  a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.

The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What  follows here is the first episode of the trip.

Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil

The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go. 

I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.

I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.



Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.

The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping  the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her. 

After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had  an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!

Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren. 

Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross  the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters  from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.

On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I  played a new playlist. 

Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted,  but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day. 

The Road To Suha Dolca 

I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!


I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.

Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and  driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.

My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.

Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.

I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.  

The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.


The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave. 

I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.

I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains. 

At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and  Italy was straight ahead.


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

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