One Way The World Learns to Mermaid: The Mer-spective from PADI’s Karl Shreeves
InDepth’s editor-in-chief Michael Menduno reached out to PADI veteran Karl Shreeves to explore the trending global phenomena of mermaiding….
by Michael Menduno
Header image and photos courtesy of PADI Inc. unless noted.
InDepth’s editor-in-chief Michael Menduno reached out to PADI veteran Karl Shreeves to explore the trending global phenomena of mermaiding, which may well surpass tech diving in terms of sheer numbers in the not so distant future! While you shouldn’t expect to see a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) “MER 1” class anytime soon, it’s fair to say that mermaiding is here to stay—and that’s arguably a good thing. Here’s why!
As a uniquely dominant force in the $3-4 billion worldwide sport diving market, with nearly 6600 affiliated dive centers and resorts and over 128,000 members, it’s not surprising that privately-held PADI Inc., the self-proclaimed, “Way The World Learns To Dive,” is one of the most closely watched and talked about companies in the business.
Over the last thirty years, since the emergence of technical diving, PADI has arguably relied on others—“Brand X” in PADI parlance— to bring technological innovation to the diving market while keeping a careful eye on their progress. Once a sufficient market develops, PADI moves in to adopt, standardize, promote, and profit from the innovation, and help popularize and fuel its growth by virtue of PADI’s sheer scale, often to the dismay of competitors. It’s a tried and true model that the organization has applied to nitrox, open-circuit tech diving, recreational rebreathers, and recently even freediving.
So, it was perhaps inevitable, given the tremendous growth and interest in mermaiding over the last decade, along with the entry into the market by Scuba Schools International (SSI) and NAUI, that PADI would pick up the tail, err trail, and offer its own mermaid program aimed at aquatic consumers, and its own teeming instructor ranks. Τhe fifty-five year old training behemoth launched the program in December 2020 and kicked it into high gear last April, with a TikTok-savvy, mono-a-mono, Guinness World Record extravaganza —the largest mermaid show on Earth—held at the Atlantis Sanya hotel aquarium, in Sanya China. Cirque du Soleil move over!
Accordingly, to get a perspective on the market, we reached out to PADI’s original tekkie, technical development executive Karl Shreeves, who helped field its mermaid program, and was instrumental in the development of PADI’s nitrox and tech diving courses. Here’s what the veteran educator had to say.
InDepth: To start, let me ask you: How did PADI get involved in mermaiding? When did you start looking at it and thinking about creating a training program?
Karl Shreeves: PADI had actually gotten involved with mermaiding several years ago. We had several instructors who had become part of the existing mermaiding community that wanted to offer a distinctive specialty. So, they submitted the distinctive specialties outlines, and we approved them. And then it started to grow, and the interest started to grow, and we began to get calls for us to create a program like we have for freediving and scuba diving and other types of diving.
So, we started developing that in 2018 into early 2019. At the time, for us, and by us, I mean what was then the mainstream diving community apart from mermaiding, it was pretty small potatoes. Mermaiding already existed. It popped up on its own track separately from diving. There were already mermaiding schools and people doing it who did not come from a diving background at all. They just got into mermaiding.
Did things slow down with the pandemic?
On the contrary. The interesting thing was that the pandemic seemed to propel it. And the reason? What do water enthusiasts do when they can’t travel? They get into the local pool. The pandemic helped freediving as well, and in some areas, local diving did well. Scuba divers quickly figured out that, “Well, I can’t see as far in my local lake as I can in Grand Cayman, but it’s actually pretty cool.” They get a trained eye and a perspective.
But as the pandemic forced us to stay closer to home, there was a growing interest among the traditional diving community in this form of diving because, unlike freediving and scuba diving, all of a sudden, there was an expressive form of diving. It’s underwater dance. The costumes are beautiful. Obviously, it borrows from other kinds of diving. They all borrow from each other, right?
But you know, especially if you were going to be primarily in a pool, it gave water enthusiasts a new craft that is well suited to the swimming pool. While there is open water mermaiding, as you know, a lot of it is purely in a swimming pool or the various dedicated super pools, and it’s a really good fit there. So mermaiding is a new angle, if you will, for expressing yourself.
It’s a performance art in many ways, like synchronized swimming or water ballet.
Right. Of course, there are a lot of people who come from the diving side and they say, “Well, it’s a form of freediving.” But really, it’s not.” It shares a lot from freediving. It has borrowed a lot from free diving, but it’s really different.
Freediving tends to be more about the performance of depth and duration. It’s an athletic accomplishment. And again, there’s overlap. I’m speaking a bit in absolutes, but don’t misunderstand me. Mermaiding is more about individual expression and fantasy made real—an ability to touch people in a way that goes as far as wearing make-up as well as some elaborate costumes. And yet, having to be able to swim. And not just swim, but to look elegant and interact with people.
That’s where it’s got an appeal because that hasn’t previously existed much in diving. Probably the closest thing would be being an underwater model. Ironically, because of the pandemic, and lock-downs, I wasn’t able to be one of the shooters for our Mermaid eLearning course. If there was ever a shoot I wanted to do it was that one!
Ha! You were deprived! What about the language? You use ‘mermaid’ to refer to both genders, not mermaids and mermen, or merfolk?
Funny you ask about “mermaid” as a term, because we actually explain it at the beginning of the course. “Mermaid” denotes gender in English, but in many languages the translated term means “human fish” and doesn’t indicate gender unless you add words to do so. Some in mermaiding use the terms “merfolk” and “merman” etc., but broadly, “mermaid” is the term everyone knows. So, the PADI materials use “mermaid” in the sense of “human fish” as in languages like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. But obviously, it’s not a female-only sport by a long shot. Lots of men are mermaid divers and PADI Mermaid Instructors.
I’m sure some of our readers see mermaiding as a trend, something new, but the concept and fascination with mermaids goes back a long way.
It’s not new. It goes back over 1,000 years. There is something about this idea of a human fish that has endured. If you look at the movie Splash, right? 1984. The sixth largest grossing movie in China was The Mermaid. And they are talking about a sequel now. The Korean drama I keep talking about, Legend of the Blue Sea, is one of the most successful dramas they’ve had. Very popular, and people still watch it aftermarket and buy it on DVD. So, this is not a flash in the pan. It’s actually a cross-cultural mythology that we’ve enjoyed as humans. If it were just one culture you’d say, eh… But it’s not.
Every culture independently created this myth. Now the modern mermaid tends to be the European mermaid, and we talk about this in the course too. Why? Because it’s practical. The European mermaid’s bottom half is fish and top half is human. Very easy to create a swimmable costume. But some, you can do it with computer graphics, it’s a fish with a human face. But my point is that when we look at this as the dive community and say, “Oh, that’s just a bunch of people playing around.” Yeah, it is, but that’s not new. This has been around. So this is going to stay. Now that we have the ability for people to go play mermaid in a serious, fun way, they are going to keep doing it because it’s cool.
In some ways, it enables us to reach back through time and connect with this myth that’s embedded deep in the human psyche.
Once humanity starts to picture something, we find ways of making it happen. And that’s what’s happened to the thousand-year-old dream of being a human who can live in water. We found a way to make it real.
Talk to me a little about the size of the market. Obviously if PADI is getting into it, you must think there is sizable potential. I was surprised when I attended the ADEX show in Singapore in 2019, and they had a huge mermaid section. In fact, it was bigger than the tech diving section! They had 30 or 40 famous mermaids there. I didn’t know who they were, but the people knew them and cheered for them. It was amazing.
Well, as I said, parts of the dive community had adopted mermaiding. It was already growing globally. In fact, it’s really big in Asia in terms of its visibility, but there’s actually a pretty strong community around the world. There are communities in Europe. Here in California, they have a small mermaid convention that’s been held for several years in the Bay Area. It’s not huge but it’s there, and quite separate from diving. It’s about mermaids and mermaiding. They get in the water; they talk about mermaid stories and myths. They role play, and there’s also a little bit of cosplay. Ι think that is part of the fun for some people.
But to give you an idea of scale, when we finally launched the full version of the program within, I want to say, it was a month or two months, we had 500 instructors.
Wow. That’s surprising! Evidently there’s a lot of pent up demand.
Right? When you pick up that many instructors that fast, it’s two things. One, it is popular. Two, it’s already widespread because you don’t learn to mermaid and then reach instructor qualification in two months. You actually have to already have the qualifications. And what we’re seeing is two prongs of appeal.
First, it’s opened the eyes of divers who’ve never looked at it before and are most certainly going, “That’s cool.” A lot of them are free divers, but some of them are scuba divers. They’re like, “I want to give that a go.” But then we are also seeing that it’s pulling from the original market—people just interested in mermaids who want to live out the fantasy, as it were. That gives it a lot of youth appeal, especially among younger children.
What we’re finding is that attraction is growing because some of these people realize that it also brings them a connection to diving. It’s like, “I’m not only going to become a mermaid, but, if I want, I can grow towards becoming a diver as well.” Some people find that out in the course. Because, as you might expect, a lot of the mermaid instructors also have their fins in the freediving camp. Those people tend to do a really good job of instructing because they know the difference. They know the difference between mermaiding and freediving. So, they don’t try to make mermaid divers freedivers, but they do train the mermaids in the techniques that apply from one to the other.
In fact, somebody was asking me about this. “Oh, it’s just a form of freediving.” And I said, “No, not really.” However, when you are a buddy, that is the safety diver in mermaiding, that’s when you’re closest to being a freediver because basically you have the same job.
Makes sense. Freediving has developed safety techniques and protocols, which I would imagine apply to mermaiding too, so that mermaids don’t blackout underwater?
Yeah, in fact mermaiding basically borrowed that most directly. So, while mermaids don’t do static apnea, they swim dynamically as free divers call it. In other words, there’s lots of horizontal movement, but depth isn’t too great. Of course, the more experienced ones still get down there pretty well. But as soon as you shift—”Okay, it’s my turn to be the buddy.”—the mermaid tail comes off, the mask goes on (which is optional if you’re the mermaid), and you wear bi-fins because you need to be able to help and maneuver quickly in the event of a problem. So, that’s probably where you have the most and the strongest connection to conventional freediving.
Mermaids wear monofins but they use bi-fins when being a safety?
Right. They are required to use bi-fins for safety because they need to be fast and maneuverable as a safety. But by definition, if you’re a mermaid, what kind of fin are you going to have? I suppose somebody might come up with a bi-fin mermaid look, but basically, it’s all monofin. They’re going to learn both to be successful in the course.
In freediving, they have the one up, one down system, or one up, one prepping, one down in a team of three, in order to rescue the diver in case of hypoxia. So, mermaids also have somebody watching them who is ready to intervene when they’re holding their breath underwater?
Exactly! Freediving has done a lot for all breath-hold diving, just like tech contributed to all scuba diving. Tech taught us to be tighter with teams and also offered a mindset and approach that has been picked up. The alternate air source originally came from tech. Likewise, freediving has influenced breath-hold diving, even basic snorkeling. Divers are taught that they have to take the snorkel out of their mouth when you’re doing a breath-hold dive, so you don’t breathe a lung full of water in the event of unconsciousness.
Nope! That applies to snorkelers as well!
Of course, if you’re old school like me, and you came up the other way, as soon as you start freediving you’ve got a habit that you’ve got to change. The habit you learned first is the one that sticks. In instructional psychology we are still trying to figure out why this is. Of course, new divers are getting the right habits from the beginning, so they’re not going to have to relearn them.
Yeah, I had that problem too. My freediving instructor had to keep reminding me to spit out my snorkel when I dived! You mentioned open water mermaiding. I’m familiar with mermaid performances but do they also go out and conduct mermaid dives? Would a mermaid say, “Hey, let’s put on our tails and go dive the kelp forest?”
Because there is so much crossover between the communities, you have people who enjoy mermaid diving, and this is what we covered in the advanced mermaid course. They go out and they mermaid in the open water. There can be many motivations.
There are certainly venues, you know the classic going back decades is Weeki Wachee, of course, where you can watch. And that is more serious mermaiding. Just put brackets around it. It’s a little different from what a recreational mermaid learns. But it’s still the idea.
Mermaids like to be in a natural environment and watch each other. If you are somewhere warm and nice—like Grand Cayman or Bonaire—and you are surrounded by beauty, it’s fun to go mermaiding. And if you’ve got underwater photographers who might want to take pictures of you, all the better.
Are you aware of the Korean drama, “Legend of the Blue Sea?” It’s set in Korea but it begins somewhere in the mid-Pacific. The actress who plays the mermaid is swimming around coral and gorgeous stuff. The story is about how she swims all the way to Korea. So that was the performance. In recreational mermaiding, they have fun doing this. It’s something that can be done together in nature. In that case, they typically wear masks so they can see clearly, and they’ll swim down and see the fish. So, it’s a neat little aspect of mermaiding.
That’s right, you need a dive mask, not swim goggles, because you wouldn’t be able to equalize.
Right, and that’s another area where mermaiding differs from other forms of diving. The mask is optional. Some people prefer them, and or wear contact lenses that need to be kept dry. Conversely, in a place that’s not going to bother the eyes, where you see well enough to navigate, some will forgo the mask altogether. In the China video, you saw both.
Let’s talk a little about what has been in place prior to PADI’s and other training agencies’ entrance into mermaiding. How did people learn to be mermaids? I do know there are several schools out there like the LA Mermaid School, and I think Weeki Wachee has a program as well. That’s likely some of it.
Well, it’s kind of all over the map, like what you see in most swimming programs or water programs. There are numerous mermaid schools, as you call them, and there would be a ranking of typically a beginner and then an intermediate level and so on. I would say that—and I want to be sure I’m talking generally here because there are exceptions all over, things are starting to solidify, and community standards are evolving. However, generally compared to what diving offers many mermaid programs were comparatively unsophisticated but safe as far as I could tell. I saw nothing that looked unsafe. Some of them were pool-only and you always have grown-ups there, because there are children in the program, things like that. On the other hand there are some very sophisticated professional mermaid schools like LA Mermaid School and the Weeki Wachee program that offer top notch professional training.
I think what diving has brought to mermaiding is our experience in water safety and integrating it with breath-hold diving. If you take a PADI program, for example, and you are going to be a mermaid diver, you don’t need to be anything else. You just need to be okay on the medical (as any diver of any type), have basic swimming ability, and we’ll take it from there. You don’t have to be a “diver.” You’ll learn what you need to know to be a mermaid, which includes the stuff that’s come over from the other forms of diving.
I looked at the requirements. You need to be able to swim of course.
Yeah. And if you get right down to it, almost all water sports have that. If you fall in the water, it would be good if you knew how to swim. Seems like a good basic safety concept.
Ha! I also thought it interesting that your mermaid programs were open to pre-teens.
Yeah, it’s breath-hold diving, we don’t have the concerns we have with scuba. There’s not a risk of lung overexpansion injuries. We’re not concerned with the kind of depths that limit the junior divers to about 21 m/70 ft. On top of that, this is where we are able to borrow from the community that was there before we got involved. Traditional mermaid courses brought in kids. Kids do this great. They love it. They’ve already been doing it. So it’s not like we had to craft something new to make it fun for kids. Kids already know it’s fun.
We talk a lot in our industry about getting more young people into diving, given the increasing average age of the scuba diving community. Looks to me like mermaiding has the potential to get more young people underwater which is what we want, right?
Absolutely, but also what you’re describing is Western-centric, and changing. We are seeing more young people getting certified. But when you go to the Eastern Hemisphere, it’s like our generation was when we were in our 20s and 30s. That’s who is going diving, the young people. And it’s huge, and I would say it’s much more social there as well.
The ADEX shows are filled with young people. It’s a very different demographic than the US or Europe.
There is a senior crowd there as well. Interestingly, for a long time PADI Japan was top age heavy because of the demographic of their country, but now that is changing as more young people get involved.
Traditionally, Asian cultures have been better at revering the older generation than Western cultures, because they recognize that’s where wisdom lies. So, you bring the innovation and the enthusiasm of youth, and you pair it with the wisdom and lessons of the past. That’s where you get a really strong community. You can probably tell: I really admire that they bring that to our diving community.
PADI has a bazillion dive centres around the world. Are we going to start seeing mermaid programs and communities popping up everywhere?
I would say yes. It’s happening as we speak. I mean it has never happened before: a program was a fringe program, a specialty, that was going to be it. The market was that small. But like I said, the pandemic changed that like it changed so many things. We’ve never seen a program that went from essentially a fringe activity to something worthy of our full support with e-learning in a year and a half! I’ll tell you what, I’ve never had to type so fast in my life.
To me it’s exciting. It’s like, wow. Because diving could either have fallen on its face during what happened or it could do something new. And we’ve done something new. I mean it wasn’t “new new,” but it was new in the expansion and the attention it got and that caused it to grow. The community is even plugging into dedicated deep pools like K-26 in Korea, one of those purpose-built deep pools that goes down to 26 m/85 ft.
Ah yes, deep pools. We have a story about deep pools in this issue.
There are a number in Europe, and there are some being planned for the US. Mermaiding blends beautifully with these. Because it’s more than a pool but not quite open water, but you’ve got the controlled conditions, and you have depth. The freediving community has taken advantage of these, too. Most of these facilities have underwater windows as well. So now, in addition to performance art, you have the potential to make it a spectator sport, if you will, in diving.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. Talk to me about training. We will, of course, include links with the article about your courses etc., but tell me, what do you need to learn to be a mermaid? What is the main focus of the courses?
As I mentioned, a lot of it is stuff you’d learn as a freediver, but applied to mermaids. The first thing you learn is about the costumes because that’s a little different. What is or is not an appropriate mermaid tail? Because you can buy some out there that are purely costumes, they are not for swimming. You learn to swim in them, so there is a huge emphasis on dolphin kick. You learn breathing techniques. But again, as a mermaid, you may not have a snorkel or whatever so you learn how to float, you learn how to wade as a mermaid. At the same time, you are also learning to be a safety buddy. What do I have to watch? I’ve got to have these fins on, things like that.
Is mermaiding a team activity built around two or three people mermaiding together?
Like other forms of diving, you can’t paint too tight a box around that. But what we teach is that you have somebody watching you. It wouldn’t be considered reasonable to have two mermaids on the bottom and one safety diver. But if you were diving in threes, say, one person would go down and then come back up and then another goes down and comes up, and then the third, so it’s a bit like free diving. In open water, the safety diver might escort you through the last 5 m/15 ft. But in pool-based mermaiding, just like in pool-based free diving, the safety diver just stays on the surface.
They learn skills that were developed in freediving but have been mermaid adapted. Like doing a duck dive, which is a little bit different in a tail than in bi-fins. You learn some skills unique to mermaiding. There are more flourishes. Like C-shaped turns and back turns and the mermaid kiss. All these things that they love to do. Team handshakes. They get into the performance a little bit.
The instructor also has the latitude to help the mermaids try the makeup. And again, it’s not your typical Mary Kay. It has to be two things. It has to be waterproof and then if you’re in open water, it has to be environmentally friendly. It can’t be something that would hurt the environment. In our program, the mermaids are taught about the environment and our role as stewards, and they are encouraged to join the community of torchbearers who are trying to speak for the oceans.
You incorporate ocean and water conservation!
Yeah. All our programs have that tie. If you love the ocean, you can see what’s happening. You can also see that we can do something about it. And the most important thing right now is we all have a voice and a purpose when we come together on that.
I’ll run slightly into the weeds here, but you may have heard a few years ago that Drew [PADI CEO Drew Richardson] committed the PADI family to one billion torchbearers by 2050. And that’s actually not that huge a number. Drew also didn’t just pull that number out of the air. When you look at social tipping points, the amount of the population that has to adopt a new view before society tips in that direction, one billion is about half that number.
That’s a laudable goal!
So, obviously, when we start talking to mermaids, a lot of those folks are a crowd from outside our normal sphere. Of course, we want them to understand about the oceans and have a connection to it.
They are ambassadors. They are performing for people who may not be water people.
The potential for a mermaid to get in front of non-divers is in some ways better and at least different. And so they are reaching a new audience. Look at Mermaid Linden . How many kids does she talk to? You start talking with her about the ocean, and you won’t leave without knowing that it’s in trouble, it’s worth saving, and we can do it. She’s reminding six-year olds that they can help.
That’s powerful. I don’t know that the scuba community even talks to six-year olds. Get them while they are young, right? Karl, you and your colleagues have been involved in the development of many, many training programs. Was there anything unique or challenging about creating a mermaid program?
I’d say, fortunately, we’ve done this enough that we have learned where to look. In the past, I would’ve said that the challenge might have been finding the experts that we needed to go over what you’ve done and help us look for gaps and things like that. I would say, if there was any challenge, it would be this, and that was when we got to the e-learning part.
Because of the lockdowns and everything we were very limited in what we could do in terms of finding talent and locations and photographers. We always try our best to show as much multicultural diversity as possible in our products, but this one had to be shot entirely by our China team. We were able to get some stock photos and so on to show more than Asian faces, but you can tell, if you look at the program, that they handled the imaging for us.
But I’ll have to say, if we had to have a challenge, I’ll take that one any day of the week. They did a great job with what they did. They found some really, really talented mermaids to act in the stills and videos. We found enough stock shots of other faces that we could show our diversity. Plus, anybody who knows us, knows that we are probably the most culturally diverse group in diving.
PADI is not the only agency to see an opportunity. SSI launched their mermaid program in 2018. NAUI launched theirs in 2020. As far as Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is concerned, I don’t expect to see “MER 1” anytime soon. But who knows? Do you anticipate more agencies jumping in on the tail wagon, as it were?
Yes, I believe we are going to see others pick this up as well as it grows. Success breeds competition. It’s happening, but that’s cool.
I remember once asking undersea pioneer Phil Nuytten, who invented the modern one-atmosphere suit, if he expected to have any competitors. He told me, “I hope we have competition. In fact, I hope we have a lot of competitors. Because if we don’t, it means that it wasn’t a very good idea.” I’m guessing that the people at SSI and NAUI are at least feeling validated!
Competition also keeps everyone sharp!
All the better for the mermaids, right? You launched your program in December 2020, and then last April PADI held this huge extravaganza in China. It was what, the largest underwater mermaid show ever?
The event was held at Atlantis Sanya in China and it set a Guinness World Record in their giant aquarium. It involved more than 100 PADI Mermaid divers, plus support divers and topside personnel. The divers spent three days rehearsing a synchronized dive—you can imagine what it takes to get 100+ divers to descend at the same time and then swim in a coordinated manner. It was spectacular though—and had a lot of international coverage.
I heard that the event got 170 million views on TikTok—OMG!—and PADI now has something like 600 mermaid instructors and 50 dive centers in China offering your mermaid program.
I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but yes, the PADI Mermaid Program has gotten a lot of attention around the world. More than 600 instructors in China alone sounds right – it’s been eye-opening.
Talk to me a little about technology. Do your courses deal with working with surface supplied gas, or scuba, or the use of nitrox as a pre-breathe? Would that be technical mermaiding? Ha!
It’s not within our program nor any of the programs you’ve mentioned, to my knowledge. It wouldn’t surprise me if we get there. Now I do know that the Weeki Wachee program, which has been around for years, is training professionals. There you have to be a scuba diver because you are going to breathe compressed air, if I am not mistaken. Of course, you have to know how important it is to be exhaling as you ascend. Exactly the opposite of what you would normally do as a free diver or mermaid diver. Right now, that kind of thing is outside of what recreational mermaiding, for lack of a better term, is about. But come ask me again in a few years. I’m serious. We saw freediving do it, right? You just said it—technical free diving. Whoever thought, oh, I can breathe up using a gas with a high oxygen fraction and stay down longer on my one breath. That’s helpful. Who knows? One of the cool things about diving is that divers tend to get what they want instead of what someone thinks they ought to want.
I was speaking to Virginia Hankins at the LA Mermaid School and SHEROES Entertainment that provide professional mermaids for film and photoshoots and professional engagements. They are trained to use underwater breathing equipment. She’s one of your instructor trainers.
Yes, absolutely. We were talking about “Legend of the Blue Sea” earlier, and I’m sure it was true in “Splash”—when you start talking about Hollywood productions, they are going to use scuba. Again, that’s beyond what we are teaching in our recreational program. It requires additional education.
Let’s talk about equipment. I attended Eric Albinsson’s webinar on PADI mermaiding. He said that the global mermaid tail market was valued at $80 million in 2020—that’s annual revenue, and was expected to grow to $150 million by 2026, a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of 9.5%. That blew me away!
I don’t know what number he’s quoting, but it’s definitely there. And again, it’s not new, if you think about it. In our courses, the minimum is a monofin. But look at the variety of tales in that China mermaid video.
They’re exotic and amazing. Some of them look like a real biological tail!
Yeah, so there’s absolutely a market that’s growing. And it’s been there, but it’s accelerating. And again, the pandemic probably helped it.
Obviously, PADI sees this as a business opportunity, not just for itself, but for its dive centers, instructors, and professionals.
Absolutely. For one thing, it’s reaching a new market, and some of these people will likely get exposed to freediving and scuba. So, you get this neat cross-pollination of the three markets, or rather the three communities. The second thing is, it’s a great resource to use. If you have a pool, or if you go to a pool a lot, you can do a lot there. People can go all the way through mermaid without going to open water. So, the center can offer two full certifications, plus the experience. If I ran a dive center, I would definitely at least be dabbling in it right now. I don’t think I’d want to ignore it.
It seems to me it’s a lot like adding freediving to a scuba center.
It’s similar. Your upfront investment isn’t that high. If you’ve got an instructor who wants to get into it, that person trains up and they learn to teach. You don’t need to buy another compressor or a mixed gas blending system. If you’re already catering to freedivers, you’ve already got all that covered. So basically, you’re talking about adding mermaid tails.
Tails! There we go again. I’ve often thought our job as an industry is just to get people into the water. Create water enthusiasts and then they’ll find whatever pathways work for them. Mermaiding is another fun thing to do in the water.
Last question: Where do you see this going? Where will mermaiding be ten or fifteen years from now?
Boy, that’s such a hard one to call because if you had asked me that question a year and a half ago, I would’ve said, “Well, maybe we’ll have a supplemental program someday.” And here we have a full e-Learning program we’re about to debut.
I don’t want to call this one. It’s going to grow. I can say that with confidence because it’s got the inertia now, it’s already happening, it’s already popular, and it’s global. There’s attention to it. It’s beautiful, it gets people in the water. There isn’t a whole lot to say against it. So, it’s going to be bigger. How much bigger? I don’t know. It could really take off in some communities that have not been connected to diving, where that visual appeal is important, and there are a lot of young people involved.
Thanks Karl. Call me crazy, but I find all of this really interesting.
The Darker Side of Mermaids:
The Filthy Mermaid: Got-To-Have-Goods for For Mermaids Gone Bad
MerFest International 2021 (South Haven, MI 20-22 August, 2021)
Mermaids In Paradise (Ramrod Key, Fl 15-22 September, 2021)
PADI: How To Become a Mermaid
Michael Menduno/M2 is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning journalist and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for more than 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving” (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving and he produced the first tek.Conferences and Rebreather Forums 1.0 & 2.0. In addition to InDepth, Menduno serves as an editor/reporter for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, a contributing editor for X-Ray mag, and writes for DeeperBlue.com. He is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA), and a member of the Rebreather Training Council.
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.