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Portable Habitats: New Technical Diving Capabilities are Well Within Reach

Portable habitats aren’t only for cave diving. They have long been a dream of undersea technologists like Michael Lombardi, whose ocean space habitats were used during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. He compares the habit experience to “camping in the woods overnight versus taking a short hike in the park,” and believes the “sweet spot” for underwater habitation is directly ahead of us. Tune in, turn on, drop down.



by Michael Lombardi. Lead image: The author’s Gen 1 Ocean Space Habitat deployed in openwater to support decompression after deep 400+ foot scientific dives. Image by M. Lombardi, courtesy National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program.

In June–July 1964, Ed Link, a businessman, inventor, and philanthropist, conducted his second Man-in-the-Sea experiment in the Berry Islands (a chain in the Bahamas) with Robert Sténuit and Jon Lindbergh, one of the sons of Charles Lindbergh. Sténuit and Lindbergh stayed in Link’s SPID habitat (Submersible, Portable, Inflatable Dwelling) for 49 hours underwater at a depth of 432 ft/132 m, breathing a heliox.

The SPID, as the name implies, was a portable inflatable habitat, and was among the several projects through the 1960’s and 1970’s aimed at affording more efficient and effective manned diving operations via new techniques in saturation diving out in the deep oilfields, and also to serve as proxies for the space race. Even today, that bold dive sounds like something out of science fiction and leaves one to ponder where the dream of undersea habitation may take us in the future.

Underlying these ambitious initiatives, over 50 years ago, was the shared vision—among many, but not all—of making the technology accessible to diving scientists such that the ocean could be studied by people who were essentially part of the environment rather than temporary visitors. Several habitats dedicated to science came and went through that period and into the early 1980’s, with the last standing today being the Aquarius Reef Base, and the Jules Undersea Lodge, both in the Florida Keys. They have much in common—primarily that they are fixed ‘permanent’ structures— meaning that their operations are limited to their current deployment locations. Both are symbolically important platforms that remain relevant to afford science and education opportunities.–Most notably, in recent years, was Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain’s 2014 ‘Classroom Under The Seaproject in which they resided within the Jules Habitat for 73 days, a true testament to human endurance beneath the sea.

These two permanent habitats also illustrate several challenges; first and foremost is the operational expense. Sadly, field marine science today operates very, very lean. There are no huge budgets that afford large field teams to spend weeks to months immersed in the underwater environment using even conventional scuba. Some scientists will tell you that “the basic ecology type studies are done.” This was the work that required the careful eye of the scientist to be there, on site, and in the environment for lengthy periods of time. I, for one, don’t believe that for a second, and have personally seen and done things that no robot could do at depth (such as the discovery of a highly cryptic new species of fish Derilissus lombardii).

My belief is that the dismissive perspective is the result of the science community simply not having routine or affordable access to the environments in question. There are massive swaths of deeper depths, within range of modern technical diving, that no person has ever set sights on—primarily because the effort to get there is perceived as too technically challenging and too expensive [or rather not cost-effective]— relative to the return.

Derilissus lombardii, a new species of mesophotic clingfish discovered in literally just minutes of dive time. These types of discoveries justify improving human capacity to explore and study untapped environments. Image from Sparks & Gruber 2012.

Where Does That Leave Undersea Habitation Today?

Today, the most cost-effective means for long duration undersea habitation is the technique called ‘saturation diving’, all evolving from the aforementioned golden era of the 1960s and 1970s to specifically meet the call of industry, with first applications in the offshore oilfields, and then more recently inshore within freshwater aqueducts and other specialized circumstances. This mode of diving involves the use of mobile diving bells, often deployed from a ‘saturation vessel/ship or barge’, where the divers remain under pressure in a deck chamber, and transit to/from depth in a bell. This is done for safety reasons and to allow the vessel to remain mobile and transit to the next work location without waiting for the divers to return from lengthy decompression. This mobility is important to cost effectively move project to project, and it’s an equally important concept for a scientist who wants access to varied geography—something that fixed, stationary habitats do not provide.

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Common to modern saturation diving, and the permanent science habitats, are relative comforts. –Both allow for a decent meal at the end of the day, a place to catch some sleep, afford some workspace, and atmospheric and environmental regulation to make the uncomfortable stay as comfortable as possible. To accommodate all of this—for days or even weeks—requires lots and lots of topside support and infrastructure. That means it’s an expensive proposition, and the end has to justify the means—industry can sustain this if and when the job warrants it—science, on its own, cannot.

Ed Link’s SPID always resonated with me: the idea of being portable by making the habitat structure itself a lightweight inflatable shell or envelope, with the balance of equipment required being relatively modular. The herculean effort to spend 49 hours at a depth of 432 feet is still unfathomable. That was more than 50 years ago, and not much that is related has been done since.

Where did it go? Why did it disappear?

I can speculate that a few issues came to play; one being diver comfort at depth, in the cold, and without the comforting support of today’s saturation diving spreads. This is totally understandable. Two being safety; those guys were as out there on their own as you can get which can very quickly turn the stomach of a seasoned 21st century dive safety professional or risk manager, also very understandable.

At the University of Arizona’s Biosphere2 facility, Ocean Space Habitat use techniques are being evaluated and improved to better fit within scientific diving regimens. Image by M. Lombardi.

Portable Habitats to Augment Decompression

Since 1964, portable habitats were revisited a few times, principally in the cave diving community, as more modernized techniques in technical diving allowed ambitious surface-to-surface decompression dives to be carried out. This means saturation at depth is avoided, and the divers commit to desaturating on the single dive before surfacing. With the longest required decompression stops being in the shallows and requiring multiple hours to even a day of decompression, revisiting portable inflatable habitat technology became a demonstrated need. Perhaps most notably was Bill Stone’s Wakulla Project. Similar efforts have taken place since, all principally in caves in large part given that small habitat structures can be wedged into the ceiling of the cave to maintain its position. That raises the biggest challenge with the technology – ballast and anchoring.

Recent Directions With Ocean Space Habitat Technology

In my own work, which is in non-cave environments, I’ve realized the depth and duration boundaries while working in excess of 400 feet on mesophotic coral reefs – that warranted a close look at the need for a decompression habitat, and the value was plain as day. Our first use was in 2012 as a captsone demonstration with support from the National Geographic Society and Subsalve USA, we built up the Gen 1 ‘Ocean Space Habitat’ as a decompression station resting between 20 and 30 feet of water. Quite simply, this first deployment shed light on the concept of making productive use of otherwise unproductive time.

When we consider the effort for a mainstream mixed-gas technical dive— while it’s gotten easier over the last two decades, particularly with rebreathers—there is considerable question as to whether or not 10-45 minutes of bottom time at the expense of multiple hours of decompression is worth it. There’s no getting around the fact that hanging on a line for hours upon hours is miserable. So, our Gen 1 Ocean Space Habitat was simply about adding a level of comfort, though so much more became evident.

The 2012 project got us thinking seriously about enhanced capabilities while maintaining full system mobility, though while separating the issue of ballast and anchoring as an integral component that also must be portable. Even a modest-sized structure that can accommodate two people exerts substantial buoyant force of several thousands of pounds, and this needs to be managed safely. 

Concepts in managing large buoyancy volumes and life-critical rigging have carried over from my career in commercial diving and marine construction. To date, we’ve deployed portable habitats using a variety of anchoring techniques including drilling and epoxying pins into substrate, setting dead weights, hydraulically installing helical anchors, and even beneath floating structures using inverted scaffolding. The anchoring strategy is always location/environment specific, and can be achieved with nominal investment. Perhaps someday we’ll have strategically pre-deployed habitat ballast at sites of interest, and can simply move location to location with the portable system in tow, prepared to set up ‘camp’.

UCONN Dive Officer Jeff Godfrey surveys the deep mesophotic reef in the Bahamas. Hours and days and even years,  not just minutes, of time are needed in this habitat to fully reveal its secrets. Photo by M. Lombardi courtesy National Geographic/Waitt Grants. 

We’ve continued to incrementally address several challenges with portable habitats, all with an eye on making them more widely available for a variety of purposes. In 2015, in cooperation with the City University of Hong Kong, we deployed a system near the remote fishing village off of Kat O Island where the habitat occupants could simply sit among the aquaculture pen and observe as an integral part of the system. We cycled several students through the habitat to have the unique experience, and also teach them about principles in atmospheric management within this confined space. For this evolution, we incorporated a purpose-built rebreather for atmospheric management. While challenging, given the language barrier, what was reassuring to me was that principles in rebreather use had become simple enough over the last 20 years, so  this information could be distilled to a very basic level. I realized that while portable habitats had established utility for decompression, they may well be simple enough for more mainstream non-technical use.

We followed that critical demonstration with some fine tuning of the habitat life support, and in cooperation with New York University, went on to be awarded a patent in 2018 entitled Portable Inflatable Habitat with Modular Payload, System and Method’.

Current Activities

Over the last few years we’ve carefully considered the work from the last half a century, and we believe there is a niche emerging to make use of this portable inflatable habitat technology in a more widespread way. This very well may be the ticket to more routinely afford science with the life-in- the-sea capabilities dreamed about so long ago. The sweet spot isn’t ‘saturation’ per se; that requires creature comforts and costly infrastructure. It also is not ‘decompression’; that’s a need for only the most experienced technical divers. For the average diving scientist or enthusiast, it’s about a newly immersive experience and the gift of time in the water.

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Deployed in very shallow water, say 7 to 9 meters/20 or 30 feet, where no decompression limits are virtually infinite, portable habitats simply provide space – space to work, space to rest, space to interact, space to observe – and afford time. According to American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) statistics, the average scientific dive is about 45 minutes in length. That means that virtually all marine science data and observations made by divers being there todate have been made within these little snapshots of time, and only those fortunate to have deeper pockets have been granted improved access with more sophisticated techniques. By simplifying the application of habitats to shallow water, and leveraging tools and techniques that are becoming more and more familiar (rebreathers), that are readily available and understood in today’s technical diving community, cost-effective diving excursions can reach a full day, overnight, or potentially several days with both limited infrastructure and overhead costs. It’s not about depth or duration necessarily; it’s about the newly appreciating human value from the immersive experience.

This changes the game.

For perspective, I like the camping analogy – we certainly learn more from an overnight in the woods than we do a short walk through the park. Until now, we haven’t had that opportunity, and it’s one that is so very important. Humanizing marine science means that the diver can become a more effective and important tool for the job. We’ll see things we’ve never seen, have interactions we’ve never had, and catalyze renewed understandings of how ocean systems work – all by becoming part of the system.

This was very well illustrated by Dr. Tristan Guttridge and James Glancy during their recent (2021) work on Andros with hammerhead sharks, which was featured on Shark Week. We deployed a recent generation, portable habitat in 7 m/20 ft of water in proximity to a number of environments of interest that Dr. Guttridge wanted to visit and observe all during one tidal cycle to learn more about hammerhead sharks in the region. Divers entered the water around 2 AM using standard open-circuit diving equipment and conducted multiple excursions all within recreational dive limits from the habitat over a ten-hour period, without surfacing.

Multiple multi-level dives were made, all without incurring decompression prior to returning to the habitat, and then, when surfacing 10 hours later, their computers were clear. This effort was rather revealing – first, it served to prove out that our technology and system itself are viable. Second, it demonstrated that full-day underwater experiences can be had without undue decompression stress, and third that the ‘gift of time’ promised from early undersea habitation may be within reach in a cost-effective way.

A recent Ocean Space Habitat iteration deployed in openwater for the Discovery+ Shark Week Special ‘The Great Hammerhead Stakeout’. Image by M. Lombardi courtesy Bog Wave Productions/Discovery.

From a decompression standpoint, rebreathers and technical diving have always been about reducing our decompression obligation to get the diver out of the water as quickly but safely as possible. That’s been an okay perspective but does little to truly capitalize on rebreather technology. In most cases, we have four to six hours of life support on our back. If none of that were needed for decompression, and we were then dependent on a small habitat to decompress overnight or take a break mid-day, we would have more time to be immersed in the environment, allowing us to carry out the tasks at hand. We could make use of otherwise wet time, hanging on a line for other productivity—processing samples or imagery, having a bite to eat, watching a movie, taking a nap, even.

 When time is on our side and there’s no shortage of it, why rush to get out of the water? By lowering PO2s to ranges where oxygen toxicity is less concerning for long exposures, we have no shortage of time. From the nitrogen standpoint, so long as the habitat nitrogen partial pressure is less than or equal to surface nitrogen pressure, theoretically there is no decompression penalty to extensive stays in very shallow water, and we can come and go freely with the habitat becoming the new surface.

Conceptual dive profiles revealing the types of excursions that can be made in shallow water. A habitat provides respite at the 20 foot periods

The capability is very real, attainable, and has been proven out, though we still have an open question of how portable habitation might impact day-to-day operational footprints or constraints. For example, is there a cost-benefit to adding some complexity to afford a vastly longer immersive experience versus sticking to the status quo of short experiences? Our team has just recently begun to address this question with work at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere2 facility. Biosphere2 was purpose-built to study enclosed environments, sustainability, and how humans function within these closed systems with an eye on future human initiatives on Mars or elsewhere, so we are thrilled to be undertaking similar work within the Biosphere2’s ‘ocean’. To date, we’ve deployed a few iterations of our Ocean Space Habitat within the Biosphere to evaluate hardware and technical improvements, and also to begin gathering very early data with DAN Research related to cognitive performance and stress of the habitat occupants. As the project continues, we expect to carefully assess what a small team can achieve within a 24-72 hour stay. This would be while leveraging things like consumer electronics, advances in scrubber chemistry, and while establishing simple but reliable system use protocols that make dives of this duration within routine reach for today’s ‘technical diver’. 

Future Directions

Undersea habitation, while ‘cool’ in concept, requires a demonstrated need to become viable. Exploration of this question with simple, low-cost, portable habitats will be the path to understanding if larger, permanent structures might become useful in the future. For example, now that we have this gift of time that is potentially accessible to large populations, can the time be used to improve our understanding of the ocean across environments around the world? And then, is the effort more cost-effective than alternative intervention strategies? Embracing ‘citizen scientists’ will be mission critical.

We can continue to explore for the sake of exploring, although it’s the discovery of a market opportunity attracting industry that makes new capabilities sustainable. As much as it saddens me, to date there is just no need to put people on the seafloor semi-permanently, outside of oil and gas and municipal infrastructure service work. If there were, we’d have no shortage of habitats. Of recent concepts proposed, I think Phil Nuytten’s Vent Base Alpha—while still space-age—is the most practical. This model suggests that a one-atmosphere habitat might be placed alongside a hydrothermal vent, The energy from the vent would power the habitat, and the personnel would be there in support of deep-sea mining. 

This only works if 1) there are long term tasks to conduct that require humans on site such as robotic vehicle maintenance 2) the operation is more cost effective than maintaining a surface vessel and making multiple seafloor transits to conduct the same tasks while proven out to be safe, and 3) if the environmentalists agree that deep sea mining is an acceptable alternative to fossil fuel independence and can be done responsibly.

Progress means moving forward and finding—then filling—the niche. In the case of underwater habitation, it’s taken 50 years of very literal ups and downs, but I’m confident that the sweet spot is not ancient history—it’s in front of us; it’s simple, palatable thanks to rebreathers, affordable and well within our reach. What’s more it’s something we can all participate in to help justify the value proposition of putting people beneath the sea. Think of it as an underwater camping trip.

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Dive Deeper

Alert Diver: Michael Lombardi: Immersed in Science By Madeline Coombs and Frauke Tillmans, PhD

Living and Working in the Sea by James W. Miller and Ian G. Koblick

NatGeo: New ‘tent’ makes it possible to camp underwater. New submersible “tent” lets divers nap, eat, and decompress beneath the waves

Michael Lombardi is a Rhode Island, USA- based diving contractor, inventor, and entrepreneur. He has amassed more than 5000 working dives in extremely challenging conditions ranging from inshore marine construction to deep mesophotic coral reefs. He Co-Chairs the Marine Technology Society’s Diving Committee and is widely published in the field. His company designs and builds closed circuit rebreathers, CCTV systems, portable habitats, specimen collectors, and recently medical device appurtenances for respiratory and hyperbaric applications. His work on portable habitats has been funded by the National Geographic Society, and recently featured on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. His favorite undersea creature is the mesophotic clingfish bearing his namesake, Derilissus lombardii, which is reposited at the American Museum of Natural History. More on Lombardi Undersea LLC can be found at Michael’s work in the community can be found at His email is:


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.

Photo courtesy of Kirill Egorov

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.

Brent Scarabin, Jarrod and George “Trey” Irvine getting ready to dive.
Jarrod with his Halcyon PVR-BASC prototype.
George Irvine and Jarrod conducting the original DIR workshop.

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! 

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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. 

L2R: Jarrod Todd Kincaid and Rickard Lundgren plotting their 1999 Britannic expedition.

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. 

Diving Fatalities

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.

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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. 

Casey McKinlay and Jarrod with stages and Gavin scooters in Wakulla Springs. Photo courtesy of David Rhea

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.

All in a dive of diving for the WKPP.

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

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. 

Photo courtesy of Kirill Egorov

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. 

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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.

Photo courtesy of Kirill Egorov

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.”

See Listings Below For Additional Resources On GUE And GUE Diving!

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.

Anatomy of a Fundamentals Class

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!

Back to Fundamentals: An Introduction to GUE’s Most Popular Diving Course

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. 

The GUE Pre-dive Sequence

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.

The Flexibility of Standard Operating Procedures

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!

Standard Gases: The Simplicity of Everyone Singing the Same Song

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.

Rules of Thumb: The Mysteries of Ratio Deco Revealed

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.

The Thought Process Behind GUE’s CCR Configuration

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!

GUE and the Future of Open Circuit Tech Diving

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.

Project Divers Are We

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.

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