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Opinion: Don’t Break That Record

The recent death of 41-year-old technical diver, Sebastian Marczewski, aka “Iron Diver,”
during a failed attempted world record scuba dive to 333 m/1093 ft in Lake Garda, Italy, highlighted the dangers of deep diving record setting. The tragedy occurred just after GUE instructor Dimitris Fifis had penned an opinion piece for InDepth exploring the nature and motivation of deep diving record setting. Fifis explained that he wrote the post in order to get a better personal understanding of what motivates divers to set deep diving records. His post was motivated in part by the deaths of two other technical divers attempting deep records. Here are his thoughts and suggestions.

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by Dimitris Fifis

It has always been in the nature of human beings to fly higher, to explore further, to dive deeper. It is this instinct that has been behind some of the most amazing explorations and discoveries. It is what pushed us forward to a better understanding of our planet, of our body and much more, and it will surely never stop. There will always be people trying to push further than before, people who are willing to bet their lives so that the rest of us may benefit from their discoveries.

The truth is I have the utmost respect for these underwater explorers who have offered us so much. On the other hand, I am sometimes deeply saddened by the loss of life of those in the pursuit of what they think is record-breaking and pushes the boundaries. That is especially true in our beloved activity diving. 

We have suffered many meaningless losses in our community. Losses that made us wonder why. Why did they do it? This is particularly the case when it involves breaking a record that has already been broken.

This is the “why” that I am trying to discover through writing these thoughts.

What drives someone to risk so much in order to break a record that has already been broken? What is the point of seeing your name in a world record book when you know it has been done before? Well, maybe not by a woman. Or, perhaps by a solo diver, but not by a team, or maybe by someone using a rebreather. But what difference do those things really make? 

One reason for doing it might be vanity, although I don’t think this is the main reason for most aspirant record breakers. Was is it really vanity that drove Guy Garman aka Doc Deep to attempt a record-breaking dive to 370 meters/1209 ft., though he had only been a diver for four years? Or was it the result of a culture that glorifies deep dives for its own sake, or for hopes of financial gain? 

Perhaps the reason may simply be trying to stand out and survive in our unfortunately highly competitive diving community and even more competitive professional diving industry. With the number of instructors constantly rising while the number of potential students continues to fall, it is perhaps normal for any dive professional to try to find ways to attract more students. Unfortunately, the strategy of lowering course prices and shortening course times is simply not sustainable and has helped create the problem in the first place.

Becoming a “diving hero” sounds like a good idea to attract more people that will surely want to get trained by the world record holder.

What is not a good idea is to try to perform “record-breaking” deep dives when ill-prepared physically and/or mentally. Also unwise is trying them without adequate financial support, allowing the diver to avoid cutting corners on safety in order to meet the budget. Most importantly, it is not a good idea to proceed without a team that can support the attempt and be able to help in case Murphy sneaks in. 

Of course, as educator Gareth Lock, The Human Diver points out, “Nobody shows up for a dive thinking what a nice day to die”. I am sure that is not what Theodora Balabanova, a Bulgarian technical diving instructor, thought prior to her fatal attempt to dive to 233 meters in hopes of becoming the deepest woman diver, but also the deepest couple, as her husband Mihail, who was critically injured, was diving with her. Theodora had much more diving experience than Guy, but still, the risks are always there, especially on a dive beyond the usual “envelope.“ 

It is only through knowledge, experience, meticulous planning, and a team of expert advisors and support divers that the risks of such dives can be reduced to a sensible level, if at all.  Unfortunately, most of the time, these factors are simply replaced by bravado and peer pressure, which reflects a lack of understanding of the real risks. 

What is more unfortunate is the fact that even if all goes well and the “record” is broken, the positive effects and advertisement will only be temporary. You see, as easy as it is to become famous on social media these days, it is just as easy to be replaced by the next social media celebrity, and the achievement quickly was forgotten.

So, what can instructors do instead?

Simply, take a slower path to success. Increase the quality of your teaching, choose a training agency that shares your values, study and gain deeper knowledge on the topics that you are teaching, and practice your diving and presentation skills. Carefully and honestly analyze the way you teach and try to improve in every course. Take courses from other experienced instructors and learn from them. Increase your experience by participating in demanding exploration projects, and actively participate in conservation initiatives. Finally, respect your students, yourself, your instructors, and the training agency you are teaching for. 

Respect them by delivering the best possible course you can, and they will respect you back by choosing you as an instructor, by recommending you to others, and possibly even by making you an instructor trainer. They will respect you for what you do, not for how deep you once managed to go.

This article is not about pointing fingers, disrespecting, or criticizing people who made mistakes and paid a very high price for them. On the contrary, this article is meant to remember and honour these fallen diving heroes and, more importantly, to emphasize the most valuable lesson learned from them. I am sure both Guy and Theodora would agree that no record is worth dying for.

Additional resources:

Tragedy Strikes Multiple Scuba Record Attempts – DeeperBlue.com

The Last Dive of Sebastian Marczewski


Born in Athens, Greece, Dimitris Fifis started diving in 1991 and became an instructor in 1998. In 2009, after 23 years of service in the Greek Navy (most of them in the aviation branch), he retired and decided to pursue a full-time career in diving. Since then he has managed diving operations in various diving centers in Greece as well as on mega-yachts. Dimitris discovered GUE in 2007 and never looked back. He currently lives and works in Dubai, and is involved in various wreck exploration and underwater filming projects in the area. Because of his strong interest in increasing dive safety through quality education, he also produces training videos for GUE.

Cave

No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

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

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Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini

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

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

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

Freedom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road To Suha Dolca 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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