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By Amanda White
Header Photo by Paige Swan, London Diving Centre
“Where are all the young divers?” I feel like this is a common question I hear at almost every dive event I attend. Being a “young” diver myself, the “older” divers often ask me why I think there are not more young people joining the sport. But, is there really an age gap in the industry? Maybe the youngsters are just hiding…
According to PADI certification data, which provides a broad view of the overall global market, the number of younger divers (let’s define this as under 30 years old), has steadily increased every year for the last five years. Divers under 30 represented 43% of global certifications in 2019, up from 26% in 2014. This is good news for the longevity of the industry if we can keep these divers interested in the sport. But that is key.
Divers under 30 represented 43% of global certifications in 2019, up from 26% in 2014.
This is where Robert Thomas is to the rescue. The 20-year-old British instructor wanted to connect young divers through the recently launched Facebook group Young Divers International. This group seeks to connect and inspire the younger generation of divers by giving them a place to share their stories and a way to find dive buddies all over the world. I recently had a chat with Rob about why he started the group and his perspective on the industry.
InDepth: So how did Young Divers International come about?
Robert Thomas: It first sort of came about after I spoke at one of the Birmingham dive shows in 2018. So, it’s been in the cards for a little while really. But during the lockdown period especially, I had a bit of time on my hands, so I was trying to be as productive as possible. I thought the best way to start would be just using social media. And then it snowballed. And it’s getting some quite positive reviews which I’m really happy about, and it’s mainly just to encourage youngsters to promote what they’re doing, and hopefully that in turn will encourage others to do the same.
When I found out about it, I joined the group and scrolled through people’s posts. And it was pretty cool to see how many people are young and passionate about diving. I think this brings hope to the future of the industry.
It’s really cool to see. I’m over the moon with the rate at which it is growing. And I was really blown away by just how positive everyone was about it when it first happened. I was quite shocked really. It was quite a nice feeling.
I think you found something that was needed and fulfilled the need.
Definitely. And when I first set it up, we first had a group of youngsters just sort of bouncing ideas off of each other about what they would like to see happen in the industry. Grace Westgarth was a part of the group, and I gave her the design for the logo, but she was the one that made it on that front, so she did a really good job there. She deserves a shout out for that one. Basically it’s not a solo mission. It’s a united front.
You’ve been in the dive industry your whole life because of your dad [British Cave Diving Group training officer Michael Thomas]. Did your personal experience play into why you thought YDI was needed?
I thought it was needed because I was getting bored of getting on dive boats, in the UK especially, and for a lot of years and being the only young face on the boat. So I wanted to try to balance that out a little bit. Because obviously without younger divers coming through, by the time I get to the older generation’s age, I’m not going to have an industry to work in.. But it is definitely changing. Nowadays there are more and more younger divers at all different levels. Be that either bubble blowing, sort of scuba diving for the first time, or even getting into the realms of technical diving. So it is going in the right direction, in my opinion, which is really nice to see. Everybody needs a bit of Zen right now, and I feel like diving is that.
“Everybody needs a bit of Zen right now, and I feel like diving is that.”
So what are your goals for the group?
Basically promoting what young divers under 30 are doing. But it’s not an exclusive club, because obviously without the experience of the older generation, we are off to a no-starter. So it really does aim to incorporate all divers together to try and push this forward. Not just making a little exclusive club of youngsters. So it’s all good and well promoting high-end diving for youngsters, but they do need to be held back on occasion and just basically balanced out by the divers who have learned through years of experience and paved the way for us.
I would also like to start running trips, not necessarily in the name of YDI, but obviously mixing that in. And if we can get a boat full of young divers, that’s a great way of promoting the dive scene as a whole.
Are you seeing the trips as UK-based or worldwide?
Big picture, I’d love worldwide because there’s lots of places I’d like to go diving. I’m looking at doing trips down to Cornwall to start with. Obviously with everything at the minute (COVID-19), and being UK-based, the diving we have is pretty good, and I’m going to capitalize on that. Then hopefully once travel restrictions are less complex, I’d like to do a trip out to North Carolina and dive some of the submarines out there as well.
That will be a lot of fun. So, what advice would you give to new divers?
Definitely give it a go. If you’ve never dived before, it is probably going to be one of the best things you’ve ever done because who doesn’t want to breathe underwater like a fish? That’s cool in its own right. But also, don’t be disheartened if you don’t get things straight away because it does take time and effort. But the more you put into it the more you are going to get out of it as well. So it’s a bit of a trade-off in that respect.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help as well. Try and set your goals realistically and enjoy the diving you’re doing at the time. Even if you’re seeing people blasting off into the distance playing with tech toys and such things like that, there is no rush for any of it. Just take your time and enjoy what you’re doing would be my advice.
What would you like to see in the future from the dive industry?
To be fair, I would like to see more unity between key industry players. If I had a vision of the dive industry, it would be really nice if we had a sort of unified goal of just going diving! Everybody’s got different things to offer within the dive industry, so if we were to mix them all into one pot, it would create a pretty great thing for the whole scene, present and future. The industry is changing on a fairly regular basis at the moment due to some unfortunate circumstances (COVID) mixing things up, so now more than ever it is the time to pull together, creating positive change wherever humanly possible.
“Everybody’s got different things to offer within the dive industry, so if we were to mix them all into one pot, it would create a pretty great thing for the whole scene, present and future.”
I agree with you. I think that if we want to bring in new people, that’s the way to do it.
Yeah, definitely. If we could come out on the other side of COVID stronger than what we were before, I think we’d be in a really good place. And people are looking for different activities to try. They’ve probably been locked up. I know, in the UK at least, a lot of people’s screen time has increased dramatically, so potentially getting outside in nature and enjoying what the planet has to offer whilst they still can is going to be a good thing. Diving is a good social distancing activity. You’re underwater and with your own mask and breathing set. You can’t really get much better than that, can you?
Your dad recently wrote an article for us about cave diving in the UK. Do you feel like that group has done a good job attracting young people?
Yeah, absolutely. I am the secretary of the Somerset section in the Cave Diving Group in the UK, so I’ve kind of climbed the ranks relatively quickly in that respect. But there was a job role opening and I was like, it would be nice to have a young person keeping all the oldies in check. That being said, in the last two years we’ve had a load more new trainees come in. There are probably as many active young divers in the group now as there are of the older generation, if not more. In the Somerset section at least, we’re doing a pretty good job of increasing young divers and young cavers, basically because the group is not just about diving in that respect.
Why do you think it’s so difficult to bring in young people, or the next generation, into diving?
“A simple answer to that would be cost. Say you want a twin set and a scooter. Most young diver are going to struggle to afford that.”
A simple answer to that would be cost. Say you want a twin set and a scooter. Most young diver are going to struggle to afford that. So without the support of either parental help or external forces, being agencies, it’s quite an expensive sport to get into. Once you’re in it, it’s not so bad because you’ve got your kit and it lasts for a long time because we have good quality manufacturers. But the initial setup cost for a new diver isn’t cheap.
Other than money, do you think there are other obstacles that are in the way for people?
There are obviously the logistical aspects. Diving as a hobby, on a regular basis, does take some dedication. Like my friends, for example: if we go out to the pub the night before, and then I say to them, ‘oh yeah, who fancies waking up at 7:30 in the morning to go diving?’, I can tell immediately the initial start of 7:30 is going to put a number of people off which is always quite a funny thing. So obviously effort and dedication. But once you’ve worked out how good it is, then you are set really and the dedication kind of falls into place.
Are there any specific people that come to mind, I guess young people more specifically, that you think are going to be pretty influential in the direction of diving?
Yes. To be fair, all of the Rolex scholars I’ve met have been some incredibly well-rounded and inspirational people with the stuff they’re doing. To name just a few young divers who I think are making a difference. Mae Darricott, Joe Gurney, Eleanor Stewart, and Will Cooper. Along with every young dive professional for showing others what’s possible and doing their part to inspire the next generation of divers.
Mae – for continued work towards conservation and marine biology. Working closely with manufacturers helping drive the industry at its core, along with many others who have passed through the Rolex scholarship scheme.
Joe- for being a flagship instructor and instructor trainer for SSI. Leading a large number of youthful divers into the underwater realm. Promoting not only training but actually diving when not training.
Ellie- being a brand ambassador and a high level tech instructor at a young age. Working in different roles around the dive industry leading to a clear level of experience, again working to progress the industry from the inside.
Will – in some ways similar to me, started diving at a young age not only going diving but also in and around the industry learning its quirks and adapting them to suit. Continuing to rise on both personal and instructor levels of diving. Trying hard to lower the average age of the dive industry.
What is important to note with all of the above is they go the extra mile to inspire the passion that gets people hooked on diving. And it’s that passion that changes someone from a holiday diver into a weekly or monthly diver. The lure of adventure and the call of the unknown need to be sparked. Once that flame burns it ain’t easy to extinguish.
And then obviously, you are a young diver and instructor who is making a difference, too. Is there anything specific that you think that the dive industry should change or do differently to reach a younger audience?
I think it’s definitely improved, but I’ll go back to diving fanatics. Diving should be fun at the end of the day. Obviously there are safety regulations that need to be abided to because for obvious reasons being underwater is not necessarily conducive to life. But, that being said, if you’re an instructor teaching a course, it’s your job to not just cover the necessary skills but also to encourage the passion and show how fun it can be. Because I feel, in some cases, you might get chucked off a boat, do some skills and then surface again. And that is not an accurate representation of what diving is or should be about.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you are up to right now?
I’m making up for lost time at the minute. I’ve been all over the place. I was teaching. I did some DPV and twin set training the other day. Basically my own diving, I’m working toward my mod three on a JJ, so I’ve been busy learning the theory of that over lockdown. So that’s kept me entertained and my mind a bit more active. And obviously, I personally would quite like to get into the cave instructor side of things, but I’m not quite old enough for that yet.
Meet Some of the YDI Members:
Location: South East London
Certifications: Master Diver, Sidemount Diver, Deep Diver, Adaptive Diver, etc. (DM in progress)
“As a Girls That Scuba Ambassador, my main focus now is to encourage more women of any age into this amazing sport. Especially in the UK, as there are so many amazing dive sites here that people don’t know about. I have recently started sidemount diving and I love how it has opened up so many doors for me. I can see myself going further down the technical route in the future.
Eventually, my goal is to be an underwater cinematographer. This also will allow me to spread the very important message of ocean conservation to the younger generation.”
Location: New Zealand
Certifications: GUE Fundamentals – Tech Pass, GUE Rec 3, PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor
Annika is an impassioned ocean enthusiast and was selected as the first global scholar for Global Underwater Explorers NextGen Scholarship. She is a Senior Environmental Educator for BLAKE, managing their ocean education program, BLAKE NZ-VR. In the last year and a half, she has taught over 30,000 students about the ocean and the threats facing our marine environment. Annika holds a Master of Architecture, and in 2019, she was awarded the Westpac NZ Women of Influence Youth Award.
“Diving is my sanctuary. It’s where the world stops spinning and it’s ‘my’ time where I can explore, think and breathe. I can let my mind be quiet whilst surrounded by the most incredible beauty and my favourite part is, I am often surrounded by my best friends and divers that are equally passionate. I have had my best memories around the ocean and this has made me determined to share these experiences with the people around me. My passion is to ignite a sense of wonder with what lies below the surface within people and open their eyes to the beauty that I have seen.
It’s not a competition—it’s not about how many qualifications you have, lasting longer on a tank than everyone else, or how many dives you have done. Instead, be curious and ask questions, if there’s something you’re concerned about, talk about it. I found having a dive mentor (this could be a dive instructor or someone in the diving community that you respect) was really helpful and the most important thing is to make sure you’re having fun! “
Age: 25 years
Certifications: Advanced Open Water Diver, SSI Shark Diver
At the age of 10 years I did my first “bubble maker”. At 12, I received my Junior Open Water Diver. Both of my parents are scuba divers. I think that’s why I have this big big passion for the ocean. Four years ago I started to work as an underwater cameraman. For one year I have worked as a freelancer around the world with my camera. Normally I work for my own project, called Feed Your Dreams, which is a company who makes promotional videos for tour operators. In addition to that, I work for broadcasters and organizations for ocean protection.
My big passion is sharks. For a few years I filmed them around the world and was always excited by them. My biggest goal would be to find a way to protect sharks in a way that makes it possible to show them to my kids one day. It always makes me happy and sad at the same time to dive with sharks, because I know how threatened they are. And if we don’t change our way of fishing and work to protect them, they will be gone forever. My biggest advice for anybody who has never dived before? Do it! And do it now because every second we lose a piece of our beautiful ocean.
The biggest challenge for me is taking the perfect shot of an underwater scene while not getting too impressed by it.”
Certifications: PADI Divemaster, TDI Sidemount with Advanced Nitrox/ Decompression Procedures.
“I did my first dive in 2015 when I was 14 years old. A year and a half ago I started my DM training and got into technical diving. I got into sidemount diving because it seemed to give me the most for my investment. And there it is, the biggest challenge. Financing diving, and especially tech diving, as a student is a massive challenge. My advice to any young divers would be to get in touch with your local dive centers and show people how enthusiastic you are. You will benefit from their knowledge and they might even help you out with your expenses. Be creative and offer people to help. From simply offering to carry tanks and getting yours filled for free up to managing the social media of dive shops. Now I finance some of my diving by selling custom line markers and other 3D printed diving gadgets like dust caps.”
Feel free to visit my website: divingdaniel.com
Certifications: PADI Divemaster
“After starting my diving journey in 2013, my love for the ocean has only grown stronger. Diving gives me a glimpse into a world full of wonder and allows me to witness the power of nature with a sense of exhilarating freedom. The art I create is an extension of that feeling and gives me an opportunity to articulate the magic; hopefully evoking the same burning passion in others. My mission is to spread awareness of what lies beneath the surface and help to educate others as to why it is so vital to protect the ocean and inspire others to dive into this unimaginable world.”
Amanda White is the managing editor and designer for InDepth and the Marketing Director for Global Underwater Explorers. Her life’s goal is to make a positive impact on how we, as humans, treat the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. Amanda is a GUE recreational diver and volunteers for Project Baseline and Clean Up the Lake.
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!
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.
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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