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Connecting Passion with Purpose: Avocational Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Diving

For many of us, the desire to explore is as natural as breathing. We wonder about what’s around the next corner and feel a compulsion to follow the trail that goes into the woods. In fact, there has been much written about the “explorer gene” which suggests that this deep seated need to explore is in fact part of our genetic makeup.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Petersen.

People learn to dive for various reasons, and one of the most common reasons is simply curiosity: 70 percent of the world is covered by water and its fascinating diversity calls many to explore. I regularly ask my students “why did you learn to dive” and the most common answer by far is “to explore”. It seems the explorer gene is alive and well in divers.

Unfortunately, real exploration opportunities for divers tend to be scarce. Much current dive training focuses on a passive perspective of marine life and wreck observation, but those who are seriously motivated to explore and search for shipwrecks have few choices to undertake training. Once trained, limited or no opportunity to explore. Magazines and journals such as National Geographic capture our imagination with stories of adventure and exploration. These stories of explorers encourage us and show us what is possible and often outline how these adventurers became world class explorers. Their stories are as unique as their exploits and usually involve luck or judicious timing. Yet, for every person who climbs Mount Everest, many thousands climb smaller mountains. For these amateur adventurers, their exploits are as fulfilling as climbing Mount Everest was to a world-class climber.

There are multiple international diving projects which operate at the pinnacle of excellence and use specialized research techniques, but access is limited to those with the credentials, experience, and social contacts to participate. Learning to dive is the necessary first step, but after that, there is no ready-made pathway or curriculum that allows basic diving skills to be enhanced to fulfill our desires for exploration. Learning how to explore underwater is much more than just diving and diving is just the means to the end, and not the end itself.

Due to the nature of the environment, significant underwater exploration usually requires a well-organized program that includes risk management and complex logistics. Unfortunately, because there is no recognized program that teaches anyone how to be a “dive explorer”, everyone tends to make the same mistakes in their “learning by doing”.

It was against this backdrop that I found a situation that could be improved. I wanted to provide an opportunity for divers to assemble the various skills and knowledge needed to “explore”. I wanted to help them find a way to connect that initial passion that got them into diving with opportunities to do just that. I believed that it was possible to identify and assemble the various skills and knowledge needed to “explore” in a modern learning format that used a combination of eLearning, foundational skills training, and actual project diving to train a diver in how to conduct their own exploration projects.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Petersen.

From what had originally started as more of a thought experiment, I began laying out the outline for a “how to be an explorer” program in the early part of 2020.  This was a time where remote learning was really taking the world by storm as a reaction to the various restrictions and lockdowns that were happening due to the Covid 19 virus. I had used the first month of our “lock down” here in British Columbia as an opportunity to learn a particularly useful eLearning software and I created eLearning “walk throughs” of all my diving training. eLearning is certainly not new, but it was for me, and I was forced to learn the ins and outs of the software. I also learned more than I cared to know about recording lectures on Zoom.

I have always had a particular passion for history, and maritime archaeology was the logical conjunction of my diving and history interests. I had done some training with the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) and had joined several of their projects. Exploring for the sake of exploring is a worthy endeavour but I believed my program would be better served if it was packaged with something like the underwater archaeology training that the UASBC was delivering. It was my view that we needed to connect the passion for exploration that originally got us started diving with a purpose to keep that passion fuelled and supported.

I reached out to the UASBC about collaborating, and it just so happened that I was doing so at a time when the UASBC was considering revamping the underwater archaeology program they were currently delivering. I had many conversations with the UASBC Exploration Director, Jacques Marc, and the result was that the UASBC designed and wrote an entirely new program on UW archaeology that was particularly focused on shipwrecks off the Pacific Northwest coast. I was going to be licensed to be able to deliver their Underwater Archaeology for Divers (UAD) program and it would become a core component of my bigger project.

The UASBC program is simply unmatched by anything else in the world. It was written by avocational archaeologists, but also vetted by professional archaeologists. It is made up of eight chapters and includes significant hands-on work. The UASBC will be teaching this program themselves but for my plans, it provided a nearly perfect core component that I could use for my goals.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Petersen.

For this latter part, I turned to my experiences gained over 40 years of diving and I added modules on logistics, planning, safety and preparedness, risk assessment, and others. These main headings were further broken down into individual sub-topics that needed particular attention. Project diving almost always includes the promise of deliverables, so the course includes a section on writing reports or magazine articles or something for social media. Here, I did something unique and turned to my good friend and award-winning author, Michael Menduno, for help. Michael was a former writer for the Washington Post and the creator and editor of Aquacorps magazine. He is also the current editor of InDepth Magazine and has his hands in multiple other global projects. Michael agreed to offer his experience and skills and we recorded a chapter together where he is the primary author of what is basically a “how to write” module!

Another unique aspect of this course is the inclusion of Human Factors training from Gareth Lock’s “The Human Diver” program (www.thehumandiver.com). Human Factors training has been a significant focus in diver education over the last several years as we have become aware of the importance of non-technical skills such as communication, leadership and teamwork, and their impact on decision making. Training is extremely valuable when working together in a team and Human Factors learning is woven throughout the entire course in addition to being a separate chapter unto itself. Again, I am lucky to call Gareth my friend and he offered to write and record two sections on Human Factors and risk assessment that are offered in the eLearning section of the class. I am one of a handful of people in the world who received certification as an instructor of The Human Diver program, and I couldn’t think of a better example of where HF and non-technical skills come into play than on an exploration project!

We had nearly everything we needed. We had experience with using an eLearning platform, we had a new UASBC Underwater Archaeology for Divers program, we had multiple chapters and modules on various aspects of “how to be an explorer” written and recorded, and special guest appearances by world class experts, Gareth Lock and Michael Menduno. We also just happened to live on the East coast of Vancouver Island, so our location was uniquely situated as a diving destination for multiple reasons. The diving season is a full twelve months long and does not shut down in the winter. There are always sheltered areas to dive regardless of wind direction and weather and dive shops across Canada regularly arrange trips and charters for their land locked divers to come to Vancouver Island and dive during all seasons. Most importantly, the long history of sea faring on Vancouver Island means there are thousands of documented and undocumented shipwrecks and shipwreck sites in the waters around the island. There are over 3400 km of coastline on Vancouver Island and that does not include any of the smaller islands around Vancouver Island proper. The amount of coastline is directly proportional to the number of shipwrecks. This makes the Island a hotspot for shipwreck diving.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Petersen.

All these things existed against a backdrop of a growing adventure tourism market as a part of the leisure and vacation travel world. Adventure tourism has grown to become one of BC’s most exciting economic sectors, and one that provides diverse benefits to communities. In fact, the adventure travel visitor economy supports over 2,200 businesses in British Columbia – mostly small and medium enterprises. The growth of adventure tourism has undoubtedly contributed to the increase of interest in diving. Diving can be adventurous and when combined with education, learning and ‘we did that’, supports a “one-two punch” of interest. This latter part was a pragmatic realization that this program was going to have to generate some income as the final component of the entire program was going to require a considerable financial investment on my part.

This entire project was going to be on hold if we didn’t have a boat. We needed our own diving boat, and it couldn’t be just any boat. I had spent more than enough time on dive boats of all shapes and sizes, getting hammered by water, wind, sun, and just about anything else you could think of. I wasn’t really looking forward to a lot more of it. Plus, an open boat would limit the times of year we could offer the program.

In my search for the perfect diving platform, I was guided by a few “must haves”. It needed to have a covered and sheltered dive deck, a warm and comfortable salon or cabin, a galley was preferable, and it needed to have some type of a swim platform to attach a solid dive ladder. I have had a lot of experience with “renovations”, so I wasn’t too worried about not finding the perfect diving platform right out of the gate. This was a good thing because when I finally found the boat that would work, it required substantial upgrades to its navigation, communication, and sonar equipment as well as modifications to the dive deck by installing a solid ladder and equipment benches. It took a lot of man hours, but that work was completed (as much as work on a boat is ever complete…) this past August.

We ran our first class just before Christmas 2021 and I asked for and received lots of feedback from the participants intended to make the course even better before we released it in 2022. According to the initial group of students, the course is a hit and we have already filled some spaces in our 2022 course curriculum.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Petersen.

We start with approximately two days of eLearning, followed by a six-day, face-to-face learning session. The first two days of our face-to-face time consists of a review of survey methodology and dry land field training. We also do shallow water diving each of the first two days where we practice what we learned in class and during our field drills. This includes plotting our “survey” data in the classroom at the end of the dives. Then, we spend three days of diving and data collection on a historical wreck site from the MV Thermocline. In the evening, we review and plot the data we gathered during the day. On the sixth and last day, we review the final data, and learn about preservation of wreck artifacts. We also discuss how best to present our results, whether in a magazine, report, or social media. One of the prerequisites is learning how to complete the Shipwreck Recording form for the UASBC and the BC provincial government archaeology branch.

We plan to offer courses that emphasize topics like photogrammetry, or that feature “guest speakers” and some of these are already scheduled. We also are completing a schedule of projects that program graduates can continue to work on. This isn’t just a one-off class for students. It is, and always has intended to be, a gateway for continuing to provide the “purpose” for the “passion” that got us started in diving.

You can read more about our program and look at our course schedule on our website at www.thermoclinediving.com. Feel free to ask us any questions and we hope to see you on a BC wreck somewhere!

Read MoreCommunity, diving, exploration, safety, scuba, scuba diving, shipwreck, tec dive, technical diving, underwater surveyShearwater Research

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