I recently got my first taste of everything when I headed over to America to be introduced as the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) inaugural NextGen Scholar! Over the last week I have been attending the GUE Conference in High Springs, Florida - listening to all of the inspiring speakers and getting to know this amazing community. This was my first time in America and this has added to my excitement of what is to come over the next year.
Exploring High Springs
Amanda White, content manager at GUE welcomed me at the airport in Gainesville after 18hours of flying, before we made our way to High Springs. High Springs and the surrounding area is world-renowned for its freshwater springs and underwater caves and is the location of the GUE Headquarters.
The conference didn't start till Friday afternoon, so we had a couple of days to explore the area. The next morning Amanda and I joined fellow divers Norma, Justin and Kian to dive Ginnie Springs and experience an introduction to what it would be like cave diving. I am not cave certified (yet) but there is a cavern in Ginnie Springs called the ‘ballroom’ that open water divers can enter. I loved the name ‘ballroom’ for this cavern as there was definitely a lot of dancing and excitement as my eyes adjusted to this overhead environment and the limestone interior being illuminated by our lights. Thank you Extreme Exposure for sorting me out with all the gear I needed including the biggest sets of tanks I have ever seen!
That evening I meet more of the GUE community at the Divers Den and amongst many conversations, I heard there were manatees in the springs!! Within no time I found three equally excited divers like myself where we headed down to Crystal Springs the next morning to swim with this beautiful species.
We went out with Fun2Dive where we headed out onto the Crystal Springs looking for any sight of these creatures. These springs vary in depth but most of the time we were in 2-5m of water. Manatees live in coastal waters and rivers, and they’re the ocean’s largest herbivores. We were extremely lucky to be able to get in the water with two manatees, one was a pregnant female and a male, who continued to follow her around.
For those that do not know what a manatee is, just imagine a huge grey rock that is bigger than yourself. At one end there is the manatees face that resembles an elephant with a short trunk and the opposite end a tail that looks like a huge fan. They eat seagrass and congregate in the springs, especially over winter months to come together to stay warm. Manatees are very messy eaters and most of the time they had their head down deep beneath the seagrass. Though they can hold their breath while submerged for 15 to 20 minutes, manatees usually surface every three to five minutes to breathe. With a single breath, manatees can replace 90 percent of the air in their lungs; humans, by comparison, replace just 10 percent. Very, very cool creatures!
The GUE Conference 2019
The first conference event was the social dinner on the Friday night where I got my first introduction with everyone who was attending the conference. GUE Divers and Instructors travelled from around the world to hear the incredible array of speakers share their various global projects. This year was the 20th anniversary for Global Underwater Explorers and during the conference it was amazing to hear all the stories from the incredible passionate divers that has formed GUE.
Jarrod Jablonski, founder and president of GUE opened the 2019 GUE conference and talked about the past, present and the future where the GUE NextGen scholarship was announced.
Over the day we heard from guest speakers including;
In the afternoon, we split into break out groups and this was the toughest decision of the day as I wanted to listen to them all! I attended the history of the Woodville Kerst Plain Project (WKPP) by David Rhea and The Battle of Egadi by Mario Arena, knowing I could watch them all on GUEtv. It was amazing to meet so many incredible explorers in one room, and I felt truly privileged to be able to participate.
The following day included a series of workshops practicing different skills and discussing diving related topics. In the morning I participated in the rescue scenarios lead by Mark Devoldere and ‘the’ Gemma. These are skills that aren’t practiced enough outside of a course and just like a first aid course, these skills are always crucial to practice in a variety of conditions. The afternoon was spent listening to Photogrammetry Projects by Kees Beemster and John Kendall and the Community Building Panel on how to build a successful diving community.
How Project Baseline started
The final day was spent exploring North Florida with Dr. Todd Kincaid understanding how Project Baseline started. Project Baseline was created to motivate divers to refuse to accept perpetual decline as inevitable, investing themselves in the efforts to understand, restore, and protect the underwater places we explore and lending their voices and their capabilities to those efforts. If we, like the generations before us, accept the persistent decline of underwater environments there will be nothing left for us to explore, experience, nor cherish.
I can't thank everyone enough, especially to the fantastic team at GUE headquarters. A special mention to Amanda for driving me around (I don’t think anyone would have trusted me driving as I kept walking to the wrong side of the car) and always checking in on me throughout the week. Not to mention everyone I met over the weekend who took people in like family, laughed with me about my kiwi accent and new American experiences (visiting a diner was definitely my favourite!). Thank you again Justin Barbour and Kian Farin for your photos throughout the week!
Whilst in Florida, I really got the sense that GUE is a supportive family and I am entering into a special community. The week was fantastic and I met so many amazing people that I really look up to and am inspired by. They were examples that if you have enough passion and a goal, anything is possible.