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November 01, 2016
Those who venture to Taranaki are usually left spellbound by its majesty. Our mighty mountain gives birth to the rivers that support life as they flow in every direction. From lush rainforest to the extensive coastline of the ring plain, islands and offshore reefs, it truly is a place like no other. A mixture of volcanic rock and black sand beaches radiate outwards to capture swells from every possible direction, making it arguably Aotearoa’s best surfing location. The diving is incredible too with marine protected areas including Tapuae and Paraninihi where magnificent biogenic reefs support an outstanding assembly of sponges of varying size, shape and colours. The subtidal marine habitats around the Ngā Motu/Sugar Loaf Islands also provide great underwater adventures with spectacular canyons, caves, rock faces and large pinnacles.
During my time here as a DOC ranger I have witnessed and shared the enduring and passionate connection that the people of Taranaki have with the ocean (and land) that surrounds them -Tangaroa has long been a provider of physical and spiritual sustenance.
The wild nature of Taranaki’s coastal waters simultaneously offer protection and opportunities for hidden exploitation. Our understanding of “what lies beneath” is limited but increasingly vital to the future prosperity of the region and its inhabitants.
As a diver here, the potential for new discoveries is as great as the challenges that the local waters pose. Being a west coast diver requires commitment, the ability to overcome adversity and being in the right place at the right time.
Fortunately Taranaki folk are as rugged as the environment that surrounds them. I started to imagine what could be achieved by a local team of GUE trained divers with a skillset that could make exploration and documentation far easier and safer.
I first met Kevin Erickson while on a search for nitrox in New Plymouth. Kevin runs Oceans Alive, a diver training centre and retail shop perfectly located next to the breakwater. The first thing you notice about Kevin is that he is absolutely head over heels obsessed with diving 24/7. Coming from a commercial background affords him fantastic in water comfort and a love of all things metal and shiny (or rusty…) many of which are on display in the store. Kevin’s passion is introducing people to the underwater world and the life it contains. With a drive to explore and develop his personal diving, the goal of becoming a GUE diver was naturally set.
Kevin’s team mate for GUE Fundamentals would be another of the Oceans Alive crew, Mathew Hickey. As well as working in store, Mat is a Divemaster currently working towards becoming an instructor. With strong practical skills gained from working on the rigs offshore, Mat is also a medic and coastguard volunteer. A very handy fella to have around, he specialises in bear hugging fully laden rebreathers onto boats.
It would be a fascinating combination. The old dog and the young pup, both eager to learn but with different challenges awaiting them. The course would run over 4 and a half days conducted by myself, Jamie Obern and supported with videography by Rob Wilson.
Previous classes had taught me the importance of logistics in ensuring a successful course outcome and quality learning experience. Although we were running the first ever GUE class in Taranaki, all the important elements were there.
Oceans Alive is a Halcyon retailer and has a rental department ensuring that course compliant equipment was fully covered. The servicing bay also meant that any unforeseen disasters could be remedied. Banked gas would make fills quick and easy and the office could provide any admin support that we needed. The shop has a flat that provides accommodation for visiting divers and can also double as somewhere to base lectures.
A 5 minute drive from the shop would take us to an indoor private aquatic training facility, purpose built for the commercial sector. 3M deep and 28 degrees, it would provide a perfect learning environment before going to open water. The last part of the course could then be conducted out at the Ngā Motu/Sugar Loaf Islands or Lake Taupō if conditions were unsuitable.
We began on Sunday afternoon with the usual admin and then headed to the pool for swims. The session certainly motivated the guys to want to improve their techniques and practice regularly together. I was impressed by their natural team approach to the task in hand.
The afternoon lecture was structured around introducing GUE, starting to lay out a roadmap for personal development and how the class would run over the coming days. Oceans Alive crew member Halina Sarten then provided a delicious roast pork meal putting the “N” for nutrition into GUE PLAN.
The following days would see a mixture of lectures, dry runs and in water sessions gradually establish the core skills they needed to learn. Buoyancy, trim and propulsion with an emphasis on teamwork were linked to conducting basic skills. These would with practice turn into instinctive life preserving techniques in stressful situations. It would also become apparent to Kevin and Mat how control provides enhanced situational awareness.
Rob’s underwater videos could be used to later visually re-inforce the active feedback being given. This is a vital tool which creates lightbulb moments and allows for quick progression.
Fundamentals is a fascinating course to watch unfold. Seeing your students take on board what is being taught and working hard to succeed is hugely rewarding. Each day sees capacity grow in skill areas that are being refined while new challenges keep on coming.
With the weather having developed into somewhat of a polar storm and 10M swells being reported in the Cook Strait, we headed for the still waters of Taupō for the open water dives. A change in fortune saw in a beautiful morning, with the previous nights rain all but a memory save for the dusting of snow covering the surrounding hills. The lake was like a mill pond and would provide a fantastic training environment. The team could practice combining the skills taught over the previous days while integrating ascents, all providing a real world context proving the relevance and importance of the training being received.
The pace and intensity of the class always leaves everyone feeling like they have just completed several marathons by the end. The victories, frustrations and realisations that create the learnings are all part and parcel of this vital experience. Was it all worth it ? Absolutely !
Taranaki now has its first two GUE divers who are well on their way to achieving their goals. Congratulations to both on your achievement. For Kevin, diving the shipwreck of the Mars is a step closer. For Mat, increasing his skill level and situational awareness is a huge bonus as he enters the world of teaching. Both are now committed to working hard towards gaining a tech pass.
For Taranaki, a new pathway has opened up for local divers to follow in their footsteps. The advice and support that Kevin and Mat can provide will be critical for those wanting to really dive and explore this coastline. I certainly encourage the wider GUE community to help them develop in any way possible.
GUE fundamentals is without doubt the most important course I have ever taken as a diver. It is a privilege as an instructor intern to be able to pass on that knowledge and aid in the foundation of new GUE communities. Many thanks to Jamie Obern for battling the elements to arrive and leave Taranaki and supporting all of our development. Also, Rob Wilson for a mammoth effort to video fresh off the back of passing Tech 1, and Halina for holding the fort at both work and home. You truly reflect the team ethic that GUE is all about.
By James Croker