An Interview with Jarrod Jablonski

Jarrod JablonskiWidely regarded as one of the world’s most capable and talented exploration divers – and a person only too willing to share his knowledge with others – Jarrod Jablonski continues to exercise a profound influence over the direction taken by technical diving in recent years.

Standing at the cutting edge of extreme exploration, Jarrod Jablonski, is a graduate of the University of Florida with degrees in English and Geology; the President and C.E.O. of dive equipment companies, Halcyon Manufacturing and Extreme Exposure; and the President and founder of, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), a non-profit research, exploration and education organisation whose technical diver training programmes – from entry level through to advanced exploration – are setting new standards of proficiency.

Better known, perhaps, in his role as Training Director for the Woodville Karst Plain Project, (an on-going exploration of the limestone cave systems that lie beneath the water-table in South Florida), Jarrod has also served as the Training Director for the National Association of Cave Diving; been a Board Member for both the NACD and NSS-CDS; and sits on the Training Committee for the National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section.

As Project Leader and Dive Leader for numerous domestic and international research assignments, (with several thousand dives focusing on long range, deep exploration activities) he has performed many hundreds of extreme exposures utilising mixed gases, stage decompression, rebreathers, and underwater propulsion vehicles, and holds the dual records for the world’s longest and deepest cave diving penetrations, a staggering underwater distance of 18,000 feet at a depth of 300 feet, established in 1998 together with, WKPP Project Director, George Irvine.

An articulate and leading proponent of a system that is gradually revolutionising the attitude that many have towards diving, Jarrod Jablonski – or JJ as he is most often called – is credited with helping to formulate and popularise DIR (“Doing It Right”); a philosophical approach to diving that is attracting considerable attention – and one whose purpose is frequently misunderstood.

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Q. How did your career in diving begin?

I have always had an interest in water. As one of those ‘water babies’, I could swim before I learned to walk and swam regularly for years. Growing up around the beaches in South Florida, I first became certified, together with my Dad, while I was in High School. Later, when I went to college, I found that teaching diving allowed me to pay for my schooling while doing something that I loved.

At that time cave diving was less formal and in some ways easier to stumble into than it is today. It was something that intrigued me enormously. It was then that I took up technical diving and the rest, as they say, is history – or becoming so at an alarming rate!

After graduating with my degree in Geology, the choice that I had to make was either to pursue diving by putting as much effort into that goal as was possible, or to move on to a ‘real’ career! I decided to give diving my all for two years, at the end of which time I’d evaluate where I was. I have never looked back.

Q. Who has influenced you most in diving?

In the initial stages, I would say that Cousteau was my first major influence. I saw all of the great adventures that he was experiencing and the impact that he had on peoples’ awareness of the underwater world. I started to realise that I really wanted to be part of merging a cutting age version of Cousteau’s expeditions with a high quality educational organisation.

These thoughts were at the heart of my interest in the WKPP and my eventual formation of GUE. I later found that the initial group of WKPP divers shared various parts of this vision and together we started to expand upon a basic platform of simplicity.

The main focus of these expeditions evolved around one in which technology and complexity was tolerated only in so far as they facilitate any particular mission. Fellow cave explorer, Bill Gavin, used to say that things would break only when you REALLY needed them to work!) Therefore one should keep equipment and techniques as simple as possible. This gave rise to the one sentence rule: If it cannot be relayed in one sentence or less then it will not work underwater! All of these concepts seemed natural to me and not at all controversial. Boy, was I in for a surprise! 

As an early cave diver and instructor, it really took me by surprise when resistance to these ideas started to mount. George Irvine and I took what seemed natural and that was supported by safe and successful exploration. We unified the principles, rounded out the concepts, and worked hard to focus attention on the true risks that can occur while diving.

Q. You are universally recognised for your diving achievements with the WKPP. What, for you, is the attraction of cave diving?

My passion for cave diving was almost an accident. College placed me in an area that had no great access to the ocean and so I took a peek. I loved the quiet, serene beauty of the environment and the unique challenges particular to cave diving. When talking about cave diving, I often tell people to imagine levitating through fabulous places like the Grand Canyon or the Alps: Awe inspiring scenery mixed with unique challenges; great diving toys; and the opportunity to educate people, conduct valuable research and protect a fragile environment that happens to house an invaluable supply of fresh water. What is there not to love?

My love of cave diving is not, however, a love that transcends other environments. The ocean still offers some of my favourite diving, in particular reef walls. Wrecks are also awesome. But in truth I just love to be under the water and exploring some of the world’s most unique scenery.

Q. What are the objectives of the W.K.P.P.? And how is the information gleaned from the diving exploration of the Woodville Karst used?

The WKPP is principally a non-profit exploration organisation that principally supports research by a wide variety of private and government organizations. We work with state, local, and federal governments as well as universities. The use of our information varies from formation mechanics and water flow dynamics to water conservation and responsible land use.

On most occasions we facilitate the research of others, and on other occasions we initiate research projects. GUE takes this well-established platform and expands it to the international front. We are now working on several research and exploration projects while striving to bring these issues to the forefront.

Q. What sort of logistics and support do you have for your dives with the W.K.P.P? And what sort of profile is usual for the extreme penetration dives?

The level of support varies greatly according to the dive. Wakulla usually relies on about twenty-five people. It can be done with about ten, but it then becomes pretty tiring and not as efficient. Some of the short-range dives are done with only the main divers. The extreme dives involve in-cave time of about seven hours at 300′ with about 15 hours of deco.

Q. There would be few, if any, other organizations whose influence on technical diving has been quite so profound as that of the W.K.P.P. Why is that?

The W.K.P.P takes individual capacity, greatly extends it with a strong emphasis on team diving and then supplies the means to bring both together with procedures that, taken as a whole, focus on fitness, training, education, equipment and equipment configuration: the only system in the diving industry to do so. (Halcyon’s unique understanding about how to manufacture equipment that facilitated this is a huge advantage and the reason that Halcyon equipment has become so tremendously popular.)

Systems like this can be immensely empowering. Especially when used with forethought.

The whole idea of not understanding what my buddy is doing, how they will respond, where they maintain their focus of attention and so on, is surprisingly distracting. Even on a reef at a depth of twenty-feet, separation from my very capable buddy becomes a constant distraction in the back of my mind, one that reduces my capacity, endangers us both, and impacts on the fun quotient at every turn. It’s the sort of situation that’s magnified for divers with less skill, or when performing more aggressive dives. The degree to which these simple facts are discounted consistently amazes me! Divers would find their diving so much safer, efficient, and more fun with a proper emphasis on fundamental skills.

Q. You are credited with being one of the originators of, ‘D.I.R.’, How did the D.I.R. system originate? And what is its underlying philosophy?

DIR (“Doing It Right”) was born from the knowledge that even seemingly simple diving can get pretty complicated. The easier and more systematized the procedures become the less room there is for confusion, mistakes, and unnecessary risk. Think of any operation, group, activity, or process and try to imagine how it could be as efficient or safe were each member to do their own thing rather than working under a common platform?

The idea of standardized procedures and the benefit they provide are hardly new concepts. SCUBA is one of the few activities in which the established infrastructure is so resistant to the idea of standardization.

DIR does not inhibit the individual. Quite the contrary, it empowers them. If I know how your equipment is placed, how you share air, how your equipment works, then I can be a much better dive buddy. If I understand what you will do in a situation, how you will share air, that you will not intentionally leave me alone, how you will get my attention, what sort of gas and diving limitations you follow, etc., then I understand all of the key components of our dive.

These items are no longer part of the variable aspect of a given dive and free each diver to focus on the true risks and troubles of each dive and the dynamic aspects more beyond our control, including: wind, current, visibility, marine life, gas consumption, etc. It’s truly amazing just how much this focus enables divers to enjoy themselves and to concentrate on the dive itself. This is proven every day in GUE’s classes, and by the massive interest and support surrounding DIR.

Q. As the founder and C.E.O. of Global Underwater Explorers, how does G.U.E. differ from other technical and mainstream diver training organisations? In terms of training, what sort of programmes does G.U.E. offer? And what are the advantages of the G.U.E. programmes over those offered by other training organisations?

Our approach, at GUE, is a very focused effort to place quality over quantity and in-water time over marketing convenience. As a non-profit organisation, GUE is focused on the best in educational capacity rather than on organisational growth. This is not to suggest that other groups don’t care about quality, but as profitable training-only organizations their ethos is more focussed around increasing market share. One must remember that GUE is one of the world’s most active research and exploration organizations and that training is a small component (albeit, personally, very important) of what our organisation strives to accomplish. It also places us in a moral position that forces us to require more of the divers and instructors entering our training.

However, GUE’s focus on robust training is not, in any way, overtly aggressive or mean spirited. We often have to ask that divers commit to more training, but our intentions are sincere and the individual’s safety our primary concern.

Over the years we have seen that most of the problems we encounter in training are the result of weak fundamental skills. This, among other reasons, is why GUE focuses so much care in the training and development of our instructors and students. Misrepresentations of even basic concepts such as those in DIR can lead divers down a much less useful path.

Q. As G.U.E. grows, do you foresee possible difficulties in maintaining quality control over standards and Instructors teaching the programmes?

I am confident in our ability to handle this, but I certainly expect that we will have to be diligent. We exercise great care in the initial selection of our instructors, but we’re also aware that we must maintain equal care in the maintenance of our training programs. We will have to be diligent in this regard.

I have recently appointed GUE’s Vice-President to spear head the establishment of a Quality Control department that will aggressively seek out information about the conduct of our diver training courses from all of our students, as opposed to the more sporadic efforts that only rely on statistical sampling.

Q. Apart from the mechanics of diving, do you have a personal philosophyor view of the activity?

I believe in a fundamental order and simplicity in life and in diving. Chaos
theory has brought many unique issues to light over the years, a unique phenomenon that I will represent a bit out of context here. The theory is called “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, and it was originally formulated during studies that sought to predict weather patterns. The theory basically relays that many things are not as linear as we might imagine and that small changes can actually have a massive impact upon a given system. In the weather pattern studies very small changes were accidentally made to a theoretical weather system simulator. The changes occurred because the researcher did not account for variable parameters more than six digits past the decimal point. However, what were thought to be insignificant changes actually resulted in substantial and unanticipated changes to the simulated weather patterns.

Bringing this back to diving, consider that every time a diver doubles their surface area, the drag that they experience from equipment rises to the square, and the energy necessary to overcome that drag rises to the cube. For my part, I see this sensitive dependence phenomenon occur in life and diving on a regular basis. The result is that we can make minor changes in a diver’s equipment and procedures and they experience a massive advantage where one would normally expect a minimal benefit.

Here lies the heart of the DIR controversy. Those who give it all of their effort and learn exactly what it’s about and how to apply the philosophy can’t ever go back to diving the old way. And yet divers that do not try or experience the full modification remain understandably sceptical.

Regardless of how obvious DIR advantages become, large numbers of people continue to become passionate converts on a daily basis. Like me, I think that a lot of people are tired of unnecessary complexity, and gadgets that do little but look good on a show room floor. I like to keep things as simple as possible because I find that things get very complicated on their own with very little help from me. Life is complicated enough. I like to keep simple and squeeze every bit of fun out of each endeavour that I pursue.

—ENDS—

(This interview first appeared in the on-line ‘Nekton’ Magazine that I then published in June 2002.)



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