For most divers, spending time underwater is all about having fun. But some see the underwater world in a totally different way: as a job — and a challenging one at that. From commercial dive job professionals to underwater investigators, we spoke to five brave men and women who earn their livings in treacherous environments, where their skill and experience keeps them safe when they work — underwater.
Nuclear Reactor Diver
Commercial diving — working underwater, usually wearing a helmet with surface-supplied air rather than a scuba tank — encompasses a variety of diving jobs, but few raise eyebrows so much as those in and around nuclear reactors.
Before she went to commercial-diving school, Kyra Richter had been a scuba diver for 10 years, working as a dive instructor in Asia and the Caribbean, and as a technical cave diver in Mexico’s cenotes. “Despite all this, I knew as a woman I’d have a hard time in the male-dominated environment of offshore commercial diving, even though my dream was to be a saturation diver,” she says. “One of my instructors had photos of himself working in a nuclear plant, and it fascinated me from day one.”
Today, Richter is a nuclear-dive-program supervisor for a plant in Michigan and has consulted on programs in the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. “Nuclear diving is a mix of inland and industrial diving, which means we work in rivers, lakes and oceans, and in man-made intake tunnels, condensers, pools, tanks and other structures inside the plant,” Richter explains. “We work in open or closed systems, clean or dirty water, which is contaminated water that contains radioactive isotopes.”
But for all the eyebrow-raising nuclear diving might cause, Richter says it’s one of the safest forms of commercial diving. “There is a lot less expense-cutting and a lot more support from the industry to appropriately staff a job,” she says. However, that doesn’t mean it’s without risk.
“The worst-case scenarios are running out of air if the block of the hard hat freezes in cold water, or ending up in the wrong place on one of our many penetration dives,” she says. Overexposing a diver to radiation is highly unlikely. “That’s why we clean all areas prior to work, do surveys of the work area, and the divers carry probes so that they can survey each area themselves before they walk into them,” she explains. “We’re also remotely monitored by radiation-protection technicians who can get instant readings on the doses we’re receiving.”
When bad guys want to cover up a crime, they often try to hide the evidence underwater.
“Every bridge is a potential dump site, where a murderer can toss a weapon with a flick of the wrist and think it’s gone forever,” says Michael Berry, founder and president of Underwater Criminal Investigators. “It’s my job to not only find these items, but also recover them in a way that preserves any fingerprints, DNA or other evidence that might be left behind.”
When Berry started working as a police diver, there was no standardized training. “Everybody was studying rescue diving, but the reality is, the majority of what we do is recovery,” he says. He went on to develop the first Underwater Criminal Investigator course for PADI; today, UCI is a leader in police search-and-recovery training.
Over the nearly 30 years he has worked as an underwater investigator, Berry has found himself diving in every type of environment imaginable, and has encountered his share of aggressive wildlife along the way.
The worst problem he encountered came from bacteria. “I was diving in a rock quarry that had turned to mud over the years, looking for stolen merchandise, and I came across a bag filled with the rotting corpses of puppies and kittens,” he says. “I ended up catching meningitis and was out of commission for months — it almost killed me.”
For technical-diving instructor John Claytor, the swamps and river-beds of Florida and Georgia are a treasure trove of lost old-growth lumber.
His story starts in the late 19th century, when a logging boom was in full swing, harvesting old-growth trees and transporting them by barge along U.S. waterways.
Claytor says experts estimate around 10 percent of those logs were lost when barges carrying them sank. The low oxygen content at the bottom of these rivers and lakes preserved the wood, and the scarcity of the logs makes them valuable.
“I started diving around here in 1965, when I was in junior high, hunting for old bottles and Native American artifacts. Everywhere I dived, I’d see these logs all over the bottom, so I started keeping track,” Claytor says. “Years later, I had to screw my head on right and start making a living. I had a lot of MacGyver blood in me, so I went back to those old notes and started teaching myself how to pull those logs out and process them into lumber.”
Today, Claytor and his son bring the trees up, dry them out, cut them into lumber, and then use them to create custom projects like furniture and flooring.
But the work, called deadhead logging, is one of the most dangerous types of logging. Underwater crews have been featured on the History channel show Ax Men. “I try to block out the negative when I’m down there,” says Claytor. “I’ve dealt with every hazard you can think of, from poisonous-snake bites, alligators and 250-pound snapping turtles to getting caught in fishing lines and nets.”
However, he says the biggest risk is the logs themselves.
“Four years ago, I had a log come loose from a grapple in the current, and it pinned me to the bottom,” he says. “No one was coming to get me — I don’t have any dumb friends — but luckily, I managed to dig myself out. Now I have vertebrae in my neck fused with a metal strap and 14 screws.”
South African divemaster Richard Bolter has a truly unpredictable and dangerous diving job in a rare niche of his own creation. “More people have gone to the moon than do what I do,” he says. That’s because he’s a fixer and safety diver who specializes in arranging and leading diving expeditions for underwater photographers who wish to go face to face with deadly, man-eating Nile crocodiles in Botswana’s famed Okavango Delta.
“I first got the idea while I was visiting the area with some friends on a bush holiday,” Bolter says. “During the summer months, the water gets crystal clear, and when I went under the water for the first time, I realized the crocs didn’t react the same as they do on the surface.” This led Bolter to establish certain rules of engagement that keep him and the divers that accompany him safe.
The most important rule: Never spend any time on the water’s surface, which sparks the crocs’ attention. “It’s military-style diving getting in and out of the water,” he says. Bolter also carefully vets any divers who want to hire him, and limits his services to professional documentary-film crews. “This environment is just not safe for tourist divers,” he says. “A company started bringing groups of tourists once, and soon a diver lost an arm to one of the crocs.”
"When I went under the water for the first time, I realized the crocs didn't react the same as they do on the surface."
Bolter says the key to successful encounters is cruising the canals, looking for crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks. “Usually they slip into the water when we pass by,” he says. “Then we jump in upstream and ride the current to where I predict they’ll settle on the bottom.” Underwater, the crocs are often placid, or at least have little interest in the divers. “They have very poor eyesight underwater, so they don’t really notice us, even up close,” he says. “But if you touch them anywhere near the side of the face, they attack.”
Offshore Saturation Diver
In the world of commercial divers, saturation diving is the endgame,” says Brian Lacey, a commercial and saturation diver based in Houston who freelances for oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico, and overseas in countries such as Russia, India and Indonesia. “It’s the job everyone wants, and the only reason any of us do it is the money — it’s like being in jail for a month at a time.”
That’s because saturation divers do their work while living inside a diving bell or compression chamber. As anyone with a scuba certification knows, a diver’s body absorbs nitrogen under pressure. Recreational divers minimize this with time limits and slow ascent rates to avoid the bends, but saturation divers go under pressure and stay there until their bodies becomes saturated with nitrogen and can’t absorb any more. Saturated divers can dive indefinitely at great depths, as long as they stay under pressure. When the job is done, they’re slowly decompressed inside the chamber.
“A standard run is 30 days down, with a two-man team taking turns, working five hours at a time in the water,” Lacey explains.
“The deepest job I ever did was 900 feet, and it took seven days to decompress afterward, but the average is about 300 feet, with 31/2 days of deco.”
Although it’s boring, the saturation part of the job isn’t particularly dangerous. Lacey says the greatest risks arise when he’s actually on a dive, where his job is assembling or taking apart oil and gas equipment, such as oil rigs and pipelines. “Working with underwater cutting torches is probably the most dangerous thing we do,” he says. “As you cut, the torch puts of hydrogen gas, and if you happen to be under a ledge, the gas can pool, and a spark from your torch can cause a major explosion — I had a small explosion once that rocked my head so hard it knocked the defog soap from my mask plate into my eyes.”
Want more? We first reported on dangerous scuba diving jobs in 2007. Read that story here.
Are you ready for a diving career? The proper training can prepare you for a job that offers a lot of adventure.
The Ocean Corporation is a diver-training facility in Houston. Its campus has a dive-tank training complex, two decompression chambers, a diving bell, and “nondestructive testing” inspection equipment. Ocean Corporation offers two training certification paths that lead to a number of commercial-diving career possibilities.
Ultimate Diver Training This program prepares divers to perform inspections, repairs and support services for a variety of projects or facilities including nuclear power plants, bridges, municipal wastewater facilities, dams, ship harbors, ports, water towers, resorts and cruise lines, and aquariums.
Nondestructive Testing Training NDT inspectors use sophisticated technology and equipment to identify and diagnose flaws in steel and concrete without disrupting the integrity of a structure. Certified NDT technicians perform inspections all over the world, in nuclear power plants and oil refineries as well as on airplanes, oil rigs and more.
To learn more, visit oceancorp.com.