This morning I looked down at my weight harness for an extra few seconds as I contemplated throwing it over my shoulders yet again…as hard as we work to make things easier, some parts of the process are here to stay. I went ahead with it, for the 5000th time – today I completed my 5000th dive – at least what I’ve recorded as I know for sure there have been at least hundreds or more quick hits that slipped through the cracks. I have no expectations of receiving a merit badge, gold sticker, or wall certificate, though will say I’m proud to have made it through to this milestone – particularly given the circumstances that I dive under.
Most engaged in the activity for sport, and the general public, mistakenly view diving as effortless cruising over some pristine reef or other habitat. Yes, this world exists, but it hasn’t been mine, nor is it for a whole community of people that call diving their trade or profession. For reference, below is an image that best reflects the day to day experience:
That’s right – it’s black. Inshore, where I’ve spent the bulk of my career (waterfront infrastructure, industrial facilities, nasty harbors, etc.) we often work blind, relying on an acute sense of spatial awareness and tactile reference to interpret the work environment, and complete the task at hand. It’s never easy, it’s full of challenges, but also incredibly rewarding to do things in places that most don’t even know exist. Also important to understand is that the vast majority of the ocean is also black, well below the middle twilight depths where sunlight is lost. This is a very, very dark planet, and it’s important to appreciate how to operate under these conditions if we’re going to carry forward with any degree of human extension and subsequent permanence beneath the sea.
I suppose 5000 dives is a milestone of sorts, but in reflecting on the journey, it’s become clear that it’s all been a bit of a living experiment. Some disclosure – I was never inherently comfortable with diving at the beginning, so my path of inquisition was very personal – I wanted to solve whatever it was that I struggled with, but inevitably a new struggle lied ahead. The journey, of the life aquatic, has been very rich and full of experiences – I’ve swum on those pristine reefs, worked in raw sewage, worked beneath ice, worked in caves, worked inside of pipes, pulled dead animals out of intakes, searched for bodies, played with electricity underwater, raised things, sunk things, excavated stuff, buried other stuff, built stuff, repaired stuff, blown stuff up, picked up debris, run chainsaws, jackhammers, drills, shears, torque tools, and all kinds of other interesting tools, have been an underwater carpenter, underwater electrician, underwater plumber, underwater welder, underwater scientist, built jigs to do things quickly and alone, built and dived custom life support, counted fish, collected various critters, discovered new species, deployed instruments, searched for those that were lost, have taken pictures, shot video, written articles and papers, given lectures, patented stuff, have been on tv, dived every mode of diving available, broken old rules, written new rules, dived to over 400 feet a dozen times, done numerous 7+ hour long dives, have run thousands of feet for various types of penetrations, have been mildly bent, been infected bad enough to require surgical removal, have lost finger and toe nails from being wet all the time, have been trapped, have been lost, have had thousands of good dives, and a handful of memorable bad ones, and my scariest wake up call was just 6 inches below the surface.
With all that, I wanted to offer my top ten unsolicited tips for those seeking to dive professionally, although many carry over as just plain good lessons and lend some insights into a different way of life…hopefully these will resonate and be a benefit to someone out there:
- 1. When you’re not diving, train for it – by going diving. For about a decade, I made it a point to get in the water at least once a week whether I had dive work or not. If you want to be a diver, you have to go diving. Ironically. many people don’t understand this. Just because you made some investment to go to dive school and bought fancy gear doesn’t at all make you any better than the next guy – it’s all about time in the water, and you’ve gotta put in the time. This is up to you. Yes, it’s hard work, and no, it’s not for everyone. So, to be truly proficient you just have to do it.
- 2. Change something small on every dive – reposition a clip, a buckle, a d-ring – even the smallest little changes, which I still do today, force an acute awareness of your equipment and help you to think about how to make things easier (on you) and more comfortable. This tinkering encourages some critical thinking, and puts you on a path to think innovatively on, around, and underwater. It’s very necessary to be able to improvise and get things done under very high stress and in uncompromising circumstances. Challenge yourself everyday.
- 3. Use well fitting equipment – anything that’s too restrictive or cluttered will cause problems, particularly suits. You should be comfortable enough to stay in your gear all day, and be nimble. Keep your center of gravity low – your weight belt should be down around your hips which is possible with a weight harness. Ditch those scubie-do weight belts that cinch up above your hips – you can’t run around the bottom like that. Low CG helps you stay stable in a crouched position to work on or near the bottom. You should have two harnesses – a heavy one for the bottom, and a light one for routine stuff. Know your weight system well so there’s no fidgeting at the job site – you should be able to get in and get to work immediately without fidgeting. Save that for your training days (on your time). Lastly, always, always wear gloves.
- 4. Learn 3 knots plus how to cleat a boat – learn a bowline, a clove hitch, a trucker’s hitch, and how to tie a cleat properly. Any 3 knots will serve you well, but these are mine. I use every one every single day out on the water, and underwater. As I say, “tie knots for well-being, not just for stronghold”. Your, and others’ lives quite literally often depend on rigging and knots. If you can’t tie a proper knot out on the water – get off the water. It’s dangerous.
- 5. Practice operating in the dark – walk around your house at night with the lights off, and learn how to function well. It’s only more challenging underwater when needing to use tools and with the limited dexterity that comes with gloves and get a job done, so every bit of practice helps. Learn how to use shadows to your advantage – you can stay oriented to a job site by the position of the sun even without visibility. Pay attention to even the smallest subtle changes in currents which can help guide you through the work area. Don’t be afraid to work by feel, and paint a mental image of what you’re doing. I’ve had countless pitch black days just fly by and be hugely productive because I can see what I’m doing in my head and navigate with my fingertips – a win for the divers since robotics will never be this good. At the same time – be careful where you stick your fingers.
- 6. Don’t poo poo one mode of diving over another – they are all tools for the job and serve a purpose. At the same time, don’t get all jammed up about regulations for this or for that. Yes, they are important, but it’s more important to make an informed decision about the safest and most efficient way to get a job done, and the regulations are written to accommodate that if you take the time to understand them – use some common sense and select the right tools and diving modes for the job at hand. Take the time to learn and become proficient in all diving modes. It’s fine to have some bias, but view everything as a tool that has its place.
- 7. The surface is not an option – by that I mean that you should plan every dive to enter and exit in the same place or same fashion. That means don’t be stingy on bailout – carry enough for what is planned on paper, and more. Stuff goes wrong very quickly, and that tends to happen when there is stress. Being low on breathing gas doesn’t help alleviate stress – it adds to it. For the surface air guys – 30cft bailout isn’t enough inshore. Ever been stuck? Ever been wrapped around or under debris? Ever start the day with a bailout that’s only 2/3rds full? Yeah – 30cft just isn’t enough…run a 50cft for day to day stuff, and scale accordingly. For open-circuit types – put yourself at the furthest point in your dive by way of depth or duration, and figure out how to get back the same way you got in, in as controlled a manor as possible assuming everything went catastrophically bad. The rules of 1/3rds looks good on paper, but that doesn’t cut it when things are going very wrong.
- 8. Take the time to understand and engineer the risks out of the dive – a risk assessment can be formal or informal depending on the nature of the dive. All dives are inherently risky – take steps to mitigate unnecessary risks, and implement controls for necessary risks. Never assume that the Dive Supervisor worked it all out for you – you are the guy or gal facing the imminent risk – take the time to walk the walk, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t like it…that decision is always yours. Further, evaluate these risks before taking on the job – these elements can have major impacts on costs and whether or not you come out ahead or lose your shirt. The client will always value careful discussion to evaluate risks, and appreciate that this exercise is for their benefit as well.
- 9. Be a lifelong student & a mentor – working underwater is still very a much a fringe frontier exercise, evident from the fact that on any given day you could be working side by side with an addict ex-con or a PhD wiz, and both have just as much to offer towards advancing the field. Anyone that doesn’t appreciate this doesn’t understand what exactly it is that we divers do nor do they recognize the value of our community… despite cutthroat practices and piracy, we have to be more collegial than in most fields when it comes down to it – our lives and livelihoods depend on it. There is far more to learn than we already know and understand, and unfortunately there really isn’t yet an institutionalized blueprint for how things need to be. Maybe someday, but in the interim, study everything – equipment, tools, techniques, human factors, physiology, medicine, and contribute to the discussions that matter. Listen to the old salty guy that’s ‘been doing it that way’ for half a century – pass on the lessons learned. Many of my lessons came the hard way, which is also important, but don’t be afraid to pay forward some experience to help the industry make progress.
- 10. Keep a clean, well organized portfolio – every dive professional should have a binder or file with qualifications, a CV, diving medical, job experience, logbook, and references. This not only helps to be positioned for the next project, but keeps you on good graces with the Dive Officer or Dive Supervisor who has to push your paper. Maintaining these records are YOUR responsibility.
I hope that helps – it’s not everything, but it’s what I’m willing to share for free 😉 Good luck, dive safe, and I’ll report back once I resurface – hopefully another few thousand times.