Diving for dollars

Careers and Ed: Exploring the outsider world of an underwater career
Members of Underwater Resources, Inc.
Photo by Neil Motteram


Perhaps it's because I have my basic scuba license, but the idea of diving for profit has always held a certain mystique for me. It's one thing to look at fish on vacation, but quite another to do something so dangerous and physically demanding every day.

I've always wondered: what kind of person chooses such a job?

The earliest commercial divers were salvage workers, roving the alien ocean floor in search of sunken treasure. At that time, when little was known about the physical effects of the frigid, high-pressure environment of the deep ocean, only men of a certain build could do it successfully.

Divers in old-fashioned canvas suits and huge round brass helmets (remember Red Rackham's Treasure?) laid the foundations for the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge in 90 feet of chilly, turbulent water. Now pretty much anyone can take a simple course, strap on a scuba tank, and get acquainted with a coral reef. Still, it takes a particular mixture of recklessness, humor, and grim determination to do it every working day, at depths where no recreational diver is certified to go, in temperatures that would have most us running for a blanket and a cup of sugary tea.

Dean Moore, operations manager at Underwater Resources, a San Francisco firm specializing in marine construction, has one of those old-fashioned suits hanging in his office. Although the suits were massive and heavy, the brass and copper helmets were so buoyant that divers had to wear lead-weighted boots to keep from shooting to the surface. Moore has a pair of the boots as well, thought they've long been replaced by equipment made of Kevlar and Neoprene. Moore admits that being immersed in this world has soured him on recreational diving. When not working, he says, "I wanna stay high and dry. I think you lose a bit of the love of the sport."

Moore and his lead diver, Chris Moyer, showed me around their office and gave me a rundown of the day-to-day operation. The two are frequently called on to do some pretty nasty and unsafe work: crawling into narrow pipes, diving straight into raw sewage, or containing a pollution bloom near an oil refinery. If some politicians get their way, divers like Moyer could be getting a lot more work in the next few years building and maintaining massive offshore drilling platforms, vessels, and pipelines.

I was intrigued by all the equipment, of course — the hazmat suits and tiny robot submarines — but what really interested me is what makes these guys tick.

When asked to describe the diver's typical personality, Moyer laughs. "Take your average motorcycle gang biker, mix in a little bit of astronaut, and a little bit of, say, a chimpanzee or a lowland gorilla, and that compilation gives you a commercial diver," he said. "I'm partial of course, but I think we're the sexy fighter pilots of the construction world."

For Moyer, it was an ad in a scuba magazine. Like many divers, he was in the military first. When his enlistment ended, he saw the ad. "There's this guy climbing up this ladder out of the water, and he's wearing this neat helmet I've never seen before — it's got like a light and a laser gun on it, and it says 'Come up a winner,'<0x2009>" he explained, sitting in a small conference room with a whiteboard covered in equations and drawings. "And I'm, like, hmm, yeah."

Inspired, Moyer enrolled in the College of Oceaneering in Wilmington, where he was trained to work in cold water, low visibility, and extreme depths. He specialized as an advanced dive medic, qualifying him to recognize and treat that most notorious of divers' ailments: the bends. Surfacing too quickly results in a sudden change of pressure, causing dissolved nitrogen in the blood to form bubbles that can lead to stroke.

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