Diving for dollars - Page 2

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

Moyer explains that each dive to a certain depth requires about an hour of decompression in the water, done in a series of "stops," where a diver hangs out a certain depth, allowing the nitrogen to dissolve slowly and naturally. "That buys you a few minutes when your head breaks the surface of the water before you start turning into a shaken up pop bottle," he said. Divers immediately hop in a pressurized chamber to breathe pure oxygen for a couple of hours. The sealed, all-oxygen environment carries its own hazards, and horror stories of fires and explosions abound.

After dive school, Moyer headed to the Gulf of Mexico, where 80 percent of the world's commercial divers work, maintaining the massive oil platforms that float miles out to sea. He dove for a company whose main business was laying and repairing pipelines between platforms. Unlike Bay Area divers, workers in the Gulf aren't unionized, so private firms regulate the industry and pay divers whatever they feel like — which, according to Moore, is sometimes a third of what a union diver can make in the Bay Area. Moore explains that though Underwater Resources can't outbid nonunion firms for big contracts, most ambitious divers will eventually switch to unionized companies because that's where all the interesting public-works jobs are. "Certainly in the Bay Area and up and down the West Coast, it's expected that any decent diving company will be in the union," he said.

Maybe it was the promise of better pay that led Moyer to leave the Gulf for the Bay Area after a year. He recalls calling around looking for employment. "I'm, like, hey, I'm here and I'm ready to dive, and they're, like, oh, that's nice, so are all the other guys who call me every day," he remembered.

Moyer was surprised to learn that he was expected to join Pile Drivers Local 34, a division of the Northern California Carpenters Union, and start a pile-driving apprenticeship right away. With dive school and a year's work under his belt, he didn't like the idea of driving pile for a living. At the same time, he discovered that diving work wasn't as consistent in the Bay Area as it had been in Louisiana, and realized it would help to have something to fall back on. As long as a member is working, Local 34 will sponsor apprenticeships, provide excellent medical benefits and, after 20 years, a handsome pension. Part of Underwater Resources' agreement with the union is that the divers get paid for at least an eight-hour day, no matter how much time they actually spend in the water — good news in a profession where weather, complications, and injuries can cut a dive short.

Because divers are freelancers who often work offshore on drilling vessels for months at a time, the trade tends to attract outsiders, people who have difficulty conforming, and people without families. This, in addition to the close quarters that commercial divers on an offshore job have to live in —sometimes spending weeks in a small, pressurized chamber called a "dry bell" that enables them to dive to depths of 400 feet without time-consuming decompression — may partly explain why few women are in this trade. When they do work in marine construction, it's often topside, supervising or operating the small, remotely operated ROV robots that go where it's too deep or dangerous to send divers. Moore laments the lack of women in the industry. "We've never employed any. I don't know why. It's unfortunate — I'd be into it."

As for me? I think I'll stick to coral reefs for now.

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