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You're a what? Commercial diver.

You're a What?

When Mike Parks goes to work, he steps out of our world and slips into another--the strange, wonderful, and frequently dangerous world beneath the sea. He is a commercial diver.

Mike's introduction to diving occurred in the cold waters of lake Huron when he was 12 years old, and he quickly became an accomplished diver. His underwater skills helped pay for his education at the University of Michigan. He taught scuba diving in the university's physical education program. During summer vacations he worked for an underwater salvage company.

He graduated from college with a double major in history and psychology and aspired to become a teacher. But a long, fruitless job search prompted him to turn to the skills that had paid his bills in the past. He took a job with a salvage company and then worked as a freelance diver for 5 years. His assignments carried him around the globe--from Pakistan, where he worked on the world's largest earthen dam, to offshore oil projects along Chile's Pacific coast. In 1977, he started his own company. Today, Parks Diving Corporation has offices in Maryland, Michigan, and Puerto Rico.

Working underwater is nothing new. For thousands of years, divers have searched the sea floor for natural treasures such as pearls. Even today, some pearl divers use the same methods that were practiced a millenium ago--take a gulp of air and dive for the bottom. But that's not the business of diving today.

"Ninety-five percent of commercial diving is 'surface supply diving,'" says Parks, "where a compressor pumps air to the diver." This is opposed to scuba diving--which is an acronym for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus."

Scuba diving may afford more mobility to the recreational diver, but surface supply offers distinct advantages for the person who makes a living underwater. Surface supply provides unlimited air to a diver. A scuba diver can stay under only as long as air remains in the tanks. Surface supply offers constant contact with the surface via the dive hose and also enables radio communications between divers. Scuba divers have no contact with the surface, and most rely upon hand signals underwater. Surface supply divers can also work at much greater depths because of mixed gas and hot water suits and helmets. The limit on recreational scuba diving is 130 feet.

"Diving schools around the country churn out a lot of divers," says Parks. But many of these divers fail to realize that "diving is just a way to get to the job," he adds emphatically. "Many people come to me looking for work and say 'I'm a diver'," says Parks. "That's great, but if I want bubbles, I can throw an air hose in the water and get the same effect. It's what you do when you get down there that people pay for."

Commercial divers work in three principal areas--offshore oil, underwater construction, and salvage. To get a job, you have to have some basic skills, such as welding and pipefitting. "You have to learn a trade on the surface before working underwater. I'd rather teach a welder how to dive than a diver how to weld," Parks says.

Most of the jobs Parks undertakes in the Baltimore area involve basic construction, repair, and salvage. He employs 12 full-time divers and has a call list of freelancers whom he has screened and interviewed. He also keeps a number of other professionals, such as marine engineers and architects, on retainer to help on special jobs.

About 90 percent of the construction and repair work is pre-engineered. But, when emergencies arise, he might have to devise a repair strategy that requires some quick thinking. "You also need to be a good communicator to be able to explain the problem and the solution to the customer," he says.

Increasingly, says Parks, his firm is doing more underwater hull cleaning. Barnacles and marine vegetation on a ship's hull create drag and increase fuel costs greatly. Using a machine that resembles a giant vacuum cleaner, divers can whisk a hull clean. It takes about 2 days to clean an 800-foot ship and can cost close to $15,000. But the shipowner can recover this cost in fuel savings on one long voyage.

Commercial divers also do deepwater salvage, which, say Parks, "is some of the most dangerous work a person can do. Deaths are not uncommon."

Parks worked his first salvage dive while he was still a student.

"One summer I worked on the salvage of a shipwreck in Lake Huron that had a cargo of sheet steel. It had sunk 5 years before in 150 feet of water. But it was fresh water, deep, dark, and cold, and the steel was still shiny.

"We had to enter the holds, clamp each sheet, and lift them one at a time with a crane from the salvage ship. A cable snapped; the steel fell and caught the air hose of one diver. By the time he was freed and brought to the surface, it was too late."

Parks has had close calls himself. The closest occurred at the bottom of the Atlantic during the salvage of the treasure ship Merida.

During the Mexican revolution, in the early part of this century, many of the rich sent their valuables north for safekeeping. On storm-tossed seas 60 miles east of Chincoteague Island, Virginia, the Merida collided with the U.S.S. Admiral Farragut and sank in 220 feet of water. Many salvage operations were undertaken to retrieve her treasure, but nearly 4,000 pounds of silver ingots were never recovered. Parks joined in an expedition to find them.

"It was an incredible dive," Parks remembers. "We had whales, porpoises, and hammerhead sharks all around us. This dive almost killed me.

"I was on the bottom with two of the largest scuba tanks you can get. I also had a backup system. I began to suffer a little narcosis, become disoriented, and couldn't find the anchor line. I couldn't come straight up because I'd get the bends or a blocked blood vessel for sure. My air was running low. By the time I found the line, my tanks were empty. I barely reached the decompression chamber on my backup system."

They didn't find the silver either. After a month's diving and expenditures of mor ethan a quarter of a million dollars, the search was abandoned. "All we found were a couple of lobsters."

In this dive, Parks encountered several of the dangers that a diver can face that are caused by the physiological effects of nitrogen. At sea level, nitrogen, which makes up 80 percent of the air we breathe, is an innocuous gas. But, with increasing pressure underwater, it can create an intoxicating effect called nitrogen narcosis that can endanger even the most experienced divers. The bends, probably the most common diving disorder, can result if a diver ascends, or decompresses too quickly. Nitrogen, unlike oxygen, does not combine chemically with blood, but goes into solution. With a rapid decrease in pressure, it reacts like a shaken soda bottle and forms bubbles. Trapped in the body, these bubbles can cause pain, paralysis, or even death.

Situations such as this demand a cool head, but that's easier said than done. "You're always on the edge," says Parks. "Panic is the number one cause of death underwater."

Divers must be attuned to their bodies. Even a slight decline in motor skills or stiffness in joints can be a sign of nitrogen overload. Some divers are beginning to use decompression meters, which strap to the wrist and give digital readings on barometric pressure, temperature, ceiling--which is the level to which a diver can ascend without decompressing--and even altitude. This comes in handy, says Parks, if you're diving at higher altitudes, such as in a reservoir up in the mountains. The meter even measures physiological functions and computes how much nitrogen is entering the bloodstream.

Aside from the basic construction and diving skills, divers need a few special ones. "You need mechanical aptitude," says Parks, "and you should know how to maintain different kinds of engines and be able to diagnose a problem and correct it. You should know how to handle a camera, too." Divers must frequently document their work, and pictures provide the best evidence.

Becoming a diver requires a substantial investment because a diver needs his own equipment. A good diving suit costs from $500 to $1,500 and a mask or helmet will run from $1,000 to $3,000, according to Parks. But the expense is worth it. Good equipment can mean the difference between life and death.

A helmet and pressure suit are necessary to equalize water pressure. "For every foot you dive, you gain 1/2 psi (pounds per square inch). If you dive 200 feet, pressure is about 100 psi. Multiply that by the number of square inches of body surface and you're talking about tons of pressure." Most of today's helmets have a check valve to prevent the loss of pressure if air supply is cut off.

Parks says, "I've heard stories of divers being crushed to death because they lost pressure in their suit. The only thing that could withstand the pressure was the helmet. That's where they'd be found. Water pressure acted like a hydraulic ram and compressed them right into their helmets.?

Big risks means big pay. Of the three kinds of commercial diving, offshore oil pays the most. It's not unusual for a diver to make $100,000 per year. Some oil companies have their own teams of divers, but usually this function is contracted out to diving companies. The professional life span of an offshore diver is short, however. Insurance companies will not cover offshore divers over 30 years of age. A construction or salvage diver can work as long as he is physically able. "Deep-water salvage can pay as much as offshore oil work," says Parks, "depending on the job and how often you work. Construction divers can make upwards of $60,000 a year."

To earn sums like this, a diver must have skills that can be acquired only through training and practice. Parks says that several avenues of training are available. Commercial diving schools, mentioned earlier in this article, are one option. But, before you enroll, examine the program carefully to assure that instruction in basic skills, such as underwater welding, is offered. Another possibility for training is with the U.S. Navy. "The Navy Seabees turn out some good divers," says Parks. A third possibility is training with an established company. On occasion, Parks says, he has hired people with no diving experience, but, in every such case, the person was already a skilled craftworker.

"There always is and always will be a need for top notch commercial divers," says Parks. "But diving requires the right mixture of skills and a few intangibles," he says. "You have to be a risktaker, a daredevil." Mike Parks is that kind of man. Even his hobbies attest to that. On his days off he races motorcycles.
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 22, 1986
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