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A Life Underwater, Chapter Two

Updated on December 2, 2011

Gary Adkison Tagging Sharks for Research

Gary Adkison Tagging Sharks for Research
Gary Adkison Tagging Sharks for Research

A Life Underwater Chapter Two

A Life Underwater: Chapter 2

During our 3 month breaks between college semesters I would head to New Orleans, Louisiana where I would hire out as a hard hat diver for various commercial dive companies. It was a three ring circus of unique and adventurous jobs in all situations and conditions. No two jobs were ever alike! From raising sunken ships and barges in the ripping currents of the Mississippi River in the dead of winter to doing deep saturation dives on the Cognac project which was the largest oil rig platform that was ever built. The lessons I learned on these expeditions were endless! I saw divers killed and seriously injured and had several close calls myself. I learned that it did not matter how much experience or knowledge a diver possessed, his life was ultimately in the hands of someone topside and often out of his control. If you wanted to have a long career as a professional diver you needed to stack the deck in your favor as much as humanly possible by networking with the hundreds of crewmen working on a pipe lay barge or oil rig or work vessel. “There are old divers and bold divers but there are no old bold divers”, was the motto in hard hat diving circles! Back in those days, a hard hat diver was looked at on these rigs like a sports celebrity. Short of autograph signing, a diver was given preferential treatment and was respected and admired for his fearlessness and his ability to jump into any water in any sea condition at anytime of the day or night and be willing to work 24 hours nonstop in that watery element. (My personal best was 52 hours without sleep, working to raise a sunken ship!) When you are in your twenties you are full of testosterone and secure in the illusion that you are bullet proof!

One night I was awakened from an exhausted sleep at the end of an 18 hour shift doing diving work on an offshore oil rig and told that my relief diver had just been crushed to death underwater by tons of shifting equipment because a cable had snapped topside during an ensuing gale. It was necessary that I go down and free and retrieve his body. As I performed this gruesome task at 70 feet, my head was filled with the nagging reality that this man had just relieved me less than an hour before. That breaking cable could just as easily have snapped on my shift!

On another diving job, I watched helplessly as the limbs of a massive semi submerged tree which was being swept along relentlessly by winter thaw currents snagged my backup diver's umbilical hose. The “river shark”, as we called sunken debris, ripped the diver's umbilical hose out of its fittings on the deck mounted air compressor and swept the diver away. The accident occurred so quickly none of us had a chance to move! It was several days before his body was ever located and recovered.

There were humorous moments as well. On a sunken barge system that had collided with a tanker, I was sent down to assess, patch and float the cargo barge. The job foreman neglected to tell me what the barge's cargo was prior to my dive. As I entered the jagged 10 foot by 15 foot hole in the hull of the barge the water became incredibly viscous. At the same time my regulator on my Kirby Morgan dive helmet began free flowing air which meant the demand regulator was stuck open. While the out of control air flow inside my helmet roared in my ears, I had the feeling like I was swimming through syrup! I was! The cargo, as it turned out, had been molasses! I can assure you that there was not a part of my body that was not covered by that sticky goo and I would find globs of the stuff secreted in the seams of my wetsuit and gear for many dives to come! To this day I cannot stand the smell of molasses!

I always carried a Nikonos underwater camera with me. The one time you did not have a camera would inevitably be the day you encounter a “seen only once in a lifetime” marine creature or simply miss an opportunity to document something unusual. We were doing an anode job on a large production oil platform offshore when I discovered large stress cracks on some of the steel diagonals and horizontals on the rig foundation at 150 feet. I photographed and measured the damage before returning topside and telling my diving supervisor what I had discovered. He informed me that several executives from Exxon would be flying out the next day for a briefing from me on the extent of the damages. He warned me not to “blow it” as it could be a valuable contract for our diving company!

The next day I was just completing a two hour stint underwater rigging blocks and tackle for the placement of the next set of 600 lb anodes on the rig when the dive supervisor's voice crackled over my dive helmet radio. He told me that the helicopter had just landed with all the “suits” from Exxon and they needed to see me on deck in twenty minutes to debrief me. I barely had time to scramble, up my umbilical hose to the dive ladder and then up to the deck of the boat. No time was wasted while I unlocked and removed my dive helmet before scuttling up the metal stairs to the upper levels of the dive platform. There arrayed before me were a half dozen well dressed, crisp white shirts gleaming, shoe polished executives from Exxon. All were decked out with pristine white hard hats and shiny new metal clip boards. With their gold ink pens poised to write, I began my briefing of the damages that I had found on their production rig. It struck me as odd that none of their expressions seemed to change as they all starred closely and intently into my face throughout the briefing and question and answer period, which lasted 20 minutes. When I was done, they each vigorously shook my hand, thanked me emphatically for my observations and quickly marched over to the waiting helicopter to depart the rig. I was feeling pretty full of myself at this point

However, when I turned around I found my dive supervisor standing behind me with a curious smug grin on his face.

“What?” I asked, wondering if I had done something wrong.

“Nice job on the briefing,” he boomed. “But ya may want to wipe off that four inch glob of green snot ya got draped over your cheek and nose”!

One of the unglamorous aspects of diving and the pressures it exudes on your sinuses is the disgusting ability to produce quantities of snot....lots of it! During my briefing those Exxon executives never once indicated in their serious intense gazes that I had a massive “green linguine” smeared all over my face! We got the contract. I found humility.

Early in my commercial diving career I wanted to impress my bosses with the fact that I could handle any job or situation underwater. A diver worth his salt would never show indecision or fear on the job, no matter what the circumstances were. So when I was awakened at 3:00AM to gear up and get wet again after only two hours of sleep, I jumped from the bunk and announced to the boss groggily that I was ready! He informed me that a pick up cable from a crane had gotten fouled on something near the base of the oil rig in 150 feet of water. As sleepy as I was, in minutes I was in my wetsuit, had my dive helmet locked on, my umbilical clipped to my harness and was in the water grabbing on to the three foot thick leg of the platform. In my half asleep state I began a rapid descent by shinnying down the platform's leg. Everything appeared to be going smoothly as the pressure increased on my constantly equalizing ears and soon I had passed 100 feet in depth. In the total darkness I could only sense that I was nearing the bottom when without warning my lower right leg was grabbed in a vice like pressure! All sleepiness left me! Something very real and powerful had me in its jaws and before I realized it I had shinnied back up that platform leg seventy five feet, yelling and swearing in my dive helmet all the way. I could only guess what the radio dive tender topside was thinking when he heard my panic filled hollering!

The pressure was still on my lower leg but somewhere, during that rapid and panicked ascent, a thought punched into my sleep fogged brain that this thing on my leg did not seem to be alive or moving. So tentatively, with my heart still hammering in my chest, I turned on my dive light and shined it down at my lower leg. There, in its menacing and distorted shape....was a bucket. It was large, dirty and mangled but.... a bucket. Just a bucket! I had jammed my foot into a discarded bucket! At this point I slowly became aware of a lot of shouting over my helmet radio. My dive tender and radio man topside were freaking out, convinced that I had just been snatched by some menacing sea creature. It took a lot of fast talking and flat out lying as I told the guy that I had yelled on purpose and that “it was just a joke to see if you were awake”, before I could calm him down. I never told anyone on that job that I had been “attacked” by a bucket at 150 feet! I had believed that I was “bullet” proof as a deep sea diver....but apparently I wasn't “bucket” proof!




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