Interviewing Wreckers

— Four Pioneering Wreck Divers

Contributed by

August 1995—Today, shipwrecks are at the heart of a technological revolution that is redefining the limits of what is possible. Within the last year, a leading team of tekkies mounted the first mix expedition on the Lusitania to 90m (300ft), long thought out of the practical reach of scuba aficionados, and racked up over 120 dives. Other tech divers opted for the safety of a hose and commercial cutting tools to liberate the artifacts of their dreams.

And to further stir the soup, grand daddy wrecker, Oceaneering International, the global commercial diving contractor whose crews dived the Lusitania over a decade ago, recently completed salvaging treasure—five tons of silver and gold coins from the Spanish Brig of War, El Cazador, sunk in 1784 in the Gulf of Mexico—using their WASP Atmospheric Diving Systems (ADS) fleet to limit their ambient exposure. This after the technical diving team led by Captain Billy Deans were found in violation of the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration (OSHA) standards prohibiting deep self-contained diving the prior year and was thrown off the job. “It’s a mental barrier, not a technological one,” explained commercial diving supervisor and wrecker John Chatterton.

Although underwater limits are being redefined, the painfully learned maxim of diving still applies, maybe more than ever: SAFETY COMES FIRST. Though the rewards of shipwreck diving are great, a diver can easily end up paying the ultimate price if all the parameters of the dive (and diver) are not taken fully into account. And when this happens, the entire community suffers. Training and experience are critical. Particularly today, when competition for new wrecks has driven the cutting edge ever deeper and more remote, increasing the operational and safety requirements for the dives, as well as the costs.

What is it about shipwrecks that inspire us to invest time and ingenuity and put our human frailties on the line? Is it simply the knowledge that these failed human outposts may yield up potent treasures, or is it some complex piece of genetic code that compels us to seek out our remaining remnants in the vastness of the sea?
 Better go and ask a wrecker, if she’ll tell you. Or better yet, go ask two of three.

Captain Billy Deans

Owner of Key West Diver Technical Training Center and Deep Sea Technologies, 38-year-old Captain Billy Deans is recognized as one of the pioneers of technical diving.

MM: Billy you’ve been involved in technical diving since the beginning. What would you say are the differences with recreational diving?

BD: We still do a lot of recreational diving. It’s fun and it’s easy. You put your equipment in a bag, sniff your air, throw your equipment on, jump in, and swim around in 25m (80ft)of water. Technical diving is totally different. It’s a philosophy, a mindset. Everything you do is based on making that dive absolutely perfect because if you don’t account for all of the parameters of the dive you could get killed. It’s a constant vigilance that wears on a human being. To do it well you have to live, eat and breathe technical diving.
 That’s the negative side—it’s so demanding. It has put bags under my eyes, gray hair on my head and led to fights with my girlfriend. But I won’t compromise on safety because once you do, you become complacent and you get killed. That’s the thing that bothers me; it’s like a black cloud on the horizon. The technical diving market expanding and I have an uneasy feeling that we’re going to have an increase in fatalities. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

MM: Because of the new people coming in?

BD: New people coming in who do not have the proper training. That’s one of the reasons we’re so adamant about having tiered levels of training and broad base of experience. Experience is critical.
 In the early days, there was a small cadre of technical divers. These people were highly trained, and committed to diver safety. I
  remember when Parker [Turner] got killed. It sent a shiver up my back, because they were doing everything right, right down to the last minute, and he still died.
 People need to understand this. They can still have fun but they need to approach technical diving with the idea that it is very dangerous. You learn to be very, very cautious in this type of diving. The positive rewards are great but on the negative side you can end up paying the ultimate price. And when divers die, we all pay.

MM: What are the limits of open circuit gas diving?

BD: Sport diving has become much more reliable and safer. The technology and equipment that we have today has essentially doubled our working depth from 40m (130ft) to about 80m (250ft) . That’s our playground and I consider it to be a reliable working range. Outside of those limits, it’s a little more dangerous. It can be done, but it’s not for the people that are just getting into technical diving.

MM: I understand that your focus has shifted over the last two years from technical training to the commercial aspects of diving.

BD: It’s an aspect of the diving that has been a natural evolution for us. Karl Shreeves (PADI’s Technical Diving Liaison) once said that he was so excited to be in on the next evolution in sport diving. And I guess that I’m excited to be involved in one offshoot of technical diving and that is, work for pay. There are definite, viable opportunities there. The commercial market sees it. And with closed circuit equipment coming on stream, I believe there are going to be a lot of opportunities opening up.

MM: For self-contained diving in a commercial setting?

BD: That’s correct.

MM: Commercial diving today is based around surface supplied technology. What kind of tasks can better be accomplished with self-contained equipment?

BD: Reconnaissance. You can put a team of self-contained divers on site with a minimal amount of equipment. They can survey an area, a wreck site, you name it, come back and look at the data. And it’s actually very, very cost effective to do that. We’re talking a 1 to 5 ratio. Then if there’s work to do, you can bring in a surface-supplied gear.

MM: How about just sending down a ROV?

BD: Our experience is that the two go hand in hand. On the Cazador project we called it “hunter-gatherer” mode. An ROV was sent down to sniff out a possible target site, in this case, to find coins. Then the diver would navigate out the ROV cable and survey and work the area.
 Of course, putting a diver in the water is very, very inefficient; I don’t care if it’s on a hose, closed circuit, or open-circuit. The advantage is that diver on site can make rational decisions. It’s easier to mobilize an open-circuit team then it is to bring in an ROV. But I think that the best combination is to use them both.

MM: The Cazador was such an interesting project. Your team found the booty and then Oceaneering came in with their fleet of WASPs and…

BD: ...and picked up five tons of silver. Yeah, it was great @#?#!!

MM: It would take a team of open-circuit divers a long time to pick up five tons of silver.

BD: I agree with you, particularly at the 90m (295ft) depths we were working. My only regret was that I wish we could have had another five manned dives. It would have been nice to see what our capability was, but if you look at it, putting a guy down for four to six hours in a WASP is really the way to go. But you also have to look at the cost. We fulfilled our contractual obligation. We went down. We found the coins and we were able to bring a few up. That is the limitation of open-circuit diving.

MM: Do you think that commercial regulations are going to evolve to the point of allowing self-contained equipment for (...)



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