In the Summer of 1985 I got my first ‘Professional’ Diving jobAlgoaisaibi Diving and Marine Services, Dammam, Saudi Arabia, were at that time running the biggest diving project in the world.
An Irish accountant, who worked for Algoaisaibi, recruited me in April 1986. He got my name from Pro Dive Ltd in Falmouth, where I had done my diving training, and telephoned to offer me a job based on their recommendation.
The starting day rate was $350 per day and he would expect me to do at least 110 days. Well it didn’t take a genius to work out that, I would earn a lot more money doing 110 days in Saudi Arabia, than I would in Dublin doing 10 or 15 in the same time frame.
I headed out to the Persian Gulf in June 1986, not really knowing what to expect, but keen to go, and excited at the prospect of working in such an exotic place.
A good deal of the exotic allure wore off at customs in the arrivals terminal at Dhahran airport.
Saudi Arabian customs officials are interested in blocking the importation of three things. Alcohol, drugs and what they perceive as being pornographic and to this end they like to empty the contents of the arriving passengers luggage out on the floor, and then invite said passenger to re-pack their bags, assuming they haven’t found any contraband, in which case you are in deep shit.
I went through this ritual humiliation, without really understanding what was going on, and then found myself outside still pushing shirts and underwear back into my case.
Juaymah Trestle; four and a half kilometers of suspended gas pipeline, running straight out to sea from the gas refinery on the coast, and held up by thousands of concrete piles, which were crumbling away with so-called ‘concrete cancer’, after twenty years submerged in water.
Each pile had to be wrapped , from a meter above high water mark to 500 mil below sea bed, in a proprietary grease -soaked hessian cloth and then completely covered in rubber jacketing , a very, very diver intensive contract.
The system had been developed by a Japanese company, who were specialists in heavy duty rubber products, the and they had come up with the solution.
With literally thousands of 36 inch piles to be cleaned and then treated, Algoaisaibi needed hundreds of divers, to complete the job between April and October 1986.
That first job in terms of remuneration was a fantastic stroke of luck for us and went a long way towards getting us our first house.
The diving on Juaymah was hard physical work but the water was crystal clear, and despite all the work going on, six diving vessels disgorging diver after diver and jacket after jacket, with tools going up and down all day, the local marine life seemed not to be a bit put out.
In the twenty years since the trestle had been built, each pile had been colonized by coral and all the other hard and soft marine growth which goes to make up a reef. Mussels were not common in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, but their absence was more than made up for by the profusion of goose barnacles and oysters.
From the condition of the piles as we found them in April 1986, cleaning had not been a huge maintenance priority. There must have been thousands of tonnes of marine growth dragging the structure down; it was no wonder that this huge diving contract had been started.
Each pile in effect had become its own coral reef, inhabited by all the reef dwellers one would expect in a warm water environment.
There were moray eels, clownfish, parrotfish and octopus, which we had to render homeless, but which quickly adapted and found homes in the debris that we left on the seabed, such as empty paint and epoxy tins, off cuts from jackets and the hard plastic centre cores of the hessian wrapping. All became new colonies of coral, and homes for the displaced.
As we ‘mussel bashed’ our way through that forest of piles with water jets, hand scrapers and hydraulic brushes. We provided a banquet for the marine life the like of which they will have probably never seen before, Oysters, clams and barnacles, hard shelled mollusks that would rarely be on the menu for crabs, crayfish, octopuses, clownfish, parrotfish, stingray, moray, crayfish and you name it fish, were smashed open, and their tasty flesh made available for all, causing a feeding frenzy as every creature strove to get its share of the bounty.
Of course, all of this activity at the reef level attracted the bigger predators, who it seemed were never far from the source of any action.
Every day we had shoals of big barracuda, watching us closely, manta ray were regular visitors, expertly flying between the closely packed piles, hoovering up whatever nutritious bits were left floating in the water. Whale sharks and real sharks, bull and white tip, sea snakes, flying fish, octopuses and the full variety of those multi-colored coral reef inhabitants.
Many times during that job we were machine-gunned by shoals of the most silvery of fish, the flying variety.
Suddenly out of the water would come hundreds, driving themselves on their elongated lower tailfin, whilst flying with their oversized ventral fins.
Unfortunately for many of them, they didn’t quite acquire the necessary height to clear the boats, so they would clatter into the side and fall back in the sea.
It was an amazing spectacle, just one of the amazing spectacles provided by the Persian Gulf.
Diving in those conditions I started to see all the things that up to now only Jacque Cousteau had been a witness too.
All of those exotic species and more were my companions, every time I got into the bath warm, crystal clear water.
Based on the advice from divers who had worked there for a while, big predators like sharks and barracuda, despite the latter’s evil look and the former’s silhouette to be feared from my ‘Flipper’ experience, did not pose the immediate threat to us as divers.
The well camouflaged Stonefish, the exquisitely beautiful Lionfish, the ubiquitous Sea Snakes and the gorgeous cone snail shell were the ever present dangers. However they were passive threats and only a very careless diver would poke around under pipelines, off cuts, abandoned pile guides or any debris left over from the construction or our intervention where stonefish and lionfish were likely to have taken up residence.
Or pick up a shell (no matter how beautiful) that looked like a cone.
A sting from the fishes venomous spines could certainly result in death by drowning, and sting from a cone snail can be fatal, even on land.
Sea Snakes might appear aggressive because they will mob anything that disturbs the seabed or the reef, kicking up the tiny crustaceans that are their staple diet.
Quite why they carry such deadly venom has never been adequately explained. However, unlike venomous land snakes they cannot dislocate their lower jaw to bite an almost flat surface, and they do not prey upon anything bigger than polyps.
There were two old wives tales circulated among divers working in the warm oceans of the world.
Number one: A commercial diver wearing a helmet, a waistcoat with lead in the pockets and tools hanging from carabiners, appeared as a metal object to sharks, and so inedible.
Number two: Sea snakes could only bite on the ear or in the web between your fingers, so wearing a helmet a hood or even a T-shirt wrapped around your head in very warm climates, and gloves, would nullify that particular threat.
The real danger in the Persian Gulf was jellyfish. Portuguese man-of-war and box jellyfish were common and required vigilance on behalf of the diver to avoid the odd stings which were very painful, and many stings which were excruciatingly so, and could be even more serious.
It seems that it was mostly always summer in Saudi Arabia; it was certainly always pretty hot.
When it was really hot, from April until October, that’s when the jellyfish came. I guess they hatched in some river estuary and were washed into the Persian Gulf as a consequence.
On certain days when we came on deck to go to work, the surface would be literally covered with them, and in order to get divers in, the deck crew would use sweeping brushes to open a hole to let the diver to go through.
Beneath these jellyfish was the business end of the animal, long tendrils of stinging cells hung below, they were beautiful but nobody wanted to get too close.
Everybody got stung to a greater or lesser extent, usually on the wrist between gloves and cuff of coveralls or neoprene suit, or on the chin below the mask.
The stings were like an electric shock!
There was one young lad who got very badly stung around his face and in trying to disentangle himself from the stinging tendrils, his hands also.
When we got him back on deck we tried the acid and alkali test, lemon juice for acid and baking powder for alkali, and through that we found that these particular stings were acidic, because baking powder eased the pain. That was all we could do, apply baking powder to help him with the pain.
He became very ill and the stinging sites rapidly became infected.
The severe pain lasted for a week or so and it being Saudi Arabia there was no question of the boat going into port except in the direst of emergencies, and this didn’t qualify.
His face and forearms became covered with puss-filled abscesses and I was worried, not for his life, but for potential scarring. I treated the infections by regularly cleaning them with TCP.
The captain, an ex-Hull trawler skipper was supposed to be the medic on board but he never even enquired as to how the diver was. I doubt that he had any antibiotics but if he had he didn’t offer them.
After about three weeks the sores had scabbed over and things look pretty good no real danger of serious scarring, but even when he had fully recovered, it was obvious that his face and hands had suffered some damage. It looked like he had been whipped with searingly hot wire.
They were serious jellyfish there is no doubt that when they stung an animal, it was staying stung. The strange thing is that they prey on small fish only, but are preyed upon in turn by large turtles, tuna, and sharks, so I suppose the stings go some way to discouraging them.
There were always sharks in the water but they seldom bothered us, except in a psychological way.
The main varieties were Bull sharks and White and Black tipped reef sharks, there were also tiger sharks and hammerheads but not in the same numbers.
As it turned out I worked for 150 days and collected a box of money when I finally went to the office to be paid on my way home. Initially, the box was filled with Saudi riyals but O’Callaghan had made arrangements with a bank around the corner to change the riyals into dollars. I finally went home with fifty-eight thousand dollars in cash, fifty-two thousand five hundred in wages, and five thousand as a bonus for staying so long.
I hope that I didn’t break any currency laws at home, because I had dollars in every one of my pockets, and quite a few thousand in my backpack when I traveled home, and I didn’t declare any of it.
That first job in terms of remuneration was a fantastic stroke of luck , and went a long way towards buying a house.