Ninety percent of the diving work carried out by us during my time in Malongo, was inshore, within ten miles of the coast, and as such hugely influenced by the Congo/Zaire River emptying into the Atlantic just south of where we worked.
Specific adaptations, horrific to some people, had become routine to the diving team and we dealt with the current and the sometimes almost zero visibility.
Once in a blue moon, a very weak current to the north, the Guinea current, would for some reason unknown, dominate the Congo current and push it to the south.
These periods would only last a matter of days, and would happen maybe twice a year.
During these hiatus’s, all became calm. The water around Malongo cleared and the current from the south disappeared.
There was no need for the head first entry and as soon as the diver left surface he could see the jacket and the seabed.
There was a lot of marine life that we never got to see because of the usual poor visibility, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, tuna, the venomous lionfish and the painful nuisance spiny sea urchins that could fire their spines straight through mainframe and into the knee.
When you can see them you can avoid them, but we all got speared at one time or another.
In the murk that usually pervaded, nobody would stick an unprotected hand under a pipe or a piece of debris.
Fire Worms: they look like a centipede and they hang around legs embraces of jackets doing whatever centipede -like worm would do.
I was unlucky enough to get one stuck up the sleeve of my coveralls when I was working. In the water the pain was tolerable, but when I came out it became excruciating and I went into shock necessitating my medevaced by helicopter to the Malongo medical centre where I was given steroids.
The worms leave their hairs in the skin; I could see them clearly, quite against my tanned skin. We didn’t realise at that time that the best way to deal with them is to scrape a knife blade over the affected area that will take a lot of the venomous barbs out. It’s a similar treatment for bee sting.
As it was mine were left in and active, pumping venom into me even though there was no venom sac obvious.
Anyway I wasn’t in any to debate the then delivery of Atlantic fire Worms.
When Ray Biddle, the Geordie nurse who worked in the medical centre injected me with the steroid, my legs literally buckled, so I lay down for half an hour so and then I was grand.
Advice for anybody working in an environment where fire Worms are found, bear in mind the knife blade along the hairs, it’ll save you a lot of pain.
But like spiny urchins, rockfish and lionfish, avoid them if you can.
After a day or two, the river would come back our world would become murky again.
Out at Takula however, the water was always clear and we didn’t need to torpedo headfirst through the top layer of fresh Congo River water. Unless of course we were dealing with a wild well.
As Part of our overall maintenance schedule we dived every couple of weeks on the GOSP
(Gas Oil Separation Plant) which, like subsea structures anywhere become artificial reefs and attract all sorts of marine life to them.
It’s 150 feet to the bottom on the GOSP so as well as indulging my passion for marine life watching, I was getting paid depth pay as well.
Just about everything from the smallest to largest was represented.
In my early days in Malongo, all waste, edible and general debris was just dumped into the sea to be eaten by marine life, including sharks.
On the first dive that I did there, I gave up counting at twenty and you could bet that there was a lot more than that.
I often wondered whether Great Whites ever visited. After all they were ocean wanderers and Takula was over one hundred miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.
I never saw one and I’m pretty glad that I didn’t.
However out at Takula I saw the most amazing things.
There was just so much marine life and at that time there was no fishing to speak of, only Congolese and Angolan fishermen in small boats fishing with line and hook.
At different times great shoals of manta or leopard rays fly through the clear water like flocks of birds.
Whale sharks, giant sunfish, barracuda, swordfish, grouper and hammerheads, all were visitors or residents.
Many times I watched yellow fin tuna and barracuda round up tight shoals of fry, corralling them like sheep dogs and then darting in to feed like streaks of silver into the roiling mass, that folded around them like a living thing. The shoal rolled and swirled in three dimensions as the predators ate their fill.
The predatory fish seemed to work cooperatively but I doubt that, and the millions of fry act like a single organism, which is an evolutionary adaptation.
The Tuna grab individuals as they streak through the tight shoal, and barracuda slash left and right with their long sharp teeth, lacerating and ripping through the dense mass, hardly able to miss as they flash through the packed school.
Whether the barracuda and yellow fin work in tandem or not, the event is truly a thing of breath taking beauty.
To watch a whale shark pass over head or a shoal of ray fly by in the clear water, reminds one of one’s size and importance.
One time I was working very, very hard trying to physically pull a drill head into a well casing.
The rig had sent its string down to me to guide it in to the concave concrete entrance to the conductor.
Unfortunately when they pulled the casing out and grouted the well they left a lip around the conductor upon which the drill head kept getting stuck.
I had tried three or four times to take the string back up and down again, but every time the same thing happened.
There was nothing else for it but to try to pull the drill head into the hole myself.
So here was this hundreds of thousands of tonnes of metal drilling rig, dependent on little old me.
I got them to pull the string back about a metre, I wrapped a webbing strap around the drill head and then around me. I braced my feet against the concave side of the chute, one leg either side of the string. Then instructing them to come down while I pulled like fuck.
Just then a whale shark glided effortlessly past me, the drill string plopped into the hole at the same time, I think it was the shark ‘what did it’.
Working for Oceaneering in Malongo was great, I loved it, and if the contract had lasted as long as everybody expected it to, I would have been still there.