In 1988, whilst home on leave from Saudi Arabia I did a very well paid two and a half week ‘nixer’ for Oceaneering International, on the Marathon gas Platforms in Kinsale.
A huge pod of dolphins skimmed the surface below us on the way out in the helicopter, it’s hard not to feel uplifted in the presence of these ever smiling cetaceans.
The job was quite a step up in professionalism from what I was used to in Saudi Arabia. We wore hot water suits and Kirby Morgan 17 helmets, there was absolutely no scuba-diving.
The diver was delivered directly to the job via a basket lowered from the surface, and instead of being festooned with tools hanging from every available D-ring of his waistcoat; everything needed came down separately in a work basket.
The water was still crystal clear, but very cold; those hot water suits were needed.
As in the Persian Gulf, marine life abounded around the Marathon Alpha and Bravo platforms about 30 miles off the coast.
Our job was to clean both platforms followed by an inspection programme of critical nodes, from the surface down to the seabed at 370 feet below.
From the surface down to 10 m of any structure in water, is known as the Splash Zone. It’s the most difficult area to work in for divers. The swell and heave, even in relatively flat conditions, will make life very difficult and uncomfortable, as you hang on for dear life, while trying to do your job.
Because sunlight it is strong at the surface and penetrates to a depth at about 20 feet, it is also the area of most marine growth buildup.
Mussels proliferate in colder water and even in the short space of a year since the last cleaning programme; the Splash zone of every brace and leg was covered in about 500 mm of them.
Because the platforms had to be cleaned to relieve them of the weight and drag of hundreds of tonnes of mussels, we had a ‘mussel bashing’ team and an inspection team.
I was one of the inspectors, so I got to wait while the heavy cleaning was going on.
We could watch from the surface as, just like in the Persian Gulf. A rare feast was provided for the local marine inhabitants of these artificial reefs. Shoals of mackerel, cod, halibut and sea trout appeared, from our vantage point they appeared to be attacking the diver as he cleaned, smashing up the colonies of crustaceans.
Big crabs and Atlantic lobsters came from every nook and cranny to partake of the unexpected feast.
A pilot whale showed up a few times, coming in very close to the diver, perhaps attracted by the light or the noise or the food in the water, or maybe just having a look-see.
It took about a week before things were ready for the inspection part of the programme, and on my first dive it came in around the diagonal and horizontal braces, to have a look at me and me at it.
From a distance of about 6 feet we eyeballed each other, it having to look at me sideways because of where it’s eyes are, but he or she was looking at me, maybe trying to understand who and what I was.
There was a lot of talk about pods of killer whales in the area, but we never saw any.
I would not have minded one bit.
The only instance of a killer whale harming a human was from the movie Orca where there was a need to show Bo Derek’s legs to maximum effect, just before the eponymous Orca bit one off, and he (Orca) was on a mission to avenge the killing of his mate and their unborn calf.
I worked on Marathon Alpha for nearly three weeks. I earned a good deal of money, enjoyed the experience, but I knew that it was only a one-off gig and that there no guarantee of future work from Oceaneering.
I did, however, have a regular job with Algosaibi, so I left Kinsale a couple of days before I was due to back to Saudi Arabia, and went back on time to my regular job
Most of the time that I worked in Saudi Arabia, there was a war being fought between Iraq and Iran, and much of the action laid out not very far from where we were.
There were always a lot of American warships moving around in the Gulf , and fighter aircraft regularly screamed past us responding to tankers under attack in the Straits of Hormuz.
One of our captains was not a dour Hull trawler skipper, he was an extrovert Swede and his name was Sven.
During the day if there was a crisis somewhere, he would patch the emergency radio channel through to the galley, so that we could listen to the panicked May Day from the tanker captain as his vessel was attacked by the Iranians fast patrol boats.
The John Wayne response from an American warship, and then count the seconds before two F-16s went screaming south in response.
Usually the fighter aircraft showing up was enough to discourage the attackers.
The war ended in 1988.
From 1986, when the contract on Juaymah trestle finished, to 1990, with the exception of the job in Shuaibah when I did a five-month trip, I did the normal one hundred and ten day trips with thirty days at home.
The majority of the dives that I did were in the crystal clear, full of life, waters of the Persian Gulf.
I saw incredible things and thinking back it’s difficult to say which one was the most incredible.
Who would hope to see whale sharks moving gracefully through the clear water, or hundreds of manta ray, the ever present barracuda, octopuses, grouper, sharks, moray eels? Every day that I dived I saw these amazing things, and I often took time out from my job, to just watch and marvel.
In the main, there was no shore side life to speak of in Saudi Arabia.
Transit between arrival in Dhahran and landing offshore was very swift indeed.
Because I did not have a Saudi Arabian work permit for the first couple of years that I worked there, about ten days before I was due to go home, I was transferred to a small barge, the Algosaibi 1, which was usually tied up at West Pier, so that exit formalities could be carried out.
To get an exit visa for somebody who did not have a visa to come in to the country in the first place, Algosaibi had to prove that, that person was not working.
I know it’s crazy, like what had I been doing for the previous hundred days. But thems was the rules under which Algosaibi got the majority of their divers into Saudi Arabia to work. Our Seaman’s books were stamped in and out in the country as if we were joining a ship there and leaving the Gulf.
Of course it was a scam, a loophole in Saudi Arabian immigration rules that Algosaibi took advantage of.
The little barge wasn’t too bad, it got extremely hot below deck where the sleeping accommodation was, because one air-conditioning unit was not really up to cooling a steel box, left broiling in the vicious Arabian sun for twelve hours a day. The cockroaches were no bigger or more plentiful than on any of the other boats, and there was no work.
Bronzing for those ten days or so was a bit of a problem, because Arabs don’t really understand Europeans need to get a tan, and to them taking off your shirt is, somehow sexual and dirty, a bad thing.
It was possible, between seven and eight in the morning before either the sun or the Arabs, were at their most vicious or libidinous.
The rest of the day had to be spent, close to the AC unit, smoking, reading or sleeping.
On the last day of ten or so needed to complete exit negotiations, the object of the negotiations was transferred to the Algosaibi ‘guest house’ in the centre of Dammam, for some last minute shopping.
Dammam was full of electronic shops selling the latest in high-end hi-fi equipment, very cheaply.
There was no tax in Saudi Arabia or copyright either. So if Sony for instance, sold their equipment in there, any smart kid could buy a system, take it apart and reproduce a knockoff half as good for ¼ the price.
This lack of copyright respect was universal throughout the Arab world, so you sold your stuff there at your own risk.
Years later I bought two ‘Alcatel’ mobile phones for the kids in a genuine telephone shop in Dubai.
The guy in the shop showed me that they both worked, and that was the last time that they did.
When was this European going to get back to Dubai to bring the faulty goods back to the shop? And what could he do when the law was on the side of the shopkeeper?
At the time that I was in Dammam, it was probably 1987; I was very interested in DAT technology.
They were mini digital tapes that were released by Sony, just around the same time as CDs, and so sank like a stone out of sight and memory.
On that particular evening before I went to the airport, I wandered around the shopping area of Dammam, popping in and out of the various electronics stores, looking at their DAT players.
In one shop, I hunkered down for a closer look at a Sony DAT system, and then in the process of ‘de-hunkering’ I clattered into a woman who had quietly (to me) sneaked in behind me to look at something above my head.
It was purely automatic impulse on my part, I spun around and steadied her by putting my hands on her, coffee colored, henna tattoo covered, but otherwise bare forearms, and looking through the slit in her hijab, straight into her startled, dark almond shaped eyes.
Of course I immediately released her and apologized in English, but her husband who saw everything went ballistic. Not only had I touched his wife, his exclusive sexual property, but I had looked through that slit in her veil into her eyes.
I could have been in a lot of trouble if he had fetched the much feared religious police, or if he had had his ceremonial dagger upon his person, however thankfully neither option was pursued. The owner of the shop intervened in Arabic, the lady stepped back and demurely looked down, I stood quietly just outside the epicenter, while the two men argued loudly in their language.
Eventually, my guy won and Mister and Missus left the shop, Mister looking back whilst talking loudly and gesticulating, in Arabic.
I felt very grateful to the shop owner who spoke some English also, so grateful in fact that I bought a portable CD player and two CDs, the Gypsy Kings and J.J Cale. I couldn’t afford a DAT player at the time, and boy was I glad.
That incident is so prominent in my memory, that I can remember the two CDs, and I remember hoping that they and the CD player were both originals.
I can speak in all truthfulness that the two CDs were perfectly original and served us for many years in their person, and still serve me as ghosts of their hardcopy selves, in my iTunes library, their real selves live in a cardboard box in the attic.
Unfortunately after only two or three years of service, very good service, to us hitched up to the auxiliary connector on my Schneider hi-fi system. The player, which I had loaned to a friend of mine for a party, ended up smashed on a road after he had stupidly and utterly without care, left it on top of his car, and driven off.
From the guesthouse we went directly to the airport for the ritual humiliation by the departure customs authorities, who liked to scatter our belongings all over the desk and floor, just the same as their colleagues in arrivals liked to do.
They were looking for dirty pictures, unprocessed film or any signs, even pictures of, drugs or alcohol, but mainly dirty pictures.
Practically every time I went home from there, I had several pieces of coral or shells which I had taken from reefs in the Gulf, but they were never bothered about those.
I remember holding my newly acquired Sanyo portable CD player, and my two precious CDs, protectively in my arms while the rest of my gear was thrown around the place.
It was always good to get home from Saudi Arabia.