Some fifty five years ago, I was seven, and while on a family holiday in Killala Co Mayo, my parents bought me, after much whining on my part, a full diving kit consisting of snorkel, mask and fins.
The memory of my first diving equipment is clear. Blue rubbery type plastic, but not modern pliable rubbery plastic, the old stuff, that was almost as unflinchingly non-malleable as the material used in the making of buckets.
However they became my key to the undersea world of Jim Nelson.
Marine creatures, sharks in particular, but also whales, dolphins and swordfish were my obsession for as long as I can remember, and of course how better to see them up close than to go diving.
The 6 inches of water in Killala Bay on the day I launched my diving life, could hardly be expected to be full of the marine creatures of my imagination, but with my flippers, my snorkel and my mask that leaked through the sides like a sieve, I explored the rippling sand, the drifting sea weed, the sea urchins and crabs in their rock pool homes, not catching them to watch as they died floppy and limp on the dry sand, I was looking at them where they lived.
Over the years I procured better mask fins and snorkel which I used on family holidays, usually in the west of Ireland or Kerry, where I explored deeper water in tidal pools and off rocks, where I usually got scratched to pieces by barnacles and sharp stone.
Things like football, rugby and girls sort of took over my life after I did the Leaving Certificate, so the idea of diving went on the backburner temporarily.
However, about four years after leaving school, my friend Michael and I found ourselves with some extra money, after having done a’ nixer’ for my younger brother and builder, over three or four weekends. So we bought our first real diving equipment in the Great Outdoors, outdoor adventure supplys.
I did my course with D Scuba Divers, putting up with the po- faced imperiousness of its owner, just long enough to get my qualification. I bought a second-hand bottle and regulator from one of the members, and I already had my suit, fenzy, fins, weight belt and mask (this one made from lovely soft and malleable silicone which sealed to my face perfectly) so I had done my first open water dive a couple of months ahead of Michael. However as soon as he did his course we decided not to bother with the pomposity of the club, so off we went ourselves, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and of course Dalkey. We dived all the good sites around Ireland ,occasionally running into D Scuba Divers, he didn’t like us and we didn’t like him.
Michael worked in Mullingar so he dived with the local Sub Aqua club in one of the lakes thereabouts and I dived maybe two nights a week over the spring and summer, with whoever, except Gray et al, was taking divers across to The Mugglins beyond Dalkey Island from the car park of the Dalkey Island Hotel.
Oh how we laughed; hare arsing off where ever we felt like, on a spring or summer Sunday morning with hangovers from the night before, made in hell.
Throw the diving gear and sometimes my Collie dog Cuailain in to one-car or the other and take off.
Often we went for weekends to Hook Head, a great diving site, not three hours from Dublin at the time, on the old winding and twisty N 11.
There was always other diving clubs kitting up or diving around the lighthouse, so we found a quiet site on the seaward side, we had to suit up at the car and then carry bottles weight belts et cetera for about 800 m over the rough rocky ground at the base of the lighthouse.
It was worth it even with the remnants of a hangover; we always tried and mostly managed to catch the tide after it had turned, that way the water was deep and crystal clear, the swell was gone and the gullies running out to sea full of marine life.
The initial rush of cold water down the back of the wetsuit and the many Solpadine or other over-the-counter cures, washed down with cold Lucozade, Ballygowan spring water, coffee and Star Bars on the drive down took care of the hangover.
Now we could enjoy the underwater world, unencumbered by rules and dickheads poncing around in the Long John of their wetsuit with knife strapped to leg, telling ‘trainees’ what to do.
Michael and I were responsible for our own safety; our gear was good we both had a watch and a depth gauge. He had a contents gauge on his regulator and I had a built in 20% reserve bailout, which I activated when I felt my breathing becoming difficult.
So we were up for our Sunday or weekend underwater adventures, apart from a hangover issue we like totally had it!
Those gullies in Hook head were amazing.
We could fin gently, carried with the gentle water flow out toward the open sea.
There were cracks in the sandstone (that’s how the light gets through) actually that’s where the spider crabs lived. We could glide gently past, neutrally buoyant, that means we could float in mid water, and to stop we just needed the lightest of touches to the rock and we could shine our light in at these big crustaceans who seemed to be wearing camouflage outfits, so well were they hidden against the grey black rock.
When one got fed up with the huge crabs all you did was angled slightly downward and the soft current would deliver one too the sandy bottom and the fish life of the gully.
There were big ray and flatfish all stubbornly holding onto their bit of seafloor by flapping their wings to cover their bodies with a light sprinkling of tiny pebbles. I often wondered if I could stab one with my knife, and I often found out that I couldn’t, they were too fast. I decided that we needed a spear gun which could be used to spear the odd cod or conger eel that we saw on our travels.
When we had got to between thirty and forty feet water depth,, we usually knocked our dive on the head, and came up to about ten feet on the wall of the gully and then finning a little bit harder against the current, we would return to the sometimes sun-lit shallows of the gully, decompressing as we made our way back.
The dive took about forty minutes and was well inside no decompression time and sure even if it wasn’t we did more than enough on the way back.
It always gave me a thrill to look down at the dappled sunlit seabed ten feet or so below me.
In those years with all the diving that we did, neither of us suffered any decompression issues, so even though we were a bit cavalier and gung ho, we got away with it, and the things we saw.
Kelp fields, fronds 60 feet long anchored two rocks on the bottom and stretching up through the sunlit waters of the Atlantic in Donegal.
Underwater crags and rock pinnacles covered in spiny sea urchins, starfish, mussels and limpets.
Night dives where light could be generated simply by rubbing your hands together and disturbing the bioluminescent plankton in the water.
Through my hobby I had gotten some fuzzy career guidance information on professional diving, and over time I convinced myself that I didn’t really like my job in shipping (even though I actually did) and that I should spend thousands of pounds and seven months, remodeling myself from white collar worker to rough and tough commercial diver mixed gas diver. I’d still get to see all the wonders of the deep ocean and professional divers are really well paid…….I heard.
So I did the training at Pro dive Ltd Falmouth in Cornwall and launched myself on a cruelly disinterested offshore oil and gas industry. So much for my dreams of being paid a fortune to do what I loved doing.
My first professional diver job was cleaning the inside of the dam gates in Poulaphouca reservoir, black boggy water and not a fish in sight.
That was for Pro Diver (no relation to Pro Dive) Engineering from Hanover Quay in Dublin’s docklands. Ironically in the same building that I worked summers while in school for Irish Raleigh, the bicycle manufacturers when they operated their assembly there.
In those days the dock lands was a busy bustling place dealing in shipping Customs and Excise and bicycle manufacturing.
By the time I went back there to Pro Diver Engineering the dock lands was dying. Most of the units left over from the busy days were empty and falling into decay.
However; Frank Rafter an amazing person, and one of the first Irish men to have made a lot of money from ‘Deep Sea Diving overseas, came back to Ireland, and tried to create a professional diving company , one that operated professionally and safely.
Heretofore diving in the docks, for the ESB on their and hydroelectric dams, or bottom scraping and fouled propeller clearing in the fishing ports, was performed by scuba divers without radio to the surface or standby divers or any kind of professional equipment at all.
It was only after a scuba diver was killed whilst working in a semi-state installation, and the subsequently scathing fire department report, that those semi-states, whom might seek the services of divers began to look for a more professional solution to their diving requirements.
Frank and Pro Diver Engineering tried to provide that answer. He brought helmets, proper professional suits, a recompression chamber and all the ancillary parts and backup equipment. He spent all his hard earned professional diver money on setting up the company.
Us divers worked for 50 pounds a day in the pitch dark bog water on the dams, of the river Liffey and the just about zero visibility (vis) in Dublin Port, not exactly what I envisaged when I embarked on the very expensive training.
Frank could never have hoped to cover his overheads with the odd days we got here and there, and we drank a great deal. I worked for him for about a year and a half and no matter how difficult his financial situation was, he always made sure that we were paid. He died shortly after I left to go abroad.
In the summer of 1986 I got a full-time diving job.
Algoaisaibi Diving and Marine Services, Dammam, Saudi Arabia, were at that time running the biggest diving project in the world.
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 had come up with a 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.
An Irish accountant, who worked for Algoaisaibi, recruited me in April 1986. He got my name from Pro Dive Ltd in Falmouth, and telephoned to offer me a job based on their recommendation.
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 put out, not a bit.
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 those 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 to anyone working in the water of the Persian Gulf is posed by 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, is when the jellyfish came. On certain days when we came out to go to work at 6;00AM, the water 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 being 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.