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Diving in Alaska: Part Excitement, Part Fear

An Interview with DIT Graduate Josh de Monbrun

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Where there is infrastructure for human civilization, there is diving. Alaska, the USA’s coldest state, offers some of the country’s most grueling dive conditions. Josh de Monbrun, DIT graduate, has lived in all sorts of places in his life and none as harsh as Anchorage, AK. Growing up in Europe and Asia, Josh started diving in his family’s backyard pool in Japan at age nine – and never looked back. He dived in both the icy seas of Hokkaido and the tropical waters of Okinawa and has traveled all over Asia on diving adventures with his family. We caught up with him to hear about his diving life and to find out what diving in frozen Alaska is all about.

The Human Element

At age 16 in Micronesia, Josh found what would change his life forever. “Truk Lagoon, Chuuk Island, is like a shipwreck diving Mecca. I remember finding a human skull from a WWII Japanese sailor inside the San Francisco Maru shipwreck. I was astounded at the impact that had on me: this was not only a place of awe where few get to venture, but that it must also be treated with respect.  I knew from that moment forward, I wanted to have a career under the ocean’s waves.”

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Josh graduated from DIT in class 102-09 and started diving in Alaska at Dutch Harbor doing underwater welding, hull inspections and fabricating parts topside in the weld shop to install on ships.  As Dutch Harbor is a pretty remote place, Josh and his colleagues would often have to fabricate parts themselves instead of waiting on shipping them in. One fishing ship, the Pacific Mariner, had brushed pretty hard against a sandbar and sheared off one of the transducer housings.  Since it was the skipper’s favorite transducer for finding crab, Josh sorted it out, pronto. He did one dive to take measurements, fabricated a steel housing in the workshop, and then on a second dive installed it and welded it into place. “This is great for the ships because they can get right back to fishing, and not have to dry dock.”

Josh currently works as the Dive Operations Supervisor for Mistras Diving Division, overseeing the Inspection, Repair, and Maintenance (IRM) program which handles the more technical Non-Destructive Testing Inspections that happen underwater – such as ACFM, Ultrasound, Magnetic Particle, and even underwater X-Rays.  Repairs and maintenance are performed by the Marine Engineering Department.

Sticking it Out: Alaskan Life

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So what’s life like in remote Alaska? “As with most things, cost is a big factor.  Living in Alaska can be very expensive, especially if you also have to move yourself up here to where the work is.  Even though there is diving here year round, longer projects take place during the summer months when the conditions are a bit more favorable. These projects are where divers make most of their money for the year so you have to be able to budget well as no project is guaranteed. Higher diving wages attracts competition between companies, and between divers for that ‘bottom time’.  A big challenge working in Alaska for most is simply sticking it out, earning your position here, and proving yourself to your fellow dive team, most of whom have been with a company for years.”

Big Egos, Hard Work, Diverse Strengths

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According to Josh – and many others in the field – most divers have a ‘type A’ personality but those who stand out are also highly flexible. “There are a lot of egos in the diving community, and Alaska it’s no different. It’s a rough job in harsh conditions with heavy equipment, and nothing ever seems to be ideal, so you have to be flexible enough to work through it – all the while being sure to remind everyone else around you that you are the best at the job, in any condition, it isn’t that heavy, you’ve been in worse conditions, dove deeper for longer and got more work done quicker, and made more money than any of them.” Pretty demanding!

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Second, you have to work. Hard. “Many dive jobs in Alaska are ‘call outs’ in remote places, where you need to be fit enough to sometimes haul equipment, pack in a shallow dive spread and move and set things up by hand – rain, sleet, or snow. Up here it’s expensive to ship equipment up, so you will find yourself taking care of your equipment, and tending to it often.”

Third, be patient and diversify. “Nothing will ever go the way you think it will. Everyone is hoping to work on the same projects so you need to set yourself apart and support your dive team by being more than just a diver.  Learn to weld, learn to fabricate, learn to take apart and service an engine, learn to troubleshoot and fix electrical problems, learn to be more than just the picture on your ADCI or DCBC card.”

Not for the Cold-Blooded

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The cold, perhaps Alaska’s starkest feature, suits Josh just fine. “I dove in the Gulf of Mexico for a couple years, and Louisiana was just the worst place for me. I’m not a fan of hot humid places. I love the snow and the colder weather. Plus, Alaska is simply gorgeous! The views of the mountains and coastline are breathtaking and, wait.. no, I mean, this place is the worst, you shouldn’t come, stay at home!”

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As hard as the work is and as grueling the conditions, Josh is thrilled and loves his job under the ocean. “It’s a completely different world underwater. It still amazes me today that as soon as you go under, everything else immediately fades away. Whatever you were thinking about or worrying on, any stress or restlessness, excitement for any topside distraction, all vanishes as soon as you hit the water. There’s a thrill there that comes up from within. Part excitement, and part fear, no matter how deep or how shallow the dive, no matter how technical or simple the plan, it’s there…”

Written for DIT by Londi Gamezde

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