It is not every day that a commercial diver gets asked to work in the most remote part of the planet.
Antarctica is about 3,500 miles from the nearest inhabited country.
When you’re there, help is a long, long way away.
Britt Coates, instructor for Offshore, HazMat, Lightweight, Rigging at Divers Institute of Technology, has years of commercial diving experience under his belt.
His recent job working in Antarctica shows just how varied and adventurous a life in the commercial diving industry really is.
Next Step: Antarctica!
After finding a post for the job on a web page that carries Federal Government projects, Britt decided to take the plunge and apply. His previous diving experience got his foot in the door, and it wasn’t long before he was packing his bag for the very long trip to the southernmost part of the world.
In June 2013, Britt shipped out to Palmer Station, Antarctica.
“We flew into Punta Arenas, Chile and from there took a 4-day ship ride to the station in Antarctica.”
For those of you who are wondering where that is, considering Antarctica is the 5th largest continent in the world, Britt points out that “if you follow the southernmost point of South America downwards, you will run into it.”
Working For Security Giant Lockheed Martin
The project was initiated by a subcontractor of Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company.
At Palmer Station, Britt and his co-workers were tasked with building a new boat ramp for the scientists stationed at the base.
The project lasted 4 weeks.
A Bigger Ramp For Bigger Boats
The existing ramp allowed the scientists to launch small, inflatable boats that were only capable of reaching a 2-mile radius from the research station.
The National Science Foundation decided to equip the station with new, rigid bottom inflatables, or RIBS, that will allow the scientists to reach a 25-mile radius.
Due to the extreme conditions, the project required experienced commercial divers to come in and do the hard work of getting a new ramp built.
Britt and his diving colleagues were tasked with taking grade measurements underwater and drilling into bedrock to secure epoxy bolts (bolts that are anchored in using epoxy) into the bottom.
Stanchions, a sturdy upright fixture that provide support for other objects, were then attached to the bolts and used as supports for steel I-beams. Finally, specially designed concrete planks were bolted down to the I-beams to complete the ramp.
The job consisted of only 3 divers. But it required experienced divers, prepared for the most extreme conditions.
Regarding his own experience, Britt comments that “it was my first trip to Antarctica and diving in ice, but I had done a lot of work diving up in Alaska around Dutch harbor area and was completely ready for the challenges of working in cold environments.”
To support them there were 4 guys helping them move heavy pieces of concrete and steel. They also all worked together to move large boulders that needed to be cleared before the divers could start the project.
“I did almost half the diving, and was also in charge of supervising dives,” Britt says.
They worked 12 hour days.
With only 3 hours of daylight each day.
He adds that “the administration on site would make us come indoors every day at 10 am and 3pm for coffee and pastries. It wasn’t a treatment I was accustomed to.”
Working In Antarctica: Throws Up All Kinds Of Interesting Challenges
The coldest ever temperature on Earth was recorded in Antarctica. In 1983, temperatures reached an astounding -128 degrees Fahrenheit (- 89.2 degrees Celsius).
Just imagine how long you would last in that in only your underwear!
While it wasn’t quite that cold, the divers did have to manage through extremely frigid conditions: -20 degrees fahrenheit on land and 28 degrees fahrenheit in the water. “The ice and cold air plus snowfall were a constant challenge,” he says.
“We had plenty of warm clothing issued to us from Lockheed Martin and we were wearing hot water suits underwater.”
These suits keep divers warm by spraying them with warm water. In such conditions, these suits are an essential piece of kit to prevent divers from getting hypothermia.
Expect the Unexpected
One danger the divers faced was floating ice.
Britt says that as they were working, a large block of floating ice could unexpectedly come pounding on them.
“Sometimes we would have large chunks of ice off a glacier come rolling into our area. We would have to remove them to continue working.”
The pieces of glacier could be deadly if the divers weren’t careful.
“As a diver working on the bottom, you become vulnerable when heavy ice moves in on top of you. Low hanging ice can crush you into the seabed.”
New Project, New Lessons
Even for someone as experienced as Britt, his adventure in Antarctica had a thing or two to teach him.
“I learned how to work in the harshest of conditions,” he says, “while maintaining a positive attitude and continuing to build up our team.”
Few divers will ever encounter such harsh circumstances. But however difficult the job, Britt has insight for divers who dare to take on difficult and possibly dangerous challenges: “Every dark tunnel has an end eventually, and you gotta keep moving forward if you want to see the sun.”
Aran Davis, Writer for Water Welders
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