Not every dive can be cool and exciting. Some days it’s just plain ugh. One of the hazards of operating in the Gulf of Mexico is the plethora of floating lines and nets waiting to grab any passing vessel. R/V Pelican is no exception. And being DSO is not always the most enviable position to be in.
In February it was noted by the ships captain that the port side prop had developed a vibration at speed and entanglement was suspected. I was asked as diver in residence to examine the underside of the vessel while it lay backed into its slip at LUMCON.
The inner harbor waters adjacent to LUMCON are typically brown year round and saturated with suspended silt from top to bottom. Like cutting a brownie with a knife thick and brown. There was also a fine fuel sheen on the water from the nearby public marina and a sprinkling of floating fish carcasses from a recent fishing tournament. For safety reasons, a tender line was attached to my dive BCD and monitored by a tender on deck. I also wore a 30 cubic foot pony bottle with regulator slung on my side.
Prior to entering the water, ships crew members believed it necessary to explain to me ad nauseam about the pipe connecting to the nearby bayou and the 12 foot alligator that regularly traveled through it to emerge in the vicinity of the slip. Protecting its young allegedly. They also explained they suspected sharks were in regular attendance under the ship and watch out for them. I was sure I didn’t need to worry about the sharks. The alligator not so much.
Braving on, I entered the water after it was ascertained that all ships machinery and engines were deactivated. The R/V Pelican slip is essentially only 10-15′ wider than the vessel and the vessel is typically backed all the way up to the concrete wall at the beam, meaning there is very little actual space around three sides of the ship. The water depth only leaves about 5-8′ under Pelican and the bottom is fine silty mud. All in all it is pretty claustrophobic down there.
And. Once you move more than a few feet under the boat, all light is gone. It’s akin to being in a closed room at night with no windows or light. For those of you who have gone through scientific diver training, think of the blackout mask worn in the pool. Like that kind of dark. And you can really hear yourself breathing through the regulator in a Darth Vader kind of way.
So wait a minute? The dive manual says no solo scientific diving. Not so fast mon frere. This was not a scientific dive. This was one of the occasional working dives. No scientific dive plan. But in these instances, there must be a safety line attached and a tender ready to respond and there must also be a backup air supply. Hence the pony bottle. We also had a DAN kit and displayed a dive flag.
Prior to going in the water, I had talked with the captain and examined diagrams of Pelican to make sure of what was down there. After submerging and moving under the ship, the dive was essentially by braille. Slowly I made my way under the boat with my hand touching the smooth underside along the way trying to figure out where I was. It seemed like I had gone a long way and I astutely determined my position by banging my head on the starboard side propeller. Feeling around I located the starboard rudder and knew at that point exactly where I was.
I moved on and found the port propeller. When looking at the diagrams, one of the things that did not appear was that the shaft emerged from a deep cup like assembly, the space inside being just slightly smaller than my hand. And of course that is exactly where I found wrapped netting and line. A lot of it. I pulled as much as I could from the shaft. Then I took out my knife and cut more away. Eventually there was only line wrapped around the shaft deep down inside the cup. As I cut bits and pieces loose, more unwound from the shaft until finally it all came clear.
I made my way back to the starboard side and checked the starboard shaft. Finding no fouling I followed my safety line back out from under the ship and surfaced back into the sunlight. I must have been down for hours and I couldn’t believe I even had air left until checking my dive computer I found that I had actually only been submerged for 14 minutes. Oh well. It seemed much longer. And no alligator showed up. I’ll take that.