Underwater worker: Trading military uniform for wetsuit, diver revels working in cold, dark Pacific

Adam Coolidge is taking the plunge. He’s leaving the relative security of his regular job as a sonar operator in the navy and descending full-time into the murky and frigid depths of the Pacific with his commercial diving business.

Ship owners have been calling on Coolidge and his crew at Cold Water Divers to carry out a range of underwater tasks over the last four years — jobs that find them working in the dark and pretty much always in the cold. A typical day will see divers cleaning a ship’s propeller or doing hull inspections using high-definition videos cameras. Or they could be wielding a chainsaw to slice through old dock pilings or using a grinder to cut chains or rebar.

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His clients include the owners of boats of all sizes, shipyards and marinas. They also measure ships in preparation for drydock and provide underwater eyes in salvage operations. “It’s a lot of work, but it is passion,” said Coolidge. “I love it, so I don’t see it as work.”

Coolidge, 41, is a Petty Officer Second Class aboard the frigate HMCS Ottawa, currently in drydock for upgrades. He will be leaving the military in May after 161Ú2 years.

He has been passionate about diving since his first lesson 21 years ago in Ontario, where he was raised.

Extra pay from a tour in Afghanistan five years ago provided start-up funds to buy equipment for Cold Water Divers. He put his name and phone number on the side of his truck and has relied on word-of-mouth recommendations.

Coolidge said he can’t discuss the nature of his tour in Afghanistan, but he returned with a new perspective: “I would probably say the biggest thing I learned from going to Afghanistan is what counts and what doesn’t count.”

Still, commercial diving work isn’t without potential perils. Given the volatile underwater environment and complicated equipment and reliance on oxygen, there’s no question it’s a dangerous job.

“We always try to mitigate it as best as possible,” said Coolidge, who has never been injured while diving.

Practice drills are carried out to make the job as safe as possible. Sites are assessed ahead of time to prepare for a commercial dive.

“We do deal with areas that have strong currents,” he said. “We will try to wait for slack tides to appear.”

It that’s not possible, then other practices come into play. It could mean dropping a line into the water to give a diver something to hold.

The deeper divers go, the darker it gets, so the company uses powerful lights to illuminate the areas where divers work.

Divers rely on air delivered from a boat. It typically requires a first and second diver, a boat driver, someone to maintain air lines and a supervisor. “We bring out as many people as we need to get the job done safely,” Coolidge said. Often there is an additional person on board, above what is required by government regulations, just to boost safety.

And even when relying on air from the surface, divers carry emergency air bottles.

Coolidge has a core group of five divers in the company.

When it comes to time underwater, it’s pretty much unlimited if a diver stays above six metres in depth. Most of the infrastructure work does not go below 30 metres. When divers are close to that level, they can spend only 13 minutes there because nitrogen gas builds up in the body. A diver surfaces and is replaced by another.

Cold Water Divers has now grown to the point where it requires a full-time commitment. Coolidge said he had to make a choice.

“If I’m not diving, I’m doing administration and paperwork for the business,” said Coolidge. He added that, as the father of a nine-month-old girl, it was time to grow a business to support his family. He used to live on a houseboat but the family is now in a single-family house in Saanichton.

Commercial divers are hired on a contract basis out of a local pool on an as-needed basis.

The business has no debt thanks to Coolidge’s military job, which has allowed him to plow diving revenues back into the company and invest in equipment and supplies to expand his services.

Cold Water Divers can operate just about anywhere on the coast. The company’s equipment is packed into shipping containers that can be transferred onto barges or ships or lifted by helicopters into remote locations.

His enclosed truck, equipped with heaters to warm workers after chilly dives, is a study in organization. Every piece of equipment is neatly aligned, tied down and ready for use — evidence of the discipline of serving in the military. “Everything is in its place for a reason,” Coolidge said.

The Diver Certification Board of Canada offers credentials to professional divers and operators of remotely operated vehicles. It also certifies commercial diver training facilities.

In 2013, the board issued 1,323 certificates in Canada.

The board is also staging the annual Canadian Underwater Conference at the Victoria Conference Centre from March 29 to March 31.

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