To do his job, Brian Jamison needs the following: fins, gloves, a dive hat, a dry suit, a hot water suit, a wet suit, two knives, and a spud wrench. He also needs to stay sharp in a line of work with an annual death rate 40 times higher than the national average. Jamison is a commercial diver and despite his career’s level of risk, the 36-year-old doesn’t plan on quitting any time soon.
Meaghan Morawski: What does underwater welding entail?
Brian Jamison: The welding part kind of comes along with the job, but it’s not the only thing. It’s construction and it’s salvage, so anything you can imagine that gets built, salvaged, or destroyed underwater, I do.
MM: How long does a typical job last?
BJ: It totally depends. I’ve had jobs in the Gulf of Mexico where we were salvaging platforms that only took three months. I could go out on a job and it’s only one day. Each one is specific to its own uniqueness of what’s happening.
MM: Before choosing this as a career, what were some of your other job prospects?
BJ: I did a lot of construction; I used to map cable; I went to school for a long time to be a graphic designer. All of those things came together and I realized I wasn’t satisfied at all. I played in the water a lot and I’d welded quite a bit, so I eventually put the two together.
MM: What’s a typical day on the job like for you?
BJ: As far as salvage goes, a typical day is getting dressed with all my gear, going down, and assessing what I have. It usually entails burning up a large chunk of structure or a ship that can then be picked up out of the water with a crane. It has got a lot of danger that comes with it. You could blow yourself up with the oxygen that comes out of your torch. You could, as you’re cutting, have a piece of metal shift and have it crush you; I know a couple of friends who have died that way.
MM: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen happen?
BJ: We use an [atmospheric diving] suit called the Newt Suit. The suit is cut in half and the top half gets dropped on top of the guy [wearing the bottom half]. Then you connect the two parts and the guy gets lowered down with a crane into the water. What happened was the middle of a guy’s suit didn’t connect right, so when he was ready to get pulled out of the water, the suit split in half. The bottom half of the suit rocketed down to the bottom of the ocean, taking the guy with it. I was right there watching it. Halfway down the guy was able to get out and pop to the surface, but I thought the dude was dead. And that was at the beginning of my career, so I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck did I get into?’
MM: Have you ever had a close call on the job?
BJ: Yup. I was at 150 feet of water and I had a bail bottle [an emergency air supply] that was 50 cubic inches. The air gets compressed the deeper you go. A guy who was diving before me was in a decompression chamber [and the vent he was using to decompress] robbed air from me. I went on bail out but I had eight breaths left. I had to shoot to the surface, but I had to do it in a manner where I wouldn’t run out of air. I had to kind of perfectly do it. That was the closest I ever came to seriously being injured.
MM: What job requirements are there for a commercial diver?
BJ: You’ve got to be extremely comfortable with the water. It’s not just like snorkeling or putting on scuba gear. With the hats you use, you’ve only got a little porthole, so you don’t have a peripheral [line of sight], and sometimes you don’t have any visibility at all. You’ve got to know north, east, south, and west in an instant. You’ve also got to be skilled in construction, and you have to be really clever about how to rig yourself up so that you can get the job done without floating away.
MM: What’s some of the ‘crazy’ sea life you’ve seen?
BJ: I saw 15-foot manta rays one time when I was at 400 feet of water diving down on platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. All of them just kept dive-bombing down on this platform, and that was pretty badass. I’ve seen dolphins, like a mother, father, and a baby, and I’ve had the baby come up to me. That was a little sketchy, but it was really cool. As far as crazy little things, there are these little creatures; they’re just tiny. I’ve seen ones that live inside other ones, really weird shit. You see the weirdest shit down there.
MM: How long do you stay underwater and do you go back down after the day’s first dive?
BJ: You don’t typically go back down. You can, but usually you don’t. You go down for your four hours, you do your job, you come out, and depending on how deep it was you either go into a chamber to decompress for a while or if it’s shallow you just come right out. The next guy on your crew then goes down.
MM: When you’re underwater, what’s going through your mind?
BJ: I’m totally focused on what I’m doing at hand, but I’m also completely aware of what’s around me. There are a lot of things that can hurt you real, real fast. You’re in the water and if you get hurt someone has to come down and help you, which isn’t the fastest turnaround, especially depending on how deep you are. You might be at 100 feet of water, but it takes time for someone to have to come down and get you.
MM: Do you still go diving and swimming for fun, or do you need time away from the water once you’re off the clock?
BJ: No, I just got done swimming before this interview. I love the water.