Image via WikipediaHis interest in the under-water world sparked through recreational diving, Ron Vermeltfoort was looking for “a ticket to the next level.”
He found it many years ago in the commercial diving course at Seneca College’s King City campus. Graduation from the comprehensive program led to a career path under the sea that he followed for six to seven years before returning to London, Ontario, to work as a firefighter.
Most of Ron’s work was up and down the British Columbia coast, among the Queen Charlotte Islands and off Vancouver Island. There, he dove for the seafood industry, harvesting horse clams, geoduck clams, sea cucumbers and sea urchins, usually at depths of 20 to 60 feet. Most of those products were exported to Japan, whose own seafood industry had been damaged by over-harvesting.
Many of the clams were embedded in the bottom of the ocean, with just the tip visible. The divers were equipped with a high-pressure water jet to free the clams from the bottom. They were collected and then hoisted up by crane to the surface.
“We’d stay down for three hours straight, take a break and then go back down for another three hours,” Ron recalls.
Those long periods under water were made possible by what is known as “surface supplied diving.” Unlike recreational divers, commercial divers don’t carry an air tank on their backs. The air supply is on the surface, either on a dock or a boat, and is pumped down to the diver. It provides an unlimited supply of air and enables divers to be more mobile. “We were often walking around on the bottom.”
“It was a strange environment. There were eels and sharks, but for the most part the sharks were small enough that they were not a huge threat.”
Of greater concern were the currents and tides they worked in. The captain of the dive ship kept the divers informed about them, using either radio communications or line signals. The latter involved pulling on the diver’s line. Two pulls would mean something, three pulls something else, and there were short pulls meaning something different again. The divers would return the signals from the bottom.
In Ontario, he worked for an engineering company that rebuilt government wharfs. This involved salvage work, underwater welding and taking videos of underwater structures needing repair. “We did videos of the structures underwater to analyse where the weakest points were.”
Another career option for divers, of course, is becoming an instructor.
Ron finished his commercial diving career in 1992 after thousands of hours under water. He rarely dives now and says if he did, it would be “anywhere south where the visibility is better.”
He doesn’t regret his years spent working under the sea. “It’s (commercial diving) seasonal, but there’s still work out there for divers. You’re at sea for three or four weeks at a time. For a single guy it’s a good job and it paid well.”