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A Day on the Job

Mike Bolen, 41: Contract diver, Down Under Dive Service Inc., Largo

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

Q: What kind of hours do you work?

Sometimes sunup to sundown. You can pretty much set your own hours. I usually work between 30 and 40 hours a week.

Q: How did you get interested in this?

I was recreational diving and some guy saw me and asked me to scrape his boat. He paid me so well, it seemed like something you could make good money doing.

Q: So what are you scraping from the boat bottoms?

Oh, barnacles, mussels, oysters, clams, different assorted grass and algae. If you don't clean the boat, eventually it will get so encrusted that it won't be able to run.

Q: How long have you been doing this?

About 14 years. I've been back about three months. I worked here before, but was working out in Oregon for a while.

Q: How much time do you spend in the water?

Probably six or seven hours a day, depending on how many jobs there are to do.

Q: How often do people have the underside of their boats cleaned?

Normally in the summer it's about once a month, and in the winter it's about every six weeks. The (algae and crustacean) growth here is amazing compared to where I'm from.

Q: What do you like most about this job?

Just the freedom to pick up and go. You can work anywhere there is an ocean or water.

Q: Is this a hard job?

It's hard work. It's one of the toughest jobs there is. There are not a lot of people who can do it. It's very physically demanding, and it's slightly dangerous. There's sea life like jellyfish to worry about, and the pollution can be a factor, too.

Q: What kind of gear do you wear for jobs?

We always wear (wet or dry) suits because it protects from cuts and things. Otherwise it's your basic scuba gear: tank, BC (buoyancy compensator), regulator, mask and fins.

Q: Any other tools of your trade?

We use five-way paint scrapers, chisels, hammers. On the real tough boats we use hatchets to scrape stuff off. We use brushes or giant pads to scrub. We're not allowed to use (chemical) cleaners. Just muscle.

Q: So most of your work could be categorized as cleaning and maintenance?

The majority is cleaning and maintenance. But there are all sorts of mechanical aspects to it. We can basically do anything under water that can be done on land, except paint the boat. Rudder repairs, prop repairs, strut repairs. Because the water is so shallow around here, people damage their props a lot, so we do a lot of prop replacements.

Q: What skills do you need for this job?

Your basic scuba certification can get you in the door. No fear of the water. In excellent shape, and to be outgoing and strong.

Q: How do temperature extremes affect you?

Working in the cold is the worst, because you can get cold and you can get sick, and you tire more easily. Most of the people here don't have dry suits. Most of the divers here still use wet suits in the winter.

Q: What's the difference?

The wet suit lets water in; the dry suit keeps you completely dry. I am completely dry in the water, except for my head and my hands in my dry suit. It has enclosed boots, and you pump air into it.

Q: How much money do you make?

I am an independent contractor, and (the owner) pays us a percentage of the total bill for the boat. A good diver can make between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, depending on how much you work.

Q: How many boats do you service a day?

I usually do between five and eight a day. Five would be good, and eight would be exceptional, because for us to do a good job on a boat usually takes at least an hour, an hour and a half.

Q: What locations do you cover?

We work on boats all the way down to Bradenton, to Tampa, and even up to Tarpon Springs. There's a lot of driving involved in this area because there's so much work.

Q: Are there other types of underwater jobs that you do?

Oh sure. There's salvage jobs; when boats sink, we can bring them off the bottom. We do pylon and bridge inspections, locating underwater cables. Just about anything underwater.

Q: What are some of the hazards of the job?

There's always pollution, glass, tin cans and things in the water you have to watch out for. There's danger of getting hit by another boat. And then there's the sea life; jellyfish, man-o-wars.

Q: Tell me about some of your scarier moments on the job?

I got stuck wedged under a boat and ran out of air one time, but I just took my BC off and shot out of the water. I got bumped by something big about a month ago. Something hit me in the side and moved away. I don't know if it was a shark or alligator, but it was something big.

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