I’ve been interested in diving and construction from a young age.
Back when I was 14, my first scuba diving experience was a five-minute crash course in a pool, and then an hour dive looking at fish in their natural habitat. That’s what got me hooked; I loved the exploration of a world I’d never seen before along with a sort of relaxed freedom.
Throughout high school I learned how to weld, along with some basic fabrication and mechanics. Those were my favourite set of classes.
Dive School: Kinetics to Underwater
A year after high school, I was in college for kinesiology and not really enjoying my time. That’s when my best friend – also a certified diver and welder – was accepted to Holland College’s Commercial Diving program in Summerside, P.E.I. He suggested I apply, so naturally I did.
The prospect of combining two things I love and getting paid for it was like a dream come true.
After passing and paying for my dive medical, I was on my way to the tiny island off the east coast of Canada to learn.
I half expected to show up to a room with a few scarred, tattooed, old roughnecks tired of welding on land and looking for something more dangerous. What I found was a classroom stuffed with teenagers and a couple of hard-nosed instructors.
It was perfect.
Due to some complications with our instructors, our bottom time was limited and we only achieved a minimum amount to qualify for certification. We weren’t allowed to practice with the lift bags because they were too dangerous. We had a variety of diving hats like the Gorski and Miller, even a Mark V, all of which we unfortunately were never allowed to use.
However, after nine months of tightening bolts and tying knots, I was ready to be sent into the real world. Most importantly, I learned the in’s and out’s of diving safety above and below the water’s surface.
It was the most fun school experience I have ever had.
First Dive in: Safety Slack
I moved to Ottawa, Ontario, right after I graduated college hoping to get some experience and make some money.
When I applied to a local company, I was told I had to join the Carpenter’s Union in order to get the job because in Ontario the divers fall under that union’s jurisdiction. When I applied to the union, they said they couldn’t take me on as a brother because there were not enough job openings at companies.
After about two months of random demolition work I finally convinced the union that there was a job for me, and they were the only thing standing in my way of a job. After being accepted, it took around one more month before getting the call to do any dive work.
The first dive the company gave me was a trash rack cleaning on a hydro power dam. Two gates away from the one I would be cleaning, one of my supervisors beckoned me over and pointed out a small vortex and said: “Don’t get too close to that, or it’ll kill ya”.
Along with all the senior staff having absolutely no patience for rookie divers, their safety precaution was a sandbag on a rope to check for Delta P. This was coupled with the fact that three years before they had a diver get killed on a dam and my tender was a guy who was put on leave for drug use on the job.
I didn’t feel real safe.
This wasn’t a very big deal because in the year I lived in Ottawa, I was only given nine days of work and a total of 51 minutes of dive time.
A New Start in Newfoundland
After that gongshow, I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where instead of only one prominent dive company there were about six or seven.
No worries about a union, no worries about being stuck with terrible supervisors. If you are a commercial diver in Canada, I suggest starting in Newfoundland.
I am currently working for two companies and have given my CV to about three more. It was a little slow when I first arrived here, but have been getting a lot of great experience once I got the ball rolling. Jobs like ship repairs and docking to wharf inspection and urchin farming are what you can find on Canada’s east coast. It’s all stepping stones to one day diving offshore.
My end game for diving is to bring it full circle and one day own a little scuba tour shop on some resort in the Caribbean. I would love to teach people the basics of a life underwater and hopefully spark the love that I found.
My advice for new divers or diving hopefuls? Don’t worry, it’ll pick up eventually. Stay safe.
Steve Manduca works in Canada as a commercial diver and is pursuing experience in the offshore maritime industry. He trained in Holland College.