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Local divers salvage shipwrecks, keep bay clean

on February 21, 2012

Beneath the surface of the San Francisco Bay, a small crew of divers works, largely unnoticed, salvaging shipwrecks and cleaning up oil spills.

“If it can be done on the surface, our guys can do it underwater,” said Frank Immel, the marketing manager for Global Diving & Salvage, a marine contractor which specializes in underwater construction and diving services.

Immel likes to say that his guys just wear different hard hats and different coveralls to work. His employees, underwater diving construction workers, also build the bridges of America — from the ocean floor up.

Global, a Seattle-based company whose Bay Area division is headquartered in Rio Vista with an office in Richmond, helped build the underwater foundation for the new Bay Bridge. But in the Bay Area, Global largely focuses on environmental services, which means salvaging shipwrecks and cleaning up oil spills. Its current project is to assist the US Coast Guard in removing oil still trapped onboard during the cleanup of oil leaking from the Tug Tiger, a World War II-era tugboat that sank in the Point Richmond harbor in December.

Kyle Watson, the salvage master at Global Diving & Salvage's Richmond office, exhibits the "booms" that workers use to corral oil spills to keep them from spreading. (photos by: Maggie Beidelman)

When the divers are called in for oil cleanup, said Kevin Pehle, a former diver who is now Global’s California General Manager, “we work 24 hours a day until the spill is contained and sealed off.”

The crew, drawn from five full-time employees in Richmond and 15 out of Rio Vista, corrals spills with booms that hang down in curtains, preventing spills from spreading. In 2007, Global did just this when the COSCO Busan container ship hit the Bay Bridge, spilling more than 53,500 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay.

Though Global is not the only company that does commercial diving and salvage in the Bay Area, it has made some breakthroughs in its industry. In 2011, the Coast Guard contracted Global to check for oil leaking from the S.S. Montebello, a World War II tanker that was transporting 3.2 million gallons of crude oil when it was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in 1941. It was left to rest 900 feet below the ocean surface off the coast of Cambria.

Global’s team used a remote operated vehicle (ROV) and neutron backscatter testing to determine the presence of oil, eventually determining that there was no longer any oil on board — it had perhaps washed out to sea many years ago.

“Our work trying to ID the presence of that oil at that depth with the technology we incorporated had never been done before,” Immel said. (Check out Global’s video on their Montebello project here:

On a typical deep-sea construction stint, Global employees often work 30-day shifts, practicing saturation diving; that is, living in a hyperbaric, pressurized environment on the water’s surface throughout the duration of a project.

“When you’re working at great depth or have a lot of work to do,” Immel said, you have to worry about getting the bends, which can occur when divers surface too fast, causing excess nitrogen to come out as gas bubbles in the body. These nitrogen bubbles can cause joint pain, skin rashes, swelling, paralysis and even death.

To keep workers from getting decompression sickness, they remain in the pressurized living quarters above the work site for the entirety of the project, often working 12-hour daily shifts. They then decompress at the end of the month.

Global divers remove the wreck of the F/V Tasu from Stinson Beach, Marin County. (photo credit: Global Diving & Salvage)

Deep sea construction is extremely risky, Immel said. “We [humans] are not supposed to be underwater,” Immel said. “If something were to happen [like losing a hose while diving] these guys are dead.”

One difficulty is the typically murky waters of the San Francisco Bay. “It’s practically zero visibility for us on the bottom,” said Pehle.

“The Bay Area’s got a lot better [in the past 15 years], but you usually can’t see anything. It’s all by feel,” said Pehle, who once grabbed a large and startled fish by accident in the waters off of Point Molate.

Because of the potential dangers of deep sea diving, keen attention to equipment and safety procedures is practiced daily during projects. “Everything we do has built-in safety systems,” Immel said. “It’s very dangerous, but we manage risk through safety programs to mitigate that risk and make it actually a safe business.”

Risky business certainly has its benefits, too. The union pay scale for commercial divers is $76 an hour, with a benefit package of $26 an hour, according to Pehle. Of course, you’d have to be okay with occasional 30-day work weeks.

You also have to be able to relate to people, said Kyle Watson, who oversees salvage operations in Richmond. “Compassion goes a long way,” especially when you’re dealing with someone who has just lost their beloved boat, he said.

When waves from the Japanese tsunami swept into Crescent City harbor last March, sinking many of the local owners’ boats, Global went in, salvaged one and brought the ship’s wheel back to the owner.

Kyle Watson, who oversees salvage work at Global's Richmond office, looks out onto the sunken tugboat Tiger from under a pier in the Port of Richmond. "We have pride in what we do," said Watson. (photo by: Maggie Beidelman)

The owner had spent hundreds of hours refurbishing the boat, which had responded as a rescue boat in the 1964 tsunami that hit Alaska. When the team presented the man with the ship’s wheel, “He was crying,” Watson said. “The guy was so thankful for the care that we took, he gave us the propeller to put up in our office.”

Watson and Pehle agreed that the job is rewarding—and at times, straight up fun.

“We have a good time. Some of it is borne out of we have a specialized job, so we have pride in what we do,” Watson said.

Pehle, who started commercial diving in 1986 after graduating from the Coastal School of Diving in Oakland, says he watched one too many Jacques Cousteau movies as a kid.

“Its a hobby, more or less,” Pehle joked. “I mean, we get paid to dive.”

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