Diver Down: Tales of a Commercial Diver


Thomas Harter loves his job. He says, “When you really love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Ironically, he follows that observation with another: “But, believe me, it’s been a lot of hard work to get where I am.”

Harter is a commercial diver, an occupation that might sound to the uninitiated like someone who takes graceful leaps off poolside boards for a living, but, in fact, is one of the most complex—and dangerous—ways to make a living. Most importantly for our area, the offshore oil industry as we know it would never have developed and would grind to a halt today if not for commercial divers, despite the rise of remotely operated underwater vehicles that now perform tasks traditionally done by human divers.

Divers have a reputation as hard-living risk-takers. Some might even say crazy. Harter’s hard-living days are behind him, but every day on the job brings its own brand of danger. It’s a life he’s lived since the day he was born, though, and whether the day’s work is as mundane as scraping mussels or as glamorous as salvaging a multi-million dollar drilling rig, he’s well prepared and trained to keep risks to a minimum.

Thomas Harter suits up for a dive.

Thomas Harter suits up for a dive.

The job requires a wide array of knowledge and skills. Physics, chemistry, human physiology, biology, hydrodynamics and naval architecture are among the areas of knowledge Harter has learned just to stay alive on the job. He’s had to master skills such as working with metal—both cutting and welding—crane operation, rigging and lifting. Oh, and he’s had to learn how to handle explosives, too.

A life in the water

“I was brought up with Navy people, all master divers, SEALs, UDTs [underwater demolition team]; people like that. My father, John Harter, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1955. He was an officer who helped run an experimental diving unit, which is part of Naval special warfare,” says Harter. “Back in the late ’50s and throughout the ’60s, extensive technological development in diving—and space—was going on. My dad helped develop much of the diving equipment, doing the editing on the Navy’s diving tables. A lot of the technology we have now came from the Navy, and my father was heavily involved in it.”

Thomas was born when the Harters lived in Annapolis, Md. After John Harter’s Navy career ended, he started his own diving and salvage business there. In 1977, the Louisiana offshore oil boom beckoned and the family moved to the Tall Timbers neighborhood in Algiers. “He came to work for Taylor Diving. That was one of the biggest diving corporations at the time. They were doing work everywhere: the North Sea, China, Singapore, all over the world.

“I grew up around water. We had a 42-foot sailboat in Annapolis. We sailed it from Annapolis around Florida to Panama City and kept it there for the summer. Later, we brought the boat over to Lake Pontchartrain and kept it at Eden Isles,” Harter recalls. “To always be around water was a gift to me. I enjoyed sailing and swimming and all that kind of stuff. I took to the water like it was second nature, so diving was kind of bred into me.”

Thomas Harter with modern commercial dive helmet and a Mark V helmet, last used by the  U.S. Navy in 1984.

Thomas Harter with modern commercial dive helmet and a Mark V helmet, last used by the U.S. Navy in 1984.

Then in the 1980s, the oil boom went bust. “There wasn’t much work going on. A lot of companies were folding; many people lost their homes. My dad became president at Taylor, but in 1985 he left and went to Pennsylvania to work for the Waterfront Corporation, a commercial diving and marine company. A group of about eight guys came from Louisiana, too,” Harter says.

Harter, who had just graduated from Holy Cross High School, went with his dad and began working at his new company. He recalls, “I started out working in the shop and then worked as a tender supporting the divers. It wasn’t too long before they let me dive. That’s how it all started for me—at the age of 18.”

An interesting career

Since starting out in Pennsylvania, Harter has worked all over the world and in just about every state in the United States where there’s a significant body of water.

“A lot of people don’t understand or realize what is actually buried in the water, the maintenance that goes into handling these types of things and that people have to do that type of work. I happen to be one of them,” Harter says, proudly. “I’ve worked on everything from bridge structures, pipeline crossings, cable crossings and phone lines buried at sea to various types of salvage. I work a lot in the Mississippi; I have quite a reputation for working in the river under heavy current conditions, salvaging tugboats and barges and working at chemical plants, refineries and electrical generating plants, maintaining their water intake systems.

“I’ve been to Bahrain, working for the Navy on a nuclear submarine that had an accident. I’ve worked several jobs in Honduras; I’ve worked in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Canada. I’ve worked in California and the East Coast and every state along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Some of the inland jobs have been at massive coal-burning plants in Indiana; Princeton, Ind. has the second-biggest coal-burning plant in the country.”

Working offshore in the oilfield entails many different tasks. “We do underwater welding, cutting with torches, pipeline installation, pipeline maintenance and setting and removing platforms. A lot of times, removing platforms and the casing involves explosives. We’re down there setting explosives, then we blast, and the big derricks are there to pick it up,” says Harter.

Harter’s had some interesting, and some sad, moments on the river in New Orleans. In 1997, he volunteered his services to find the body of a boy who had been missing after jumping into the river in the Carrollton area. After several days, the Harbor Police had not located the body. “I went down on my own, got him and brought the family some closure. The city awarded me the Making a Difference award.”

In 2003, the USS Normandy, a Navy cruiser, was in port. “They were under high security and while mounting some machine guns on the bow, someone dropped one into the water. They called me in to go get it.”

Danger abounds

When he goes to work, whether in the open ocean or on the banks of the Mississippi, Harter has to face the reality that he’s entering a world that doesn’t really belong to us.

“You really have to be a fearless individual to be a good diver, to be comfortable in that setting. Someone who’s not comfortable deep in the water in a weightless environment is not going to be able to perform their job, to keep their senses together.”

Cruising sharks and barracuda are normal company when diving offshore, and, he says, “There are some real scary eels offshore. When you get down deep and one of those things starts checking you out, they can do some damage to you. You try to stay away from that stuff if you can. Divers have been killed by manta rays in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re on the bottom at 280 feet and that manta ray runs into your dive hose, it can pull you straight up to the surface. I saw one about 22 feet wide. I didn’t know they got quite so big. When you start seeing stuff that big, you really realize, ‘wow, this is a vast world.’”

He’s witnessed some other surreal sights thanks to the power of Mother Nature. “I’ve been involved in hurricanes before Katrina where we’ve gone on platforms and we’re up on a 40-foot deck level and seen fish that were washed up there on waves, and massive devastation. I’ve seen dead alligators on platforms that are 30 miles offshore. I don’t know how.”

Being pulled straight to the surface from depth is not a good thing. The foremost danger all divers have to face is decompression sickness, also called “the bends.” The deeper a diver goes, the more nitrogen dissolves into their bloodstream. Coming up too quickly causes the gas to bubble out, causing severe pain or death. Various gas mixtures and techniques like saturation diving allow divers to stay at depth for longer periods of time. Decompression chambers on the dive boats allow the divers to slowly come back to surface pressure. On a 260-foot dive using mixed gas, Harter notes that he might be able to stay down for 45 minutes. He would take an hour and a half to ascend through several decompression stops on the way to the surface, followed by nearly four hours in a decompression chamber, where he has to lie with his extremities perfectly straight, alternately breathing pure oxygen for 25 minutes followed by five minutes of regular air, then back to the oxygen.

“That’s so you don’t get O2 toxicity,” he says. “If you sit there and breathe O2 for an hour, you’d start jumping around like a cockroach that just about got stomped.”

Many jobs call for divers to cut through steel platform legs or the sides of sunken ships or barges, which is particularly hazardous. “When we burn, we use O2 through a torch that’s 18,000 volts; we cut through 3-inch steel like it’s nothing.” But, he says, “The torch generates hydrogen gas that can build up. If it’s not vented, you’re building a bomb; several divers have been killed because of explosions.”

The schedule can be grueling. It’s expensive to hire out divers, tenders and supervisors and all the equipment needed to work on the bottom; companies don’t want to waste any time getting the job done. “A lot of times, we work 24-hour shifts offshore, so the diving does not stop. It’s not just a daylight thing. We’re diving 24 hours a day on operations, with two different shift supervisors and with the chambers and the compressors always running. A lot of times we don’t come in unless there’s really bad weather or a hurricane pushes us in. Sometimes you get on a set schedule where you might be out there for 30 days, come in for a week or two—and then go right back out on a crew boat or a helicopter.

“I’ve had quite a safe career, but it’s a dangerous way to make a living. I was fortunate to grow up around the older guys, learn from them what it was all about and gain experience as a young man. I’m glad to say that there have not been any fatalities on any job that I’ve ever been on.”  Harter adds another observation that illustrates that his career is different from most others—“I’ve been fortunate enough to keep all my digits.”

While he considers himself to have been fortunate on the job, Harter has had a few close calls in his day. “I had to bail out of my helmet one time in the Mississippi River at about 70 feet. Another time my hose got wrapped up in the propeller of a boat. The captain had backed off the engine, and the tender wasn’t paying attention. The next thing I know, I get yanked off the bottom, but they’re saying they’re not pulling me up. Well, I was able to ditch my helmet before the propeller ended up sucking me in.”

Harter says that living the life of a diver can be rough and that the reputation divers have of being a hard-living bunch is true. “Some people don’t make it out of that stage. Working offshore for a couple of months at a time, they kind of lose the reality of how to act. When they come onto the beach and get booze in them, they turn into a different kind of animal. Some of the divers I knew died in car accidents or incidents due to drinking.”

Harter’s proud that he is no longer living that lifestyle and has been sober for years. He enjoys traveling and spending time with his family on their property in Folsom, where they’ve lived for some time now. When traveling, he does enjoy skin diving—but nothing too fancy. “Toting all that scuba gear gets to be a little bit of a headache. Snorkeling can be just as enjoyable.”


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