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ideological-imbroglio 04/12/12 (Thu) 12:06:22 #12766349



Deep-sea sat-divers are kind of like celebrities. There aren't a lot of them — just a couple hundred in the whole wide world.

Here's why: You know that steel pressurized tube under the belly of the ship? The one with about as much room as a walk-in closet? That's where you'll spend the next two weeks eating, sleeping, and shitting while your body acclimates to a high-pressure environment. The guys above pump in a gas mix that makes you sound like Donald Duck, and all your meals get squeezed down a hose tighter than the sphincter on a chaplain's daughter.

My point is this — it's dangerous, crazy work. But it's also a lot of fun. You meet amazing people and get some amazing stories. You see things with your own two eyes that no other human being gets to. Back then, there's absolutely nothing else I'd rather do.

I made my final dive in 1981 under Tower-B — an offshore oil rig in the Norwegian North Sea. Two months after I left, Daniel Balestri (my partner and co-diver) was found dead after something that the technicians called an "explosive decompression event". A friend of mine filled me in on the details.

He and his partner were coming up from a dive. The diving bell (a little pressurized cabin that divers sit in while going down or coming up) was getting connected back to the hyperbaric chamber, so they could start the (very slow) process of decompression. But while one handler worked on the mating flange, the other punctured the seal and exposed the divers to the atmosphere.


Daniel Balestri's remains.

The coroner's report says that Balestri was "partially forced through a steel orifice 45 centimeters in diameter, resulting in the bisection of his thoracoabdominal cavity and the violent expulsion of nearly all internal organs". In other words, 8 atmospheres of pressure squeezed a six foot man through a foot and a half wide hole. A chunk of his large intestines ended up strung up on steel rafters 15 feet up and over 30 feet away. Everyone else died near-instantly.

This and the Byford Dolphin incident in 1985 led to compression systems being refitted with safety devices to prevent disasters like this. But there's a crucial difference between this and the Byford Dolphin incident: the handler who breached the seal was a veteran diver. There was no miscommunication, no confusion — no reason to do what he did.

And so this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night: What made him decide to force open that door?

ideological-imbroglio 04/12/12 (Thu) 12:31:09 #28993436


A neotenous axolotl.

You got a lot of time to yourself when you're sat-diving. I spent mine reading.

One of my favorite books describes an unusual breed of Mexican salamander called the axolotl. What makes axolotl peculiar is how they differ from other species: most salamanders begin life as aquatic creatures, breathing through their gills. Eventually, they mature into adults — losing the gills and developing lungs.

Axolotl never develop lungs. Instead, they spend their entire lives underwater.

In 1863, a French zoologist received a shipment of axolotls from Mexico. When he opened the box, he discovered that it contained an entirely different species of salamander — darker in coloration and capable of surviving on land.

What he learned was that this was actually the same species: at some point in their evolution, axolotl discarded their matured form, retaining their juvenile characteristics. But when placed in a new environment — in this case, an enclosed, tightly sealed box — they were able to achieve this forgotten "adult" state.

The ability for an organism to retain useful juvenile characteristics well into adulthood is called neoteny. It's something you commonly see among domesticated animals (dogs and cats), and even — to a certain degree — in humans.

It is, in essence, the ability for an organism to exist in a larval state when doing so serves its interest. But put that organism in the right environment? It undergoes a metamorphosis. It remembers a developmental path forgotten by evolution millions of years ago. It matures. It hatches.

What emerges can be unrecognizable.

ideological-imbroglio 04/12/12 (Thu) 12:42:11 #12968544

An oil platform is its own self-contained ecosystem. You have to produce your own power, potable water, even handle your own sewage. The only connection to the rest of the world is by air and sea, and a storm can take both away in a heart-beat.

Point is that the work can be isolating and tedious. People do strange things to stay sane. Sometimes it's maschismo, sometimes it's boredom, and sometimes it's just pure cabin fever. Throw in that whole "living in an isolated pressurized room with just one other person" gig that saturation divers have, and you got yourself a recipe for nuclear-grade bone-headedness.

I don't know when Balestri and I started competing to see who could dive deeper or ascend faster. I just know it was dumb as hell — and I knew it back then, too.

Decompression sickness is no joke. The human body's adaptability to high and low pressure environments is contingent upon slow, incremental exposure. Drastic changes produce pockets of expanding gas inside of you: in your veins, your organs, even inside your brain. Your eyes will bleed, your heart will stop, and your lungs will (quite literally) explode.

But when there's shit to do and only one person to do it with, you'll find anything to delay the boredom. The joint pain and headaches were just part of the entry-fee.

Balestri's back kept acting up; kept complaining about it feeling "crooked". I asked him a few times if he wanted to stop. He'd just swallow some aspirin and laugh it off.

I kept thinking about those axolotl, trapped in that sealed box. I kept thinking about how, in the darkness of that enclosed space, they started to change. I kept thinking about how my back was starting to hurt, too.

ideological-imbroglio 04/12/12 (Thu) 12:49:19 #38389309

When you spend your days nearly a thousand feet below in a place so deep that the only thing keeping the pressure from crumpling your skull is the fluid already inside it, you see some shit. Lovecraft's got nothing on good ol' mother-nature. You want to know the wildest thing I've ever seen? The absolute wildest?

Sea centipede.

Now, if you know a little bit about marine biology, you already know that there is no such thing. You're probably already compiling a mental list of all the possible things I could have seen that look like a sea centipede (bristle worms, clam worms, some sort of isopod, maybe even a weird sea cucumber).

But I know what I saw, and it wasn't a sea cucumber. I was down installing clamps on the riser lines. Usually worked with Balestri, but his back was bothering him — and the supervisor told me we needed these clamps yesterday. So, down I went — alone.

I was at the bottom of the ocean floor in a pressurized suit, working in a place where the only sound was the slosh of fluids around and inside my own head. And that's when I caught it out of the corner of my eye — something emerging from the ocean fog.

Segmented body. Bone-white. Nearly three feet long. It crawled along the ocean floor, picking its way over rocks and sand on over thirty pairs of legs — barreling straight for me. And by the look of it, it meant business.

I hauled ass faster than I've ever hauled before. When I got back into the decompression chamber, Balestri was laying on his back, trying to ignore the pain. I told him what I saw.

He just laughed — but something about that laughter was off. It was harder and fiercer. Like he was desperate to laugh it all away.

That was the day I realized something wasn't right. It was my last day as a saturation diver. The instant I finished decompression, I got off that rig and never looked back.

ideological-imbroglio 04/12/12 (Thu) 12:55:21 #61192724

After the accident, authorities seized all on-site records and reduced Tower-B's operational staff to a skeleton crew of twenty. The ensuing investigation found "a culture among management antagonistic toward safety" — which is just a fancy way of saying the people running the place didn't give a fuck if any of us died so long as they got paid. Tower-B was shut down and decommissioned in 1989.

I've had a lot of time since then to think about the incident with Balestri in 1981. A lot of details keep nagging at me.

The spot where the handler breached the seal? The diving bell's got a steel-reinforced porthole right above it. Which means when he was cracking open the pressurized chamber that would kill him and everyone around him, he was looking inside of it. He was looking at Daniel Balestri.

There's one more thing. It's the strangest part, and what keeps me up at night. It's why I haven't seen a doctor in over a decade — despite the fact that I've been experiencing excruciating back-pain since 1981.

Daniel Balestri didn't die in the accident. Neither did the other diver. The coroner determined that both were killed prior to the breach, via an unspecified 'severe back trauma'. The worst part?

Neither of their spines were found.

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