The Performer: Kelly Korol, commercial diver

On focus, working while intoxicated and why divers have a beef with James Cameron.


Photo: Ryan Miller

When it comes to working under pressure, commercial divers do it literally. Edmonton native Kelly Korol, owner of B.C.’s Divesafe International, started diving when he was 17. In 1984, he graduated from the Los Angeles–based College of Oceaneering, certified in a range of skills like the operation of diving bells and the avoidance of decompression sickness, better known as the bends. Korol’s workplace—alone in the dark at the bottom of a river, lake or ocean—offers a host of potential dangers, from industrial effluent ponds to intoxicating gases to pits of human sewage. He spoke with Canadian Business senior writer Thomas Watson.

What’s the biggest misconception about commercial diving?
People tend to think the job mostly involves underwater welding and working on offshore oil rigs. That’s a fallacy. We’re jacks of all trades. We work as videographers. We do seafood harvesting. Sometime we’re deployed as construction guys, twisting wrenches or sawing and hammering. We work on hydro dams and reservoirs. We do boat hull inspections. And we don’t just dive in water. We also dive the other end of the extreme, working in commercial and human effluent systems when things get stuck.

What’s the job commercial divers dread the most?
A lot of guys don’t like pipeline inspections, or what we call pipe crawl. The reason, of course, is that there’s only one way in and one way out. It’s very claustrophobic. Sewage dives are also unpopular. In that stuff, there is zero visibility and you are swimming with nasty bugs, everything from hepatitis to E. coli. A dry suit with a special helmet protects you from biological hazards, but gloves and suits can tear.

What was your worst dive?
That was the Alberta Newsprint Co.’s effluent pond. In the pulp process, they grind wood chips and cook them with chemicals to separate out pure white fibers. Everything else goes out into the sewage collection system, which uses bacteria from human waste to help the composting process that takes place in four clarifier ponds. I was diving the thickest, most toxic pond, which is really warm, about 45°C. You can only take about 20 minutes at a time. I was on the bottom following a pipe, and I lost radio contact. The surface team tried to pull me up but couldn’t. I wasn’t very deep, about 20 feet, but this stuff is toxic porridge. It took me 20 minutes just to make my way to the surface. That was bad, but not compared to oil diving. In places like Fort McMurray, they will dive in bitumen. That’s scary.

What does a sport diver need to become a certified commercial diver?
The profession requires a much higher level of dive-theory expertise. Even shallow-water aquaculture divers and seafood harvesters must have a thorough knowledge of the physics and physiology involved and the effects of gases on their bodies. Commercial divers have to be able to recognize signs of decompression sickness and know dive accident management.

What about the mental game?
For most tasks, commercial divers work alone with backup divers on the surface. So discipline and focus is huge, especially on deep dives. To do the job, you often have to act like a functioning alcoholic because there is no pill that prevents pressure-induced nitrogen narcosis, an altered mental state similar to alcohol intoxication. On deep dives, you must accept that it will happen and be able to deal with the effects. Also, when we do something like a pipe crawl, instead of scuba equipment we use hoses that provide unlimited air and a communications link. But when working in debris or amongst pilings, you’ve got to come out exactly how you went in, which means you must know where your umbilical cord is at all times. That takes focus.

How do you learn to focus while intoxicated?
We do lots of emergency drills, and teach students by taking them down to 40 or 50 metres and letting them feel the effects of nitrogen narcosis while taking stress tests. A good one is working with knots. Tying a bowline at depth is a different kettle of fish than doing it on the surface.

What’s your most priceless underwater moment?
A killer whale swam up to me when I was teaching a sport diving class on Galiano Island. There are two types of killer whales: the residents that travel in packs and predominantly feed on fish, and the solitary transients that will eat any kind of mammal. This was a transient. He was about three feet away. I could have touched him. I looked deep into his eyes and he looked right back. He was just curious. We were too encapsulated in rubber suits to be desirable, but he scared my students and got my heart racing a little bit.

Are water creatures an issue?
Well, I’m not aware of any alligator-in-the-sewage-system stories, but biological threats exist. A diver was recently killed working on an oil sector project near Mexico. His umbilical was snagged by a giant manta ray. He was dragged to the surface and died of rapid decompression. Fresh water also has its moments. In the Fraser River, for example, there is zero visibility. You work blindly, feeling valves and pipes with your fingers. You develop a sensual acuity to the environment. And huge sturgeon, which can be 2,000 pounds, will suddenly come out of the black and bump you. That’s not really going to harm you if you remain calm. The worst biological hazard, of course, is man. Commercial divers joke that everybody topside is out to kill us because surface workers can forget there are divers below and kick or drop things in the water. A 5,000-pound beam almost crushed me once. On deep-water petroleum projects, diving bells have exploded after being contaminated by petroleum leaks.

Is there a diving movie that really bothers you?
James Cameron’s The Abyss. When it came out, my buddies and I had to go see it. It started really well, fairly factual and true. We were impressed. Then the Navy SEAL guy went snaky because of high-pressure nervous syndrome. There is such a condition, but it doesn’t make you psychotic—it just gives you the shakes. We were willing to give Hollywood that one for the plot. But then things just got too far-fetched for us, especially the end when everyone comes back to the surface after a lengthy dive at extreme depths, with no need for decompression. We were expected to believe alien life forms somehow changed the game. We said: “Enough.”