SEWER DIVER OF THE CARIBBEAN

WHEN YOUR JOB TAKES YOU TO A PLACE YOU WOULD RATHER NOT BE.

GETTING READY FOR THE SEWER – FOTO 1977

by Steve Dresselhaus

Skeptics of the paranormal still exist.  They are those narrow-minded individuals who  believe in nothing beyond that which is captured and interpreted by the five senses.  I am not one of those unbelieving skeptics.  I have experienced and therefore bear personal witness to having spent six years of my life living a fully conscious out-of-body experience.   Those six years are what we normally call junior high and high school.  They were good years.   During those six years my body could not hold my mind in place any more than a wall can keep a bird out of a garden.

The teacher’s voice, a form of white noise, released me to dream of coral reefs, sharks, and the shaking grass skirts of hula dancers.  My mind, to anyone able to see into it, would have appeared to be fast-flipping through a lifetime supply  of National Geographic magazines, whose photos were a memorized part of me. 

I began snorkeling during grade school back in  the 60s.  I was 12 years old when I started SCUBA in 1970.  Being the son of missionaries in Venezuela pretty much precluded experiencing the luxuries of life made possible by wealth, but it more than guaranteed a life of adventure. Real life was not unlike the Harrison Ford “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movie. Hikes and backpacking in the Andes mountains, inner-tubing in the wild, uncharted, and turbulent rapids of Andean streams and rivers, camping in the jungle, dugout canoe expeditions into tribal lands in the Amazon,  and of course, countless trips to exotic tropical beaches with names like Choroní,  Bajo Chuao, Morrocoy, Farallón Centinela, Mochima, Cata and Chichiriviche: these were our entertainment.  Purchased entertainment produced by others such as TV and movies was an unneeded expense and far less interesting than real life. Why waste time in a make-believe world created for profit by others when my real life was far more fun and exciting?

In the mid- to late 70s during my later teen years, I began to do light commercial diving.    My underwater odd jobs consisted of things like maintenance on in-water buoys, gasket changes on oil pipelines, channel marker repositioning, search and recovery, light salvage, and whatever other jobs happened to be available underwater.  For a young man, those days of adventure in the southern Caribbean would be hard if not impossible to beat.   I was living a dream and loving it.

The coast of Venezuela runs roughly along the 10th to 11th degree north latitude.     This is the area where the northeast trade winds blow pretty much nonstop, meaning that waters in the southern Caribbean are almost always rough.  The winds are so steady and strong that the divi-divi trees are all sculpted, leaning to the west.  Friends on the islands would loft kites and tie the strings to something heavy and see how many weeks the kites would stay aloft before a lull in the wind would bring them back to earth.  Sailors call these waters the Sandwich Run, since the choppy seas make cooking in the galley a bit too bouncy to manage.  While perpetually windy, the coast of Venezuela is basically immune to hurricanes, which almost always work their way to the north.

However, there was one major storm that forced its way across the coast.   Rollers bigger than the normal ultra-choppy waves pummeled the coast during an unusually strong blow. A 36-inch diameter pipe carrying untreated sewage from the city of Caracas to an offshore depth of about 90 feet cracked close to shore, venting its raw sewage, which then flowed back toward the tourist beaches.  During the storm, each passing swell had  lifted  the pipe and released it, letting it crash down onto a concrete support.  Eventually the pipe made one bounce too many and split. 

A group of us was hired to fix the mess.   Being the youngest diver and not having underwater welding experience, my job was to locate the hole, scrape clean the surrounding metal, measure the length and width, diagram the rupture, and prepare it for a welding team.

Our work boat maneuvered close to shore since the break in the pipe was not far out. The water was extremely rough, leaving the  boat bobbing about like a bunch of little kids in an inflatable bounce house. It didn’t take long to discover the general area of the break.  The transparent  blue waters of the Caribbean went from blue to green to the color of chai with milk.  The smell went from 3,000 miles of clean, Atlantic-crossing trade winds to that of a bathroom in an inner-city bus station during a water cutoff. Floating on the surface of the sea were uncountable bits of “stuff.”

At that point, I began to feel like Ethan Hunt at the beginning of a Mission Impossible movie.  “Steve, your job, should you decide to accept it . . .”   I suspected that after my having accepted this job, my friends would “disavow” me, not because of the job done, but because of any lingering aroma sure to envelop me.

We anchored the work boat up current from the brown seas.  I put on my dive gear and threw myself into the clean water upstream from the Old Faithful-like geyser of raw sewage billowing into the sea. In my bag were wire brushes to scrape away the growth, hammer and chisels to chip away at any encrusting barnacles, a tape measure to measure the hole, and a slate with a pencil in order to diagram the hole to give the welders an idea of what to expect. 

I swam down to the pipe, keeping the billowing brown sludge downstream.  As I neared the break, I began to hear the rumbling noise of uncountable gallons a minute of sewage being pumped into the ocean.  It became a fully sensorial experience as I could see the gunk, begin smelling the putrid mess even through my gear, begin feeling the pulsing throb and hearing the rumble as the sewage roared out of the hole like a bass pipe organ from Hell.  Taste was the only sense partially denied me, but I was good with that.

Do you remember Mount St. Helen, or Pinatubo?  Can you imagine watching a video taken from the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls being played in reverse?  That will give you an idea of what a broken sewer line looks like underwater.

Fortunately, the strong, ever-present trade winds and the expanding warm waters of the distant western Caribbean coupled with a bit of Coriolis, create a permanent westerly flowing current. This meant that as long as I stayed upstream from the volcano-like eruption ejecting its putrid magma into the sea, I could stay clear without being immersed in the black waters of Caracas.

The job itself was over rather quickly.  I scrubbed away the encrusting growth, knocked a few barnacles off the pipe and left the area around the hole smooth and clean so that the welders could go down the next day and weld the patch. 

My job complete, I returned to the surface.  The crew had rigged up a hose attached to a small pump and I began to hose myself down with sea water.   The seven seas did not contain sufficient water to make me feel clean after that dive.  I rode back to Caracas, but for some reason my driver asked me to ride in the open back of his pickup. The residual odors and gases leaving me probably made me the original cause of global warming.   I felt like a leper in Bible times having to wear a bell and shouting out “unclean, unclean” at the approach of another person.  I got to the apartment in downtown Caracas and headed straight for the shower.  Water as hot as I could endure and  Costco-like quantities of shampoo and bars of soap, enough of them to build a replica of the Great Wall of China, helped remove from me the sense of being a slime-covered sewer rat. Human decency returned. 

I am now 63 years old and healthy and have never suffered any ill effects from the sewer dive.  I still spend a lot of time at sea kayaking or diving in Mexico´s Sea of Cortez where my wife and I run a small NGO called Reconciliamar, which “uses adventures at sea to transform lives.” We take people from our city of La Paz out to sea in order to engage with them in personal, life-transforming dialogue in our efforts to keep them out of life’s sewers, both the physical and the moral,  and to create  in them a love for God´s wonderful creation.   Our hope is that the hundreds and hundreds of people we take to sea will learn to love it, protect it, and never have to worry about diving in a volcano-like eruption of raw sewage.  We hope that as we spend time with people at sea, our words and influence  will guide them in making choices which will keep them out of the sewers of life and that they will join us as we do our small part in working towards the “reconciliation of all things” ( Colossians 1:20).

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Colossians 1:19-20

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

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