Welcome
to B.C.'s Underwater Work World

This website has two primary goals:

Welcome
to B.C.'s Underwater Work World

This website has two primary goals:

#1

DEEP, DARK and DANGEROUS—the website—is about celebrating the subsea community in British Columbia and connecting those who have been and/or continue to be part of it. Or maybe you’re simply as fascinated as I am about this little-known work world.

  • Please check out the bios–and join us!
  • Feel free to share your own stories, ask questions, or just enjoy meeting some of these remarkable folks.
  • And pass along the website info to others who might be interested.

Those who have worked in the subsea industry in British Columbia, or anywhere in the world’s waters, know that the focus of underwater technology is global. So are the jobs. Certainly, the work is about as far from an ordinary 9-to-5 desk job as you can get. But interesting and challenging? You bet!

#2

DEEP, DARK & DANGEROUS: The Story of British Columbia’s World-class Undersea Tech Industry—the book—will be launched by Harbour Publishing in the fall of 2021. It’s the result of three years of interviews that author Vickie Jensen has done to chronicle the little-known stories of underwater trailblazers in this province. They’ve built, operated, equipped and sold the submersibles, tourist submarines, underwater robotic systems like ROVs and AUVs, and inventions that have shaped BC’s remarkable subsea reputation and that continue to maintain it.

At one point, each of these pioneers came to the same conclusion: “There has to be a better way!” As a result, they set about designing a variety of manned and unmanned vehicles as well as inventions that enable us to “see” at greater depths and work there safely.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, British Columbia developed a reputation as the subsea NASA of the north. That legacy is still acknowledged globally but strangely, very few Canadians know anything about this fascinating chapter of our history. Today the subsea industry in B.C. and Canada is growing. To that end, Jensen also includes stories of young AUV, ROV and submersible pilots as well as “Getting into the Biz” advice from those who know. 

Photos:
Pisces courtesy of Al Trice.
Yellow Newtsuit courtesy of Phil Nuytten
"Git-R-Done" by Harry Bohm
ISE's AUV Explorer courtesy of ISE.

There
Has To Be A Better Way

My very first interview for the book was with subsea pioneer Al Trice. After 16 and a half years as a commercial diver, he had logged some 12,000 hours working underwater. The jobs were ever deeper and more difficult. That’s when it finally hit him: There has to be a better way. Here’s his story of that realization and the amazing result!

In a strange way, the story of B.C.’s first deep-diving submersible harkens back to 1964 and a cold, deep salvage contract of Barge 10. This oil scow barge had gone down in 80-100 meters (260-330 ft) of water near tiny Paisley Island, at the entrance to Howe Sound. Al Trice and Don Sorte made up one of two scuba teams working on the dive along with two single hardhat divers. “We had just started building Pisces I and were fast running out of money,” Al recalls. “We got double pay on this job because of the depth. That helped, but it was tough work.”

Worried about the depth, Worker’s Compensation Board assigned a doctor to monitor the dive. He cut the divers back from 25 minutes bottom time, five days per week, to only 14 minutes and four days a week. For the scuba teams, that meant 14 minutes of work followed by a minute at 130 feet, some intermediate stops to 30 feet, and then a quick scramble into a decompression chamber for two hours. Al recalls working 12-hour days in order to get any real work done on what he calls “one of the most difficult dive jobs ever.”

“I used a double hose regulator and a dry suit so I was fairly warm at that depth. Don used a single hose regulator and wore only a wet suit,” Al explains. “We both used double tanks which was plenty for me. But Don was bigger and colder, so he almost always burned through his air. Often we’d buddy breathe coming up.”

Al and Don both realized there had to be a better way. They had already come up with the idea of a small vehicle that could go down to 2,500 feet, the deepest depth of B.C.’s fjords. But at the time, an affordable craft didn’t exist for that depth. So, they had decided to build it themselves. In Seattle, they’d connected with Mack Thomson, an inventive Boeing machinist who was interested in the challenge. Sketching on a paper napkin, the threesome planned a $20,000 submarine they’d build in three months.

Eventually, that dream became the legendary Pisces I, but it would take 26 months, a lot more diving jobs and $100,000 to launch. Despite the extra time and cost, it was, in fact, a better and safer way of working at great depth. And the Pisces class submersibles would soon work around the world.

Don Sorte and Al Trice in commercial dive dress, circa mid 1960s
Pisces I launch

About
The Book

If pressed to name an area in which British Columbia is a world leader, few would think of undersea technology. Yet, as Vickie Jensen proves beyond any doubt in this fascinating book, BC has both a colourful history and a bright future as a leader in the world of subsea technology.

One part of this saga begins with the remarkable story of Pisces I. In the early 1960s, two commercial hardhat divers working in the Vancouver area, Al Trice and Don Sorte, decided that they needed a small manned submersible with robot arms for deep-sea work. When they couldn’t find one to buy, they decided to build their own, along with a crazy inventor Mack Thomson. Experts told them it was suicidal to construct a home-made version. But 26 months  later, their Pisces I was successfully making 1,500-foot dives. These three innovators formed International Hydrodynamics (HYCO for short), a company that would serve as a “kindergarten” for a generation of experts that would launch hundreds of subsea companies with multi-million-dollar revenues, all based in BC.

Another part of the story entails commercial hardhat diver Phil Nuytten. In 1966, he founded Can-Dive. Phil was only 25, but his company quickly grew to become the largest underwater construction firm in Canada. Phil Nuytten is still a diver as well as an inventor, a tech manufacturer, a record-setter, an adventurer, explorer, author, a songwriter, a collector and a Northwest Coast carver. Along the way, he has also mentored and employed many who have had their own remarkable subsea careers.

They’re just two of the trailblazers in DEEP, DARK & DANGEROUS: The Story of British Columbia’s World-class Undersea Tech Industry. Vickie Jensen uncovers stories, both historical and current, of intrepid risk-takers. They’ve built, operated and sold tourist submarines, submersibles, sonars and underwater robots. These are inventions that have shaped BC’s remarkable subsea reputation and that continue to maintain it. Written with colour, flair and humour, this book recounts a vibrant, but little-known era of B.C. history, one that anyone can enjoy.

STAY UPDATED.  If you’d like to be on the mailing list for notification about this captivating saga, please sign up here! Your contact information will not be shared with anyone excepting Harbour Publishing.

Vickie looking at Al Trice’s historic Pisces photos. Photo by Harry Bohm.
Vickie and Phil Nuytten with the DeepWorker submersible. Photo by Harry Bohm.

About
The Author

Vickie Jensen has built her writing career around the importance of documenting and celebrating work. As editor of Westcoast Mariner magazine she travelled on coastal tugs, charter yachts, dredges, ferries and water taxis for nearly four years, interviewing skippers, crews and owners about maritime life. She is the author of Saltwater Women at Work and Working These Waters, and co-author of Ships of Steel: A British Columbia Shipbuilder’s Story, Build Your Own Underwater Robot and Other Wet Projects, and Underwater Robotics: Science, Design & Fabrication. For five decades, she and her husband Jay Powell have also worked with First Nations elders to produce more than fifty schoolbooks, documenting a variety of Native languages spoken on the Northwest Coast. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

Westcoast Words lists various books that Vickie Jensen has authored or co-authored. It includes ordering information for those books.

Cast
of Characters

Here are some of the amazing cast of characters who have spent years on, in or under global waters. I’ve interviewed most of them for the DEEP, DARK & DANGEROUS book. I’ll regularly add to this list of bios, so keep checking for familiar faces and stories.

If you’d like to contact any of them, I’d be happy to pass along your contact information.

Ashdown, Les
Atherton, Mark
Bohm, Harry
Bergman, Erika
Bird, John
Curnew, Steve
Dasken, Hugh
Dennison, Glen
Deproy, Doug
Dobell, Colin
Dolfi, River
Edgar, Pete
Eddy, David
Elliott, Darin
English, Jim

Epp, Danny
Gemma, Gino
Gilchrist, Tom
Hurd, Ben
Hurd, Daniel
Hurd, Dennis
Huntington, Doug
Immega, Guy
Jackson, Eric
Keevil, Norman
Kerby, Terry
Knight, Terry
Kristensen, Gordon
Laframboise, Jean-Marc
Lanzinger, Helmut

Lokhorst, Dave
McAuley, Linda
McDonald, Deloye “Scratch”
Macdonald, Mike
McFarlane, James A.R. (Jr.)
McFarlane, James Sr.
Mitchell, Mavis
Muth, Don
Nuytten, Phil
Patterson, Jeff
Porter, Dave
Roberts, Tom
Proctor, Alison
Reid, Donnie
Reid, Warwick
Rivers, Scott

Robinson, Al
Roper, Chris
Schmidt, Curtis
Seville, Crosland
Smith, Lara
Swann, John
Taylor, Doug
Thompson, Linda
Trice, Al
Tunnicliffe, Verena
Viau, Glen
Wade, Bohdi
Waters, Scott
Wilhelmsen, Disa
Wilhelmsen, Willy
Witney, John

Share
Your Story

This section is an invitation for those of you who have worked in B.C.’s subsea technology industry, or elsewhere in the world, to write in with your background, experience, wisdom and advice. It would be great to get a photo or two we can post, as well as your contact information if you’re willing for others in the business to contact you.

If you would like to share your story, please contact us.

P5Diving
Pisces V diving, photo courtesy of Mike McDonald.

Getting
Into The Biz

As I collected the stories of over 40-some subsea folks, I was always curious about how they got into such an unusual profession. I often asked what lessons they learned, what they felt was vital to staying alive and succeeding in this business, and finally, what advice they would give young people. Almost all of them agreed that it was important to be curious about how things worked, to take stuff apart and try to put it back together again. And they added that it’s one thing to invent a piece of equipment in a nice, dry workshop or lab environment and quite another thing to be able to keep it functioning or repair it out on the heaving deck of a ship at sea.

That’s why the last chapter of the book DEEP, DARK & DANGEROUS is called “Getting into the Biz today.” It’s full of first-hand advice from those who have been there. So, if you have some lessons learned or advice to pass along to the next generation, I’d love to hear from you!

Al Trice passed along this gem:

As a 23-year-old, he apprenticed at Star Shipyard on the Fraser River. His pay was 50 cents an hour! He worked in the joiner shop where all the furniture and trim for a ship were fabricated. That included built-in bunks, tables, windows and doors, all of which involved fancier, more exacting finish work. Al recalls, “Frank Milne ran the shop and was quite fussy, so I learned a lot from him. The first time I left one of my wood planes on the edge of the bench, he came by and knocked it off. Of course, it fell on the floor and the handle broke. ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have left it on the edge like that,’ he told me.”

It was a lesson Al learned and would pass on to Mack Thomson when working on Pisces I. “When we needed a level gauge or some other gizmo, Mack would work all night and the next morning come back to the shop with his treasure. Remembering the lessons that I’d learned the hard way back when I was working in the shipyard, I’d take it, look it over, and drop it. Crash! The first few times that Mack bent over to pick up the pieces, he practically had tears in his eyes. But I’d tell him, ‘Does it still work? If it survived that, we can use it because out on the ocean it’s going to take a beating.’ It took a while, but he finally got the message.”

Early Vancouver skin divers
(photo courtesy of Phil Nuytten)
Sonar mapping in frozen waters
(photo courtesy of Helmut Lanzinger)
Remora launch in New Zealand
(photo courtesy of Jim English)

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Photos on this website are either from private collections or under the copywrite of Harry Bohm, unless otherwise noted. Please do not post or repost without requesting permission.

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