Geared for the Challenge

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

She was inspecting a hydroelectric dam in Hull, Quebec when a current swept her under the wall and pinned her there for 90 minutes. She was twenty feet underwater and it was December. Her support crew pulled and pulled on her air hose until it ripped off. They then wrapped a rope around her waist and pulled some more with a crane. When she arrived at the surface, she was dead― and torn in half.

This story isn’t entirely true.

A woman – Martine Coté – did die in Hull, Quebec while working on a hydroelectric dam, but she wasn’t yanked with a crane, and she died of hypothermia. In the two years I trained and worked as a commercial diver in Ontario and Nova Scotia, I heard this story countless times, on different dive sites hundreds of miles apart.

It could be argued that the men who told me this story were just exaggerating, and that, had Coté been a man, they still would have made a bloodbath out of it. For them, it was an unconscious association: woman diver= woman dead. For me, it was a bogeyman story, because Coté was the only working female diver I knew of, and my colleagues had ripped her apart.

In commercial diving, as in many dangerous construction professions, women are taught that our bodies are obstacles to our success: we don’t have enough upper body strength; our hands are too small; we don’t have the brains for tools; we’re a distraction to the other divers. Heather Purser, a Washington State diver, says a classmate once told her not to dive while on her period; it made her irrational.

The effects of diving on pregnant women are – and will likely remain – largely unstudied. According to Dr. Ken LeDez, specialist in diving and hyperbaric medicine, field surveys of women who dived while pregnant are too few and unreliable to lead to any conclusions. “There are women out there who do it,” he said, “but they’re probably going to keep quiet about it.” LeDez adds that lab research is “very difficult to get funding for,” and dive companies are not about to cough up. “They’re more likely to just say, ‘okay, we’ll just hire a man.’”

This lack of research forces women to make a dramatic choice between family and career, since there is no maternity leave in diving. Divers renew their credentials periodically with the Diver Certification Board of Canada (DCBC), and if they don’t log enough dives annually, they lose their certification. Tracy Park, executive assistant at DCBC, said that after having children, female divers often must start all over again in college.

Statistically, women don’t last in the industry. Park said in her five years with the board, she’s only seen one woman renew her two-year certification. Compared with the 756 male commercial divers certified in 2010, only three female divers entered the industry, and that number has never gone into double digits. “There’s no trend,” she says. “Period.”

Aaron Griffin, acting chair of Seneca College’s Underwater Skills program says the school doesn’t actively recruit women, either. “It takes a special kind of man to make it in the industry,” he said, “but it takes an extraordinary woman.” When asked why a woman recently quit the program after her first day of classes, he said, “she smartened up.”

Oddly enough, I got into diving in the first place after reading about Chinese pearl divers. They hunted for oyster shells on the sea floor sometimes hundreds of metres down, and they have always been women. Pearl divers are so good at their underwater collection that anthropologists have claimed that the male body cannot do it. Women have higher lung capacities than men and more body fat, which makes them less susceptible to cold.

For me, the problem wasn’t physical. The apparent weaknesses of my body were easily overcome. I grew muscles. I learned how to get the best leverage out of tools like the pipe cutter and the hydraulic breaker. I decided I never wanted to have kids anyways. I earned the best accolade a female ever gets in commercial diving: “she pulls her own weight.”

But I couldn’t get Martine Coté out of my head. After two years of diving, I let my certification expire like so many other women before me. I couldn’t bear to hear that story anymore.

View original pdf here.

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