My diving career began a long time back, I was staying with a friend of mine, we were barely surviving, but we were staying alive, amazing what you can live without when you are young. One day my friend says to me, I’m going to go toe digging and make some money. Toe digging? Money? I had to ask, what the hell is toe digging and how does it translate to money?
Well, there are these critters called freshwater mussels. Kentucky Lake on the Tn. River, right here close to where I live, just happens to have the best quality shell in the world. The shell grow very well here, they break good*, and the Japanese/Chinese love our shells. There used to be three buyers of shell locally, but the economy boom of the eighties/nineties went bust, the cultured pearl biz* never recovered really, and we are down to one buyer here. It’s still alive, but barely breathing.
Anyway, long story short, there are companies who pay for these shell. Though not nearly what they used to. At one time there was big bucks in it, and I got some of that. Anyway…
Toe digging, is where you go to the river/lake, (it’s both really, a huge lake with a 50′ deep average, river channel running through it,) so you go to the lake (after you bought your license to harvest shell,) and you wade around in the backwaters with no shoes on, feeling with your feet, for the shell. You collect these shell up and at the end of the day you go sell to the buyer. Clearly a summertime job.
I made around 50 bucks my first day, my friend closer to $75. Well damn! I like toe digging. So began my toe digging experience.
Well, there were also guys out there with boats rigged out with diving equipment, and those guys were getting shell too. A LOT more shell than a toe digger. I soon realized where the money was at, and aspired to be a diver someday. But that’s an expensive proposition. Boats/motors, and dive gear, ain’t exactly cheap. And I ain’t exactly a Rockefeller.
As it turns out, a neighbor at the time, he is one of those guys always looking to make a buck, he had a boat rigged out for two divers. The deal was he supplied all equipment, the diver just had to get the shell, 50/50 split. He knew I was toe digging, and he stopped in one day. One of his divers had quit, did I want the job?
Why hell yes! I want the job. He said be ready to go at 6 AM.
I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau, and always knew I would love to do some of that 🙂 Bonus was, I could make money while achieving a dream of going diving. I could not pass on this opportunity. I couldn’t not go. I’m somewhere around 19 or 20 at the time. No matter…
I was ready to go come 6:00 AM. The other experienced diver on the boat, his nickname was Crazy Charlie, that’s all I ever knew him by. Well they put me out in shallow water to get my feet wet so to speak. I started off in water I could stand up in and my chest/head would still clear the surface. So I went down, you crawl on your hands and knees to feel for the shell, and sack them up as you find them. Well I crawled a bit I was enjoying the experience immensely, then I thought I’m going to stand up and see where I’m at, relative to the boat. I stood up, my head was still under water. I looked up, could see the surface above me, and for a second I was like oh crap! But I soon realized I had air, I was perfectly fine, I had no reason to be afraid, the diving gear was doing its job. So I calmed down and I went back to crawling. But I wasn’t finding any shell. There just weren’t any there. This was a test dive to see how I’d take to it. I knew that. I went back to the boat and told them what I told you. There’s nothing here. Well Crazy Charlie tells me, the shell are over there, pointing at the river channel. I said “let’s go where the shell are.”
Well the shell here were 40+ feet down. The plan was I’d start at the top of the river channel, and work my way down to where the shell were. My first day diving, I hit 40′, it was a slow crawl down that steep river bank, then once you got down so far it started to slowly taper off towards the middle of the river channel getting deeper as you go. Didn’t make much money my first day, but I took to it pretty quick.
Well, I worked for this guy for close to two years. A friend of his I knew, also had a rigged out boat with the same deal, 50/50 split, a boat he had just recently got ready to go. The guy I was working for, put me and two other divers (Crazy Charlie was long since gone and these two guys were complete greenhorns,) out one day, in a mudhole. I went down, did my best to find shell there. There weren’t any. I went back to the boat in 20 minutes or less and informed him of the predicament. He told me to get back down there and work. I tried to explain we could do better elsewhere but he was a hard headed bastard and wouldn’t have it. He told me to go down and work, I told him to shove it. I quit on the spot. I had just been down there, there was no reason to go back, I wasn’t going to waste time and effort and risk the skin off of my backside for absolutely zero gain. I don’t care if Jesus told me to do it. After a good while, maybe an hour, the other two divers came up with little to nothing to show for it. I wasn’t wrong. This guy I was working for was a bit of a jerk, I kind of knew I wasn’t going to last much longer here anyway.
Went to work for the other guy though, George, the next morning. I went and talked to him and we went to work. He was a lot easier to deal with, very agreeable guy, he understood if I said we need to move, that we need to move. George valued my input, and the experience I had developed. He was never pushy, or an ass, just a really good guy and a good guy to work with/for. George passed away a while back, I still miss him. He was one of the good guys. But the point is, if I’m not getting shell, neither of us are making any money. He had no trouble understanding that. I worked for George for a year, probably a year and a half, by then I had saved up the money to get my own gear. I slowly but surely rigged out a boat, buying one piece at a time, and when it was finally ready, I told George it was time for me to head out on my own. But I stayed on and trained a couple of guys for him before I ventured out into my own diving adventure. I didn’t have to do that. But I wanted to, if that tells you anything.
Side note, one of the guys I trained was my little brother. He stands 6’4″ close to 280 lb. and turned out to be a good diver. He managed to work his way to his own boat, same way I did. I’m sure he could tell a few of these old diver tales too. Anyone who worked at it for any length of time, I assure you, they have tales to tell.
I’ll tell you something else, you can’t judge a book by its cover. I trained a lot of guys in my time on those boats. Big burly tough guys you might think had no fear of anything, wouldn’t make it through a day. They were done after one dive. Some scrawny shit you think will shoot off like a rocket for home first chance he gets, turns out that was the guy who made something of it and stuck with it. There is no rhyme or reason to who has the fortitude for the job. You have to be able to handle your fears. If you can’t control that, you are done and rather quickly. It’s little to no visibility down there. Lots of stumps, old rebar tangles, fishermans nets, trot lines, broken bottles, any number of things that will gash you hands/fingers, steep drop offs, wind and current, thunderstorms, equipment malfunctions, and your own particular level of doing stupid stuff to deal with. If you don’t learn something each and every time you go out there, you weren’t paying attention. Bottom line, it’s dangerous out there, you better be paying attention…
So I’m now self employed. I was still a little green to a lot of the stuff that can happen though, it does sometimes take getting through bad situations to better understand how to see them coming. I’d been diving, harvesting shell for around three years now, but it’s a completely different scenario when you go solo, and there is an endless number of things that can go wrong at any time. It was nice having someone in the boat looking after things and keeping an eye on the weather, nasty storms will sneak up on you out there, and there are towboats, enormous wakes from assholes in huge cruisers, and bass fishermen running 70 mph everywhere they go, these are everyday concerns. Well I went out one morning and tossed anchor on a spot, threw my gear on, pulled anchor, and jumped in, standard procedure. The day before though, after my last dive, I replaced my regulator mouthpiece as I had bitten through the old one. I didn’t have the little zip tie with me to secure the mouthpiece to the regulator, but I figured I’d fix that before I went out the next day. Right?
Completely forgot. The mouthpiece was on the regulator, but not sufficienlty secure.
Well I wasn’t paying attention to the current that morning either. It was ripping and I didn’t catch that at first. The current can be deceiving, it can be really strong and not appear to be, at first glance. When I jumped in, the boat quickly drifted behind me with the current, and jerked real hard when it pulled tight. Probably dragged me three or four feet before I could dig in and hold it.**
Well I got control of the boat, tried to pull against the current, it was tough, I could barely make any headway. And for two seconds I turned my head sideways to the current. My regulator went wubba wubba wubba wubba, fluttering up and down very rapidly, then it flew out of my mouthpiece, now I realize I forgot the damn zip tie! Naturally of course, just after I exhaled, I lost my air supply. So, there I am, fishing for my regulator, the regulator is attached to the air line, the current had it flopping about, I’ve stood up by now, I’m fast walking on the bottom trying to keep from falling down, the current is pushing me, the boat is pulling me, and I couldn’t find the damn regulator! Every half second spent fishing for that regulator, is closer to this getting real serious. Quick calculation tells me that with this level of current, if I drop my weight belt and shoot for the surface, I may go a long ways horizontally, before I make good headway towards the surface. I was probably down 15-20′, I didn’t like that proposition. I’m fast running out of oxygenated blood here, so my only other option was to ditch the effort looking for the regulator, which wasn’t producing results, and to go hand over hand with my lifeline as fast as I could towards the boat. Each pull on the line as far as my arms would reach. There was 65′ of line to conquer before I get back to the boat. You have to make these decisions and act in a split seconds time, panic is your enemy. There is no time to waste. I hauled my ass back as fast as I could go.
Even knowing my regulator was no longer attached to the mouthpiece, I still clung to the mouthpiece with my teeth, and knowing full well you can’t try to breathe in this situation, I still tried to suck air once, and drank a good bit of river water. Fortunately I was pretty close to the boat. I made it (obviously,) but it was dicey there for a minute. No matter what the conditions are, even when you know it is not safe to breathe, sooner or later, your body will defy your wishes. It will attempt to breathe whether you are above the waterline or not.
Just two little mistakes. I forgot the zip tie, and stupid me did not check the current conditions before I decided to jump in. Little things like that can add up to big problems quick. One of these things on their own would have been easily rectified, probably forgotten by lunchtime, and certainly not worthy of mention at the end of the day. Both of those things working against me simultaneously however, turned out to be a close call. There was a lot of things over the years I did not discuss with my wife and kids when I got home. This was one of them.
Every single time I go out since that day, whether for business or pleasure, I check the current before I do anything else. I also always have a lighter and a compass in the boat. Both, stories for another day… Oh, and zip ties. There are zip ties. 😉
* Breaks good, means when you crack a shell hard enough to break it, it breaks clean with no double growth fractures or mud lines. It breaks solid all the way through and has no mud line stripes in it. Ideal for manufacturing nuclei, for implants, in the making of cultured pearls. Yep, I’ve been in the jewelry business! I went back last year and got a few shells, will go again as soon as spring breaks. I missed diving so bad I couldn’t stand it. Had to go.
** The type of diving I do isn’t SCUBA, its Hookah. Hookah, you are supplied air via a lifeline to the boat. The air line is attached to a good sturdy rope. The rope attaches to the front of the boat on one end and your weight belt on the other. You have to wear a heavy weight belt to keep you down there with a wet suit on, which enables you to generate the power you need to pull/control the boat against current, and waves on windy days. You won’t get far at neutral bouyancy, which is SOP for SCUBA.
Whew, I just looked this over, didn’t know I was writing a book. 🙂
Hello Shelldigger. Very interesting. You should write a book about your adventures. I can see from what you wrote that being quick witted is a must and needed to keep you alive. Interesting that you did not try to go out on your own until you understood the job and the equipment well. I bet some people are not that smart and far too arrogant to understand they are not experts from day one. Again more stories for you to tell that I would love to read. Best wishes.
First I was like why does Scottie need approval? Then it hit me 🙂 Oh yeah…
To be perfectly honest I took the path that was before me. Were I able at the time to buy the gear and go, I might have gone that way. But I’d have sought some instruction from someone who had experience first. I’m stupid in more ways than I’d like to admit, but not that stupid 🙂
I was instructed well before I started, and during my greenhorn stage. Lots of things to look out for/understand in diving 101. Then a lot to learn along the way.
Best wishes right back to you man. Hugs too 🙂
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Would you ever think about being the boat owner and having your own crew? Way to stay in the business without the underwater work.
From what I just read … I think he LIKES the underwater work!
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Methinks Nan gets it lol.
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There’s not enough money in it anymore. A lot has changed since my glory days.
…and if I learned anything in my experiences, it is this: I’d have been better off getting a decent job somewhere with a few benefits. Self employment is a double edged sword. You are the king, but that also makes you responsible for all the cost in gear and upkeep. Trucks, boats, outboards, oilless air compressors, Honda engines, I can diagnose and fix them all. I have to be able to do that because the companies are always going to pay just enough for you to squeak by these days, and I’m too cheap and too ornery to pay a mechanic to fix something I can do. I used to get 3 dollars a pound for the same shell they will pay 50 cents a lb. now. There used to be some money it, now the middle man gets it all.
Reality is I could do what you suggest. I already have a good rig, but there’s not enough of a future in it for me to teach my own sons how to do it.
I still go because I love diving. I love being on the water and in it. The river is my second home. Yeah I make a few bucks, but nothing worth writing home about. And certainly well under what I am allowed to make in a years time. Which FYI on disability you are allowed 7k in profits a year before it will affect your SSI. I made 3K last year, and spent more than that on gear lol. But I can write it off as I go. Put out $3600 for a really nice SeaArk 1652, got a killer deal on a Mercury 60hp 4 stroker from a good friend of mine for 1K. Bought a new wet suit, a couple of masks, gotta have backups, got 300′ of rope to redo my floats, gas gas gas and more gas, a battery here a battery there, it adds up.
And they just don’t pay enough to make a living at it, unless barely squeaking by, and watching your gear depreciate faster than you can fix it, is what you call a good living.
It was good for a while though. Glad I was part of it.
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