Moby-Dick and Oil-Field Diving in the Gulf of Mexico

(South Australian Maritime Museum)
Where a 21st-century Ishmael full of wanderlust might go to ‘see the watery part of the world.’

I first attempted to read Moby-Dick in the summer of 1975. My grandmother, born in 1909 and baptized Caroline Gorgas Pickel, read voraciously her whole life. She subscribed to the International Collectors Library Book Club and bought me a copy of Melville’s masterpiece as a gift. I was eleven years old and recall reading a dozen or so pages before putting it down. The book seemed unreadable, and I considered discarding it. However, the edition had a fancy-looking faux-leather cover and seemed important in the way that collectible books do to a kid. Also, the way my grandmother described Ahab and the albino whale hooked me deep. I could hear Ahab’s whalebone leg striking the deck with a sound like the “crunching teeth of sharks” and picture the immortal whale with “groves of spears” in his marble-white flank. Needless to say, I kept the novel and have it on the bookshelf now. My grandmother inscribed the front leaf. We were close, and it is the only hardback novel she ever gave me. Many years later I read Moby-Dick properly, and Melville’s world poured into my own like an ocean swell.

Today I teach Moby-Dick to high school students at a charter school in Colorado and therefore study and reread passages every year. More than any other text I teach — with the possible exception of the Iliad — it rewards repeated reading. The story has a strange power. It continues to surprise, intrigue, and grow with every visit.

Some students reject the novel as too difficult, but a surprising number of them become smitten by Melville — even teenagers marinated in fantastically distracting technology. Occasionally, students relate deeply to Ishmael’s wanderlust and ask, If he were a character today, where would he go to “see the watery part of the world”?

The modern equivalent of whaling is offshore commercial diving. Like whale hunters in the 1800s, a commercial diver’s job is to help bring oil and natural gas to consumers. But rather than hunt whales for oil, divers put on gear like underwater astronauts and go to unbelievable depths to obtain the oil and gas we use in our cars and to heat our homes.

On “saturation jobs” divers work at depths of up to nearly 2,000 feet. When not working in the sea, the divers live on deck inside special pressurized living quarters that have an attaching diving bell. They enter through a round hatch at the very beginning of the job and are not released until the work is done and they have decompressed. They remain trapped inside the living quarters at a holding pressure slightly less than that at the depth of the work site. In this way their bodies become fully “saturated” to working depth. The divers are delivered to the job site on the seafloor inside a pressurized diving bell. They spend their days and nights alternately working on a pipeline at the bottom of the sea, then resting in the dry pressurized chamber on deck — usually doing four-hour shifts in the sea, then four hours of rest in the chamber. Sometimes it takes more than a week just to decompress and be released back to the surface world. The demands on the human body are extraordinary.

Melville describes the ordeal of hunting, butchering, and melting the blubber of enormous whales aboard the Pequod as “man-killing.” Aside from the relentless slaughterhouse work of rending the whale carcasses with sharp blades on a moving deck, the act of harpooning and lancing a whale was extremely dangerous. Melville wrote, “Yes, there is death in this business of whaling — a speechlessly quick bundling of man into Eternity.” Similarly, working offshore on oil rigs, pipe-lay barges, and liftboats and undersea is also “man-killing.” If for any reason divers are suddenly released from the holding pressure in a compression chamber to sea level (by a blown seal, random accident, or a bad weld), the divers die an awful death as the pressured gas absorbed in their flesh and cavities violently expands.

Aside from pressure-related risks, anyone working undersea is at the mercy of treacherous currents, foul weather, hypothermia, the motion of the waves affecting the stability of a suspended pipeline, the rack operator controlling the mix of breathing gas, and the possible recklessness of the crane operator lowering dangerously heavy objects down to them, or accidently on them.

There are more than 20,000 miles of offshore pipeline infrastructure crisscrossing the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of it needs divers for regular maintenance and repair, and grows with the continuous exploration for oil and gas. Like the 19th-century whaling industry, which supplied oil for street lamps, homes, and businesses and fueled the Industrial Revolution, commercial divers today touch everyone’s life. The harsh nature of the work attracts a certain kind of person.

Commercial divers work 24/7 in a pelagic wilderness with the crushing weight of the ocean pressing down on their bodies and threatening them with premature arthritis and necrosis of the joints. Again and again, they risk their lives and go to the very place and see the very sights that made Melville’s Pip insane.

Rough and sometimes dangerous men carried out the bloody business of whaling. The first time Queequeg enters the story in Moby-Dick, he is holding a human head. Later, Peleg, one of the owners of the Pequod, acknowledges the need for violent, testosterone-loaded men: “Pious harpooners never make good voyagers — it takes the shark out of ‘em; no harpooner is worth a straw who ain’t pretty sharkish.” Today, ex-cons can get work as roughnecks, riggers, and divers offshore. The jobs are backbreaking and high-risk but pay better than most careers available to men with criminal records. Some men go out to sea specifically to hide from the law.

Then there is the wild ocean itself to contend with. In Moby-Dick, the black cabin boy Pip goes overboard when Stubb harpoons a whale. Pip is accidently left behind, treading water, in the vast open ocean. Later, when he is miraculously rescued, the boy has been driven mad by the harrowing experience. Melville describes his condition: “The little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes.”

Commercial divers go deep below the surface, in both blue, sunlit seas and the stygian black of night. They work 24/7 in a pelagic wilderness with the crushing weight of the ocean pressing down on their bodies and threatening them with premature arthritis and necrosis of the joints. Again and again, they risk their lives and go to the very place and see the very sights that made Melville’s Pip insane. And they do it for your oil and gas.

In Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea, an apprentice commercial diver is partnered with Seed, a parolee from Angola, Louisiana’s notorious maximum-security prison. The two strangers are made to work together like Ishmael and Queequeg.

Jonah’s dive team is called to fix a leaking well and recover the body of a drowned deckhand after a drilling rig blows out. A small accident enrages Seed, and his shocking retaliation starts a blood feud. Roughnecks and riggers across the Gulf want retribution against Jonah’s dive team.

Like Ahab steering the Pequod closer and closer to disaster, every assignment sends Jonah farther out to deeper and more dangerous jobs. Topside, he must fight to survive the worst that men can do, while undersea he works in a surreal world where every breath can bring death, the night ocean lights up with bioluminescence, and giant predators hunt.


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