Rubbish Diving with the AFM Dive Team

When most people think of scuba diving, they think of beautiful fish and colorful reefs. For the Africa Mercy Dive Team, scuba diving entails diving through rubbish to dark murky depths. We are both now on the Africa Mercy Dive Team.

The primary job of the Dive Team is to clear the water intakes on the bottom of the ship while in harbor. The water intake tubes get clogged up with trash and gunk from the polluted water we sit in and subsequently, our ship’s electric generators and air conditioning units can stop working (without the proper amount of cooling water, they overheat and break down). There are about 12 manhole-sized covers on the hull of the ship between 5-10 meters (15-30 feet) down.

Will had his first dive a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the story of his first plunge:

It being my first “real” dive for Mercy Ships, I was quite nervous and just trying to keep everything in my head.  Here’s what the day looked like:

  1. Pre-dive meeting: We go through the safety plan and what to do in emergencies, we talk about the plan for the day and what times we plan on being out. The dive times are coordinated around the high tide, since the river’s current is quite strong and can otherwise carry us away from the ship and off down into the shipping lanes.
  2. Gear setup and check: We check our own gear to make sure it’s functional, the air is flowing, no rips or tears and and everything is doing what it is designed to.
  3. Buddy safety check: The divers check out each other’s kits to make sure nothing looks funny or out of place.
  4. Last check and giant stride safe entry: We tuck in our masks and gear so they don’t fly off when we hit the water. Oops, my right arm here in this photo is supposed to be tucking in the various hoses. Ok, I’m still a beginner.

The water is a coffee brown, swirling in our little space between the ship and the dock.  The space is a perfect trap for trash and lilly pads which have begun to pile up on our giant fenders or yokohamas, lovingly referred to as the “Fufu makers.” Fufu is a West African word for different kinds of cornmeal/cassava mush – so the term refers to the rubber tire studded giant fender’s ability to smash divers into mush if you get caught between it and the 1000 ton metal ship or solid concrete dock. Besides running out of air, or being stung by jellies or being eaten by crocodiles or sharks, the yokohamas are the most dangerous thing about diving for the Africa Mercy.

My first dive down, I’m so nervous about getting my air right, following the acronyms taught by our diving instructors, breathing slowly, extending my BCD inflator hose, that I forget to turn on the flashlight that is strapped to my wrist. I’m fully submerged in brown. The coolness of the water contrasts with the 85 degree temperatures and 75% humidity outside. It’s almost refreshing as long as I can keep my eyes away from the dirty plastic containers and black plastic trash bags that keep floating by. Down to my bones, I hope that is the worst trash that I discover today, and I take extra precaution to try not to focus too much on what it is I’m swimming through. Mostly, it seems to be driftwood and lillypads with an extra helping of plastic bottles.

My breathing is fine through the mask and apparatus. I start to descend, blowing through my ears to equalize the pressure to avoid ear drum ruptures. The café con leche colored water on the surface is filtered down through the haze and turns a darker reddish as I get deeper. I check my buoyancy and add a little air so that I don’t sink like a stone. It only takes me a second of distraction, but when I focus with my eyes again, I realize that it’s pitch black.  I’m gripping the guide rope like a rock climber on a steep mountain crevasse. My knuckles would be white if I could see them 1 foot in front of my face mask, but I see nothing. I forgot to turn on the flashlight that is strapped to my arm and now I can’t see a thing in the pitch black water. My heart races and I try to control my breathing. I just have to find the button on the light, but to do so I’ll have to let go of the guide rope with one of my hands. With mental determination, I let go of the rope with my right hand and fumble with my dive gloves around the flashlight that is vecro-strapped onto my left forearm. After what seems like an eternity of groping in the dark, I find the light and switch it on. There’s my hand with once-white dive gloves, gripping the once-whitish rope up against the once-white hull of the ship.  All shades of white are actually yellow-tan through the light and water. There are also floaties; small chunks of bio-debris and silt? I take another breath and start to continue down the rope, ever deeper into the depths under the giant hull. My in-helmet aquaphone radio vibrates against my skull as the other divers radio that they’ve detached the first basket and are coming up again. That was fast. The meaning of the garbled message just starts to sink into my waterlogged brain before I think I see a light coming up towards me from the darkness.  By the time I actually see it through the hazy blackness, the second diver is almost on top of me, and nearly climbs over me trying to use the guide rope. I pick up the pace and try to get out of their way, back up the rope to the surface. We break the surface slowly and carefully.

The surface’s winning trash compactor look-alike contest is actually a welcome sight. African sun filters through the rain clouds above Douala, Cameroon and reflects off of the rain jackets of the deck crew and our Dive Comms Officer running the aquaphone-to-surface walkie talkie links, in case anything goes wrong. It’s nice to know that we have support personnel!

Okay, one down, and 6 more to go.

And now, we need to go under the yokohamas (fufu makers) to get around to the other side of the ship. We dive down under the car-sized tire fenders with plenty of extra margin by feeling our way down along the horizontal welding seam of the hull of the ship 3 meters down. We feel our way because we can’t see a single thing. The pale light from our new flashlight strapped to my arm tries to burrow through the thick miasma but only is able to show about a 3 inch diameters around the hand that it’s strapped to. I’m told that as the beginner, I was given the best light. I wonder what the worst one looks like.

We get the next basket up and the Chief Officer is in the rescue boat to receive it. Rather than have the divers spend all their time scrubbing these things while their air runs out, the AFM dive master has worked out an ingenious system. Divers simply go retrieve the baskets and scrub the existing gaping port hole, while the officers carry the baskets over to shore via the rescue boat where a team of deck hands is ready with a power washer.  The power washer sprays off the baskets and they’re brought back to us and we replace them.

At the end of the day we have washed and returned all 6 baskets and we head back towards the ladder. The memorable moment was at the end when I was ready to climb up the ladder to get out.

Jim Gornall our Dive Comms operator and several people from deck were up above and ready to help me out after climbing up the ladder. Jim was saying to me, “Ok Will, just take off your flippers, take your time, there’s no rush”.  And after about a minute of me struggling with my flippers (tired muscles after swimming, etc), he said, “Ok take your time… but just know that there is an island of poop floating towards your head”…I’m not sure if it was actual poop or maybe driftwood that looked like poop. Anyways, I’d like to think it was the latter!

When we got out, I took the longest shower in the existence of the Africa Mercy (normally we are only allowed “Ship Showers” for 2 minutes to conserve water). AFM Dive Master Brian says, “You still won’t be clean, but after a dive, you can stay in the shower for as long as you like to make yourself feel better.”

This is just one more way that the crew on Africa Mercy serve, making it possible for the hospital ship to continue to function. Afterwards, the water intakes were clean, the water continues to flow to the generator, making power for the hospital devices and ICU monitors and blood freezers and pumps. Also the water allows the air conditioners to continue to function, making life on board bearable for the ~400 crew who are making meals, cleaning, and running the hospital day and night.

That’s the beauty of working on a good team, and that’s the beauty of Mercy Ships, bringing hope and healing to the worlds forgotten poor.

Systems Administrator Will Morrison with chief electrician Dominik Sommer and deck administrator Brian Anderson on diving day