HUDSON — Staring out the window in class and daydreaming of adventure is not something Ken Shelly has to worry about. The students at his Commercial Diving Technologies Institute dive school in Hudson are living the adventure.
Shelly opened the school three years ago to certify divers for commercial work, underwater welding, salvage operations and offshore pipeline and oil rig inspection and repair. The school might of ended up any place in the country, but when scouting Florida for a property with a deep sinkhole that could provide at least 165 feet of water to serve as the school’s underwater classroom, he struck gold with the Megalodon Pit, a sinkhole alongside the east side of U.S. 19, near Aripeka. The property, which had been the site of a plant nursery, was for sale and its central feature was a pond that just happened to be a 260-foot-deep sinkhole, more than enough depth for what he had in mind.
“I searched cave diving sites on the internet and this came up,” said Shelly. “It was perfect.”
Shelly brought in equipment, including air-supply systems, hyperbaric chambers, decompression tanks and other systems to outfit the school, which trains an average of five to eight students a month. Students pay $15,000 to $20,000 for their commercial surface supply diving certificates, along with certifications in underwater and topside welding, underwater inspections, diving equipment, first aid and offshore survival — things they need to start work in the lucrative field of commercial diving.
The two courses offered run three and five months, or 625 and 900 hours, with the longer course certifying divers to work internationally as well as in U.S. waters. The big difference at Commercial Diving Technologies is the training involves actual work experience, which most schools don’t offer, said Shelly, adding that most of his students have a job lined up before they graduate.
“We’re not just a certification school, but job training,” Shelly said.
The school’s sinkhole has been outfitted with actual underwater gas and oil well heads used to familiarize students with what they will find working for an offshore energy company. Boats were sunk in the pit to train divers in salvage work.
“There are several commercial schools around but here they have the opportunity to get a certification and actual work experience,” said Shelly. “If you don’t have the experience, a lot of companies tell them (new divers) to go out and get some experience then come back; our students already have that experience and get work right away.”
Working with seasoned commercial divers like Sid Preskitt, a commercial diver who was one of the pioneers of extreme saturation diving when he was part of a team that spent several days in a hyperbaric chamber 1,200 feet down in the North Sea, is invaluable for the students, said Shelly.
“With guys like him on board, they’re learning from the best,” he added.
Divers at the Hudson school must go on to school in Scotland or France for deep-water saturation certifications, very specialized training for extended dives of up to 28 days underwater— living, eating and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. Living at extreme depths under immense pressure can be challenging, said Preskitt, recalling his work with the country of Norway on the record-setting 1,200-feet North Sea dive.
“At those depths you push the limits of equipment and the limits of the human body,” said Preskitt, who has spent an estimated five years of his life underwater at extreme depths.
Preskitt said in the chamber environment divers are breathing nearly 100 percent helium, with just enough oxygen mixed in to stay alive. In the high-pressure systems, sound doesn’t travel well and divers have to speak very loudly to even be heard. Special helium decoders must be used so radio operators topside can understand a diver’s helium-garbled speech.
Another interesting and eerie side effect of the extreme pressure is the sense that the body is about to be crushed, said Preskitt.
“You feel like you don’t want to move too quickly because you can feel like the bones in your body might snap,” said Preskitt. “It is a sense that your body is very fragile.”
Despite the demands and stress of the job, most commercial divers love what they do and stay with it well into their later years. With modern technology it’s “safer than working in tree trimming or construction,” said Shelly. The pay is great and divers are in high demand.
Shelly said saturation divers can earn nearly $3,000 a day, or about $80,000 on a maximum 28-day job. Many of his graduates get their saturation diving certifications and his goal is to become the first school in this part of the world to offer the advanced certifications, something he expects to offer within five years.
Divers who work shallower with the certification Shelly’s school now offers typically earn around $60 per hour with a large company. His students come from all over the world.
Jacques Kruger is a South African who worked as a policeman before coming to the U.S. to attend the school.
“I really love this,” he said of diving. “I want to go on to get my SAT certification and see what opportunities there are after school.”
Merle Powell lives in Scotland, where he was a scuba instructor.
“This (commercial diving) is completely different,” he said. “Scuba was more for fun, but this is a career path.”
Steven Hirschsied is a New Yorker who was a rescue swimmer in the military. He discovered the Hudson diving school while searching online for possible careers for someone with his background.
“This came up as one option,” Hirschsied said. “It’s (the dive school) great; we all wake up amped to come to work.”
Shelly said about 75 percent of student who take the training have no diving experience. While they are rare, he’s also had female students take the course, adding about 4 to 5 percent of commercial divers in the world are women. The school recently qualified for VA tuition funding.
Shelly said the career generally is a “young man’s” game, but he’s had students up to 52 years old take the course.
“There’s the adventure aspect, as well,” he said. “In this profession you can find yourself working anywhere in the world.”