The Occupational Hazards of an Underwater Welder

May 8th, 2022 (edited)
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  1. Always liked swimming. Every summer day that wasn’t rainy I’d go to swim someplace. Plenty of lakes around to choose from. Just stuff the mask and the flippers in your backpack and ride your bike wherever, you know? Sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. Had to make do with indoor swimming pools for the rest of the year. Developed a pretty good lung capacity. There was this time when I was at a 4 meter pool with my friends and they said there’s no way you can dive to the bottom because it hurts your ears too much. I dropped my keys, let them sink to the bottom, went to pick them up and they just looked at me funny. When we had one of those homework assignments for the summer where you had to collect 50 plants or something I collected some stuff from the bottom of a lake and the teacher looked at me funny too, like it was weird I could just dive down there.
  2. Eventually dad got me a diving suit. I started taking classes in diving with oxygen bottles, going into flooded mineshafts and under the ice during the winter, stuff like that. The water just welcomes you no matter what time of year it is, and you want to go there no matter the difficulty.
  3. Dad worked as a welder all his life, and taught me how to do it too. So I got vocational training to become a welder, and because of all the diving practice it seemed logical to become an underwater welder. Good money in doing something you love.
  4. And that brings me to the point of the story. When you’re down there, you’re not alone. Not really. Up on the surface people come and go, but in the water there’s an element of solitude, of isolation. Isolation from the water itself, obviously, through your suit, but also from other people by distance and the water. They’re up there, you’re down here. That type of thing. But you’re not the only one down here, you know?
  5. “Just ignore them and they’ll go away,” is what they told me the first time at the site. “They’re really mostly harmless. If it comes down to it, just bop them on the nose.”
  6. What’s a man to make of that? You go to into the pressure chamber, giggle at how the gas makes you sound like a chipmunk and then you get into the water and start welding seams. The helmet gives you very little peripheral vision and by necessity you’re wearing a visor that blackens everything so the arc doesn’t blind you. Once the light is there, you just look at the metal and focus on it. Steady hands are important; it’s hard to keep your hands steady underwater when your whole body is being swayed by currents, by your very breathing. It’s a skill all its own.
  7. And then something gropes your ass. Imagine what that will do to the seam. When you get startled underwater you really do jump, there’s nothing keeping you in place. Me, I twirled around to look at what had touched me, but of course I didn’t see anything because the arc had left me blind to the relative darkness of the waters around me. It was the voice that reached me first.
  8. Some undersea creatures can be very loud. Powerful vocals are needed to communicate over the distances in a medium that slows sound waves much more than air does. Did you know a human can be killed by the clicks that sperm whales make? The energy levels will just boil you. A human screaming at the top of their lungs couldn’t communicate very far at all underwater, the strength just isn’t there. You get better results banging rocks together. The point is you can’t hold an intelligible conversation underwater. Which makes it very odd to suddenly hear someone talking to you.
  9. “Hey, sailor.”
  10. That’s what I heard. At first I thought it was a joke; that it was on my headset. But it wasn’t. I felt the sound waves hitting me. Physically felt them, all over my body. Pressing against the suit. And I heard the words clearly.
  11. I flipped the darkening visor away and saw her. A real goddamn Mershark. From the tip of her tailfin to the top of her head she must’ve been half again as long as I was tall. Hair flowed in the water, wild, long hair, red like the setting sun. It was like the sun shone from behind her head. She was naked. Nipples were hard; the water was cold down there. Scales glittered when light hit them. She skirted around me slowly, every movement of her tail sending a wake that pushed me around. The eyes shone too, yellow, predatory eyes. A smug grin on her face, teeth showing. Lots of teeth. It was a rattling experience.
  12. And the advice for dealing with this? Just ignore them. How do you ignore that? How do you just get back to work when a creature like this is close enough to touch you, hell, has already touched you? I didn’t want to turn my back to it.
  13. “Come here often?” she asked. I checked my air supply, my heart rate had gone up and I was breathing too heavily. It was fine, I knew it was fine, but checking is routine and routine is safe, routine centres you.
  14. She was a beauty. That I admit. But I had work to do. After calming down I turned back to the seam. I’d drifted away from it. Lit the arc again and kept going. It was fine. She wasn’t attacking me. Just flirting. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Ignore them? Plural. Here was only one.
  15. “Didn’t drive him wild, did you?” I heard from behind me.
  16. “Oh back off, he’s just shy.”
  17. “Nuh-huh, he just prefers blondes. My turn.”
  18. I stayed still. Pretended not to hear. Ignore them and they’ll go away. They don’t exist. There’s nothing behind you, there is only the seam and the arc. Weld, that’s what you’re paid to do. Weld and breathe. Stop biting on the mouth bit; it’ll just make your jaws tired.
  19. “Ooh, don’t try to give me a cold shoulder!”
  20. That was the new voice. Something grabbed my ankle and yanked me down. I let go of the welding gear and flailed around like an idiot. The hand that had grabbed my ankle let go but just as quickly there were two hands around my midsection. My visor was stuffed into a cleavage.
  21. “What say we dump the bottles and practice a little mouth-to-mouth, huh?”
  22. Oh no. I tried to free myself, but the grip was strong, I couldn’t break free. I looked up and saw another pair of predatory eyes, another toothy, smug grin. This time the hair was blonde. Fins on her lower body were gently flapping, slapping against my thighs and buttocks. I looked at the nose. I reached out my hand. If it comes down to it, just bop them on the nose.
  23. “I’m not falling for that, sailor boy,” the Mershark said, leaning her head away beyond my reach. This arched her back, pushing her chest forward and back into my face, robbing me of my vision. It was time to call for help. Then I felt something moving behind me, there was a shuddering impact and a gurgling sound. My air tank had been bitten into. The other shark was tearing it all off of me. I panicked again, squirming around, but the blonde one just gripped me tighter. They were laughing. And then my air tanks were all gone and my mouthpiece was torn away from me too.
  24. “You better pucker up,” the blonde said. I did. Her lips were cool against mine. There was air. Precious air! She breathed in through her nose and gills, sharing her air with me.
  25. “Hey, don’t hog him!”
  26. I was pulled away from the precious, precious air. Another pair of lips brought me more. This went on for some time, the two sharks taking their turns. I stopped fighting it pretty quickly. By the time they went for my fly, I kind of welcomed it. My supervisor was not perfectly satisfied with my productivity that day, but I was a very motivated worker, and a man willing to go in the drink at any hour of the day, any time of the year, well, you don’t fire those just because they don’t secrete shark repellent. You’ve got to love your job, hazards and all.
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