Tacoma's Titanic: Taking photos a special challenge

August 10, 2003 

A chain used in the construction of the new bridge lies across a piece of Galloping Gertie's girder. Divers are concerned that tidal action will move the chain's 240-pound links, creating a sawing action that will destroy the piece of girder.

JOHN SCHLIEMANN | UNDERWATER ADMIRALTY SERVICES INC.

Simply staying alive at the bottom of the Narrows is a challenge, to say nothing of taking photographs there.

The cold, the darnkess, the depth and rapid currents make the channel one of Earth's most inhospitable places for human beings.

To take the photos on these pages and elsewhere in today's edition, divers first had to time their descents to coincide with the brief periods between incoming and outgoing tides, when the water is relatively slack.

Because the water is so cold - about 50 degrees Fahrenheit - they had to wear full-body "dry suits" made of nylon, rubber and polypropylene over heavy insulated underwear designed to wick away moisture and retain body heat.

Most of the old bridge lies 130 to 200 feet beneath the surface, and, at that depth, the darkness is nearly complete. The divers carried high-intensity discharge lights and special strobes in waterproof housings. A generator on a dive boat supplied power through long extension cords to 1,250-watt lamps.

Even at slack tide, the water continues to move, so divers had to descend along an anchor line to ensure they would end up in the right spot.

In depths greater than 130 feet, nitrogen narcosis is an ever-present hazard. To compensate for its effects, the divers used nitrox - compressed air enriched with oxygen and nitrogen.

To avoid the effects of pressure at those depths, the divers could stay in the water no more than 20 minutes, which included about two minutes to descend and another two or three minutes to come back up.

They carried specially built underwater cameras made by Nikonos and Sea and Sea, equipped with 15mm and 18mm wide-angle lenses.

To avoid the bends, the divers carried computers to track the nitrogen buildup in their blood and let them know when to head for the surface, how fast to rise and how long to decompress at specific depths.


The divers

Walt Amidon

Pat Aki

Bob Mester

John Schliemann

Don Peterson

Diane Peterson

Tom Trautman


Topside staff

Mark Allen

Paul Park

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