On September 10, 1978, divers Skip Guiel and Chris Roper went into saturation as bell partners. For their first couple of dives, they snapped photographs and inspected the 16‑inch Dunlin riser on Thistle Alpha for damage. And then a seven‑day storm blew up. When they went back to diving on the 19th they spent the next 18 days working along the southwest face conducting surveys and clearing the seabed of debris at 530 feet.
This was the deepest oil producing field in the world and every time Skip locked out and stood at the base of the jacket, with its massive steel crossbraces zigzagging through the liquid ether and fading into the gloom, he was filled with an irrepressible sense of awe. It was impossible for him to see the entire structure, the distance between each footpad was over 260 feet, but he could feel its overwhelming presence nonetheless.
Thistle Alpha under construction
Occasionally he would glance over his shoulder to check his umbilical and catch a glimpse of the bell hanging in the night sky like a burning star, illuminating the gray wasteland below. It was a surrealistic vision made more striking by the gauzy colloidal suspension of detritus slowly showering down upon him. When he looked up, he saw glistening bubbles mushrooming from his mask on their voyage to the world above. It was a fantastic sight and one he never got tired of. Submerged in the breathtaking serenity of the universal sea, Skip was in the womb of Mother Nature, a place where he felt as much at home as the fish that swam around him.
After more than two years in the industry, the creatures he saw were still wondrous and mystifying. Schools of pollack and cod swam by with huge inquisitive eyes while the occasional octopus and giant crab scampered along the seabed in search of prey. Sometimes the water surrounding the bell would come alive with pink swirling snow storms of small shrimp and krill attracted by the lights. They, in turn, would draw the larger fish that would move in to take their fill. In a letter to Rick and Sheila, Skip described what happened next:
After an hour or so, their bellies were bulging from the feed. What I would give to run into a similar situation while sport diving. You’d have enough fish to feed the town for a week. The average size fish was between 2-4 feet with a couple bigger or smaller. There were a few thousand fish minimum.1
Sometimes these fish schools would move in like hail storms, their numbers so great they extinguished all light. For the diver who got in their way, there was nothing he could do but stop work and stand there motionless while the swarming mob poked and prodded every square inch of his body.
To an observer the mere spectacle of a man sucking cold gas through a thin rubber hose at 530 feet might seem ridiculous and insane—motivated only by the prospect of earning big money. But deep‑sea diving was more than just a fat paycheck to Skip: it was in his DNA. It was about the mental and physical challenges of working in deep water. It was about the technology, the camaraderie, and the fact that his crew depended upon him. Topside work was infected by the cold, the filth, and the long hours of boring work. But below the surface, Skip transcended himself and found great joy in leaping and bounding along the seafloor in slow motion, somersaulting off the top of the bell, and witnessing firsthand the unbelievable creatures that most people only see in books. He was down there in a world so dark and mystifying that the creatures don’t see their prey, they sense them.
In a letter written to his girlfriend, Skip explained his attraction to the sea, and why he put up with the disagreeable aspects of his profession:
...I, too, am confused as to what I really want in life. My body and that part of my mind that deals with feelings, sensation, not numbers, wants to be away from here experiencing and sharing. But the other part of me needs to be here doing the things I do—picking up on a different emotion, one transmitted by the sea, and by the needs of the people I work with. It’s not the same as back home....This life is something I’m not ready to give up. It’s something that is necessary, simply as a way of making a living, of putting food in my mouth and a roof over my head, but also as something I desire and need, something [that] adds meaning to living....I sit here in a chair; I look up and see a wall of gauges and dials, regulators, digital readouts, and television monitors. Two days from now I’ll be controlling the lives of four brothers from this same seat. I’ll monitor and control everything in their environment so that they can live, so they can experience the sea as none else can, so they can become part of it.2
Whatever the task, working in the dark under highly focused conditions was like working with blinders on. Sometimes Skip wasn’t aware he had “company” until he stumbled upon them. Hundreds of monk fish lay scattered about the seafloor like fan‑shaped land mines with iridescent green crocodilian eyes sticking up through the silt. Normally they were fairly docile creatures until stepped on; and then all of a sudden, out of a big cloud of silt, a large vacuous mouth would come charging, flashing cat-like teeth. They were easily fought off, but the fact that everything underwater appeared 25 percent larger didn’t help.
And Skip ran into wolf eels down there—an utterly repugnant monster with a bulbous head, hollow remorseless eyes, and a gob full of long vicious teeth. It seemed to be a creature resurrected from the dead. It burrowed under pipelines and piles of debris thrown from the platform. It was usually encountered with about four feet of its thick body half out of its lair, goosenecked, and undulating above the seabed with small dragon‑like wings unfurled and fanning the water. There always seemed to be a pile of bones at the entrance to its hideout; and it frequently had a laughing, seductive grin on its face which seemed to say: “Come closer, just a little bit closer. I dare you.”
This was not a subdued animal by any stretch of the imagination; it was a completely fearless hideosity and even the most macho diver instinctively understood not to challenge it, but to pass it by.
1 Letter to Rick and Sheila Borsari, July 5.
2 Undated letter from Skip Guiel to Debbie Bulewich.