When Keith Johnson was growing up, he didn’t have much time for run-of-the-mill boyish fun. While other kids were riding their push bikes and chasing girls, Keith was busy tagging behind his dad and falling in love with his future career as a commercial diver.
From the time he slipped on his first pair of flippers at age five, Keith has been in, around and under water in a lifestyle that has meant world travel and plenty of danger.
Owner of Commercial Diving Services Pty Ltd, Keith and his crew have worked in crocodile infested water, dived to unbelievable depths and even fought off killer eels to get the job done.
The company handles underwater ship repairs, remote control submersible operations, marine civil engineering and dredging – diversity that was forced on Keith.
Speaking candidly about brushes with man-eating creatures, Keith said he’s never considered doing anything else. “People view diving with awe. It is dangerous arid full of intrigue, but it’s still a job with a day’s work.”
Looking back at some of his missions, he re-calls there was a time his divers encountered something completely unexpected in the depths of Warragamba Dam.
The team was diving to depths of 70m. The first diver slipped into the murky water and through a thermal layer. As he headed down to lower depths, he shouted over the headset that something bit him. He came back up to the thermal layer, where most of the work was to be done. Shouting and cursing heard over the headset prompted a cynical standby diver to jump in to investigate. No sooner had he submerged than 4m long eels the width of a man’s leg began attacking the men.
The team found a solution in a shark cage, but as Keith said: “It’s funny to look back on now, but it was a serious situation at the time.” The divers readily work when hammerhead and grey nurse sharks are around, but draw the line at tiger and mako sharks. Dolphins leave the crew with a sense of wellbeing and graceful manta rays create a different emotion altogether.
Keith was laying a sewerage pipeline off of Barrack Point when he decided to play with a mammoth manta ray. The creature squared off with him and after a time, the pair became firm pals. The ray hung around Keith for the next year as the pipeline was installed. “That ray was intelligent, it knew that when the divers left the water, there would be a charge. He would leave as well, so we eventually didn’t worry about hurting him. He stayed as a pet for a year,” he recalled.
“I suppose I’m mesmerised with the beauty of the animals. I’ve been on other projects where a relationship has developed – so much so that I really get annoyed when I see society choosing to dump waste into the ocean. In the years I’ve been in the industry, I’ve seen a lot of changes. The damage isn’t irreversible, but the deterioration I’ve seen has been quite astounding.”