Depth Perception

Extreme Jobs

Who: Jeff Heaton
Title: Pilot and senior technician
Where: Nuytco Research Ltd., North Vancouver, British Columbia

On a ship's bow, just off Vancouver Island, Jeff Heaton steps into the narrow, stainless-steel hatch of DeepWorker 2000, a mini-submarine. Heaton, 33, settles his 6-foot, 220-pound frame into the sub's adapted race-car seat and lowers the bubble hatch over his head. He is focused, calm. He'll pilot the sub solo -- to depths where humans aren't meant to go.

Heaton methodically checks the life-support systems of the sub, which is owned by his boss, Phil Nuytten, head of Vancouver-based Nuytco Research Ltd. On cue, a crane operator lifts DeepWorker from the deck and gently lowers it into the rolling sea. Heaton switches on the side-mounted pro-pellers, eases down on his left foot peddle, and the craft drops below the surface like a Harrier jet, a controlled 20-minute descent of up to 100 feet per minute. At 1,000 feet, the external water pressure is intense -- about 500 pounds per square inch (PSI). When the sub reaches the bottom -- 2,000 feet down -- the pressure will reach roughly 900 PSI.

Heaton gets right to work. For three weeks, he's been on assignment for a hydroelectric company, surveilling their underwater power cables that stretch from the mainland to Vancouver Island. It's not a job for the timid. "You have to work the sub like a favorite wrench that you flip over and use like a hammer," says Heaton, who has spent much of his life in deep water. During one dive when he was just 16, he was sucked into a hole near a power plant's live pumps and caught himself on his elbows just in time. "So now I have no reservations about not doing what clients want me to do."

Todd Shapera (todds@cloud9.net) is a writer based in New York.

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