Diver and Entreprenuer Phil Nuytten: Understanding The Ocean

The Ancient Mariner

How Phil Nuytten taught himself to navigate the deep—and changed our understanding of some of the most inhospitable places on Earth

At age 16, Phil Nuytten quit Grade 11 at Kitsilano High to devote himself to the dive shop he’d opened the year before—the first in Western Canada. With a couple of older partners, he moved the business from West Fourth out to Victoria Drive. Mostly, he made custom wetsuits and did diving work. An illegal tugboat radio in the shop helped them get the jump on salvage opportunities, and one Saturday in June of 1958, Nuytten—already in wetsuit bottoms, heading out on a job—was loading air tanks on the truck when his partner yelled at him to come inside. Excited voices were coming over the radio: “It’s coming down! Jesus, the whole bridge is coming down!” They thought it was the Lions Gate until they heard mention of the Second Narrows. As they listened, the partially built structure collapsed, sending mangled steel and heavy equipment and 79 workers into Burrard Inlet. By the time Nuytten and his partner got there, the site was chaos. There were corpses on the dock. Nuytten was the first rescue diver in the water. At one point he tried to save an ironworker whose crushed legs were pinned by a crane, in water up to his chin. The tide was coming in, and it rose over the man’s head as Nuytten worked frantically.

In all, 18 ironworkers died that day and 20 more were gravely injured. It was Phil Nuytten’s first lesson in maritime tragedy. His second came soon afterward, when he himself blacked out 60 feet down on a breath-hold dive. The young captain of the Canadian spearfishing team, he was training at Horseshoe Bay before heading down to the Bahamas for a competition. (“Don’t be afraid of drowning. After the terrible, agonizing desire to breathe, it’s like taking a long, cold draft of lemonade.”) A safety diver spotted his white mask underwater and got him to the surface just in time to bring him back to life. Since then, Nuytten has arguably learned more about the challenges of surviving underwater—especially deep down, in extreme circumstances—than anyone on the planet. Though he has invented or perfected everything from one-man submersibles to two-person “flying” submarines to the Remora submarine escape system used by the U.S. Navy, and though he holds a number of valuable patents, he’s perhaps best known as the inventor of the Newtsuit. It’s a hard diving shell—in effect, a one-man, body-shaped submarine—that uses rotary-joint technology. It allows divers to breathe air at the same pressure, and of the same composition, as at the water’s surface, thereby avoiding the perils of saturation dives, which require slow, staged decompression ascents to avoid the bends. But its real advantage is economic: it allows divers to explore the depths at a fraction of the cost of saturation dives. “Saturation divers need a support crew of at least a dozen people,” Nuytten said recently, at his machine shop in a nondescript light-industrial strip—glass stores, autobody shops, chainsaw repairs—in North Van. “All the equipment they need—the living chambers, the diving bell—eats up a lot of deck space. When you include gas storage, the full system can weigh as much as 100 tons and costs millions of dollars.” The Newtsuit, by contrast, needs only a four-person crew, takes up very little deck space, and the gas costs only about $35 per dive. It allows divers to go as deep as 1,000 feet and stay there for up to eight hours. No wonder that, when it went on the market in 1986, it caught on in a big way; Nuytten’s company could barely keep up with demand.

“It was very gratifying,” he recalled, running a hand through the thick head of sandy hair that adds to his leonine aspect, “but I guess I get bored easily. The shareholders wanted to maximize profits and crank out these things . I was more interested in inventing new stuff and seeing how we could improve on what we had.” Some years earlier, he’d merged his company, Can-Dive, with a sister company, Cal-Dive, to form Oceaneering International. “In our first year it had annual sales of $600,000; three years later it was doing $100 million.” By 1985, it had sales of $1 billion and 5,000 employees in 35 countries. Once again, though, Nuytten and his partners had different visions of the future. He sold out. Why turn his back on another money-spinner? For reasons both personal and professional. He was spending most of his time in Houston and his partners wanted him to move there, but his only child, Virginia, was starting high school here and he wanted to be close to home. And while his partners were eager to focus on the lucrative saturation-diving side of the business, he felt sure the future lay in one-atmosphere suits and submersibles. So he used some of the millions he got for his Oceaneering shares to buy back Can-Dive and repatriate it to Canada, and returned to his first love: tinkering, tweaking, inventing.
Phil Nuytten, what has stirred his blood ever since he used to slip under the fence at Vancouver Shipyards to “borrow” oxygen, ever since he built his first goggles at age nine and his first re-breather at age 12, is not money but underwater engineering puzzles. This insatiable appetite is what has made his CV read like the history of the development of subsea technology, and it’s what prompted Canadian-born producer, director, and screenwriter James Cameron to seek his help on the 1989 feature The Abyss. Nuytten served as underwater technical director on the film (shot mainly in the candela of an unfinished nuclear power plant in North Carolina, the biggest “wet set” ever created—until Cameron created an even bigger one for his 2001 film Titanic, which Nuytten’s company also worked on). “We built the subs you see in The Abyss in a yard just a few blocks from here. Actually, I’ll let you in on a secret. It looks like there’s three subs in the film—one yellow, one orange, one white—but you never see more than one on-screen at a time. We painted it different colours.”

Nuytten’s underwater work has also given him extensive exposure to the oil industry. He provided diving services for the first offshore well in Canada, which Shell sunk in 600 feet of water off Vancouver Island in 1966. He did similar work for Amoco off the coast of Newfoundland. He’s done contract work for Pemex in Mexico, Petrobras in Brazil, and Shell, Occidental, and BP in the North Sea. And from 1975 to 1987 his company did hundreds of dives for Dome Petroleum, which was drilling in the Beaufort Sea. These were the first commercial underwater contracts in the High Arctic, and they spurred him to devise sub-zero diving innovations (in gas-heating equipment and heated suits) that, like so many of his inventions, have become the industry standard. Although he’s an autodidact with no formal training—he never did complete Grade 11—his offshore oil expertise, like his deep-sea knowledge, is unquestioned.

That’s why, in June, when James Cameron organized a meeting of experts to brainstorm ways of addressing the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he invited Nuytten along. Cameron’s initiative was dismissed in some quarters as the sort of do-gooding dilettantism for which Hollywood is known. In fact, though, says Nuytten’s deep-sea pioneer pal Dr. Joe McInnis, Cameron is an “obsessed” expert in deep-sea filming technology who, Nuytten points out, “has done hundreds of deep dives, exploring the wrecks of the Bismarck and the Titanic and earning wide respect in the community.”

At the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., over a couple of days, the two men met with experts from a range of disciplines—physics, marine biology, engineering, geology—to discuss the catastrophe triggered on April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, burned, and two days later sank in 5,000 feet of water off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and precipitating the blowout that spewed untold millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and harmed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Nuytten left the EPA meetings enlightened, sobered, and alarmed.

“What really struck people was that BP was revealing almost nothing,” he said. “The company was told to put on a live feed so that John Q. Public could see what was happening. Well, on the internet you could watch the pipe spewing, but you didn’t know what you were looking at. If this was a shuttle liftoff, there’d be expert commentary—a former astronaut would be there in the studio explaining, ‘Those billowing white clouds, that’s the liquid oxygen.’ Instead, they said almost nothing about what they were doing.” Nuytten likened BP’s early efforts to solve the problem to “standing atop the Empire State Building and using wires to remotely control something the size of a golf ball on the street below.” It’s an enormous distance to be operating remotely and the company faced unprecedented technical challenges. “The umbilical cord can get tangled. The robot can get away from the operator and cause damage.” For three months, attempts to staunch the flow failed miserably, even as citizens and professional crews worked round the clock topside trying to minimize the environmental impact. (“How can we clean up something that’s not even fixed?” asked a spokesman for the St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s office in Louisiana. “It’s like mopping a bathroom floor while the toilet’s still spewing.”) BP was using remotely operated vehicles built by Oceaneering, the company Nuytten had co-founded and then left. “I’m biased, but I’d use deepwater submersibles,” he said. “For one thing, there’s no umbilical tether—the power source is down there with you. And you’re working in three dimensions, not relying on a two-dimensional screen up top. Of course, there are only about a dozen manned submersibles in the world able to function at that depth. “Then there’s the dispersant,” said Nuytten. “Corexit 9500. It’s a terrible chemical bomb. Some of the oil that’s been coming out doesn’t make it to the surface. It’s atomized, creating this huge underwater miasma cloud of oil kill.” Corexit is banned in some parts of the world. Scientists don’t know what toxic chemical compounds are being created in the Gulf, or what the long-term effect will be on algae and plankton and larvae, the basis of the entire food chain. As Robert Barham, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, recently said: “They’re conducting the largest lab experiment in history—on us.”

Which is why, Nuytten believes, it’s critical that a thorough assessment be undertaken as soon as possible. “How bad is it? How big an area will be affected? Is it even possible to remediate what’s already happened?” Nuytten returned from Washington certain only that the effects of the disaster will be felt for years, if not decades. As of mid July, BP’s second attempt at a “top hat” procedure—capping the wellhead on the ocean floor—seemed to be working. Meanwhile, the company continued to drill, aiming to intersect a bore less than a foot in diameter, at a point roughly 8,300 feet beneath the seabed, which is itself a mile below the water’s surface. “They’re drilling two relief wells,” said Nuytten, “which doubles the chance of success. The directional drilling is very good, but it’s a small target to hit. If they do get into the original bore, they expect to overpower the pressurized oil with heavy mud.”

Problem solved? The start of the end of one of the most grievous insults ever inflicted on the planet? Perhaps. But sealing the bore off permanently may have an even more deleterious effect. “The oil in that reservoir was under 13,000 pounds of formation pressure,” said Nuytten. “When you drill into the reservoir and oil flows, the pressure drops way down. If they do manage to hard-cap it, you return it to full formation pressure—the pressure caused by the weight of the planet’s crust and the ocean bearing down on the reservoir.” No one knows the condition of the casings at the bottom of the BP well. If the original cementing was properly done, the plug should hold. “But the cementing was faulty by definition—it’s what caused the blowout in the first place. If they do cap it, that may cause pressurized oil to flow up between the casing and the geology, possibly blowing out part of the seabed itself”—leading to a massive, long-term, and insoluble seepage of oil from the ocean floor. “That’s what you see in the Pacific at Coal Oil Point, near Santa Barbara,” said Nuytten. “Hydrocarbon seepage. There it’s a natural phenomenon and not really serious, but you get the idea.” If a casing failure miles below the sea floor was a real possibility, why did BP not acknowledge this worst-case scenario? Because, said Nuytten, if the public knew about it and understood it, “they’d see that this is very tricky stuff, a tremendous juggling act, with no guarantees. And they’d ask, ‘Why do we even allow the oil companies to drill in deep water without proof of a fail-safe contingency plan?’” Two thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and half a century after the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, the waters of Burrard Inlet are troubled by a different sort of oil-related anxiety. Since 9/11 there’s been a marked increase in tanker traffic in Vancouver. The U.S., eager to lessen its dependence on Middle East oil, is importing more crude from the tar sands. The crude is piped from northern Alberta to Kinder Morgan’s tanks at the end of Burrard Inlet, where it’s loaded onto tankers bound mainly for the States.

One salutary effect of the Gulf disaster, Nuytten points out, is that Vancouver, like most jurisdictions where oil and water meet, is taking a hard look at risk factors and response procedures. At a special meeting of city council in June, maritime experts emphasized that a spill in Burrard Inlet would wreak havoc on our beaches, shoreline, and marine life, and that the likelihood of a spill increases with the volume of traffic. The Second Narrows has always been perilous, barely navigable for laden ships even at high tide. It is, as oceanographer Peter Baker put it, “a channel of convenience” rather than a waterway engineered for large tankers. “Both the Second and First Narrows are tricky,” says Nuytten. “There’ve been many accidents and near-misses over the years.” He’s back home in North Van—a wood-and-glass house full of books and his beloved Northwest Coast art—having just returned from Pavilion Lake in the B.C. interior, where his company’s doing classified work for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. “Forty years ago,” he says, “there was almost nothing living in the harbour, because of industrial pollution. Efforts were made to clean it up, and now you see kelp beds, eel grass, all sorts of sea life and biomass. It’s amazing how it comes back, but you have to start the remedial process before it’s too late.”

Elsewhere, of course, the story is less happy. Nuytten has seen firsthand the toll humankind has taken on oceans the world over—disasters like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon are merely the most obvious signs of our dubious stewardship of the planet—and, as with many ardent oceanographers, from Jacques Cousteau on down, the years of bearing witness have turned him into an environmentalist. Approaching 70, he shows few signs of slowing down. A dozen friends and colleagues have paid for their passion with their lives. (One perished in a decompression-chamber fire.) Unlike many veteran divers, Nuytten hasn’t needed joint replacements, though burst eardrums and bouts of vestibular bends have left him “deaf as a stump.” He still dives for fun—most recently in Curacao, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Gulf Islands (he and his high-school-sweetheart wife of 47 years, Mary, have a place on Galiano)—and he still tinkers constantly. Nuytten’s an expert on Northwest Coast art, having studied it since—precociously, at age 10—he apprenticed with the Kwakiutl carver Ellen Neel. An avid collector, he’s written a book on the subject. “When he’s not doing drawings of thrusters or joints at the kitchen table,” says his daughter, “he’s out in the shed, carving.”

In recent years Nuytten has been refining the latest iteration of the Newtsuit. The impetus came partly from his work on the infrastructure underlying New York’s water system. Most of New York City’s 8.5 million residents get their drinking water from the Niagara River, near Lewiston. The water flows through huge, concrete-lined tunnels, twenty feet in diameter and a thousand feet deep in the earth, that were excavated by boring machines in the 1950s. “Concrete can bear huge compressive loads,” he says, “but it has zero tensile strength. The tunnels are slowly shifting as the earth rebounds from the weight of the glaciers during the last ice age, and the concrete can’t support this slight rise. So it’s cracking, and the aqueducts are leaking millions of gallons of water. We’ve explored them in submersibles, gone miles into them, but we need to be able to work as a diver works, close up.”

Hence the Exosuit, now in final testing. It’s rated to 1,000 feet (and pressure of 445 pounds per square inch, some 30 times atmospheric pressure), and it allows for unprecedented mobility and dexterity. “We’ll be shipping the first one early in 2011,” he says. If history is a guide, demand will be robust. “And if I hold true to form, I’ll probably lose interest after we sell the first 40 or 50.” And then? “Well, let’s see,” he says. He has a column to write for Diver magazine, which he edits and publishes, and he’s juggling his usual heavy schedule of meetings and speaking engagements. “Jim Cameron’s got a new project, but I can’t talk about that. We’re doing film work for the BBC. We’ve got various projects with National Geographic and Greenpeace, and we’re doing surveying for Fisheries and Oceans. We always have lots on the go. And something that’s fascinated me for many years is what I call Vent Base Alpha.” Like a latter-day Jules Verne, Nuytten paints a detailed picture of a self-contained underwater colony that he imagines will one day be established off the coast of Vancouver Island. The colony would be powered by thermal vents that spew superheated water and dissolved minerals up into the Pacific near the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a mile below sea level. When the liquefied minerals shooting out of the seabed hit the cold temperatures, they precipitate out of the murky water and rain down on the ocean floor—a cornucopia of the metals (laboratory quality, at that) that mining companies spend billions extracting and refining on the surface.

If it sounds far-fetched, well, not long ago so did a suit that allows you to take earth atmosphere with you into the depths. So does an oil rig that burns and topples and unleashes a disaster of biblical proportions. And so, for that matter, does a Grade 11 dropout who dives into the ocean and changes the way we explore, and use, and understand our planet. VM

Articles on conserving other bodies of water:

Perpetual Motion: A zoologist at UBC, Todd Jones, uses leatherback turtles to gather unprecedented intelligence on the health of the world’s oceans. By Bruce Grierson

Into The Wild: Alexandra Morton used to support salmon farming. Now she’s a fierce opponeny. By Taras Grescoe

 Sturgeons And The Fraser River’s Conservation: Measuring The Fraser River’s Health. By Tyee Bridge