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Caltrans Diving Team aboard Swamp Thing

Caltrans Is Underwater: The Structures Maintenance and Inspections Dive Team
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 05/2010

[Click on photos to read captions.]

Yes, that is right, Caltrans has a dive team. The Structures Maintenance and Inspections Dive Team, which is based out of Headquarters Maintenance Division, inspects underwater sections of bridges throughout California.

This team of twelve engineers, operating out of their boats “Swamp Thing” and “Official Business,” inspect bridges in California’s cool and moist coastal regions and as far inland as the very arid Imperial County. Just about wherever there is a bridge this team has been there and will return again.

“A lot of Caltrans employees do not know we exist,” said Program Manager Richard Hunt. The team is comprised of nine transportation engineers and three transportation engineering technicians who have commercial diving licenses. “Each of the team members is an experienced structural inspector, who can take their training underwater.”

Hunt has worked for Caltrans as an engineer for 30 years and has been a member of the dive team since it was first initiated in 1988.

In April, the team inspected 25 bridges in District 7 in Alamitos Bay in Long Beach.

The team’s inspections in District 7 went smoothly, except for a dead battery for their 22-foot boat “Swamp Thing” and the intrusion of a television crew. While doing an inspection on a bridge in the bay, the team was halted by filming. “We were asked to leave the area by the City of Long Beach because the television show CSI said we were in their shot,” said Hunt.

The dive team inspects nearly 800 bridges statewide for Caltrans, other state agencies, and local agencies. “Very few counties inspect their own bridges. We handle all steel inspections underwater everywhere because there are no counties that can do that,” said Hunt. “We look for cracks, rusty rebar, timber rot on wooden bridges, and excessive corrosion in steel piles.”

Federal law requires that bridges be inspected every five years; some must be inspected every two years. The team has to inspect 150 bridges a year from February to December. “Two months out of the year we have annual diving physicals, week-long pressure training, and every piece of diving equipment has to be broken down and reassembled per OSHA,” said Hunt.

Obviously, the nature of this job presents many dangers (no sharks though). Unaware boaters have dropped buoy anchors near divers and have navigated far too close to diving operations. The divers have to battle potential physiological problems such as hypothermia (getting too cold), disorientation, the bends, or slipping on the deck of the boat with all of the equipment on,” said Hunt.

In Los Angeles, the divers also have to be concerned about the amount of trash and contaminants in the water. “Los Angeles rivers are fed by gutters, street drainage, and lawn run-off,” said Hunter. “If we are in highly contaminated water, we have a special suit we can wear that easily connects to our US Navy grade hard hat. Although it adds more time to the operation, we want to be sure that one no one gets sick.”

Although California may have some of the most attractive coastline in the world, the water is not always so clear. “In the San Francisco Bay visibility is about 6 inches, and in Los Angeles about a foot but San Diego is about 10 or 15 feet at the Coronado Bridge. Typically visibility is about a foot statewide.”

“This is the kind of work that if you do not want to do it, you need to leave. You really have to have a passion for it,” said Hunt. Hunt has a background in marine biology, so when the opportunity to join the diving team came about he was ready and willing.

Senior Engineer and Program Manager Richard Hunt Diver inspecting a structure in Long Beach. Diver in a dry suite. The truck that chariots Swamp Thing