If you break life down into a series of activities, objectively, a lot of them don’t make sense. Like diving into a vat of raw sewage. Why would someone do that? To find out, we’re asking people doing weird things why, to get an insight into their world.
This is Brendan Walsh’s world. He runs a Melbourne company called East West Dive and Salvage, which basically involves diving in all sorts of no-air environments. One such environment includes sewage, so I caught up with Brendan to find out what necessitates this foul job and why he does it.
VICE: Hi, Brendan. Why are you doing this?
Brendan Walsh: I’m doing it because in Australia, we don’t process our sewerage with chemicals. We get bacteria to break down the solids by aerating them with big stirring machines, 24 hours a day. It’s a very aggressive environment, and moving parts constantly break.
So what’s broken here?
One of the motors. The motors are all in the ponds, and there’s no other way to access them without getting in. And it’s completely black down there, so we have to do everything by feel. Sewage farms take thousands of photos of their site, before they fill up the ponds, so we look carefully at the photos before we get in. The diver then makes the repairs in the dark by talking to the guys above the surface. The dive suits are all connected via radio, so we can provide directions in real time.
That all sounds like a design flaw. Shouldn’t there be an easier way?
Ah, you’d think so, but then it gives me a job. Got to earn the ex-wife money somehow.
So what is it like when you’re down there?
It’s completely black, and you have to more walk than swim. There’s no smell, though. All your air is bottled, so it’s actually worse for the guys who have to decontaminate you when you get out.
Do you ever get claustrophobic?
No, I wouldn’t do it if I did. You need two years of training to become a diver, and that weeds out anyone with claustrophobia. Also, we can pipe music through the suits’ radio system. We’ll play the guys whatever they want to hear. It keeps them happy.
What do you listen to?
I listen to AC/DC. “Back in Black” is my all-time favorite song, but you can’t do any air guitar when you’re working.
So what have you learned about poo?
It’s brown-gold—no one wants to touch it, so the dollars are better. And all sorts of stuff ends up in there. Lots of condoms, lots of old men’s underwear. I think they flush them in nursing homes after accidents. And people don’t chew their corn.
Have you ever been sick after doing this?
No, but I will say there’s something about chicken. We don’t let people dive after they’ve eaten chicken. Every time someone gets the squirts, and we examine our processes, it always turns out that they ate chicken before the dive. I don’t know why, but chicken and sewage don’t mix. We call it the dirty bird.
Nice. And how do you feel about eating generally, after a day of diving?
It’s fine. The clean-up process and decontamination is incredibly thorough. As I say, it’s the guys who clean you off who have the worst job. Getting in the sewage doesn’t actually expose you to sewage.
How do you explain that to the women in your life?
It’s not a pick-up line, I’ll tell you. I also generally don’t tell anyone what I do until I get to know them.
Is that because you have the worst job in the world?
No, it’s because they don’t understand. I love my job and always have. I’m a passionate diver from way back, and I’m a mechanic. I’ve never worked a day in my life because I combine my passions. We all do. You can’t do a job well unless you love it.