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We often use divers to help us inspect the condition of underwater structures. It's dark and difficult work, so we've spoken to a diving team working at the West India Docks to find out why they do it.

Justin McCormack

"We always have two divers suited-up at any one time. One of us will be in the water, the other on the bank ready to go in case of emergencies.

The water here is anything up to ten metres and depending on what stage of the project we are at, we can be in there up to four hours.

We call it ‘black water'. There's zero visibility. If you screwed up yours eyes and put your fingers into them, that's what it feels like. We work by ‘touch and feel' and describe what we find via radio to our team on the surface.

In all honesty it's freezing, the key is to keep moving.

Apart from getting wet, there's no real comparison between this type of diving and the scuba diving some people might do on holiday.

As well as my dry suit, I've got about 50kg of equipment and weight attached. Imagine diving with a jockey on your back."

Alex Smedley

"As well as the surveying, we're also skilled in under-water welding and disc-cutting, among other things. Here we've installed the pumps inside the lock gate that help it to float and installed and sealed a limpet dam that enables the repair on the lock pintel.

It takes time to learn these skills but if people ask me I usually say that in my job that I make things, break things and repair things.

Like all the team, my role has taken me to so many different places. I've recently worked on the salvage of the Costa Concordia and the recovery of the last known WW2 Dornier 17, which sunk off the coast of Kent.

When you're diving like this, you're effectively on the same life support equipment as an astronaut. Astronauts actually train underwater to simulate the feeling of being in space.

When you're working with massive gates and tides, you can't just go home when it gets to six o'clock. We work until the job is finished, that can mean 18 hour days, followed by a long drive home.

Everyone carries a knife. It's just essential when you're diving and working with rope. A cafétierre is another essential we couldn't do without.

You have to be conscious of the risks involved with diving, but can't think about it too much. There's always a great spirit among the team. At the end of the day, we're responsible for each other's lives."

David Wood

"The abilities in the team show the variety of skills needed on a project like this. So far we've required divers, specialist welders, crane operators, tug boat captains, structural engineers and marine architects, among others. We've even had IT specialists working with us to install the internal video cameras on the inside of the lock gates.

We've got a great team. My role comes down to juggling all the balls; the team on-site while planning the next steps and the materials and expertise needed to do complete the job.

I began as a commercial diver as well, so would never ask one of the team to do something that I couldn't do myself.

I dived in Docklands before the first big buildings ever went up. We installed the power cables in a culvert on the Belmout Cut that essentially power Canary Wharf.

Since then I've been all over – Saudi Arabia, Croatia – but being back in Docklands a couple of decades on and working on this project is a real privilege. So much has changed, but there are so many familiar faces still here too."

Last Edited: 05 November 2020

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