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Friday, September 18, 2009

Divers Unseen Service Keeps Africa Mercy Operational


In order to keep the machinery onboard the M/V Africa Mercy running effectively, divers must plunge into murky, polluted water every week to prevent obstructions from blocking the ship’s seawater intake valves.

The Africa Mercy’s machinery is cooled by seawater pumped in via intake valves on the sides of the ship. Without a continuous intake of cool water, the generators that power the ship and the various facilities onboard, including the hospital, would all cease to function. Also, the air-conditioning system would shut down, resulting in a rapid increase of temperature that would cause discomfort for crew members and patients, as well as creating a risk for certain pieces of hospital equipment that require a steady temperature to function. The emergency fire hoses receive their water supply from the same intake valves. Thus, the need for constant monitoring and regular maintenance of these valves, as well as having standby divers for emergencies is all of great importance.

Because the Africa Mercy docks in third world ports for months at a time, it is in slow-moving, severely polluted water for the majority of a year. Some days, trash completely surrounds the floating hospital ship. “Sometimes the layer of garbage is so thick you could walk on water,” joked P.J. Acceturo, one of several ship divers.


Plastic bags and other refuse get sucked into the vents and restrict the flow of water into the valves. Within minutes, the air-conditioning shuts down, and the entire ship is in danger of losing all power. The Dive Team must be quick to respond to clear the vents of any blockage. Sea growth, including barnacles and seaweed, is another problem that affects the intake of seawater. Divers have to remove the build-up of this growth regularly. It can be an extremely strenuous process.

The Dive Team currently consists of nine divers. At the beginning of each week, Olly Peet, Dive Team Coordinator, contacts the various divers to find out who is available to dive. Because the divers all have other jobs that take priority, it is sometimes not possible for them to help.

On occasion, divers have been required to suit up and descend below the ship as early as 4 AM. Night diving is extremely dangerous, but even diving during the day can be hazardous. “The water is usually so cloudy, you can’t see your feet,” said Peet. “Visibility is only six inches, which sometimes makes it difficult to find the intake valves.”

But a lack of visibility is not the only risk facing the Dive Team. “The sewage discharged from the Africa Mercy is fairly sterile, but it’s the sewage from other ships in the port that is a problem,” said Peet. Before any crew member attempts to dive, the medical department assesses their vaccination forms to ensure they are covered against serious diseases like hepatitis C, typhoid, and cholera. “Whenever divers have gotten water in their mouths, they’ve ended up with an upset stomach,” said Tracy Swope, another member of the Dive Team.

Because Mercy Ships is a non-profit organization, much of the Dive Team’s equipment is getting old and worn-out. New equipment, including full-face dive masks, would drastically decrease the health risks that divers endure so frequently and ultimately increase their efficiency and effectiveness. “The dive masks we want to get would prevent us from getting any water in our noses, eyes, or mouths,” explained Accetturo. “They would be a welcome addition to the aging equipment, some of which is more than fifteen years old. However, they are quite expensive,” he added.

Until then, the divers continue to risk their health to keep the Africa Mercy operational, ensuring that Mercy Ships can continue bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. “Even though it’s dirty work, I’m happy to dive every week,” Accetturo said. “It’s all part of serving the crew and continuing this ministry.”

Written by Richard Brock & PJ Accetturo
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by PJ Accetturo

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