REAL WORK: NINE TO FIVE

Name Mel Thomas, 25 Occupation Commercial diver Salary From pounds 18,000 Address Stoke Newington, north London

Too much Jacques Cousteau, when you were young, was it?

Not exactly, although I have been scuba diving since I was nine. I had a gift for it and I knew I wanted to make it my job, which meant I had two choices, either to become a ship's diver in the Royal Navy or to become a commercial diver. I applied to join the Navy but I'd lived all over the world with my family and they wanted the names of everyone my parents and I knew. It was impossible. So I got a loan and took a 14-week course in Fort William in north-west Scotland. It cost pounds 8,000 plus pounds 2,000 for living expenses.

Heavens! I hope you're paid enough to meet the interest...

It's hard to earn that money back to be honest. There is big money in diving but only in the oil fields. I can't get to the Gulf to work because I'm a woman, and in the North Sea you have to know someone who already has a job.

What did you do?

I worked very hard to get a job and eventually got two days inspection diving in Liverpool. Then I travelled for a while, and when I came back I landed my present job for Arkal, a marine and underwater civil engineering company. We repair walls and bridges and do specialist work like putting in a concrete mattress to plug a leaking waterbed. We do a lot of work for the Environmental Agency. You name it we do it. I've been here for three years on and off and I've been working full time for the past year.

So it's up in the morning and into your wet-suit is it?

I still dive but now I'm the office manager as well, which means that I do site visits and check to see that everything is going to schedule. I don't want to be a diver for the rest of my life, I want to climb the industry ladder. It's a young industry and as you get older your body can't handle it. You get pains and ailments, sore knees and elbows. Already I don't have pretty hands. Your body has an expiry date. If your eardrums, your joints or lungs go your career is history. The oldest divers I know are between 45 and 50.

It must be lovely, spending your days looking at fish

If only! Visibility is terrible - we're normally working in the dark. You have to carry in your head a black-and-white image of what you are supposed to see. It freaks some people out but I like it, I like the challenge.

Is it a man's world?

Yes, there's a lot of banter in the industry. I can either be one of the lads or a flirt, so I try to be one of the lads. I set out to gain the trust of the guys I work with, which is important because we work in teams of four: a diver, a standby diver, a supervisor and a tender. If the diver gets into trouble the standby has to go in and get him and the tender has to have the strength to pull him back. I was a power lifter when I was younger so they know I have the strength.

And after work? We socialise; I'm one of the lads. We go for a drink after work and if we are away from London we'll go to a club. I buy my round and give the boys tips on chat-up lines.

Any underwater lurve?

I'm too busy organising my career for a relationship. As my mum says, get your independence first, girl. But I'm leaving the door open...

Dinners for one then?

No way! I flatshare with three friends. We shop in pairs and have a big meal together on Sundays. But during the weeks it's Navy rules: if you want to eat something, you go get it.

PETER CROSS

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