Navy photo
Petty Officer 1st Class Charles White

From salvaging wrecks to building aquatic infrastructure, master divers like Chief Warrant Officer James ­Emerson handle some of the U.S. Navy’s most complex subaqueous projects—­because if something is tricky on dry land, it can be diabolical in the drink. Emerson is in charge of turning Seabees (the name comes from the abbreviation for “Construction ­Battalion”) into underwater experts. Out of 160 Seabee divers, only 2 to 4 percent will ultimately earn the title of “master.”

man in construction hat welding

Step 1: Join the Seabees

Enlisted sailors learn construction and ­demolition, without the added pressure of doing it underwater.
a man welding underwater in a scuba suit

Step 2: Become a Seabee Diver

Now to perform those same tasks in scuba gear. Lessons include hydraulic cutting and welding—and avoiding electrocution.
person in scuba gear swims with a chainsaw

Step 3: Learn on the Job

One of Emerson’s first tasks was to cut up a ruined Virginia pier in “some of the coldest, darkest water you can imagine.”
man performs CPR on a dummy

Step 4: Go Back to Dive School

Five or more years later, Seabee divers can try for First Class level, learning project management and how to treat injuries.
man in a military suit giving orders to a scuba diver

Step 5: Test for Master Diver

After 12 to 20 years, a written test, and rigorous dive simulations in the Gulf of Mexico, you’re certified as one of the Navy’s best.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of Popular Science.