Drawing inspiration from a recent alligator attack on a golf ball diver, my editor tasked me with discovering more about the dangers these professionals regularly face. After weeks of writing and editing, this particular article got me the first front page story of my journalistic career. Here's the end result.
To view this piece as it was originally published by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, please click here
'Blackwater' divers defy snakes and gators in quest for golf balls and big paychecks
As Stephen Martinez tugs on his diving suit and heads for the murky ponds that are his workplace, he is mindful of the scars on his left hand that hamper his bass-playing ability.
Martinez, 54, of Pompano Beach, is a lifelong golf ball diver. He’s survived two separate alligator attacks in his decades-long career, and after a Southwest Florida diver nearly lost his arm in an alligator ambush just a few weeks ago, the perils of his job are once again in the national spotlight.
“As a knowing person who’s been attacked, I feel the pain of my brethren,” Martinez said. “I understand. I know what it’s like to be in the mouth of a dinosaur.”
In spite of the risks, Martinez is still willing to risk life and limb to collect a steady paycheck.
According to Scott Evans, president of the North Florida Golf Ball Company, experienced divers typically recover an average of 3,000 to 5,000 golf balls per day. The pay varies among the companies that employ them, but Evans said his divers make 6-to-12 cents per ball.
After salvage, companies recondition the balls and group them according to quality before selling them “just about everywhere you can imagine,” said Jeff Wall, vice president of procurement at PG Professional Golf. Nationwide, nearly 100 million used golf balls are recovered and sold each year, generating a multi-million dollar industry.
The job is far from simple. To work for an established recovery company, divers must be familiar with the rigors of operating in a zero-visibility environment, and remain wary of the hazards that lurk below.
“It’s blackwater diving,” Martinez said. “Basically, it’s almost like braille. … going in, and touching anything alive or dead — you have to be ready for it.”
Although they understand the deadly potential waiting beneath the surface, the promise of a paycheck keeps divers coming back. It’s what first motivated Martinez to slip into a wetsuit, strap knives to his thighs and wade into murky ponds across the United States.
Currently working as a diver for Birdie Golf Ball Company, Martinez stressed that experience is the most valuable asset in a diver’s repertoire. He said they must take any and all threats into consideration, and should routinely check their equipment for potential malfunctions.
Employers echoed that sentiment. Headquartered in Sugar Land, Texas, PG Professional Golf says it controls exclusive dredging rights to all the ponds on Miami-Dade County’s golf courses
While most companies don’t directly hire their own divers, Wall said PG ensures its contractors follow strict hiring procedures. He said that all PG divers must be certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, and that the lack of experience is one of the greatest threats to a diver’s safety.
“It’s not something that a recreational scuba diver could jump in and have success with,” Wall said. “It’s very hard manual labor. ... The backbone of our industry are those guys that brave the snakes and alligators.”
While PG Professional Golf’s subcontracted workers each carry two layers of $2 million in liability insurance, wildlife threats aren’t the only dangers they face. In addition to alligators, snakes, snapping turtles and catfish, divers have to contend with man-made obstacles.
As the former owner and operator of RPB GolfBall Retrieval, Ricky Paulbritt, Jr. spent four-and-a-half years scouring ponds along Florida’s west coast. Over the course of his career, he’s been snagged on underwater fountain lines, entangled by fishing wire and nearly drowned due to exhaustion and a depleted air supply.
“You’re not gonna avoid [the risks],” he said. “They’re gonna be there.”
For Martinez and Paulbritt, the dangers — natural or otherwise — come with the territory. According to Tommy Chipman, director of golf operations for the Miami-Dade department of parks and recreation, most of the county’s golf courses are Certified Cooperative Sanctuaries with the Audubon Society.
Designed to “preserve the natural heritage of the game of golf,” the program works with individual courses to promote conservation. Other than posted warnings about wildlife, the courses don’t offer other safety measures.
“We don’t try to keep any of [the wildlife] out, at least at our golf courses,” Chipman said. “They understand the risk. … We let them know that we do have some of those things, but they know how to manage.”
To this point, divers have managed well. Both Chipman and Wall said no divers have been injured or killed while rounding up submerged golf balls in Miami-Dade.
Despite the sleepless nights and the fear he must overcome every time he dives, Martinez says he stays on the job so he can provide for his two teen-aged children.
“When I say the words, ‘I’ll see you later,’ that means a lot,” Martinez said.