THE POT: Rainbow Beach diver Kevin Phillips in
THE POT: Rainbow Beach diver Kevin Phillips in "the pot," one of Queensland's few decompression chambers, where divers with the bends sometimes have to spend 48 hours or so. It is a place most divers hope to avoid. Contributed

'Worse than sharks' - Tin Can Bay diver's stonefish agony

IN A sometimes terrifying pitch-dark underwater workplace, sharks are one thing Kevin Phillips does not worry about.

Far worse monsters lurk in the black lagoon where professional divers do their work.

Visibility was "worse than zero" in muddy conditions near Rainbow Beach, when one of those monsters, a lethally venomous stonefish, stung Mr Phillips right through his supposedly protective Kevlar gloves.

 

Kevin Phillips, about to go to work.
ALL PART OF THE JOB: Kevin Phillips on his way to work, in a different and dangerous world. Contributed

"It penetrated the weave of the material. The pain was like nothing I've ever even imagined.

"You've heard of people saying it was so bad they wanted to cut their arm off? Well it's no exaggeration."

That was nearly 15 years ago and Mr Phillips, who still works on mooring installation and maintenance at nearby Tin Can Bay, carries constant reminders.

His business, Flag Alpha Commercial Divers, is now based at the Sunshine Coast and Rainbow Beach.

 

Diver Kevin Phillips helps a colleague prepare for a day's work in a potentially lethal underwater environment.
Diver Kevin Phillips helps a colleague prepare for a day's work in a potentially lethal underwater environment. Contributed

Nerve pain is the worst, he said, coupled with an occasional loss of feeling in his left hand and arm.

He was the underwater part of a demolition team, working with a barge-mounted crane to take down the old Bullock Point jetty.

"I couldn't get to hospital fast enough, so we raced up to the barge and they boiled the urn.

 

PAIN CONTINUES: How The Gympie Times reported the survival of Rainbow Beach professional diver Kevin Phillips, who suffered a continuing ordeal after a stonefish sting he suffered at Bullock Point , on Friday December 17, 2004.
PAIN CONTINUES: How The Gympie Times reported the survival of Rainbow Beach professional diver Kevin Phillips, who suffered a continuing ordeal after a stonefish sting he suffered at Bullock Point , on Friday December 17, 2004. Contributed

"I shoved my arm into the boiling water and it took the skin off, but it didn't hurt as much as the sting.

"The heat makes the toxin coagulate, so it can't get any further towards your heart or lungs or brain.

 

DEADLY FIND: This stonefish has been reeled in at a popular fishing spot in Noosa.
DEADLY FIND: This stonefish caught on a line near Noosa.

"We managed to stop the poison about here," he said, indicating a point about half way between his elbow and shoulder.

"I've got permanent damage and it still causes me pain and tingling in my hand.

"I can be watching TV and my arm will go tingly and my hand will go to sleep."

Unfortunately, that can also be a symptom of another monster of the deep, the deep itself.

"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt," he said. "It's also what divers do when they are trying not to admit they have decompression sickness - the bends."

If someone ever tells you to "go and get bent" this is what they are talking about - the potentially paralysing or even deadly illness that causes people to double up, or bend, in agony.

It is caused by an overabundance of nitrogen in the blood, from breathing compressed air at depth and surfacing too quickly.

"The quickly reduced pressure causes the nitrogen to bubble in your blood and you can get what is called 'the brush,' a feeling like someone is stroking your shoulders, arms or hands with a fine brush.

"A mottled red rash, often on the inside of your forearms but also sometimes on your chest and neck, is the nitrogen trying to escape through your skin.

"Numbness in the extremities, arms sore, the rash and shoulders aching - you can get one of them and it could be something else, but two or more and there is no denying it.

"What professional divers do is get to as low an altitude as possible, lie down and breath pure oxygen. We are required by workplace safety laws to have an oxygen kit.

"And you don't go to Maleny for a drive that weekend. I know one diver who bent himself driving to Gympie, just because of the slight altitude change."

And then there is "bubble wrap," when bubbles appear under your skin at chest level. That is from a ruptured lung and it does not take much to cause it.

"I know one bloke who burst a lung in 2.5m of water.

"We were picking up rocks which had fallen off a marina wall and the boats were scraping on them when they came in.

"He was holding his breath and walking with the rocks to put them back on the wall.

"He stood up too quickly and the sudden change in even that depth was enough.

"Sharks aren't a problem. If you're on the surface they might be curious but if you're down there with them, they're scared of you," he said.