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`Pardon me, pal, but your Aqua-lung is in my face'

Andy Belliveau spent most of the summer diving for gold, silver, and other artifacts tucked somewhere on the RMS Republic. Mr. Belliveau and his colleagues never found the 5 tons of gold, with a potential value of $1.6 billion. But he may return next year. After hearing about the living conditions, one might wonder why. For about a month, six men live in a 10-by-30-foot decompression chamber. At any given time, two of them are 280 feet below on the ocean floor, scouting the shipwreck in a 10-hour shift. The decompression chamber is on board the ship, but it is pressurized as if it were on the ocean floor. That way, the divers don't have to decompress each time they dive, which would take about two days.

It's cozy. ``Just to eat you had to fold up two bunks, you had to wake up two other guys to get them out of the way so that you could sit down,'' Belliveau says.

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Such close quarters are ``potentially explosive,'' Belliveau says, but divers go out of their way to be polite. ``You wouldn't believe it, that you'd get a bunch of long-haired, bearded, ruffled fellows in the chamber, but all you ever hear is ``Excuse me,'' ``Pardon me,'' ``Oh, can I get this for you?''

Down on the ocean floor, one diver hunts for artifacts, walking and swimming through pitch-black water. Visibility with a light is about three feet. After four hours, the diver comes back to the ``bell,'' a kind of elevator that takes divers from the surface to the shipwreck. Then his partner takes his turn.

The Republic divers were handicapped because they didn't have a blueprint of the ship, and didn't know where to look for the gold. ``Just to go out and roam around and roam and roam and roam becomes extremely frustrating,'' he says. ``You could work on one area for quite a while and come up completely dry.''

Walt Disney, perhaps, would have endorsed deep water diving - not for its potential riches, but for the vocal tone produced. Deep sea divers sound like Donald Duck. Not all the time, mind you, just when they are living in the decompression chamber.

At 280 feet down, the nitrogen in ordinary air has ``an alcoholic effect,'' Belliveau says. To prevent that, divers in the pressurized capsule breathe 93 percent helium, 7 percent oxygen. Thus the squawky voice.

The voice is so squawky, in fact, that supervisors aboard listening to the divers via radio can't understand them. So the radio has a ``helium unscrambler,'' which lowers and smooths out the divers' voices. Divers can usually understand each other, because they can look at each others' lips. In very deep dives, however, the squawk worsens, and often the only way a diver can say something to his colleague one foot away is to give a message to the supervisor through the helium unscrambler. The supervisor then relays it back down to the other diver.

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