On a chilly February morning, Chad Conrad dove into UCLA’s Dirks Pool at Spieker Aquatic Center wearing a wetsuit and scuba gear — for work.
Conrad is part of UCLA’s five-man crew of Facilities Management mechanics who maintain the eight campus pools and all the campus fountains. Every morning, they check each pool, measuring and adjusting things like chlorine, pH levels, water temperature and filter pressure, and repairing heaters, pumps and other pool equipment. To keep the water crystal clear, they suit up with air tanks and jump in, cleaning each pool at least twice a week.
Left to right: Conrad, Giraldo, Ruvalcaba and Martinez at Dirks pool.
“It’s the best part of the job,” Conrad said, bobbing in the water Wednesday, one of three days he’ll dive this week. “And it’s the best diving in the world. There’s 100 percent visibility and warm, calm water.”
Still, it’s no scuba-diving vacation. Cleaning Dirks pool, UCLA’s largest, takes divers at least an hour and a half and a second tank of air. “It’s like mowing a giant lawn,” Conrad said. “It’s a mile underwater, about 50 laps, so it keeps us in shape.”
With eight pools, including two Olympic-length pools with deep diving wells, tools like robotic water vacuums and vacs on long poles just don’t cut it, said Nicholas Stone, a senior planner of north campus operations for Facilities Management who also oversees the aquatic program.
“The pools are up to 18 feet deep,” Stone said. “Poles bend and break at that distance, and the robotic vacuums don’t catch everything. We can clean the pool exceptionally well with a diver guiding the vacuum along the bottom of the pool, and that shows. Other pools don’t sparkle quite like ours.”
People jumping in the water take it for granted, said Kendrick Giraldo, who heads the pool-and-fountain crew. Though he doesn’t dive as much as he used to, UCLA has had scuba divers on staff to clean the pools since before he got here 25 years ago. “The pools look great because of these guys,” he said.
Giraldo and Ruvalcaba work on the deck.
To keep it looking that way, the crew extracts all kinds of things from the pools. Leaves and dirt, hair and hair ties, and in the Family Pool at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, lots of plastic kiddie toys, shoes and water bottles. But the weirdest thing?
“A vending machine,” said Alfredo Ruvalcaba, another of the facilities mechanics and divers. That was more than five years ago, so details are sketchy, but the team agrees: It was a pain to get the waterlogged metal box out. Before UCLA added security cameras to the pool areas, they used to find lots of interesting things in the water: once, a bleacher; another day, a sack of flour; from time to time, bras and underwear.
“It’s not boring, that’s for sure,” said diver and mechanic Hannibal Martinez. “Every day is different.”
There’s also a steady flow of lost earrings, rings and necklaces found at the bottom of the pools, many of which are run by UCLA Recreation and open to Bruins. Recently, the reality show “Stars in Danger: The High Dive” brought celebrities to Dirks pool to practice diving. When NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens lost his Tiffany earring, sharp-eyed Ruvalcaba saved the day. Not long ago, someone lost a diamond ring in the Student Activities Center pool, and the crew rescued it on their next sweep.
Conrad spotted this elephant earring at the bottom of a diving well this week.
“We’re so hands-on and close to the bottom of the pool, we can find anything,” said Conrad, who found a tiny elephant-shaped earring this week.
Even the shallow pools are too wide to clean with a pole vacuum, Giraldo said. From the surface, it’s difficult to see the dirt that can accumulate on the bottom of the pool. With a mask and a tank of air, they can pick up everything — although they may need to pop their ears to equalize the air pressure 17 feet down, he said.
Although it’s work, there’s a meditative quality to diving, said Ruvalcaba. “In there, it’s so relaxing and quiet. You can’t hear anything.”
That does make it hard to communicate with a diver, though, unless you tap hard on the side of the pool. Five taps means someone on the surface is turning off the diver’s vacuum to clean out the filter. A series of fast taps means “Come on up.”
Conrad doing laps 16 feet down.
The job’s about much more than diving. They check chemical and pH levels on the pools twice daily, and after rain dilutes the water or sun evaporates the chlorine, the team has to know how to restore chemical balance to the pools. They check the underwater lights for leaks, maintain the pumps that run the filters and repair the heaters that keep millions of gallons across campus at 80 degrees.
It’s an unusual career path. Giraldo, Conrad, Martinez, Ruvalcaba and Jose Luna all have their scuba certification and are licensed pool technicians, but outside of places like Disneyland, Las Vegas and Sea World, it’s rare to find a pool cleaned by scuba divers, Giraldo said. Then again, most places don’t have eight pools of this size to clean, Martinez said.
“It’s the best way,” Martinez said. “If you’re not in the water, you miss stuff.”
He’s planning a diving trip with two newly scuba-certified friends to Catalina this summer, but his dream is to go someplace he won’t need a wetsuit, like Hawaii, where Giraldo and Conrad have gone for the warm, calm water. Ruvalcaba, on the other hand, doesn’t see the appeal.
“I’m in the water year-round for work. I don’t like to think about putting on a cold wetsuit on vacation,” Ruvalcaba said. Besides, he added, aware of the irony: “I get sea-sick.”