The Last Word

john villarreal and armando gonzalez
John Villarreal (left) and Armando Gonzalez (right), creators of “The Bottom Dwellers Dive Shack.”

UNDERWATER Magazine had the opportunity to speak with the creators of Bottom Dwellers Podcast

How did you get into commercial diving? Tell me a little about your background. What are your responsibilities at your current job?

Armando: I was about 22 years old when commercial diving found me. Marriage and a thirst for adventure led me to Florida, where I took a job with an engineering company as an entry level bridge and structural inspector. They liked my work ethic, and I was excelling at topside inspection work, so they soon asked me to join their underwater inspections team and go through dive school. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., I was always in or near the water. So, when I was given the opportunity to turn it into a career, I dove in headfirst! Though diving in the swamps of Florida and traveling was fun, after five years I moved back to Long Beach where I spent 10 years as a Union Diver and eventually Piledriver Foreman. I joined the Port of Long Beach Dive Team with Johnny a little over two years ago.

Johnny: I was hired by the Port of Long Beach Security division as a Harbor Patrol Officer with a Scuba background. The Port was looking to add hard-hat diving to their already commissioned scuba team and when asked if I would be interested in going to commercial dive school I jumped at the chance. I attended The College of Oceaneering and have been loving it ever since. Here at the Port, we are tasked with installing and maintaining cathodic protection systems, conduct inspections and perform minor repairs to all subsea infrastructures within the Port complex while providing preventative maintenance on all port-owned vessels.

What inspired you to start a podcast about commercial diving? What were some challenges with this startup?

Armando: My little brother, Alfredo Gonzalez, started a podcast about music during the COVID-19 lockdown and mentioned I should do one about commercial diving. I enjoyed listening to his show and saw the value in what he was doing. It didn’t start with any grander intentions than getting some of the local divers together for a beer and telling stories, jokes and near misses. My co-host Johnny and I talked about working together and doing a show to give our non-diving friends and family a little sneak peek into our world. Some of the major challenges were dealing with the massive amount of time it was taking to mix and master the audio for the show. This was overcome when after some arm twisting, my brother decided to quit his podcast and produce our show. He has previously recorded, mastered and made music with major artists as an audio engineer. His expertise is a big part of our success.

Have you been involved with ADCI? How so?

Armando: We have had the privilege to have the ADCI Executive Director Phil Newsum and Vice President David Dodd on our show. We were able to get Phil on the show quickly following a terrible diving accident. He was able to give the ADCI’s stance on these unfortunate differential pressure related accidents and disseminate some great information, as well as offer his condolences. It was very humbling to be able to help the ADCI get information out quickly and be used as a mouthpiece for the commercial diving community.

Johnny: It was definitely very special to have them on and we look forward to working with the ADCI again in the future. We have been in talks about doing some more shows with the ADCI. It’s very important to give divers the most up to date and vital information as soon as possible. That’s part of what makes our show great and appealing. We don’t want to give too much away, but we have some big things in store for the coming year!

What has been the most rewarding part of your career in the industry?

Armando: I can’t give you a straight general answer but making it in the business is the reward in some ways. It was so hard to get to this point and have a diving career. It was hard enough to make it as a new diver, but I was able to fight through the great recession on top of that. Overcoming challenges and providing a good life for my family even though I may not have been there at times. Being able to get up in the morning and slip my head into a hat and disappear below the surface one more time until I can’t. The feeling of touching bottom and going to work is indescribable. Now, being able to help share the stories of divers past and present to never be forgotten is rewarding. The trade has been good to me, and it feels good to give something back. So, ask me that question again in another 15 years and maybe I can give you a straight answer.

Has the Bottom Dwellers podcast brought together the industry in an unexpected way? Has its reception met or exceeded expectations?

Armando: It absolutely has. The stories we have received from all over the country have been amazing. Many of our friends have helped and guest co-hosted episodes especially when we needed a dive professional more familiar with certain subject matters, (big thank you to Jayce Anderson, Shawn Williams, Tim McCoy, Ken Kuhlman and Matt Mason for your help early on). We have had bestselling authors, industry giants, seasoned salty divers, new divers breaking out, and dive students. All of them have stories, hopes, and concerns that we can share with the commercial diving community. The big turning point for us was when we had Les Gorski on our show and had such a great interview. We got to know the man behind the hat and hear his amazing story. We were devastated after hearing of his passing only a month later. It showed us the importance of what we were doing and how it is a vehicle to help preserve the stories of divers. So, what started off as solely a hobby has unexpectedly turned into something of more significance.

Johnny: As far as the reception I thought we’d only have a couple dozen listeners and an inbox full of hate mail. I didn’t know a show like this was wanted or needed at the time. The fact that we’ve received no hate mail and our show has so far been listened to 20,000 times in 85 different countries is amazing to me.

How can other divers get involved with the Bottom Dwellers podcast?

Johnny: Spread the word on jobsites and share our episodes on social media. You can always contact us on any of our social media platforms, email, or go to our website and leave a message. We love talking and answering questions. If you have any interesting show ideas or may want to be a guest drop us a message and we’ll see what we can do. This show is for divers by divers and we stand by that.

Armando: I have spent hours on the phone talking to divers and industry professionals AMexchanging ideas and offering advice. I am open to an occasional phone call if anyone wants to contact me that way too, but shoot me a message or email first.

If you weren’t in the commercial diving industry, what would you be doing? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Armando: I was a union carpenter before becoming a diver so definitely something in the trades or going back to school to finish my degree. I had most of my general ed done before getting into the Carpenters. Ten years, wow, as a diver it’s really hard for me to think that far ahead. We’re so used to being told to get up and go, you can’t even plan a vacation, sometimes much less years down the road. I’ve got an amazing job that is secure, stable, and lets me dive. The crew I work with is amazing and supportive. I plan on working in the Marine section of the Port of Long Beach for many years to come, we’ll put it that way.

Johnny: If the opportunity of attending Dive school on the Port dime was never put on the table back in 2010 I figure I would have continued my career in law enforcement, either staying with the Port of Long Beach Security Division as a Harbor Patrol Officer or seeing if I could make it in the big leagues by applying for a position with the Long Beach Police Department. My family has been here since the 1930s. I LOVE THIS CITY!! I have been with the Port of Long Beach for about thirteen years now and with the City of Long Beach as a whole even longer with no intentions of leaving and God willing I will retire here.

What is the industry’s biggest challenge in the next 5 years?

Armando: Keeping our divers alive. It’s heartbreaking that we are still having avoidable commercial diver deaths. We have to do better educating and mentoring our young divers. We do this with cooperation from the federal government, dive schools, industry associations, unions, demanding that they hear our concerns and providing solutions with input from working divers. I wish I could talk about the changing nature of our work, pay discrepancies, or something else but stopping commercial diver deaths has been and continues to be the biggest challenge.

Check out the “The Bottom Dwellers Dive Shack” podcast on Spotify, Apple, Amazon music, and all other major listening platforms. For more information or to stream the show, go to TheBottomDwellers.com or find them on Instagram @BottomdwellersDS.