SOUTHWEST HARBOR — When Andy Mays was learning to scuba dive in the 1980s, it was going to be just for fun.
In the years since, he has become a master scallop diver deeply involved with Department of Marine Resources research and management work as well as his own harvesting. He’s one of Mount Desert Island’s most trusted commercial divers, too.
Now, despite a long and brutal battle with cancer and ongoing intensive treatment, no one has been able to convince him to stay above water and take it easy.
This summer, he said, he was sick enough that diving was “generally awful.”
“The simplest jobs leave me completely wiped out and exhausted,” he wrote then on social media. “But … I don’t quit! I try the next day and hope for a better outcome.”
He’s tough but doesn’t take much credit for his toughness. He points to his Catholic faith and support from family and friends.
“I’ll be so sick from chemo that I can’t even raise my head,” he wrote. “Then I remember I’m scheduled to dive on the Swans Island ferry in 45 minutes. It’s amazing that the good Lord tolerates my stubbornness and continues to answer my daily foolish prayers, in which I ask for strength to accomplish tasks I am no longer capable of doing.”
One day in August, he got a call from Wid Minctons, who owns the barge Charles Bradley, named for his grandfather.
The project was repairing the underwater pipe that supplies fresh water to the handful of houses on Bear Island. The heavy plastic pipe had been damaged, perhaps by a dragger.
“I remember thinking, I don’t know, how am I doing physically for that?” he told the Islander recently. “By then, I think the oncologist from Dana Farber had sent me home. I had used the last of the chemos that were left for me, and he had sent me home to die.
“I got arguing with him. I told him I would kick his [butt] up and down Massachusetts Avenue if he didn’t give me the names of the doctors that were doing the trials [of new treatments.]”
So he got connected with an experimental treatment and agreed to work on the Bear Island job.
“We were there a couple or a few days. For some reason, a lot of the pipe was really damaged,” he said. “It’s been down there forever, so it’s got all types of stuff on it. Wid’s blowing air through it so we can find out where it’s leaking. Probably somebody went scallop dragging out there.”
“What makes these projects such fun is they never go as planned,” Mays wrote on social media. “Working within the constraints of time, tide and tools on hand, Wid and I have to adapt and solve problems. It’s mentally stimulating and solidly rewarding.”
It also made him think back to his dive training nearly 30 years ago. Mays and Minctons both were taught by Chris Eaton and the late Doug Beal Jr.
Eaton and Beal “had mad skills and talent,” Mays wrote. “When [Wid and I] ran into a problem, we discussed it, looking at it from all directions, until together we honed an idea into a working plan. When I face a difficult problem, I still head over to Chris’s house for advice.”
When he signed up for a class Eaton was teaching, Mays said, to earn his dive certification, “I wanted to learn how to dive because I liked the idea of going diving. It was something recreational I wanted to do.”
There were 14 people in the first class, he said, and everyone but him wanted to be a scallop diver.
Back then, there was so much money in scalloping, many divers took too many risks, and some of them died doing it.
“They’d get certified, and they’d start working,” he said. “Some of them died on their first day in the water because they were not ready for it, and they [messed] up and died.”
Mays and “Diver Ed” Monat both worked for Eaton running dive trips.
“I didn’t think much of scallop diving, but I got to be friends with Chris, and then Chris took me scallop diving,” Mays said.