Tim McNitt believes in karma and admires walruses.
If you spent as much time as him underwater, some 7,000 hours, doing what he does, it might begin to make sense.
Captain Tim McNitt, also known as “The Walrus”, has been a licensed diver for over 30 years and has owned and operated Atlantis Dive and Dock Salvage at the Lake of the Ozarks for the last 23. He started as an intermediate paramedic in Keokuk, Iowa, a small city stationed on the southern border of Iowa divided from Illinois by the Mississippi River.
Then he joined the dive and rescue team, became a master dive instructor and licensed cave diver and search and rescue diver. Finally, he moved to the Lake and became a hard hat diver, doing underwater site sonar and chain cutting, to add to his salvage business. He’s also been summoned to federal court rooms and attorney’s offices to testify as an expert diving witness.
When McNitt was just a kid he visited the St. Louis Zoo and that’s when he first met a walrus named Wally. He was blown away by the size and swimming capabilities of one of the largest marine animals.
“I’m round, I’m kind of built like a walrus, I make my living in the deep, cold water,” says McNitt, who stands just over 5-feet tall, but is built like a wrecking ball. “They can free dive five to thousands of feet and they’re massive, the only claw bigger in the animal kingdom is the Kodiak bear. Before they sun off, they’re pink like a pig, this makes me giggle.”
On his left calf, a large muscular walrus is inked into his skin. In his truck, he carries a walrus mask and at home he has a tusk and pair of teeth. Surprisingly, those aren’t even some of the weirdest things McNitt has come into contact with in his career.
Out on the Lake of the Ozarks on a Wednesday, near the Grand Glaize Bridge, McNitt and his right hand man Marc Diebold are taking care of some of the standard jobs that support the business.
The day before, the two men hoisted a bulldozer from the Lake, but today no calls have come in for any salvages, so it’s a regular day on the job. Today’s task is re-anchoring a dock from a nearby condominium complex. Jobs like that and fixing ramps and hoisting decks, are the bread and butter of the business. McNitt, as a licensed Coast Guard Captain, also does sobriety and seizure checkpoints, as well as helping Ameren and the Missouri State Highway Patrol Water Division with various water jobs.
It’s not as quite exciting as a dive, but a job nonetheless. The two men prepare three 2,000-pound anchors on the floor of their customized barge, a converted pontoon boat about double the size featuring four hydraulic lifts, which was personally built for McNitt. Diebold jumps into the water and begins swimming and tying thick metal wire beneath the dock to support the anchors. The spool runs about 350 pounds, but was cut in two pieces using a handheld saw. The job is completed in a half hour and the boat is back on its way, waiting for a call.
“This is one of the most boring part of the jobs, but swimming these cables is incredibly dangerous,” Diebold said, who used to work in information technology and also trained and fought in mixed martial arts prior to syncing up with McNitt. “Nothing, besides training for MMA, compares to the relentlessness of dives, it never gets easier.”
Over the years, McNitt said he’s raised over 400 boats, $2 million worth of jewelry, eight bodies, three prosthetic legs, three dogs, countless vehicles, a tooth, skateboards, fishing poles, wallets, cell phones and a wide variety of other items lost in the water using a ton of different diving and salvaging tactics.
On these dives, three feet or 103-feet below the surface, is where karma sets in for McNitt.
“You should have a little honor bringing back a soul, but you’re not a hero. Does it give you good karma and does it give you some honor? Sure, that’s the way I look at it,” McNitt said. “I don’t steal, here’s karma, I recover your item and I sell it and keep your money and charge you, then guess what happens to me I’m in 80 feet of water and God tells me I have to pay up. I don’t want to pay up like that. I want to die in bed in my slippers.”
McNitt said he charges by the job, which boat (big or small) the team will need, how dangerous the job and where and what it is. Something small like a fishing pole could be free and McNitt said he never charges to recover a body. He’s also the only diver in the area willing to dive year round.
“You’re in the 29-degree water retrieving a dog, digging through the mud and you’re suffering,” McNitt said. “You have to force yourself into that freezing water and depth and cold and murkiness and you’re suffering, no way about it.”
However, for the most part, McNitt loves to dive. It’s his passion, it’s what he’s good at. It’s in his blood.
McNitt logged over 600 dives last year and has no plans to quit. He’s in the process of becoming 50% partners with Tow Boat US, who he has been in business with for 17 years. The two businesses often work together on co-salvages and McNitt always needs a tow for those jobs.
“No two days are alike,” Captain Dave Anderson of Tow Boat US said. “As a rule every job is different, every day is different, I don’t mind it at all.”
That randomness and the taking on of different challenges is something that resonates with McNitt.
“When you give a woman her $10,000 ring back and she’s sobbing like a baby or you find a man’s $400 of cash that was his vacation money, nothing beats that. On the other hand, the worst part is dealing with drunks, people who don’t appreciate your skill or don’t appreciate what you’re doing for them, but giving a kid’s skateboard or fishing pole back,” McNitt paused.
“That’s what’s truly rewarding.”
Tale of the walrus: Lake diver looks back at years in the salvage business
Tim McNitt believes in karma and admires walruses.