Gray clouds frowned over the lake as a team of lean young men pulled on their gear: black wet suits, neoprene gloves, scuba masks and neon yellow air tanks. They were preparing to do battle with the enemy below.
Their mission: Take out the lake weeds lurking underwater off the beach and dock at Kristin Vig’s Prior Lake home so that Vig’s three young daughters could get in the water without having weeds wrap around their legs.
It was a matter of hand-to-leaf combat for the frogmen.
Methodically swimming back and forth, the divers searched and destroyed hundreds of pounds of invasive curly-leaf pondweed and Eurasian watermilfoil, pulling out the plants by hand and piling armloads of the wet vegetation on the shore to be hauled away for compost.
After about an hour of work, they declared their mission accomplished.
“Sandy bottom, baby,” said diver Joe Reichling.
Using scuba divers as underwater weed pullers is the service provided by Matt Wilkie’s Dive Guys, a Twin Cities-based company offering “eco-friendly,” chemical-free weed removal.
“Who would have ever thought? It’s super-unusual,” said Maria Watts.
But the Chicago investment banker said she’s hired the company to pull up lake weeds at her lake house in Twin Lakes, Wis., for about three years. She was uncomfortable using chemicals to kill the weeds, and said the results are better when the scuba divers do the job.
“It’s like completely sandy bottom,” she said.
Wilkie admits “it’s definitely a niche business,” but since starting the company with five people in 2014, he now employs nearly three dozen underwater weeders.
They yank out underwater weeds, cut cattails or clear lily pads for lakefront home and cabin owners throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Wilkie, a 35-year-old St. Paul native who studied finance at the University of St. Thomas, used to sell insurance and investment products. He was looking for a way to work outdoors when he heard of a friend who had a side job pulling underwater weeds. He decided not just to give it a try, but to start his own company.
He holds a permit with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as one of about 30 companies that people can hire in the state to remove aquatic plants from lakes using cutters, harvesters, rakes, scuba divers or aquatic pesticides.
Those companies are governed by state rules that specify how large an area and the type of vegetation they can clear. For example, without an extra permit, a homeowner or the company can clear only up to 2,500 square feet of underwater lake weeds per property.
Lily pad removal without an extra permit is limited to clearing a 15-foot-wide path to get to open water.
The rules are designed to balance the desires of homeowners, swimmers and anglers and to preserve lake ecology and plant and animal habitat, said Shane McBride, who does aquatic plant management for the DNR.
Some companies use mechanical weed harvesting machines to remove weeds, but Wilkie said pulling the weeds by hand keeps the water clear of plants longer.
Dive Guys charges 50 to 60 cents per square foot for an initial visit on an underwater weed pulling job. Logan Dop, the Twin Cities regional manager for Dive Guys, said typical jobs on residential lakefront properties cost around $1,000. Subsequent touch-up visits cost less.
Wilkie said most of his clients need only one or two visits over the summer to keep their lakeshore area free of weeds.
Wet, nasty and heavy
Most of Wilkie’s employees are certified divers, often outdoorsy college students or recent graduates.
Paul Kalifatidi, a 21-year-old Minneapolis resident, said he started weed diving after his normal work as a rock climbing instructor and guide dried up because of the pandemic.
“Anytime I can spend a day outside is amazing,” he said.
Orlin Ipina, another Dive Guys weed puller, was a dive master and scuba instructor from Belize until he met a woman from Minnesota who was on vacation there. They fell in love, got married and he moved to Minnesota.
He wanted to continue to work underwater, even if pulling lake weeds in Minnesota is a bit less glamorous than swimming with sharks, barracuda and manta rays in the Caribbean.
“As long as I have a regulator in my mouth, that’s my thing,” said Ipina, who eventually wants to work as an underwater welder.
But as summer jobs go, it’s not for everyone.
“Lake weeds, they’re wet and nasty and heavy,” Wilkie said.
Some people feel claustrophobic underwater because they can’t see very far after they’ve stirred up the mud by yanking out weeds, Dop said.
“Really, it’s manual labor,” he said. “We’re looking for hardworking young guys who want to put in long days.” Starting pay is $15 an hour, but the divers quickly get raises if they stay on for the season.
“It takes a willingness to be in gross conditions all day,” said Reichling.
Turtles and bowling balls
But Reichling and his co-workers seem to revel in what they see beneath the water’s surface.
Reichling had a close encounter with a snapping turtle and Kalifatidi found a leech inside his goggles.
The divers rescued a baby turtle that was discovered in a pile of weeds they hauled out of a lake. Spike, now the company’s mascot, lives in a tank at the Dive Guys’ Eagan office.
They’ve also recovered a bowling ball, an anchor, fishing poles, nets, patio furniture, antique beer cans — “anything you can think of that can blow off a dock or boat,” Wilkie said.
“It’s the most fun you can have in some of the dirtiest conditions,” said Samir Ferdowsi, a rock climber and scuba diver who wants to work in adventure journalism.
There’s at least one other company in the state that offers scuba diving weed pulling. Waterfront Restoration has been in business since 2003, according to its website, offering weed removal, dangerous object cleanup, zebra mussel removal and watercraft inspections.
Dop said from time to time former employees have gone off on their own to try to set up competing underwater weeding companies. But Dop, who has an MBA from the University of St. Thomas, thinks that’s good for business because it spreads awareness of scuba weeding.
In the offseason, Wilkie and Dop run a nonprofit called Ardent Outdoor Group to share their passion for outdoor activities like rock climbing, bow hunting and ice fishing with people who don’t normally have access to those sports, including disabled veterans and city kids.
This winter, the nonprofit will use a state DNR grant to start what Wilkie says will be the first high school ice fishing league in the Twin Cities.
“It’s just a love of the Minnesota outdoors,” Wilkie said of his business and nonprofit work. “I’m lucky enough to make a career out of something I’m passionate about.”