Saturation diving by its nature takes place out of sight and in the past, few people must have imagined what it was really like. However in mid-August 2007 this changed, thanks to an hour-long TV programme, Real Men Under Pressure, the first in an all-too-short series about extreme jobs for early-evening viewing on the UK’s BBC1 channel.
As the programme explained at the time: "Jess, Martin and Stu are saturation divers... they regularly dive to 200m under the North Sea to satisfy our insatiable desire for oil. They live for a month in a tiny metal chamber in the heart of a ship, under pressure, so that they can make regular excursions to the sea bed without suffering decompression sickness. We follow them as they join a dive support ship heading 100 miles out of Aberdeen to the oil fields.
"The helium / oxygen mix that they breathe makes them sound like Donald Duck... the diving bell that delivers them to the sea bed looks like a space ship... it's an excursion into an incredible world that has rarely been seen before... not even their wives knew what they did until they saw this film."
The International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) was only too pleased to put the BBC production team in touch with an IMCA member company whose divers on board the Seawell went on to feature in the film. There’s no doubt about it; these people felt passionately about their work.
We were delighted to do all we could to help in the making of a programme that showed the work undertaken by a special breed of human. It gave a splendid overview of saturation diving and all that happens on the vessel in association with the diving operation. We were pleased that the programme stressed the crucial message that safety is paramount. The team from BBC Bristol did a superb job. We were proud to be associated with the film and it was interesting that it resulted in a spate of enquiries to member companies and diving schools from those eager to find out how they could join the industry as divers.
Let me introduce you to someone who feels passionately about a career in diving. Paul Evans is technical adviser at IMCA, and here he explains the attractions of a career in commercial diving.
For me it all started in the decidedly less than glamorous surroundings of Chatham Docks in London. But my career in commercial diving has since taken me to exotic locations around the world and made me a member of a very special global family which shares a camaraderie born out of literally putting your life in the hands of your dive-team mates.
Yes, there's an element of danger associated with the job that attracts a certain type of thrill-seeker, but the diving industry attracts a wide variety of people from many cultural and professional backgrounds. Trainee divers range from the ex-military, university graduates, people who have had a first career and trade professionals, to those who have been sports divers and simply enjoy diving.
Modes of diving
A friend of mine once said of diving that the whole thing boils down to a man in a rubber suit at the end of a hose. In essence this is true, but if that person in the suit happens to be you then you are faced with numerous challenges to get a job done in an environment that makes just moving an effort.
Ultimately, diving is simply a means of travelling to a worksite that happens to be on the sea bed. Where you dive from can range from a small tug or barge to a large multi-million pound dynamically positioned diving-support vessel (DP DSV), with a crew and team of more than a hundred personnel, all there to help you get a job done.
How the site is reached depends on several factors, such as working depth and support vessel, as well as location and environmental conditions. Modes of diving range from scuba for inshore operations to surface supplied air diving, surface decompression diving, mixed gas diving, bell bounce diving and saturation diving, where divers remain under pressure living in a chamber complex for a month.
The work to be done on arrival at the jobsite can be very varied, including underwater cutting with a thermic lance, installing spool pieces using vessel-based cranes, supporting drilling rigs, deepsea salvage, or simply taking a photograph. Whatever the task, the commercial diver is expected to have the skill set to accomplish it.
With this expectation comes a level of responsibility for all members of the dive team, from the diver up to the superintendent who all have to work together to accomplish the task in hand.
An air diving team on a straightforward diving job, diving from a simple vessel, can be self contained. A saturation dive is quite the opposite. Many people with various skills are needed to support the diver.
Together they are an integrated team, so training, competence and good communications are essential. Complex pieces of diving equipment and vessel systems are used, so equipment quality control and maintenance are critical. In fact, good procedures, equipment and personnel are fundamental throughout.
There is nothing like the feeling of getting a difficult diving job done, within tight time constraints with a DP DSV crew, team and client watching your every move.
Many people who go into a career in commercial diving are more than happy to be the diver in the water doing the hands-on work. If promotion and increased responsibility appeals, then diving can offer good career prospects – from diver to lead diver, supervisor, superintendent and shore-based operations manager.
New era dawning
The technology of diving, though complex, has been fairly stationary for several years with only small changes to personal diving equipment. Things are about to change in the next few years, with the arrival of new DP DSVs with touch-screen, computer-controlled diving systems.
There has never been a better time to be in the commercial diving industry, with demand and salaries at an all-time high, so if you are thinking of a diving career, now is the time.
Whatever your background, if you have the right aptitude, the world of commercial diving can be very rewarding in every sense.