A brief history of saturation diving
January 19, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Today it is an economic and even geopolitical necessity for oil companies, in order to maintain pipelines and offshore rigs, to send divers routinely to depths of a thousand feet, and keep them at that level of compression for as long as a month at a time. The divers who do this work are almost entirely male, and tend to be between the ages of twenty-five and forty. Were they any younger, they would not have enough experience or seniority to perform such demanding tasks. Any older, and their bodies could not be trusted to withstand the trauma. The term for these extended-length descents is “saturation diving,” which refers to the fact that the diver’s tissues have absorbed the maximum amount of inert gas possible.
posted by jason's_planet (19 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't really a brief history is it? Weren't the sandhogs who dug the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge the original saturation divers? Pity they didn't know about de-compression like these modern construction workers, but they absorbed a large amount of inert gas into their blood during every shift.

Anyway this seems not as remotely dangerous as working above the waterline on an oil rig. Even the the helicopter ride out is not without some substantial risk.

Meh. These are just some of the costs of cheap energy that only a few people will ever have to pay.
posted by three blind mice at 2:28 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by DGStieber at 2:37 PM on January 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

Saw this article but didn't read it.

That was a big mistake.

It's fascinating and left me wanting much more:
Keller, apart from experiencing oxygen hallucinations for thirty minutes, reported few ill effects. Small slept fitfully. After several hours Keller noticed that Small had stopped breathing. His mouth was foaming. The chamber was opened, and Small was rushed to a Navy hospital ship, but it was too late. A coroner determined that the cause of death was decompression sickness. Small’s tissues and organs were riddled with gas bubbles.
Why was Keller almost unaffected? I'd assume it was lingering inert gas from previous dives, which raises the possibility of persistence of these inert gases over a long period of time, but how?
posted by jamjam at 2:40 PM on January 19, 2013

Very interesting—and scary—stuff!
posted by limeonaire at 3:35 PM on January 19, 2013

I met a young guy in long beach years ago who was in a commercial diving school. As someone who loves the water there is something romantic about it, but I'm sure like most things the reality is pretty harsh.
posted by ianhattwick at 3:48 PM on January 19, 2013

Threeblindmice, I've worked above the waterline on rigs and I'd take that in a heartbeat over commercial diving. Not for me and I'm in disbelieving awe of the guys that do this job.

But I have had some interesting chopper rides and boat transfers in my time :-)
posted by arcticseal at 4:02 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I got my scuba certification in 1978, and my guide for my first ocean dive was Billy Bell. Billy was a medical student at Duke University, where he took part in a record breaking simulated dive in a hyperbaric chamber. His dive was the first of the “Atlantis” series of dives conducted by Dr. Peter Bennett, and his group went to 1,850 feet.

He said that breathing at that pressure was a little like trying to breathe marmalade. He took an 8 ounce styrofoam coffee cup with him and it compressed almost to the size of a shot glass. One of his shoes developed an embolism in the foam insole on the way back up and blew up like a tennis ball.
posted by Huplescat at 4:06 PM on January 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

Man, quitting my job and doing commercial diving has always been a niggling little fantasy for me. This article didn't help.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 4:27 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Often, because of the depth, the job is performed in the dark, with only a headlamp to light the way. Divers have told me stories of sudden encounters with manta rays, bull sharks, and wolf eels, which can grow eight feet long and have baleful, recessed eyes, a shovel-shaped snout, and a wide, snaggletoothed mouth. One diver sent me a video, filmed from a camera in the diver’s helmet, of an enormous turtle that was playing a game of trying to bite off the diver’s feet and hands every few minutes. The diver finally sent the animal swimming away by pressing a power drill to its head. Someone else sent me a photograph of a diver riding a speckled whale shark, as if on a rodeo bronco.

Not enough money in the world.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:54 PM on January 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

Not enough money in the world.

Man I'd drop a paycheck to even have the opportunity to tag along on a commercial rig. Getting paid for it is just AHHHHHHH to me.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 5:49 PM on January 19, 2013

Wow, these divers are some serious BAMFs.
posted by (F)utility at 6:18 PM on January 19, 2013

Speaking of not enough money, there was a great interview on CBC radio about 25 years ago with a commercial diver in Ontario. He told a story about going into a 4 or 5 ft sewer pipe that ran under a largish river near Hamilton (? - sorry, can't remember which one) to do an inspection. As he got somewhere past the middle of the trip (keeping in mind that he's UNDER a river), something stopped him. His air line had gotten hooked on a long piece of rebar that was bent back along the top of the pipe he was in. There was too much current for him to push his way back up the way he had come, and there wasn't enough room for him to turn around in the pipe. He had enough air for a while, but was going to run out eventually.

Anyway, quite a story! Just thinking about it is making me cringe. And you know they did that thing with, "Ok, we have to break for the news, but we'll be right back after this!"

He decided to go for broke, took a few deep breaths and cut his air line. As he was going along, he found there was a very small (1 inch) air pocket right at the top of the pipe, and he was able to carefully get a breath without swallowing too much liquid, and was able to get to the other end and meet his helper. It was pretty nerve-wracking to listen to; I can't begin to imagine what that guy went through.
posted by sneebler at 6:24 PM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Great article. Fascinating lifestyle. I'd not be cut out for it... to prone to panic, crap with tools. A modern day failure.

And @sneebler - that is a scary story!
posted by greenhornet at 6:30 PM on January 19, 2013

I haven't had the chance to go scuba diving in years, but one of my recurring nightmares -- of the brief, right-before-you-wake-up type -- is of fleeing upward from the bottom of the ocean in a sudden rush, for hundreds or even thousands of feet, before I realize that I haven't been stopping off and my blood is going to explode with the bends and OH GOD then I am awake and it is okay again.

Rapid decompression scares me that much. The Byford Dolphin incident is, to me, the last word in horror.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:38 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I did this for a living in the Gulf of Mexico for a number of years. If you're thinking about quitting your job to take this up, let me start by saying I don't recommend it, for a variety of reasons.

Commercial diving is not very much like SCUBA diving. Most of the time you can't see much, if anything, and you're working too hard for much sightseeing anyway. Several dives I made I would be thinking something like:

"Okay, my downline is above me and to my left, so when it's time to go, I walk back around the caisson until I feel the pile of debris and jump up. When they send me tools, I'll move to my right so the tools don't hit me."

You always have to be aware of where you and your hose are in relation to the boat you're diving from, the object you're working on, the crane or cranes that you may be using, and so on. The work can be extremely physically demanding. I came close to death on more than one occasion, and have friends and acquaintances who didn't make it.

Divers do tend to be a pretty badass bunch, and as a group have some characteristics that have stood out to me over the years. They tend to be restless adventurers. A large number are dyslexic. Many are more than intelligent enough for college, but the dyslexia keeps them from going. They find diving. Most have one or two enlistments behind them, or sometimes some prison time.

There is a tendency in commercial divers like one Tom Wolfe described in test pilots in The Right Stuff. When somebody is hurt or killed, the discussion revolves around that person's sin of omission or commission. Wolfe's reasoning was that if it wasn't something the guy did or failed to do, then it could happen to anyone, at any time, and you'd be crazy to go diving. Like flying test jets, diving is enormously complicated and full of hidden dangers. Many of the things I've heard of happening to divers were things nobody could have anticipated. So this process of rationalization is very important.

I could tell a million stories. Divers are outsized characters in their own lives and the lives of everyone around them, for better or worse. Once we were in the galley on a jackup boat, and the dive supervisor told us this story: He had a friend who worked in Nigeria for ten years. Loved it, he said. One day he gets on the crewboat, and his foreman gets on, carrying a smoked human arm. "He was making everybody take a bite out of it," he said. "Some kind of juju thing." So his buddy drug up on the spot, meaning he quit, came back to the States.
We all sat there in silence, until someone asked, "Well, how was the arm?"
posted by atchafalaya at 11:08 PM on January 19, 2013 [33 favorites]

Countess Elena; do you have sleep apnea? That is a frequent dream when you stop breathing for a while during sleep (I know).
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 12:05 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not only did they have mixture problems, the decompression chamber had a leak. Despite funding from Shell, General Motors and the US Navy, the whole dive was a completely amateurish mess [google books]. Small's friend Chris Whittaker disappeared underwater during the 'rescue' attempt; his body was never found.

It might be noted that, at that time, test pilots had been dying like flies for 15 years. Life, it seems, was cheap post-WW2.
posted by Twang at 2:05 PM on January 20, 2013

Chester Macduffee ca. 1911 (thanks reddit) and the Byford Dolphin diving bell disaster in the North Sea, 1983. Great article from NY Review; thanks for posting it.
posted by indices at 8:07 PM on January 20, 2013

You're welcome! Glad you liked it!
posted by jason's_planet at 9:21 PM on January 20, 2013

« Older The Secret Life of Super Heroes   |   Totenberg on Sotomayor on NPR Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments