Diving among the corals to experience the undersea beauty on vacation sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But, do you know that there are people who risk their lives to do their job, staying several days or weeks under the deep sea? This job is one of the most dangerous, isolated, and hazardous jobs on our planet Earth! That is called saturation diving. Saturation diving is the hardest type of commercial diving. Commercial diving is mainly four types; SCUBA diving, Surface supplied diving, Surface supplied top-up diving and Saturation diving. In today’s article, we will dive deep to look into this risky job role taken by brave men.
What is saturation diving for real?
When diving, the diver has to manage the water pressure. Diving involves the respiration of pressurized air. As a diver dives deep, he needs to be ready to bear that increasing pressure. For that, he needs special gear and also very special training. Saturation diving is not as simple as a leisurely holiday dive. So, how deep do saturation divers go? A saturation diver dives down up to 1,000 feet or more! Yes, their job role requires them to undertake projects in the deep sea. Mainly they involve in demolition and construction projects at such depths below the ocean surface. In saturation diving, the diver has to breathe pressurized air, which includes an inert gas in it.
It uses the principle that the gas pressure in the lungs is the same as that of the gas dissolved in the blood and tissues. Let us assume that a diver dives down around 300 feet, and he remains there until no more gas can get dissolved in the tissues; then, the tissues get saturated with nitrogen. When the diver reaches this saturation status, the decompression time will remain the same the entire time the diver stays at that same depth. He is able to remain there a second, a minute, a day, a week, or even more! That is the basic principle around this dangerous life-risking job.
Saturation diving at modern days
Scientists did many experiments around this principle and found new solutions to reduce the extreme risks associated with saturation diving. At present, a saturation diver attains his pressure in a pressure chamber. They call this chamber the Deep Diving System (DDS). A saturation job takes from a few days to weeks to complete. Therefore these saturation diving living quarters have medical facilities, infrastructure like toilets, showers, beds, etc. and also a built-in breathing system. These breathing systems provide gases and air needed to maintain the saturation. These saturation diving systems are usually established on ships, barges, or sometimes on rigs. There are pressurized Personal Transport Cabins (PTC) known as diving bells attached to the DDS. Diving bells carry or commute saturation divers from the Deep Diving System to their job sites and back.
So, how long do saturation divers work? A diver can stay up to six hours continuously at the working site at the deep sea after exiting from their diving bell as the pressure is equally attained. After finishing the day’s shift, the diver returns to the PTC and then surfaces back to the DDS. They safely get relocked to the chambers. Divers do not undergo decompression until their job is fully finished. They stay in their saturation diving living chamber throughout when they are out of the diving bells. Though technology and innovations have helped to reduce the risks, the inevitable dangers are still there.
How does one become a saturation diver? Saturation diving training?
It is obvious that this life-threatening job requires extreme experience in commercial diving and extensive and expensive training. Saturation diving is the top level in commercial diving. You cannot even get yourself registered to such a course if you do not have that sufficient commercial diving experience. Saturation diving requires both skills and the mentality to work in an extremely controlled environment. Therefore saturation diving training is not only about physical training. Before joining a saturation ding school or an academy, you need to get licensed as a commercial diver. So, here is how one could become a saturation diver.
Firstly enroll in a commercial diver training school or an academy. In there, you need to learn and develop your commercial diving skills to cater to the commercial diving demands. Usually, to get enrolled in a commercial diving academy, one needs to have a GED or a high school diploma. Having this training is compulsory unless you already have a commercial diver license. After having the training, you need to gather more and more experience in diving. You can gather experience by working in harbors, inland waterways, in-shore construction, archeological, engineering projects, or scientific projects, etc. These training, internships, and jobs in the inshore diving field will help you to understand and measure your physical and mental capacity to move forward in your career as a diver. At this level, you can decide whether to move forward to train saturation diving or not.
After getting that training and license, you reach initial specialized training leading to saturation diving. It is called the mixed-gas diving level. At this level, the trainers need to work with breathing gas mixes, diving equipment, and learn the necessary techniques. They use helium and oxygen breathing gas mixes in this training. The training happens at shallow depths like 70 feet. Not only physical ability but also mental stability is highly essential to pass this training.
Next is the hardest step. Getting Closed-bell diving certification is not easy. This training is done at depth up to 330 feet, which reaches the full- saturation diving depth limit. This training will prepare the diver for the physical and mental challenges that he will have to encounter in deep-sea off-shore diving. Not all commercial diving academies offer all this training. Therefore, if you plan to become a saturation diver, make sure to select a diving academy that offers these special facilities.
Is diving saturation dangerous?
Yes, of course, diving saturation is a dangerous task to undertake. It is a job that has taken the lives of very brave men. There have been many deadly saturation diving accidents exact statistics are rare to find. However, when considered the national average fatality rate, the risk of losing a life of any commercial diver is 40 times riskier than other professions. So you can imagine how dangerous saturation diving is. Many accidents have made some saturation divers realize that it is not worth the risk though they get huge remunerations. Therefore only a 1 out of 5 who joins the profession after the intense training will still continue the job after five years. Before each job call, a saturation diver needs to pass a medical workup. Even a minor cold can be fatal for a saturation diver as that will prevent him from equalizing the pressurized air.
Saturation divers have to work around huge underwater construction and equipment. And they work in zero or almost-zero visibility, which needs immense focus and concentration. Though they have lights on their headgear, it is not easy to get a proper view when they are underwater. The divers have to continuously maintain the communication with the dive supervisor, who will guide the work from the topside. Breathing inside that gear, too, must be done in the correct rhythm. Otherwise, the diver can inhale excess carbon dioxide, causing huffs. The only option is to make themselves calm to let the system catch up the breathing again. Not getting panic under the dark waters is not easy, yet they have to fight back their fear to stay alive.
The compressed mixed-gas composition is about 21% of oxygen plus 78% of nitrogen with 1% of other gases. Breathing compressed gas under 100 feet can lead to nitrogen narcosis, which gives the diver a drunken feeling. The deeper he goes, the more strong the drunk feeling gets. Suppose a diver reaches 300 feet with this condition; he will blackout, which is extremely dangerous for survival at such a depth. It is crucial to be careful, calm, and focused instead of feeling drunk.
Also, breathing excess of compressed oxygen can become toxic if you lose control of your behavior. An engineer later found out that breathing a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen can avoid this life-threatening nitrogen neurosis. Now they have a gas cocktail named heliox made by mixing helium and some oxygen to make their life much safer under the deep waters. These facts show how dangerous saturation diving was in the past and how things have changed to reduce that immense danger.
Saturation Diving living quarters
Saturation diving quarters or chambers are usually established on boats, and the divers are only feet away from fresh air when they are inside. Yet, they do not have the privilege to breathe some fresh air until they entirely finish their job. After finishing a job, even they have to stay inside the chamber to decompress, and that sometimes takes days! Different companies that employ saturation divers have different saturation diving systems. The chambers are not spacious at all. After entering the first sealed hatch, the diver gets into a very small round room called the “wet-pot.” This wet-pot has several jobs to do. It takes divers to the diving bell, and it also acts as the toilet and the shower. There are a small metal sink, a showerhead, and a commode to accomplish these tasks.
Through the wet-pot, the divers can go to another hatch with the living space. It can merely accommodate six people at a time. The divers have to squeeze up in this tiny space when they are not at work or at sleep. Beyond that living space, they have a sleeping area with six compact beds. Some beds are more uncomfortable than others as per their positioning inside the chamber. So they respect seniority or follow the first-come, first-serve basis to allocate beds among the group. Throughout their stay inside the chambers, the support crew outside pumps heliox into the chamber. That process is called ‘blowdown.’ Pressurizing time depends on how deep the divers have to get to the works. This process also makes the chambers very hot and must be carefully done while maintaining climate control inside.
Once they get stable under pressure created, they make themselves home inside the chambers for the days or weeks to come. There are two airlocks in each saturation diving system to pass necessary goods and tools from and to the chambers. Their menu usually includes chicken, steak, fish, vegetables, cheese, and cold cuts. Their daily calorie intake is nearly 6000, which keeps them for the job. The diet also includes a daily dose of multivitamins. Vitamin D helps to reduce the effect of less exposure to sunlight throughout the job. This is why saturation diving is one of the hardest jobs on planet earth.
Is it worth taking the risk? How much money does a saturation diver make?
Staying away from family for long weeks without proper communication, risking lives, doing a hazardous job under hundreds of feet deep down the sea takes so much mental and physical strength. Not everyone has that bravery and ability. As discussed earlier, their extensive training and technical knowhow have a huge demand. That is the reason why commercial divers and especially saturation divers get paid well in the energy industry. A licensed professional diver will get paid around $1800 per day. Saturation diving pays for a well-experienced saturation diver will get a salary of around $130, 000 per year with one month break between two consecutive jobs. This risky job well deserves such a saturation diving salary, and also many insurance companies usually do not offer life insurance to commercial divers.
A Summary on Saturation Diving
Saturation diving, in summary, is a cold, dangerous, and extremely difficult job that demands so much physical and mental strength.
A saturation diver also has to manage his emotional and physical needs of the body as this is an isolated job with minimal contact with people for long periods of time. Divers should be able to stay calm and take necessary steps in an emergency, as panicking can bring them nothing other than death. They should have a very good concentration on what they are doing, and should always pay attention to detail. Being highly safe-conscious, and responsible are crucial when you become a saturation diver. Saturation divers do not always get the chance to work as a group. Their contracts can sometimes call them for a job on short notice as well. So they need to be mentally and physically ready to work alone deep down in the sea in an isolated environment.
Many professional saturation divers are self-employed and take jobs on a short-term or long-term contract basis. This is an extremely well-paid job because of the high risks associated with the job role. Not all commercial diving school graduates pursue a career in saturation diving. And not everyone who starts as saturation divers continues their job for more than five years. Family commitments, the life-threatening risks can make them drop out of their career. However, many brave men continue their profession as saturation divers taking up challenges, managing all the risks standing at the edges of human capacity.