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Diving Deep into Danger

This makes commercial diving the third-most-dangerous occupation, behind fishing and logging. Very few of those deaths can be attributed directly to decompression-related illnesses. Instead divers are threatened by the same hazards that confront all occupations that require the use of heavy machinery, only a diver’s risk is multiplied by the dangers of performing the work underwater, with limited vision, while encased in a diving suit.

Most divers have horror stories. Paul Spark, who is currently a supervisor on a dive support vessel in the North Sea, worked as a diver for twenty-nine years. During his very first dive, in 1977, to repair a blow-out preventer 410 feet below the surface, his diving bell flooded with water, almost drowning him and his partner. Later he was very nearly crushed by a thousand-pound blind flange, a plate used to seal the end of a pipe; a “rather large wolffish” bit his foot, drawing blood; and while performing salvage work on the Kursk, the nuclear-powered Russian submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, drowning all 118 aboard, there was a loud explosion. Spark had been using a high-pressure water jet to bore holes in the submarine’s pressure hull when it occurred. He was unharmed, and returned, dazed, to his diving vessel. He never found out what caused the explosion.

The list of commercial divers who died internationally in 2012 includes Brad Sprout, a twenty-nine-year-old employee of Global Diving and Salvage, who was killed in the Gulf of Mexico when he dove to remove a net that had been caught in the ship’s gears. Paul De Waal, twenty-seven, died while cleaning the hull of a cruise ship, the Norwegian Star. Pierre Rossouw, twenty-nine, an employee of Underwater Engineering, died of a broken neck in a crane accident. Jarrod Hampton, twenty-two, died on his second day at work for Paspaley Pearls, while diving for wild oyster shells off the coast of northwestern Australia. Felix Dzul, thirty-six, died while diving off the Yucatan Peninsula for sea cucumbers.

While most casualties occur during mixed-gas diving, there are exceptions. On September 25, a saturation diver named Chris Lemons was inspecting a drilling template—a large metal device that guides the drill—in the North Sea’s Huntington oilfield, 115 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The structure was three hundred feet beneath the surface. Lemons’s diving bell had descended from a ship called the DSV Bibby Topaz. While Lemons and his diving partner were conducting tests on the template, the Bibby Topaz’s global positioning system malfunctioned and the ship began to float away with the current, dragging the diving bell with it. Lemons and his partner were pulled off the template by their umbilical cords. The other diver swam back to the diving bell, but Lemons’s cord snagged on the template, and tore off. Five minutes later, the Bibby Topaz had drifted nearly eight hundred feet away, abandoning Lemons alone on the drilling template, without air supply or warm water. He had access to an emergency oxygen supply, but there was only enough in the tank to last him fifteen minutes.

In order to conserve his oxygen, Lemons sat in the middle of the structure and tried, despite the frigid temperatures, to remain as still as possible. When his air supply ran out, he fainted. Another fifteen minutes passed before a rescue diver found Lemons and pulled him into the diving bell. Miraculously, although Lemons hadn’t taken a breath in more than fifteen minutes, he revived. The coldness of the water seemed to have been the crucial factor. By instinct all mammals, when submerged in cold water, suspend or limit nonessential operations in order to conserve energy for survival; this is called the diving reflex. The heart beats slowly, blood vessels constrict, metabolism decreases, digestion stops. Like a computer with failing battery life, the body shuts itself down to preserve what is left of its charge. If Lemons had not lost his hot water tube, it’s doubtful that he would have survived.

During the last five years, a diver’s median wage has increased 50 percent. “Because there are more sophisticated, remotely operated vehicles, everyone wants to believe that diving is being phased out,” Phil Newsum, the director of ADCI, told me. “But there are still many things that need to be done in water by an individual, and that won’t end anytime soon.”

I asked Newsum if he has any regrets about his life work. “You have to pay a price,” he said. “But a lot of folks will spend their entire life looking for one thing that they love, and I’ve found it. Everybody in this industry takes a good deal of pride in that. Whenever I meet new people, they want to know about my job. Nobody ever asks a doctor or lawyer or an IT guy about their job.

“It’s true you get an adrenaline rush—that’s probably what attracted most of us to the industry. But I don’t consider myself a thrill-seeker. My real attraction is to the deep. I’m intrigued by the unknown.” This puts him in the same category as both Hannes Keller and Peter Small, though not, perhaps, Shell Oil.

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