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Diving deep into danger

February 26, 2016

MARK Veal is literally seconds away from exploding into tiny pieces every time he goes to work.

As a saturation diver, he spends month-long shifts cramped into high-pressure hyperbaric chambers with eight to 12 other men.

He hasn’t been blown apart yet, obviously, but the threat is ever present.

“Yeah, there’s a risk,” Mark, 41, of Mudjimba, chuckles nonchalantly.

“We’re saturated with gas.

“If we lost a seal, if we lost an O-ring, it would be like taking the top off a bottle of Coke after you shake it.

“And the human body literally explodes.

“There would be lumps of meat four to six inches in diameter, I guess.”

Mark works on large sea-based oil rigs, laboriously maintaining underwater infrastructure.

The chance of being blown up isn’t the only hazard he faces.

He works in a menacing environment as well.

With the help of a diving bell, he and fellow divers leave the compression chamber in the heart of a support ship and descend to depths of up to 400m below sea level.

At that depth, he will spend an exhausting eight-hour shift maintaining wellheads and pipelines up to 100km long.

Mark says his job is “glorified labouring” – as dangerous and debilitating as it may be.

“I had a 50-tonne pipeline dropped on my head once,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Luckily, it was a muddy bottom and I wasn’t hurt.”

Mark spends two weeks on the job, then two weeks stuck in the tiny chamber while he decompresses, which must be done at a snail’s pace to avoid “the bends”.

Spending so much time squashed into a 2m by 4m chamber the size of an average bathroom with eight to 12 fully-grown men would give most people severe cabin fever.

But compression divers are a rare breed.

“It’s a bit weird,” he admits.

“The first couple of days seem tight, but then I think your brain adjusts.

“You adapt to your surroundings.

“Your only privacy is basically your own bunk where you sleep.

“You’ve got a curtain there and you draw that.”

So, does anyone lose the plot while living so close to one another for such a long time?

“Generally, people who do this type of work are mentally stable, so they cope with most of the situations, that’s for sure,” Mark says.

“About 70 to 80% of us are ex-military.”

They may be mentally stable, but saturation divers face one more unusual occupational hazard.

To avoid nitrogen-induced-narcosis and toxic levels of oxygen that can occur when using compressed air, saturation divers must breathe an unusual mixture of gas so high in helium that they squeak like mice when talking.

“You wouldn’t understand me past 50m (deep),” Mark says.

“It’s not a Mickey Mouse voice.

“It’s like that times a hundred.

“When we speak to our supervisors (on the support ship), we have synthesising machines that bring our voice back to just recognisable.”

So, why do the job in the first place? Simple. Good pay and lifestyle – what just about everyone craves.

Mark earns up to $90,000 for four weeks’ work.

He travels the world working in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia and is rostered four weeks on, four weeks off.

And, just maybe, Mark is a little addicted to the thrill of such a dangerous job.

He is laidback when telling his story, but his background in the army and as a deep-sea diver reveals his “adrenalin-seeking” personality.

Mark first started risking his neck as a young schoolboy, surfing big waves at Old Woman Island off Mudjimba.

And while most of his Year 10 Nambour High School classmates did their annual work experience as chippies or shopkeepers and hairdressers, he snared a job on the Westpac rescue helicopter – flying it under supervision for the whole two weeks.

He went into the Australian Army after school and worked for six years in Townsville with the Aviation Regiment as an aircraft maintenance engineer on Black Hawk helicopters.

Next was a six-year stint working with choppers for the Sultan of Oman.

While watching a Norwegian deep-sea diving team salvage a submerged helicopter, his mind toyed with a new career path.

Jenny Ellis, of the Underwater Centre – Australia’s only saturation-diver training facility – says the job attracts a certain type of person.

“Most saturation divers are adrenalin junkies who like the excitement of it, the travel and the risks that may be involved,” she says.

“That’s part of the allure.”

Mark agrees, saying, “Yeah, most of us are a bit that way inclined.”

But he adds that saturation diving also gives him the opportunity to invest in something dear to his heart: time at home on the Coast with his wife Kathrin and surfing with his mates.

“You can get carried away with earning the big bucks and not living,” he says.

“Make sure you balance your life with work.”

 

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