Life has a habit of turning on chance meetings.
For me, my fate flipped from Norfolk Pig Farmer to Professional Deep Sea Diver one morning in 1968. I was having breakfast in a boarding house in Beccles, when a group of air divers came up to my table. They were one man short.
“Have you ever dived before?” asked one.
“No,” I replied.
And there the conversation should have ended. But it didn’t – and somehow I was soon plunging feet first into a world I hitherto had no idea existed.
I still remember hitting the water that first time. I must have forgotten everything they’d taught me. The huge mask I was wearing reared up and nearly broke my nose – in fact, the only reason I think it stayed on was because it was so massive; too heavy to fly off. I flapped and squawked, but I couldn’t hear myself think because of the roaring noise that was blasting through my mask. My flippers weren’t working and, to put it mildly, nor was my brain.
30 years later, I can look back on a career of international travel and dives into challenging waters. It is the commercial deep sea diver’s plight to plumb to depths of over 500ft; we live down there in tiny saturation chambers for up to a month at a time, doing anything from hyperbaric welding to equipment installation. It’s a trade that manages to be both dangerous and mundane in the same breath.
We call ourselves Bubble Heads – and it’s probably fair to say you need a bit of space between the ears to decide this is the job for you. Here’s ten things no one told me before I started …
1. In case of emergency, always follow the bubbles
Deep sea diving is a game of pressure. Without getting too technical, you make sure the pressure from your surroundings (either water on a dive, or air before and afterwards) isn’t such that it interferes with the gas inside your body. Get it wrong, and things can get very hairy indeed.
Decompression sickness – which can be fatal – occurs when divers rise to the surface quicker than they should, resulting in the quick release of gas from the body. It’s a bit like uncorking a bottle fizzy pop: do it too rigorously and more comes out than you want.
“Saturation divers are incredibly well paid (around £1,500 per day)”David Harrison Beckett
The only problem with the slow ascent mantra is when the air runs out while you’re underwater. You hear a click as something shuts behind your head signaling there’s no more air available and then you try your very hardest not to panic. Human instinct tells you to get to the surface as quick as possible – but that could result in a bad case of The Bends.
The golden rule is to follow the bubbles. You don’t go up any faster than the bubbles you breathe out. (Option B is to retain the air and let your lungs literally explode as you start to ascend. Not fun.)
2. Know your claustrophobia limits
Before you pay a penny for your training as a saturation diver, check out your tolerance to claustrophobia.
Saturation diving involves living in an underwater compression chamber for up to 28 days.
The idea is to keep divers on the job 24 hours a day, because they don’t need to spend time returning to the surface and decompressing. You sleep in the chamber, wake up as others finish their shift, travel to the work site via a diving bell, complete a 6-8 hour shift (although I regularly did 14 hours on the trot) and then swap over.
At the end of your time underwater, you return to the surface – but you still have to spend three to five days in a decompression chamber to sort those bubbles out. It’s very, very boring.
Basically, the whole experience is not the same as hiding in your mate’s girlfriends wardrobe for half an hour. You can always give yourself up and let yourself out of the wardrobe when the pressure becomes too much.
3. Scratching an itch isn’t possible
Somebody needs to devise a system to scratch one’s nose while underwater. It’s awfully irritating five minutes into an eight hour shift; by the end of those eight hours, it’s enough to make you want to cut the cord.
Commercial diving suits are not those flashy little numbers you see in the red sea diving resorts. They’re basically heavy machinery, containing a constant flow of hot water which pumps around the suit to stop you from freezing to death.
After four or five hours immersed in warm salt water, you look like a prune. It can be quite shocking when you look in the mirror after coming out of the water.
4. You speak like Donald Duck
You sound like a high pitched cartoon character in the chambers, due to a helium/oxygen mix that is pumped through the living quarters. And that is how you will stay for the duration of your stay.
When you step out, despite speaking with normal tones again, the difference will feel instantly dramatic. As if you’ve suddenly become Frank Bruno.
5. Take care of your teeth
One thing I certainly learned in my first decompression session was how important it was for my teeth to be in good shape.
After a couple of hours of being in the chamber, one of my fillings blew off. Thankfully for me, when it blew off there was no pain, just a hole left where the filling used to sit. Other’s aren’t so lucky. I’ve seen one guy have a crown blow off, taking part of the tooth and gum with it. Painful stuff to have to endure for the next three days
If a tooth is decayed below the filling and air is locked into that space, during decompression it will blow off. Be a regular at the dentist is the advice here.
6. Sharks are no less scary after 30 years
When you’re young, brave and learning to be a deep sea diver, you fear nothing. Working in the North Sea and talking to the cod, skate and lobsters is fun, but nobody tells you that when you see your first shark, you are going to crap your pants – no matter how brave you are.
Sharks are scary, even the little ones. If they like you, they won’t eat you, but they have a way of always making you feel nervy. They look at you like a meal. You’ve got nowhere to hide and feel very vulnerable.
Despite trying to act like the invisible man, your bubbles give you away. Still, adrenalin is defiantly brown and I don’t think sharks like it. Thank goodness.
7. Kiss goodbye to luxury
No more alcohol or cigarettes for a month while diving – and the food all becomes void of flavour too.
If you do try to spice up your food with some HP or ketchup, just be sure that the cap has been loosened before it enters your chamber from the outside lock, otherwise it will implode.
As for privacy … forget it. You’ll be crammed in with 12 others in a tiny chamber, so the likelihood of losing your temper with at least one person is likely to occur.
8. Calls of nature in nature are problematic
You are often working on a job for somewhere between three to eight hours at a time. If you suddenly need to take a No1 and can’t hold it, you have to let it go in the suit. Not so much of an issue if you have a wetsuit on; not so comfortable with a dry suit.
With regards to No 2’s … I wouldn’t recommend a spicy curry immediately before going out on a long job.
9. There’s no quick exit
Whether you’ve had a heart attack, received a Dear John note from the wife, or have just found out your mother has died, it’s still going to take you about two to three days to get fully decompressed from a saturation dive before you can reach the surface (depending on depth).
Those days in decompression will seem like the longest and most lonely of your life.
10. Death’s hand is never far away
If you stay with saturation diving long enough, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll encounter death. Whether it be recovering bodies from the sea from some form of shipping or air disaster, or losing a team member to an industrial accident.
Saturation divers are incredibly well paid (around £1,500 per day), but the risk they are exposed to reflects the rationale behind the pay structure.