Nathaniel Rich writes for the New York Review of Books about commercial diving. Rich is a novelist and essayist, and the article is a fascinating, fast read. He traces the history of some early efforts to dive to 1,000 feet (about 300 metres) in the early 1960’s. The dive did not go as planned.
Hannes Keller and another diver travelled to the intended depth inside a diving chamber designed by Keller, which could be exited and re-entered to complete the dive. Keller climbed out of the chamber into the water carrying a Swiss and American flag to plant on the continental shelf.
But as soon as he exited into the dark water, the fabric of the flags became entangled with his breathing hoses. He couldn’t see. It took him two minutes to free himself of the flags, at which point he returned to the diving chamber, exhausted and dizzy. In his confusion Keller didn’t realize that one of his swim fins had become stuck in the hatch, preventing it from closing properly. When he figured out that his special mixture of gas was leaking, and that there was not enough to sustain them for the ascent, he switched to regular air, and the two men instantly passed out.
Keller’s companion in the diving chamber died of decompression illness upon surfacing, and a support diver who attempted to assist Keller and his companion on the ascent also died. The widow of one of the dead divers committed suicide some weeks later.
Despite the awful human toll of this proof of concept, Keller’s theories about mixed gas diving and decompression were validated, and as a result, today’s commercial divers are able to operate at depths of up to about 300 metres, working especially for oil companies who have rigs and pipelines resting deep on the ocean floor. Rich explains saturation diving, and concludes with details of the risks faced by commercial divers:
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.
Read the full article here.