Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Ivan in 2004, much of the task of subsea hurricane cleanup and rebuilding falls onto the shoulders of commercial divers. Twenty-four hours a day, at depths ranging from a few feet up to 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, divers are inspecting, welding, cutting metal, and assisting with installations of new and repaired equipment. Primary customers for this work are the energy companies with their oil and natural gas drilling rigs and pipelines.
“Divers are doing just about everything you can think of to get production back up to pre-Katrina standards,” says Dennis Renear, Saturation Diving Division Manager for Aqua-Air Industries of Harvey, La. Aqua-Air supplies more than 70 different products to commercial diving contractors, the largest being diver pressurization tanks and systems.
A complete saturation (SAT) system consists of several deck-type pressure vessels and diving bells. The bells transport three divers at a time down to and up from the work site.
As any recreational scuba diver can tell you, when a diver ascends too quickly and moves from a high-pressure environment into one of low pressure without proper decompression time, bubbles can form in the bloodstream like soda spurting out a shaken bottle. The result is a dangerous condition known as the bends, or decompression sickness.
That’s why pressurization Chambers are such an important tool for commercial SAT diving operations. The chambers are the size of a small room (7-foot diameter by 24-foot length) and are bolted to a ship’s deck. Each one houses six divers and provides pressurized living quarters before and after their shifts so they’re able to undertake multiple dives at greater depths over longer periods, with one decompression period of up to 10 days at the end of a three-week period.
By staying pressurized between their dives, SAT divers can accomplish more work economically and safely.
Fabricating Pressurization Chambers
Thermatech Ltd. of Kaukauna, Wis., a Bassett Inc. company, fabricates the tanks for Aqua-Air Industries. “Thermatech has extensive experience in pressure vessel fabrication for industrial applications,” says Bill Bassett, president and CEO. “Our fabrication team appreciates the opportunity to apply its skills to such unique and important projects.”
Underwater welding is one of the specialty skills that puts commercial divers in high demand for construction work along the Gulf Coast and at other locations.
The tanks are fabricated using 3/4-inch and 7/8-inch thick carbon steel and stainless steel. They’re built to the stringent American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Code PVHO, which stands for Pressure Vessels for Human Occupancy. Manufacturers must also meet rules established by the American Bureau of Shipping for Underwater Systems and Vehicles.
Once a pressure vessel is fabricated, welded, inspected and delivered by Thermatech, Aqua-Air completes the process by outfitting it with environmental and operational systems, beds, sanitation facilities and other amenities. Meals prepared on the rig or vessel and other supplies are passed to the divers through a medical lock.
The Demand for Divers
Right now there’s a worldwide shortage of commercial divers, due in large part to massive cleanup and reconstruction efforts taking place in the Gulf of Mexico after the recent hurricanes.
Before the hurricanes, about 1,000 divers were working in the Gulf of Mexico, executives with dive firms say. Now they estimate the figure is closer to 1,500. Even with the additions, however, competition for new divers remains fierce. Since last year, the dive companies say they have been trying to reel in more fresh dive school graduates, ex-military and even retired divers. They say they are offering everything from signing bonuses to tuition-reimbursement plans.
Dive companies say average pay has risen about 25 percent since 2005. In their first year out of school, divers can make up to $1,800 a week when on the job. Experienced divers, meanwhile, can earn $1,000 a day and up to $200,000 in annual pay.
The demand and pay has helped increase enrollment at dive schools. “It’s just been wide open,” says David Weisman, director of Commercial Diving Academy of Jacksonville, Fla. His school has 10 certified instructors and graduates 15 to 20 students per month from the basic 16-week course. “We’re looking at a solid five-year backlog of work for divers, and that’s in addition to the work that was there before Katrina,” David says.
But it’s not easy work. Assignments can keep divers away from home for weeks or months at a time. There are stringent physical requirements and long apprenticeship programs before landing the most coveted diving jobs. And then there’s the challenge of living in a pressurized tank at the end of your shift, where the main form of entertainment is television. It takes a special person to live in these conditions.
“You have to be calm and cool,” says Charles Zamora, general manager of Dive Operations for Superior Offshore International of Lafayette, La. “You’ve got to have a good personality. You can’t have a person that’s not pleasant to hang around within a confined space like that.”