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The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver (atlasobscura.com)
217 points by tokenadult 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 90 comments



been there. done that :)

not as dangerous as the article says. at least not the diving part. most of the injuries are people mishandling high-pressure systems (valves, plumbing), electrical hazards (water+electricity), gas leaks, burns ... basically anything that can go wrong on construction sites, but only you're out at sea exposed to the elements. those few times that accidents do happen with divers in a saturation chambers / diving bell (aka "in the bin") it's cited for decades. people are naturally scared of darkness, deep water. so when accidents do happen it makes for a gripping story told over and over. how else to pass time when you're waiting on the weather to get better on a rocky boat.

what's pretty cool is the survival training, e.g. practice escaping from a sinking helicopter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0Z8sGRje90 I have seen big tough man in their 40ies panic and in tears trying to stay calm while the sinking helicopter fully floods, and you can't open the doors until the cabin is fully flooded.

Another good one: part of the course is simulation of a burning rig. they lock you into a warehouse heated to around 60-70°C breathing air with a gas-mask, full body safety clothes (the heat alone can make you panic), then you have to navigate through a metal maze with a buddy (you're linked to your sobbing partner over radio-comms), and it's pitch black. You are only allowed to get out together and if one of you it bucks up you start over. Fantastic character building and understanding your mental limits.

Sometimes I sit in front of my code thinking why did I get out of this job. I fought so hard to get there and gave it all up for computers & code. The truth is that most of the time offshore life is quite boring. Guess my boredom with software made me go into IoT since I get to mess with physical systems again.


I have a friend who works in the North Sea and I envy his life. We met and sailed the Mediterranean together. I took 2 years off to go sailing full time while he managed to work it into his schedule.

He is 3 on, 2 off or 2 on, 3 off the rig. While I’m back in the office he can continue to sail indefinitely. You can accomplish so much with a job that gives you plenty of time off every month.


It's not so romantic if you have a family - and from the other side, as a kid, it wasn't nice for us having my dad away for weeks at a time.


It appears to be well paid. And as a kid that grew up poor if the choice was 3 weeks of parental non contact or mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner, well see you in a few weeks, mom!


There's a lot of training involved in going offshore, and if you're able to go through training to get out of poverty, there's a hundred other careers to go for that don't involve multiple weeks away from family.


To be fair, we lived in an area where oil and gas are the biggest industries, and my dad was a geologist. But still, I wish he'd just been around more.


Is it important for families to be together 7 days a week?


I don’t see what that has to do with my comment. I’d suggest that it’s difficult to form a connection with someone who is not present in your life for significant periods of time on a regular basis, but of course it’s a sliding scale.


This feel like the setup for a false dichotomy...


It is not so much 3 weeks of non contact one time, but more of "parent is rarely there".


It's only well paid when you're away - when you're onshore the pay goes down.


The tragic longing is part of the romance.


The population is tiny which means even if the accident rate is low per time, the risk per diver is extremely high.

It depends on you benchmark, but people think of police officer as a dangerous job and they mostly die in car accidents.


you're right of course. location also matters, e.g. it's far more dangerous in the Gulf of Mexico where you work with horrible equipment in an extremely deep location and little oversight. my point though was that it is dangerous but not for the reasons given. I have seen horrible accidents but none of them were under water or in decompression.


Isn't there something about how general aviation pilots mostly die flying if they don't retire from it young?


There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. That's the saying anyway.


This article was fascinating. It never mentioned pay, though. Do these people get paid really well after all this specialized training, and commitment?


> They needed his salary (not surprisingly, saturation divers are well-compensated, up to $1,400 per day), so his wife told him to finish the job.


I see from the article that salaries haven't changed much since the 90ies.


Yeah - phenomenal money in the 90s and everyone wore a Rolex... now the money is pretty decent while working but big gaps between jobs


Great money but assuming that's not a 250+ day/yr billable utilization it's not substantially better than working for a major webtech company, and a lot more grueling and dangerous.


> basically anything that can go wrong on construction sites, but only you're out at sea exposed to the elements

Sounds... dangerous.


What were you doing offshore? Commissioning for topsides is it? How did you pivot from field to coding job?


I was a Commercial Diver moving into Life Support Technician/ Superviser work. Then got a lot of free time (the mentioned boredom) so started getting into Linux, Scripting, C, ... then wrote a program that would implement the Oceaneering Manual in code (how much gas do you need for a 30 day job with 6 divers in a chamber, how much soda for the CO2 scrubbers, if they work on 500 ft and live at 470 ft and you do X number of bell-runs) then spent more time and had more fun implementing this than doing the actual LST work. I also worked a lot together with the ROV operators (who aren't just operating them but the good ones are building them from scratch), and these guys were a real inspiration. I could have chosen ROV's but it what I wanted to get away from was my future life at sea. nuff said I ended up finding a job back on land as a software engineer and now had time to take evening courses and get deeper into CompSci


You're in good company. Linus Torvalds wrote https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subsurface_(software)


LMAO I had no idea. Thanks for this :D


I worked as a technical diver, not a saturation diver, with full-face comms and Nitrox and spare air, servicing underwater hydraulics/electrical systems for over 450 dives. No need for extended stays underwater or lengthy decompression. Most injuries were related to the physical labor around heavy moving machinery and tool usage. Glad to say there were few injuries and these were all minor injuries of those involved. The important technical point is that the largest increase in volume takes place in the first atmosphere or 33 ft (10 m) under the surface. The inverted bucket example of a full bucket of air going from full of air to half air at 33 ft below surface. It goes from 1/2 full of air to 1/3 at the 2-3 atm change. And that's where most typical recreational diving takes place with a maximum of 30 m to 40 m (100 ft to 130 ft). Diving in confined spaces with the surface blocked by structure or machinery, and with the occasional oil leak causing visibility of less than 24 inches due to light diffusion provided for a mix of challenging tasks while staying calm and rational. I miss that part of it all.


Sorry if this is a stupid question but how far down could you dive?


It depends on the tables and physiology, because you need to safely oxygenate all the body's tissues with regular breathing at depth. He could probably dive [edit: said Nitrox, I'd learned non-air Nitrox increases maximum depth but it increases time-at-depth] Trimix until about 100m, deeper might need a different mix.


Nitrox’s maximum operating depth is ~32m at 32%. Oxygen toxicity is a quick death. To go deeper you need to add helium and actually reduce the amount of oxygen in the gas.


To expand further, oxygen is toxic at 1.6ATA. For those unfamiliar, pressure doubles every 10m (33ft). So if I tried to breath 100% oxygen at 33ft (aka 2.0ATA), I’d die pretty quickly. At 66ft, that caps you at about 40% oxygen. At 99ft, you essentially can’t breath any higher oxygen concentration than natural air.

As such, nitrox’s purpose isn’t to increase depth. It’s actually used to increase bottom time (at a loss of max depth) without needing decompression. You get this increased bottom time due to lower amounts of nitrogen.

I’ve logged hundreds of nitrox dives from 28% - 60% oxygen levels, but never bit the bullet and gotten into more advanced air mixtures like Trimix. Trimix and other specialty blends are hard to get air fills for at the places I most commonly dive, so I keep pushing it off.


> For those unfamiliar, pressure doubles every 10m (33ft).

Does it? Or does it increase by one atmosphere every 10m?


Increase by one atmosphere. If it doubled then at the bottom of the Marianas Trench it'd be 10^330 atmospheres, or approximately 10^318 times greater than the pressure at the center of the Sun.


It doesn't double every 10m. Each 10m of salt water roughly adds 1 atm. So it only doubles at the first 10m. So the oxygen becomes toxic ~66 meters when diving with air.


When you add helium to your tank on a dive, the resulting mix is usually called "Trimix".

When you get to technical dives requiring Trimix, one often dives with several different gasses. The gas you breathe at the deepest point of the dive would be toxic if you were to breathe it at a shallower depth.


I think he means trimix, not nitrox. Nitrox reduces the maximum depth of the dive vs air, doesn't increase it.

- Oxygen 0-20 ft

- Nitrox in-between depending on % oxygen

- Air 0-200 ft

- Trimix 0-250 ft

- Hypoxic Trimix up to 500 ft, minimum depending on % oxygen


I you were referring to me, I was using a 36% oxygen Nitrox mix. We were working at less than 10 m, so this increases working time not depth, but you need to be careful with oxygen toxicity as mentioned above. For deeper dives, air and then Trimix for up to 76 m.


Also for anyone interested, you are dealing with partial pressures of oxygen (PO2) with Nitrox. With 36% Nitrox mix (36% O2, 64% N, EAN36)you shouldn't be going below 28 m, since you don't want to exceed a PO2 of 1.4. (36% * 4 ATA = 144% or 1.44 PO2). Oxygen toxicity comes on without warning in most cases, and you convulse and typically drown. You want to stay between 0.16 and 1.6 (max!, hence the 1.4 PO2 guideline). There are some subtleties you can find out by researching Nitrox diving, or taking the course and certifying for Nitrox diving.


The decompression accident alluded to in the piece was the Byford Dolphin diving bell accident. The wikipedia description [1] contains this rather graphic paragraph:

> [...] Hellevik, being exposed to the highest pressure gradient and in the process of moving to secure the inner door, was forced through the 60 centimetres (24 in) diameter opening created by the jammed interior trunk door by escaping air and violently dismembered, including bisection of his thoracoabdominal cavity, which further resulted in expulsion of all of the internal organs of his chest and abdomen, except the trachea and a section of small intestine, and of the thoracic spine. These were projected some distance, one section later being found 10 metres (30 ft) vertically above the exterior pressure door.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byford_Dolphin


That accident involved a pressure difference of 8 atmospheres. For comparison, when a plane explosively decompresses, the pressure difference is much less than 1 atmosphere, and that is enough to cause some pretty severe damage, so you can imagine just how much more violent an 8atm decompression is.


Similar accidents happen in the water. Pressure differentials are a constant threat in commercial diving operations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEtbFm_CjE0


Goodwin's law of pressurized gasses and liquids.

If someone mentions pressurized gas or liquid, someone will say pressurized gas is dangerous (duh, but it depends on the pressure and the volume), someone else linking the Wikipedia page on the Byford Dolphin accident, and/or someone will link a training video on pressure differential and/or someone will like a web-page on hydraulic injection and then it devolving into virtue signaling about safety around high pressure things.


I know so many guys who planned to do this for 2-3 years to make some money and 20+ years later they’re still doing it, they (or their wives) spend the money faster than they make it, and their bones are getting brittle from the nitrogen...

(Former professional diver but I never did North Sea etc)


The unfortunate truth for some people is unless they are very careful, spending money behaves like a gas and expands to take all available volume.


Sure what is money for but to be spent


The other main thing is saving to be spent later.


To accumulate enough to quit your dangerous job that makes your bones brittle.


What is air for but to breathe? Still don't want to breathe it faster than you can make it.


Saving money and having a big cushion allows you a certain freedom that living paycheck to paycheck doesn't.

Not only that but you can make the money you are not spending "work" for you to generate even more money.


Sat diving in oil and gas is primarily conducted off a "DSV" aka diving support vessel. Usually SAT spread ia required for subsea work below 40m to 130m. While it is theoretically possible for deeper sat dives, the burn rate of oxygen at deeper depths is quite high which results in big increase in diving crew to 1 manhour of job. Most diving crews also hhave a DMT or diving medical tech. Kinda like diving ER. Mostly this stuff is safe but sometimes divers get disoriented or make mistakes which results in hazards.


I got into diving a couple of years ago, and managed to combine the two passions - there's an Open Source diving computer[1], and it's fascinating to read through the source[2].

I was surprised on looking into it more that we're really just winging it algorithmically + safety margins, based on research done in the 60s. The empirical research basically consisted of the Navy et al. throwing people in at depth, and seeing what got them "bent".

Everybody's physiology is different though, and there are a large number of factors over-and-above that which affect whether you'll suffer Decompress Sickness (DCS).

Whilst there have been some iterations on Bühlmann[3] such as VPM-B[4] (which is based on bubble diameter vs. tissue compartment loading), the field is still lacking IMHO.

Not really through any fault of their own, it's just very difficult/expensive to peer into the body whilst they're down there to see what's going on, and it seems we'd need a large sample size due to individual physiology playing a part. Still, the algos seem to work... most of the time. Just don't drink too much alcohol, sleep well, hydrate. And do your stops! :)

Interestingly, saturation divers / Navy generally don't use a computer as the divemaster singularly plans the dives for the group with massive safety margins. As they're already saturated, they're generally not doing stops "outside" in the wet anyway. If they do have a computer, it will even have the tables/algos removed from it.

[1] https://heinrichsweikamp.com/

[2] https://bitbucket.org/heinrichsweikamp/ostc4/wiki/Home

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%BChlmann_decompression_al...

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dive_computer#Algorithms

Edit: Formatting


That dice computer looks great. Do you own one? Do like it?


I have both the OSTC4 and OSTC3 Plus. The screens are extremely visible underwater, with the OSTC4 having a better resolution and much larger screen (equivalent brightness). There are quite a few YouTube videos of other computers to compare - these stood out. As far as computers go, they have all the features needed (even up to tech). I find having a nice piece of technology on my wrist provides some intangible comfort, especially on Blackwater dives :) The screen is so vivid I even managed to spot a battery warning (forgot to charge it) on my buddies computer from distance!


Thanks. I have just started scuba diving and am looking at getting the ultra budget Cressi Leonardo Dive Computer. Is getting that a bad idea given I am just a newbie?


Buying a "starter" dive computer makes a lot of sense as many divers quit after a year or two. As your skills and interests progress, you can aways upgrade to a better one.

It's been a while since I bought my last dive computer, but looking at the spec for the Leonardo, it looks okay. Personally I'd prefer one that includes a stop timer, but that's not a show stopper. The ability to download your dives to a PC is a good one to have. Have a chat with your instructors and see what they use and why. Enjoy your diving and keep blowing them bubbles!


Are they unusually well-compensated for this sort of construction work?


they aren't. the figures mentioned are true for the North Sea but lower in all other places. also being a saturation diver doesn't automatically put you on a 1400 dayrate when on leaving for a job. you get that only when you're "in the bin" which itself depends if you are the one selected for it. many other sat divers on the same job, but usually there are only 6-8 are actually in saturation the rest does support work on deck. and the time in saturation might only be 3 weeks in a 6 months project. So until you are in sat you would get the normal day rate a diver makes (150 - 200 depending on the location, contract). Project and Life Support Supervisors (LST's) are paid slightly higher. This can still be OK if you're 10 months at sea and no opportunity to spend any money during that time. But doesn't compute in 2018. As I mentioned above if the salaries cited are true they haven't changed much since the 90ies so in 2018 you'd be better off working as a software engineer ...


Depends on your definition of "well-compensated". For people in tech, it seems pretty low. $1400/day is what's mentioned in the article, and I can't imagine they work a regular schedule, as there would necessarily be more downtime. Contractors in tech, and several other fields, can make similar money (factoring in that few fields would require as much downtime) without putting their lives at risk and without going into near total isolation for weeks at a time.

So...it's a pretty good living, but it's not a good life unless you just really love diving. But, even then, I can't imagine this is the fun kind of diving. Then again, as with most high dollar specialist industries, someone ambitious could probably work in it for a few years and then start a company and become management/sales/support for a team of lower ranking folks who do the hard work of actually diving. That's common in a lot of jobs that are hard on your body, like construction.


It may not be politically correct to say, but there ARE differences between men and women. One of them is that, generally speaking, men are more willing to take higher risks for money and recognition.


Saying this is politically correct. The contentious issue is the question of why this is so. Is it because society shapes us in such a way that men are more inclined to take risks for money and recognition. This would imply things can change and women can be excellent saturation divers. Or is it because our genes shape us in this way, making it impossible for women to excel at diving.


Or maybe money and recognition aren't that valuable intrinsically and the industry is basically (ab)using men craving for those both. Maybe women are simply much smarter to not choose that line of job in the first place, or it would take a lot more of something else than money and recognition to convince them to take those risks.


That might be true but brings you back to the question why this is so. Are women intrinsically more intelligent due to their gender or does society place different expectations on the upbringing of boys, leading to a different selection of skills that develop. Or is it a mixture of both?


It is because the sex ratio is close to 1:1 at birth yet there need not be 1:1 men:women in adulthood. If men get themselves killed, it doesn't really matter.


It's a physical job. Men are on average stronger. Even though the distribution of strength might not be proportional, the general perception should lead to a manifest self-image simply by association. And it helps that people like me corroborate this, frequently.


Pure strength is not the only metric that is important on most physical jobs. Endurance is another metric and afaik women tend to rate fairly well on that. This is also a mentally tough job, working in confined spaces in the dark with low visibility requires a whole range of attributes other than mere physical strength.


Yes, and I was alluding to mentally specifically, wasn't I?


From a biological standpoint, the reason men take more risks (for any reason) is clear.

Take a tribe made of 10 men and 10 women, each women give birth to 4 kids during their life. You need 8 people for a very dangerous task. Are you going to send men or women? If you send 8 men and they all die, you are left with 10 women and 2 men. The two men can impregnate all the women and you have 40 kids for the next generation. The tribe will soon recover. On the other hand if 8 women die, there will be only 8 kids for the next generation, which is a much bigger hit.

That women are more risk adverse is only natural, and it is indeed the case. In fact, it maye be the most significant non-physical difference between men and women.

As for women possibly being better saturation divers, I don't know. After all, they do pretty well in space, they even seem to have some biological advantage. However, these divers are not just divers, they are also construction workers, and physical strength is important, an area where men have the advantage.


If you believe this is a fundamental biological difference, then back it up with data/research.

Otherwise, this could just as easily be a social adaptation (and if we are seeking equality in our society, which should try and address it).


Sex differences in risk-taking behavior is a well documented finding, and that it has an underlying biological cause isn't controversial as far I've seen.

Testosterone is strongly linked to aggression as well as financial/physical risk taking, so part of the difference between sexes is expected on that alone. [1][2]

The evolution of risk taking is actively researched [3], and we see pretty consistent sex based differences across most species.

On an individual level, women who want to take these high risk physical jobs should clearly have equal opportunity to do so. We're just unlikely to ever hit 50/50.

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/srep11206

[2] https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn_a_0044...

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3600861/


So I’m not sure I’m very convinced by these papers.

The first (nature) paper appears to show that in market traders increased levels of testosterone result in more risk taking.

The third is mostly about fish and other animals, and doesn’t seem hugely relevant (though it’s interesting).

The second seems like the most interesting (MIT press article). They look at risk taking in adolescents. The paper seems to show that testosterone is linked to risk taking in males, but increased (natural) testosterone in females didn’t seem to show much increase in risk taking.

Overall, boys had very slightly riskier behavior than females. From the graphs the error bars are pretty big and the difference in risky behavior is quite small.

The difference doesn’t seem big enough that it would result in skewed gender ratios in jobs for example.

So, if this is well established in the literature, I’d expect to see better results than this. Are there papers that more really show that males are more prone to risky behavior and that this has a biological, rather than social basis?


It makes more sense in nature for females to be more selective than males, since once they choose a mate they have to deal with that choice for a while, resulting in males competing for females. So I think it makes sense that men would naturally be competing for women, and would have to take more risks, and try and get more money/recognition, to do that.


What about the society makes a compelling reason for either men or women to take high or low risks?


Role models for example. Movie heroes, book or video game protagonists are predominantly male. That shapes perception and expectations of desired and acceptable behavior.


Parents brag about boys taking risk, but never about girls.

To paraphrase real world office debates, basically man dying after they did dangerous "at least knew what he did it for" while woman "stupid did not knew the risk". Judgement without knowing details in both cases. I havent seen dumb female death framed in terms of bravery, but I have seen dum male death framed that way. (This difference likely hurts men more then women imo, most paid jobs are actually safe)

Imo, neither that man nor that women meant to be death.


How much the opposite gender in their society values them vs. the resources they can acquire.


I guess the parent comment has been edited, because this comment seems to come out of the blue in relation to what the current parent comment says.

My personal opinion is that if you’re going to make statements like this you should back them up.

As a counter example, being a police officer would I imagine not be considered the safest of jobs. But 30% of police officers in the UK are women, and the number is steadily rising:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/police-workforce-...


>As a counter example, being a police officer would I imagine not be considered the safest of jobs.

It isn't particularly dangerous in the UK. There were no officers killed in the line of duty in 2016, 2014, 2011, 2010 and 2008. Police officers have a relatively high risk of being the victim of an assault, but they're far less likely to be killed or seriously injured at work than workers in agriculture, construction, civil engineering, motor vehicle repair or waste management.

http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/index.htm


The parent originally said

Why is this almost always a male occupation? Are women systematically excluded?


A better example would be a dangerous job where women are overrepresented, not underrepresented.


The number is steadily rising, and I’d expect it to be historically lower so it’s not unexpected.

However, I’m not making any strong assertion one way or the other. The parent I was replying to effective said “it’s because men and women are different” without providing any evidence whatsoever.


Yes there are differences - I wonder makes it necessary to protect yourself against contrarians with the "politically correctness" tagging of your statement?


Probably not up to the risk, on average.


The article mentions 1400 a day.


A few years ago I did a "hard hat" diving experience that gives a teeny, tiny view into what these divers experience, and wow did it increase my respect for them.

It also included being compressed in the "pot" down to 50m and getting narked to hell. Any UK bods fancy trying the experience lookup "York Diver Training".


Nice read about the life of aquanauts. Strange that there isn’t a modern action/drama movie about them.


I thought the same thing. This topic would make for an entertaining movie.


All that for less than $60/hr.


$1400/24 is not a very fair comparison. Just to start, I bet these guys have to sleep significantly more than 8 hours per day, and that's no different from any other job involving strenuous labor. Also, living in a cramped pod does sound like a drag, but if you're lying in bed with Facebook and Netflix I think it counts as downtime.


As much as I appreciate this type of content/story, its really starting to get old to read multi-paragraph descriptions with the very occasional drawing trying to tell me what the chamber looks like, when in 30 seconds of text-on-video with cuts and arrows they could have given me twice the info and left me with a much clearer understanding.


Contrary opinion; I hate video and greatly appreciate the use of text and picture. It loads faster, I can skim easier, I can offline consume it, and I can consume it without headphones.




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