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Career Day

Twenty-eight days under the sea

A ‘saturation diver’ on life offshore, a long ascent, and the joys of blowing things up

By Jenni Gritters

Jason Conover is a trained saturation diver and an instructor at the Divers Institute of Technology (DIT), a commercial diving school based in Seattle, Washington.

What do you like about this job? 
I like traveling and I like the variety. I also like blowing stuff up. 

What is commercial diving? 
Commercial divers do construction work underwater. Some of us work at nuclear plants or water towers. Others gravitate toward inland diving, which means doing work in rivers and dams. Some people will do pier construction, shipyard diving, or offshore diving, which involves working in oil field pipelines or on construction rigs. 

How did you get started with this career? 
I was an aerospace welder and I wanted to do more complicated work, so underwater welding was appealing to me. I started as a student at the Divers Institute of Technology in 2008. After school, I went the offshore diving route and traveled to projects in Dubai, Venezuela, Singapore, and India. I worked for six weeks at a time and then had three to 12 weeks off.  

What’s life like on an offshore ship? 
Typically you take a work boat or a helicopter out to the ship. If you’re on night shifts, they tell you to drop your stuff off and go to sleep right away. If you’re on day shift, you start working right away. For six weeks, you work 12-hour shifts from noon to midnight, or midnight to noon. It’s a 24-hour diving operation.  

Is commercial diving like scuba diving? 
I’d say the two are pretty different! During a commercial dive, you have an umbilical cord that goes straight back to the surface. The umbilical has air in it and it’s got a communications cable, too, so you’re typically talking to someone throughout your dive. You’re also not doing as much swimming as you do with scuba diving; usually we’re just working on one pile or platform. 

It’s weird — you’re just eating, sleeping, waking up, eating, and sleeping again, and all the while you’re slowly sliding back up to the surface.

What kind of work do you do when you’re underwater? 
Sometimes it’s new pipeline construction: A barge will lay miles of pipe to the platform, and it’s our job to take that last connecting piece and bolt it up. If an old platform gets knocked over, the company is required to clean up the site. We cut the platform into manageable sections and pull it up in huge trash baskets.

You’re trained in saturation diving. What does that mean? 
Saturation divers live in a pressurized chamber below a boat for up to 28 days. You become saturated at a 200 foot depth — your body gets used to it. Instead of doing a ten-minute dive at 200 feet and then needing to decompress, you stay down at 200 feet for several weeks. At the end of the 28 days, the chamber slides up to the surface slowly over the course of 56 hours. It’s weird — you’re just eating, sleeping, waking up, eating, and sleeping again, and all the while you’re slowly sliding back up to the surface to reacclimate your body.

What’s it like to be underwater for 28 days? 
Typically there are 12 of us down there at a time. Usually you do an 8-hour shift, which means you have 16 hours off while the other teams dive. And there’s usually only one guy in the water at a time, although sometimes it takes two people to do one job. There’s also always a bellman who’s monitoring in case of emergency. 

The chambers vary: Some are really nice, with TVs and entertainment areas where you can go if you’re off-shift. Others are less nice. Sometimes you’ll have five days where you can’t dive because of weather and on those days, it’s really ideal to have the space to do a bodyweight workout, watch TV, or get food.  

What’s the coolest project you’ve ever worked on? 
One of my first jobs involved blowing up an old dam and letting it all fall down, then going underwater to recover the pieces. Yeah, that was awesome. 

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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