In the UK and much of the rest of the world, commercial diving qualifications branch off from four main courses. Prices for these are very high (we’re talking a house deposit for the Saturation course), and the training is long and intense. The below is a very brief primer for those interested in this career path.
This is the first professional course and a requirement for all legal underwater work under HSE regulations beyond cleaning aquariums or swimming pools. Divers use regular scuba gear, though often with the addition of (usually basic) communications. Those filming for nature documentaries, film, print and TV will have this qualification and may never need or want to progress any further. Fishermen specialising in shellfish or fish-farms will also hold this ticket if diving, and archaeologists may find enough work to get by as well.
Enter the hardhat. The (often) yellow-hatted diver now replaces the classic brass helmet, lead collar and weighted boots of the past, and with it comes direct contact to the surface at all times through an umbilical – through which we receive gas, communications and power, and transmit voice, depth and often video. This is not your holiday diving. There is almost no relation between this and fun diving – your qualifications in basic scuba are not recognised or relevant. It doesn’t matter how good your buoyancy is, how many dives you have or how many fish you can identify by their Latin names – this is a different world and a totally different job. You may find yourself finning through the water wearing a bandmask (stripped-down and much lighter version of a hardhat) on a hull-clean, or just as easily stomping along beside a pipeline in zero visibility at 50 metres with no fins at all. Divers need to be practical and armed with manual skills (welding, burning and grinding are just the primers).
In-shore diving work is termed Civils in the UK and ranges from jobs in dockyards to sewers, reservoirs, dams and everything in-between. Once we head offshore (7 miles out) we need a new qualification known as the Offshore Top-Up. We now dive primarily from a cage or open bell (essentially a cage with an air pocket). We dive in twos or threes but usually work alone. Because we’re so far from land we need knowledge not only of rescue of our fellow divers on the job, but also in treatment of pressure-related injuries. We’re all trained in the use and operation of recompression chambers and there will be one on the vessel. Due to rough conditions the chamber will sometimes be the only way to decompress and shallow safety-stops are not feasible at all. We need to be able to return to surface, de-kit and enter a chamber to be pressurised back to a safe depth in a couple of minutes. It’s no walk in the park and not for the absent-minded.
Here is where things go from serious to… well, some might say ridiculous. First, take the five-figure sum you’ve invested in the above three courses and times it by two. That’s the cost of this course. With that expense also comes the insanely high wages you’ve heard of, and some of the most challenging working conditions you can imagine. The job may be years-long construction projects or something very straight-forward – changing a section of pipeline or even just a couple of bolts or inspecting something – but the depth at which work is conducted means nothing is easy. Divers can spend up to one month living in a recompression chamber, pressurised to the maximum depth of their job breathing a helium-rich gas mixture that means loved ones won’t know who they’re talking to on the phone. And like them or loathe them, you need to share this tiny space with a crew of other divers. Meals are passed through a secure system of pressurised doors and a couple of tiny windows allow divers to watch unpressurised colleagues on the “surface” go about their daily routines. It’s surreal, and unlike any other job, but thankfully (through historical trial and error) relatively safe.