The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver
The world—and, specifically, the oil and gas industry—needs commercial divers like Hovey who can go to the seabed to perform the delicate maneuvers required to put together, maintain, and disassemble offshore wells, rigs, and pipelines, everything from flipping flow valves, to tightening bolts with hydraulic jacks, to working in tight confines around a blowout preventer. Remotely operated vehicles don’t have the touch, maneuverability, or judgment for the job. And so, a solution. Experiments in the 1930s showed that, after a certain time at pressure, divers’ bodies become fully saturated with inert gas, and they can remain at that pressure indefinitely, provided they get one long decompression at the end. In 1964, naval aquanauts occupied the first Sea Lab—a metal-encased living quarters lowered to a depth of 192 feet. The aquanauts could move effortlessly between their pressurized underwater home and the surrounding water, and they demonstrated the enormous commercial potential of saturation diving. It soon became apparent that it would be easier and cheaper to monitor and support the divers if the pressurized living quarters weren’t themselves at the bottom of the sea. At this moment, all around the world, there are commercial divers living at pressure inside saturation systems (mostly on ships, occasionally on rigs or barges), and commuting to and from their jobsites in pressurized diving bells. They can each put in solid six-hour working days on the bottom.