I’ve been working as a commercial diver for 13 years. I’m hosting this AMA with some help from Atlas Obscura, who wrote about life as a saturation diver. I do construction and demolition work hundreds of feet deep in the ocean and spend weeks living in a pressurized environment—often a small, metal tube with about five other people. Over the years, I’ve been able to work for many different dive companies at locations all over the earth.

Diving hundreds of feet below sea level involves breathing pressurized air and working at pressures of over 110 psi (nearly twice the pressure inside a bicycle tire). While underwater, we breathe in a mixture of helium, oxygen and nitrogen to prevent a condition called nitrogen narcosis, which mimics the feeling of being drunk. Gas from the compressed air we breathe dissolves into our blood and tissues, so when we resurface, we have to go extremely slowly, or we risk bubbles of gas forming inside our bodies, giving us a painful, possibly fatal condition known as “the bends.”

My deepest dive was a 30 day saturation campaign at 778 feet of sea water. We were installing 36 inch diameter pipe line tie in spool pieces. One bolt and two end nuts weighed in at 220 lbs.

After a decade of working in the music industry as a musician and sound engineer I felt I needed a change. I graduated from Divers Institute of Technology Seattle WA in 2005 and moved to the heart of the US offshore oil field… Louisiana. I was able to be part of a massive gulf wide clean up due to hurricane Katrina. The spectrum of work was vast, anything from small pipeline bypass projects to the complete decommissioning of many toppled oil platforms.

I have also been able to work for a few land based diving companies that took part in various civil engineering campaigns. Mostly installing up to date pumping stations for the local water districts of the southern US.

  • Global Diving and Marine Contractors
  • Epic Diving and Marine
  • Harkand
  • Ranger Offshore Inc.
  • American Underwater Services
  • Chapman Marine

If you’d like to donate to support my family and me through cancer treatment, here’s a link: https://www.gofundme.com/shannonhoveysbandp

This is a link to a saturation documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbAxa-_3h6E

Divers Institute link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slq9lkHWs0I

Proof: https://twitter.com/atlasobscura/status/1030197554548539392

EDIT: Hey everybody, I had a great time hanging out with you. Thanks for all the questions. Good luck to all of you planning on entering this challenging field. Please share my family’s go fund me link.
Signing off

Comments: 1179 • Responses: 56  • Date: 

sinuhe69994 karma

Working in extreme conditions like saturated drivers is very dangerous and health-damaging. Why do you think robots still can not replace humans in such situations?

atlasobscura1719 karma

When a ROV (remote operated vehicle) can put a 150 ft pipeline tie in together in zero visibility, that’s the day divers will be replaced. Humans have this amazing ability to see with their hands. Technology is very close at this point. ROV’s do all the work deeper that 1000 ft.

im_idiota761 karma

At a depth like that you probably don't see much but what's illuminated by artificial light. Are you startled by big fish coming out of the dark all of a sudden? What's your scariest experience?

atlasobscura1379 karma

The terrain is kind of like barren desert. Some of the grouper get to be 600 lbs, like small cows, docile but huge. The water actually lights up from agitating the bioluminescence.

ChuckEye759 karma

How long before hearing people talk with helium voices stops being funny?

atlasobscura1121 karma

Never. Suck helium and say every curse word you know, then recover from laughter.

ChuckEye339 karma

So even a month down, it never feels normal?

atlasobscura456 karma

No

TwoEarsJames711 karma

How long does it take for your fingertips to unwrinkle?

atlasobscura1128 karma

They usually peel pretty bad during desat. Awesome question. 2 days

mellow_bird578 karma

  • have you ever seen anything while working at depth that scared you?

  • do you get to go into where the moon pool is? It always looks really eerie in pictures

  • if the umbilical was cut somehow, is it possible for the diver to swim back up to the bell?

(I'm trying to write a story in this setting so I'm super interested about all aspects!)

atlasobscura724 karma

Body recovery was always the most erie situation. We have sonar beacons on our emergency air pack. This is the way they would come and find you in the case of a separation. Swimming back to the bell would be extremely difficult let alone being able to see it.

robotshoelaces552 karma

What's your biggest beef with the movie The Abyss? (Not including the water aliens)

atlasobscura1056 karma

The end……..when the underwater city floats to the surface and they say, “why don’t we have the bends? They must have done something to us.” Other than that, the dive helmets were designed by the same company that built mine. The diving is mildly accurate.

anonuser1554123438 karma

Do you think saturation divers would actually make better astronauts than air force pilots?

What sort of selection, training and testing does it take to become a saturation diver? How do they decide who makes the cut and who is not fit to be a saturation diver? e.g. Do they test you by sticking you in a small (unpressurized) metal tube for hours/days to see if you can take it, before actually certifying you as ready for the real thing?

atlasobscura657 karma

They actually monitor and observe your behavior and performance for years before you’re given the chance to try it out. As far as any standardized tests, no. I actually wanted to start a company that put sat divers into space to put all the nuts and bolts together on mars before the scientists showed up. Unfortunately diving disqualifies us for the astronaut physical. Plus we can work while getting bit by fish.

yeooooo398 karma

I've heard of guys pooling money together to buy fancy cars, watches etc. for project managers to keep getting work. Have you had any experience with this?

atlasobscura538 karma

I can neither confirm or deny that comment.

GOLDEN_LAD354 karma

What made you go from the music industry to saturation diving? Please spare no detail as I'm a musician, myself.

atlasobscura589 karma

I was personally looking for something challenging but that also gave me the $$$ to start a family. The training program was only 7 months, on the job training about 3 yrs, and the only way that you’re going to know if you’ll last out there will be revealed within the first week. Honestly, I meet 2 divers at the pub in Seattle, they told me I lived 2 blocks from the school and the rest was history. It’s a hard call to make for any artist. I’m currently getting back into the music biz.

Gaping_Hole123305 karma

How hard is the isolation being an aquanut? Like are you with anyone on the boat?

atlasobscura511 karma

I’m usually with 4 - 6 divers in very close quarters. It’s getting along with everyone that’s challenging.

markfuckinstambaugh217 karma

How much of that 30 days is time at the end to depressurize?

atlasobscura444 karma

It’s roughly 1 day of deco for every 100 ft plus a 1 day hold at -20 ft at the end. When I was decompressing from 778 ft it was a 11 day deco.

BeefySleet209 karma

Do you just take dumps and piss out in the water? Or is there a washroom in that little tube?

atlasobscura362 karma

There is a suction toilet. I prefer O natural. It’s the only job where it’s acceptable to pee your pants. (in the water of course)

MyPimpHandIsLarge186 karma

My question may seem strange, but as a fisherman, I always wondered what the actual perception of color is like the further you go down. Can you explain what colors look like as you descend through the water column and what are the last visible colors that you could recall seeing at depth? Thank you

atlasobscura295 karma

Red is the first color to go and I think yellow is the last. Everything is a cool shade of blue and gray. We have been called the most expensive fish finders ever.

finding_fate165 karma

What happens if there is an emergency and you need to get to the surface quickly?

atlasobscura412 karma

You would have to wait through the desat with an attending medic. That is the most dangerous aspect of sat diving. You’re days away from reality.

noodibranch164 karma

Do you work with many women?

atlasobscura272 karma

Yes. It’s really tough for them being a male dominated industry.

McJumbos144 karma

what is the biggest misconception of what you do?

atlasobscura359 karma

The fact everyone thinks that we get paid ridiculous amounts of money. The money is good but sometimes it’s months in between jobs and if something happens to your physical body you could be out of a job instantly.

Kiu_98133 karma

A friend of one of my older brothers also works in stuff like this, sadly, I haven't been able to have a conversation with him about his work, this is why I find this AMA so cool, before I start with my questions, I'd like to thank you for doing this, your work is valuable Shannon, I hope that you hear that often 🙂

Now, for my questions: I. Have you been able to witness some creatures from the deep that rarely show up?, If so, what has been your favorite encounter?

II. Despite the risks, why did you choose to do stuff like this, what motivated you to work in this area?

III. I believe that many people have asked you about the creepy and dangerous aspects of the work, so, I'll try something different with this question: What's the funniest thing that you've experienced during your work underwater?

atlasobscura219 karma

  1. A translucent tube with a working body inside about 2 ft long. I still don't know what that was.
  2. I guess life wasn’t easy enough for me. I needed a challenge.
  3. Usually you work alone in the water. I was working in concert with a second vessel but didn’t realize they had a diver in the water. When that guy snuck up on me, I about stabbed him, then laughed my butt off.

guildm4ge114 karma

What is the watch you wear now? Is it a 'divers' watch?

atlasobscura214 karma

I try not to wear a watch. I am a huge Clive Cussler fan so if I did it would be a Doxa

KoreasOwn98 karma

Why is it so hard for me to tread water!? Its supposed to help save energy or whatever, but for me, it's really hard work. Tips or tricks?

atlasobscura168 karma

Everyone is either positive or negatively buoyant. No tricks for the negative

noodibranch97 karma

What are the physical demands (strength-wise)? I imagine you often haul heavy equipment. Do you go through some sort of bootcamp or physical test before you are cleared?

atlasobscura174 karma

We go through a pre and post physical for every sat run. It’s very demanding. I’ve had to swing a 12 lb maul for 4 hrs. Not fun but necessary. The boot camp was the 2 yrs of topside support I did for the company before I could even be considered a diver.

scalablecory89 karma

778 feet! How do you like your martinis? In seriousness -- I only dive recreationally and have never gone down far/long enough to need a trimix. Is it a different experience from normal air?

I understand that deep water diving is one of the more dangerous occupations. Any harrowing stories?

atlasobscura160 karma

Lets just say that when I’m on vacation I never dive deeper than 60 ft. It’s just safer. The gas is difficult to work with. Helium takes the heat out of your body and dehydrates you. Rec diving is even more dangerous. You may or may not have a pro mixing your gas.

MARWOK81 karma

How much do you watch Sealab 2021 and how true to life is the show to your job?

Very serious question.

atlasobscura59 karma

I haven’t seen it. curious...

Tristanfrog79 karma

I know you said that ROVs do all the work under 1000 ft in another comment, but are they used for anything else?

I’m the president of a high school underwater robotics team, and I’d like to make a career out of it.

atlasobscura146 karma

I’ve seen 2 ROV’s cut and put rigging on old trash pipe for abandonment and removal. Pretty impressive. I’ve also hitched a ride to work on an ROV then was able to plug my hydraulic saw into the robot for power. Sometimes they’re used for added muscle pushing pipes around. Your imagination is the only limit to your work in robotics. It’s a great field to get into.Good luck.

mthr_jo78 karma

What led you to a career in saturation diving in particular? I know you said you wanted a change, but this seems a pretty dramatic one!

atlasobscura130 karma

I didn’t even know about saturation diving until I entered the industry. For me, as soon as I put the dive helmet on and jumped in the water I knew that’s what I was supposed to do. Plus I’m kind of an all or nothing kind of person and I can’t work in a cubicle.

Aquaduc74 karma

Did you have any physical effects after coming back from the deep?

atlasobscura181 karma

My chiropractor said that in the 7 yrs that he’s known me, I’ve shrunk 1 inch. I think diving aggravates old joint or back injuries. The biggest thing is reintegrating into society after getting out. I tend to be a little rude the first day I’m back on land.

inomchips73 karma

I’m gonna ask what is probably a stupid question, but how does it work when you are underwater for 30 days? How do you sleep? Eat?

atlasobscura108 karma

We live at pressure on the boat in a chamber. We spend 12 hrs a day underwater and bring a sack lunch.

jonbush40463 karma

What is the most dangerous thing that you have seen happen while down there? Also, any weird stuff? Giant fish, sharks etc??

atlasobscura225 karma

So many fish stories. This is a cool link to a video showing what happens when you befriend a grouper.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnBpS7Oc28I

The most dangerous thing to happen would be a crane failure while lifting a 55 ton load in the dark.

LOAFOFBREAD285859 karma

I’m currently working on my advanced and nitrox certifications, what certifications do you have?

atlasobscura91 karma

Too many to list for commercial diving. SCUBA, advanced open water and rescue diver.

FoucaultsTurtleneck55 karma

Have you listened to Brockhampton's SATURATION trilogy?

atlasobscura15 karma

No, but interested

Sunkitteh52 karma

Hi Shannon- NAUI sport diver here with a question about your sat dives and comment about cancer. First, though, I'm sorry you have that shitfuck big C, and live in a place where treatment is costly. My Mom battled it, and they used hyperbaric chamber therapy as part of her treatment. Anyway- What's the coolest zen type moment down there in the dark?

atlasobscura121 karma

When I have to wait for a specific tool (sometimes waiting up to an hour or so) I’ll ask my supervisor to turn off my helmet light and I just sit. Very zen like a sensory dep chamber.

Thank for the support getting through cancer.

Totally_TJ42 karma

What is the perfect sandwich?

atlasobscura76 karma

Cream cheese with polaski beef sausage and pickles. Not available offshore.

CharlesStross37 karma

Do you scuba dive recreationally? Or is it like doing work on your time off?

Do you use any sort of psuedo-BCD to give you lift when you want to move around, or are you totally negatively buoyant the whole time?

atlasobscura56 karma

I love diving and try to get in the water whenever I can. I personally am pretty neutral with a hot water suit on. That being said, I can jump 20 ft high underwater. A BCD at that depth could get away from you (ascend) and be pretty dangerous. Being that deep we have an upper excursion level we can’t go past.

amooseme35 karma

What's your relationship like with your colleagues? Can't imagine disagreements are great when you're so confined. I hope you raise the money you want and get the treatment you need.

atlasobscura62 karma

Thank you for that. Surprisingly enough, SAT divers are some of the most confident easy going people I’ve ever met. Every dispute is usually squashed fairly quick.

Invictus-Rex33 karma

Have you ever spoken to any astronauts and compared the work you do? (I imagine there are some analogous elements between working underwater and working in outer space.)

atlasobscura53 karma

I did some training at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston. My son was able to hang out with an astronaut before he went in for his training under water. I wasn’t able to speak with him.

JackrabbitJunkie30 karma

Where you always comfortable being underwater or did you have to get used to it? Any tips for being comfortable underwater?

atlasobscura48 karma

As long as you can feel safe you’ll feel comfortable. Understand how to swim or how your dive gear works and test / inspect it offen. That helps me feel comfortable.

aksh216198922 karma

Did you see a megalodon or a mermaid?

atlasobscura59 karma

I wish. I’ve seen a few whale sharks. Probably the biggest fish I’ve ever seen.

Threecheesehigh20 karma

Does the highly pressurized air feel any different? Have you ever opened a can of coke down there? If so, what happened?

atlasobscura36 karma

NO BUBBLES. It can get really humid and the atmosphere gas feels thick in your lungs.

Complyorbesilenced19 karma

What do you think about the recreational ultra-deep divers, the David Shaw's of the world ?

atlasobscura52 karma

I don’t condone deep rec diving. Pretty sketchy

KB_Bro15 karma

Any animal encounters that stick out to you?

Also, side question. I’ve always had problems equalizing the pressure in my ears. Holding nose and blowing never seems to work? Is there any tricks to do you know of, as it keeps me away from diving, but I love the sea so much

Thanks for doing this AMA!

atlasobscura33 karma

Once you pet a 400 lb grouper they don’t leave you alone. For your ears try rolling your jaw and swallowing. It’s not very safe but some people chew gum.

You’re welcome.

PM_me_your_GW_gun12 karma

Is Willie W. still at DIT? That guy worked forever. We dove together. Did you attend at the new location or the old?

atlasobscura19 karma

The old location. Willie is hands down the coolest diver I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Not sure if he’s still at DIT. I still have the harness he made me.

t0e_alot6 karma

Hey there, be a good hand now and enlighten me on the specifics surrounding the accident in Mexico that cost a diver his life. I think the people would be interested in the dangers of stored energy. I only worked with him a small time before he left the company I was with. How'd it all go down?

atlasobscura18 karma

I can’t comment on the Mexico incident as I was in sat on that job.

_potato_surprise_5 karma

What are the sleeping conditions like?

atlasobscura28 karma

Shoulder length wide and pretty cramped.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slq9lkHWs0I

Kraz_I1 karma

Have you ever breathed in regular compressed air at high depths so that you could get drunk on nitrogen on purpose?

atlasobscura2 karma

Not personally. When it does happen it’s an accident and could be very dangerous for the diver in the water. Narcosis from nitrogen is very overwhelming and can make you so stupid.

VikingFrog1 karma

I work for a field machining and cutting company that designs, rents and sells diamond wire saws and other underwater cutting equipment. So, I have a great appreciation for what you do and have worked very closely with many of your previous employers. Thank you for your work and stay safe!

Do you have any experience with Diamond Wire Saws?

Do divers look at ROVs like manufacturing employees look at robotic technology. Damn robots are taking all of our jobs! :shakes fist on front porch:

atlasobscura2 karma

Tons of experience. I may have crushed a few as well. The diamond wire saw created a safer situation for divers by letting us set the saw and back away rather than burn the piece up close and get whacked with kinetic energy from a 72 in steel member.

Thank you for your safe work.

Not stoked about skynet….

motokrow1 karma

Have you or any coworkers suffered decompression sickness? Trust me, 0/10 — do not recommend.

atlasobscura3 karma

I have not. (knock on wood) Most commercial divers have had some level of DCS but it’s highly treatable if a chamber is close by.

capethrowaway771 karma

So many questions. How much $$ do you make? Do you get paid by the job, hourly, a salary ect? How old are you? Do you miss things like beer when down under the water? Are you ever afraid of sharks?

atlasobscura2 karma

We are paid hourly and work on call (no schedule).

42

When that chamber door closes you no longer have the option or choice to smoke or drink. That makes it easier for me.

Sharks are always close but rarely come close.

AideyC1 karma

How would you recommend someone starts a career in saturation diving? Ive heard its a who you know not what sort of career.

atlasobscura2 karma

It has a lot to do with the type of certifications you have, then who you know. I believe it’s better to air dive for however long it takes you to know your job. Then start looking at sat diving.

ndut1 karma

  • From the diver's perspective is there any difference / preference working out of sat system on construction vessel / barge and DSVs? Seeing as basically your living space is pretty much similar

  • What is your favourite food / comfort food order you pass to your LST (Life support technician) to fetch from the galley?

atlasobscura2 karma

I find that the time I get to spend in the water is drastically longer that an intermediate air dive. That being said, you get a larger sense of completion. I don’t just put a couple bolts into a flange, I get to tie in the whole spool piece. I love that feeling of building something larger than life.

VadSiraly1 karma

How and what do you eat when underwater for a long time?

atlasobscura5 karma

PB & J with HB eggs