The global oil and gas industry is expanding fast and with much of the Earth's surface covered in ocean, there's a demand for skilled offshore divers to keep the energy resources flowing. It's a tough job, but the rewards are high. And, for those who have an affinity with the water, they're not solely financial.
"I love being in the water. Perhaps it's because I was brought up in rainy Fort William," says offshore diver, Davy Duncan, who has worked in South-east Asia, Denmark and Nigeria, as well as the North Sea. "When you're working mid-water on a platform, the visibility can be beautiful. My first offshore job was in Brunei and it was like being in a massive fish tank." But, he says, it's not all like an episode of the Blue Planet. "When you're on the bottom, you can be stomping about in the mud and doing everything by feel."
The diving is just a means of getting to the work site where you may be carrying out a wide range of tasks. Inspection diving involves checking the structure of rigs and underwater equipment to comply with safety regulations. Construction work is much more physically demanding and can involve platform and pipeline installation and repair, welding, and laying concrete slabs.
Diving is classed as a hazardous occupation by the Health and Safety Executive, but just how dangerous is it? Safety standards in the industry are high and while underwater, you are in constant contact with a dive controller. Far more deaths occur in recreational diving. But, as with any job involving manual work, there's some risk of injury.
How do you get into the industry? A few commercial divers are employed on a permanent basis but the vast majority are freelance and find employment through diving contractors, so you will need to fund your own training. A course leading to an initial offshore diving qualification is likely to cost around £7,000. Newly qualified divers often start by gaining experience through inshore work such as in harbours and inland waterways where pay is £150 to £200 a day.
Those with the right background and expertise may also find work in niche areas of commercial diving such as underwater photography, and scientific and archaeological diving where rates of pay are similar to those for inshore work.
But it's offshore where you earn the big bucks. For experienced saturation divers, who can spend a month living in a pressurised hyperbaric chamber to avoid the need for decompression, the daily rate can top £1,000.
However, being cooped up in a capsule for long periods of time with as many as 12 other people isn't easy. "You have to be fairly mellow-natured to cope with it," says Duncan. Experienced divers can also move on to supervisory roles where there is currently a shortage of suitably qualified people. Offshore work can be extremely lucrative but, if you want a stable, predictable lifestyle, it's probably not for you. "I can get a phone call today and have to be in Aberdeen tomorrow," says Duncan. "It is also intensive and can involve long periods away from home. A typical overseas assignment might consist of two months' work followed by a month off with paid flights back to the UK. You're often working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, although sometimes you can't dive because of bad weather. Companies operate round the clock so you will be doing nights as well."
What qualities make a successful diver? "You need to be self-reliant and focused, as well as good with your hands," says Steve Ham, general manager of leading diver training centre, The Underwater Centre in Fort William, Scotland. "People with backgrounds in engineering or mechanics often do well as they already have some of the necessary skills, but our trainees come from all walks of life. Many are recreational divers who think they'd like to make a living out of being underwater."
Age is no barrier – the average age of divers in the North Sea is 49 – but physical fitness is vital and divers are required to pass a rigorous annual medical. And, although it's still very much a male-dominated industry, there are now a handful of female divers working offshore. "About half of offshore work is inspection diving," says Ham, "so it's not all about brute strength".
For more information, visit www.theunderwatercentre.co.uk. The websites of the International Marine Contractors Association, www.imca-int.com, and the Health and Safety Executive, www.hse.gov.uk/diving/information.htm, also contain advice about diving careers.Reuse content