Exploring Saturation Diving with International Diver Jadon Anderson
The deeper we go underwater, the longer it takes for the gases in our bodies to safely decompress – return to normal pressure – as we approach the surface. In fact, it takes one day per 100 ft of depth, plus one, to decompress without experiencing the bends, or decompression sickness, which kicks in when we return too quickly to the surface from depth. This means it takes a diver four days to decompress from a depth of 300 ft, and three days from 200 ft. Many companies in the oil industry own heavy equipment and pipeline which must be maintained and built at depths of 0-1000 ft.
Since divers can only stay underwater for a few hours, sending dive technicians to these underwater sites, and then decompressing them for each dive, becomes a lengthy, expensive process. Saturation diving, aka SAT diving, was born to overcome this problem.
SAT divers live for up 28 days in a small topside chamber that is pressurized to the same level as the underwater construction environment, so divers do not have to decompress after each shift. They are lowered to depth using a diving bell. SAT diving, like offshore diving, operates on a 24/7 cycle. A SAT chamber typically houses 2-3 divers who seamlessly rotate between shifts of six hours each. On their underwater excursions, they lay pipeline, inspect structures, undertake maintenance, and once in a while, get to do a little ocean floor exploring. Jadon Anderson, DIT grad, class 102-98 talks to us about his career in international SAT diving and tells us how to succeed in this strange, claustrophobic and demanding environment.
Water, water everywhere: From swimming pools and fisheries to the briny blue
“From age 16 to 21, I was a lifeguard and did pool maintenance – a pool brat.”
After his “pool brat” years, Jadon joined the auxiliary coastguard in Yellowknife, NW territories, staying on for four years. He then worked farming fish in British Columbia until enrolling at Divers Institute. At 27 years old he broke out as a tender in the Gulf of Mexico after 18 months, and the rest is SAT diving history.
How did you get into SAT diving?
Jadon: I got my first international job with Sarku Engineering Services as an inspection diver. I had the inspection certifications I earned at DIT, and worked on platforms in Asia. It was good money, but we all knew the real money was in saturation. In my three years working on the Gulf, I saw guys come out of SAT – they worked shorter time offshore, earned more money and had a longer time home. So that was the best idea [for me]. I saved up $16,000 for three weeks of school in Tasmania, Australia and flew there after a 60-day hitch with Sarku in Malaysia. After the course, I did another 60 days with Sarku, with the SAT ticket, which meant I didn’t see my wife or family for over 145 days. But, you do what you have to do – and fortunately I got my first job as a SAT diver with Sarku doing inspection. In those days, boom, there was a lot of work and you could day rate, jump around and work for any company you want. I jumped around, worked for a few companies – in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore. And then I was home for the summer and there was work in Newfoundland – they needed more Canadian SAT divers to balance out the expat: Canadian ratio due to Canada’s employment laws. Out of the blue I sent my resume although I didn’t yet have enough experience. I was hired – as a rigger – working on deck in exhausting 12-hour shifts. But they saw I enjoyed it and had a good time, so when a diver had to leave the vessel I went to the superintendent. I remember that, knocking on his door…
…Hey, is there a chance I can get into SAT? I know I’ve been hired on as a rigger but I got all my certs...
Well, my name got pulled first and I did my first SAT on the east coast of Canada. It was a real shocker because in Asia you dive with coveralls – the water’s that warm – in Canada, it’s freezing. Temperatures are around one degree, minus one, so it was a real shock. Even in a hot water suit you still feel that cold, where the cuff hits the glove of the suit. It was beautiful there though, a granite bottom clear to 400 ft.
Some say that SAT divers are all alpha male types, that your body starts to feel really weird, and that you eventually get to hate everyone you live with in the chamber, but Jadon is not sure that these things are really all true.
Jadon: Honestly, I haven’t felt many physical effects of SAT diving at all, but it certainly affects the mind! My longest SAT dive was 69 days. Man, after that I tell you, I couldn’t wait to see green grass. At the end of it, when you’re actually done, you’re just waiting in lines, waiting for your seat to fly home, so much waiting. Man, I was really aggravated at that time. I don’t think I’ll ever do a SAT that long again. You basically have to learn how to talk again.
A lot of people say that SAT divers are typically the alpha type, that everyone’s gotta be alpha – but I don’t see that. The biggest thing is patience. Things change so fast – one day you might get woken up at 11 a.m. to dive at noon, but at a quarter after they say, “Change of plans!”
There’s no time for arguing; it’s too short. SAT divers in general are a good group, not bad-blooded people, but I’ve definitely heard of bad SATs, bloody nose arguments and so on. There’s not much of that though. One of the toughest things on your mind is that you hear the same stories, lots of times… So there are times where, yeah, maybe that guy is just driving you crazy. The minute you get out, you make sure you’re on a different shift – that he’s on the port side, you’re on the starboard, he’s on the bow, you’re on the stern… you just gotta stay clear. You’re in such a confined space for so long. But, like I said, that rarely happens. I’ve been working with the same guys for six or seven years now. There are some new people but with the regular crew, I know their families, they know my wife’s and kids’ names. It’s like another family, a brotherhood, and at home you miss that. Altogether there are only around 75 SAT divers who I might work with, and I’m close with 25 or 30, so there’s a real feeling of community.
Jadon does four or five jobs a year, each at six to eight weeks long, since there are at least four days of decompression per SAT.
What’s it like at the beginning, and now you’ve been a SAT diver for a while, what’s your favorite kind of SAT work?
Jadon: “When you first start everything is new and everything is big. When you see it on a photo you still can’t comprehend how big things all are. That’s why I bring that nut around. you put on 30 of those with a bolt that’s are 3 ft. long and well over 75 lbs as well. You can’t lift it up, you have to use a lift bag – everything is big and everything is heavy. My favourite underwater work is spools. I’d have to say doing the metrology, so taking a measurement from the pipeline to the platform. The top side will make the spool piece, they’ll land that spool piece, and then we’ll tie it in with bolts, HydratightTM. It’s good, solid work; you’re busy all the time. I enjoy bottom work – being able to walk on the seabed is better than midwater, where you have to stay at the same depth. When you’re on the bottom, sometimes there are a few minutes where maybe a helicopter’s landing on the boat and everything stops for a bit. When you have these moments, it’s always neat to dig around in the mud to see if you can find that special shell, or something from an old ship. Sometimes you find a bottle that shouldn’t be there, maybe it’s been sitting there for years. I’ve heard of people finding old ships and megalodon teeth. It’s great to find something cool that you can bring up – I see a lot of different coral, my boy’s got a fish tank. Black coral is super rare so we look at that. But for the most part, when you’re in the water, you gotta do that job, finish that job. You usually don’t have time to look around to see that fish or that hidden treasure, but there are cool animals, sea snakes, lionfish or chicken fish, and more.”
Written for DIT by Londi Gamezde