Dangerous Jobs: Marine Salvage Divers

Video highlights from Salvage Code Red

Seb Chander is a marine salvage diver, travelling the world rescuing vessels in distress in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Seb Chander is a marine salvage diver, travelling the world rescuing vessels in distress in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Seb Chander is a marine salvage diver for Titan, one of the largest marine salvage companies in the world. He travels the world rescuing vessels in distress in what is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Seb and his colleagues are featured on National Geographic Channel’s Salvage Code Red, which goes behind the scenes in the dangerous world of marine salvage.

What does the job involve?

Marine Salvage Diver: Basically anytime something leaks, crashes, sinks or catches fire in the marine world – a ship or a drilling platform - we have to go out and solve the problem.

What’s the attraction of marine salvage?

Marine Salvage Diver: I’d been teaching sport diving for about 8 or 9 years and wanted to find a job that involved working underwater, rather than just showing people around. A friend suggested I try commercial diving so I went to do a course. I was applying for lots of jobs while I was doing the course and Titan asked me to come in for some training. About six days into the training they needed a diver who was also a diver-medic, which I was, so, the next day, I was working on a salvage operation saving a drilling platform in Texas. I find salvage very interesting because no two jobs are the same; the circumstances are different, you are working on different casualties or the environmental conditions are very different.

The actual achievement of what we do is great. I’ve been involved in two heavy lifts since starting in salvage. We’ve lifted the accommodation blocks of two ships, which weigh anything from 500 to 700 tonnes and we’ve had to do all the rigging for that. There is a huge sense of achievement when you are working on something that is hard and risky, and challenging, and you have to work with a team that you are trusting with your life to outsmart the challenges in front of you. When you succeed in clearing a hazard that weighs 500 tonnes it just feels amazing.

What’s the deepest you dive?

Marine Salvage Diver: The deepest I have dived to so far is 30 metres. Generally there isn’t a need to go deeper but there have been occasions where deeper dives have been necessary.

The American regulations are different to the UK though, so I am limited to a 50 metre maximum. But at 50 metres I can only do 15 minutes, whereas when I dive shallower than 30 metres I can stay under for a couple of hours. If you think about it most vessels run aground in shallow water so 30 metres is typically as deep as we need to go in most instances.

What are the dangers of the job?

Marine Salvage Diver: There are the dangers associated with working in heavy industry. There are lots of bulldozers, cranes and fork lifts on a site, so there is always the danger of things falling out of the sky and crushing you. Then there are the specific dangers involved when diving such as drowning and getting lost underwater, to things rolling over, springing out or collapsing and crushing you.

There are also some peculiar dangers specific to the type of work that we do though, such as when we work underwater with hyperthermic cutting tools. When we cut steel underwater at high temperatures, pockets of hydrogen and oxygen in the water can build up, and if you touch them with your cutting torch, it can cause an explosion underwater. Unfortunately these explosions have caused some fatalities over the years in the diving industry.

So what do you find the most dangerous part of the job?

Marine Salvage Diver: The thing that concerns all divers when they are in the water is their umbilical and making sure that it’s not fouled. It’s an ongoing concern because your lights, video and communication and breathing gas, are all coming in from it. You need to make sure that your umbilical is free to the surface. On one of the dives featured in Salvage Code Red I tied a knot in my umbilical when it hit a bit of a snag. I unknowingly stepped through a couple of coils in my umbilical and ended up tying it in a double knot. If my supervisor and I hadn't noticed it early on, that knot could have snagged up on one of the many sharp edges on the wreck and severed my umbilical, leaving me disconnected form the surface, fouled up and breathing from the reserve cylinder on my back.

We solved the problem by carefully feeding the umbilical back up to the surface until it and then I had to locate the knot and feed it through very carefully. If I hadn’t been aware of the knot and I’d kept pulling I could have severed the umbilical and my air supply.

What is the most frightening experience you’ve had during your career as a salvage diver?

Marine Salvage Diver: Recently we just finished a dive on a wreck of the Fedra a ship that ran aground off the tip of Gibraltar in October 2008. I was doing a shallow dive in the engine room swimming in thick oily water, trying to assess the damage to the room; can we refloat it, can we cut it up.

I had to slip through a restriction and as I walked around the engine room a big blob of oil came up and covered my faceplate so I couldn’t see. So I was in this engine room trapped – my umbilical was in this tiny space with no bearing as to where I was. It was scary for about 15-20 seconds before I realised I was still on my umbilical, had plenty of gas and was still in communication with the team on deck. We had to retrace my steps very slowly to recover my bearings. I think that case shows one of the many dangers divers face in marine salvage, getting trapped inside a wreck.

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