Introduction to Commercial Diving

The thought of commercial diving may appeal to many recreational divers stuck in offices each day. What is commercial diving, and how different is it from recreational diving?

You may occasionally find yourself, during your work day, staring at a cubicle wall and dreaming of a more exciting career. And, if you’re a recreational diver, it’s not uncommon to wonder about commercial diving in those moments. After all, could it really be that different? Why not get paid for your hobby? Commercial diving, particularly, is very different from recreational diving. But what is it exactly? What do commercial divers do? And what are the prerequisites?

What is commercial diving?

The term “commercial diving” can cover a huge array of activities and tasks. While often associated with the offshore oil and gas industry, commercial diving can apply to any trade or skill that takes place beneath the water. It’s not an easy job. Imagine, for example, the engineering knowledge and skill required to survey, fabricate or repair a large commercial structure on land. Now imagine that same task but with the added complication of being 130 feet (40 m) or deeper offshore in a hostile environment.

Commercial diving isn’t limited to the offshore environment either. Everything from sewage treatment facilities, bridges, power plants and water-based structures, such as the Thames Flood Barrier in London, require teams of commercial divers to assist in the fabrication, construction, maintenance and repair of these structures. Essentially, a commercial diver must perform a host of tasks in a much more demanding and hostile environment than any other tradesman.

In the field of commercial diving, the diving itself is usually simply the means to get to and from the worksite where you would be carrying out tasks, whether in civil engineering or archaeology.

What do commercial divers do?

To give you a taste of the scale and breadth of tasks that commercial divers undertake, their roles may include any one of the following: guideline replacement; hyperbaric chamber operations; injection equipment installation; life-support systems construction, operation, repairs and maintenance; bridge inspection, construction and repair; equipment fabrication; flotation-devices maintenance; gravity surveying; marine environmental control checks; medical and emergency care for diving accidents; ROV operation; operation of diving bells; rock drilling and blasting; salvage; search and recovery; welding; seismic surveying; and hundreds of other roles.

Within those roles there are subsets of commercial diving. These depend on whether you’re using scuba, supplied surface air, or closed-bell diving. These factors depend on which industry you’re working in and which role you’re playing.

What are the prerequisites for becoming a commercial diver?

Having an engineering skill or trade prior to becoming a commercial diver offers a distinct advantage in the field. Working divers would ideally already possess the technical skills specific to the job. For example, commercial divers working in construction may require welding qualifications, while divers involved in an archaeology project would likely require a degree in archaeology to perform that role. You must have both the diving skills and work skills that employers want. However, at the initial training stages, a basic education and sound health are the only prerequisites. There are, however, regional variations. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in commercial diving, check the local regulations and do your research.

The commercial diving industry has historically been populated almost exclusively by young men, and many training centers only accept candidates from 18 to 35 years old. Commercial diving is commonly quite physically challenging, and divers often move from a career underwater by their 40s and 50s to a topside role within the industry. However, over time this picture is evolving, with many dive-training facilities reporting more female candidates and students finding opportunities in middle age and beyond. In addition, it’s also a very cyclical industry, with demand for commercial divers varying from year to year depending on market forces and industry fluctuations. Having transferable skills to another role on the surface during lean periods is a distinct advantage.

Commercial diving associations

PADI and SSI recreational-dive training complies with WRSTC guidelines. Next time you dive on vacation, look for the RSTC logo on the medical form you fill out. Similarly, governing bodies in many regions regulate the commercial diving industry. For example, in the U.S., the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) together with the Association of Commercial Diving Educators (ACDE) and the Association of Diving Contractors International (ACDI) oversee the standard and educational syllabus for commercial-diver training. These bodies are not exclusive. So if you’re serious about commercial diving, check regional variations and standards for the area in which you intend to work.

Where do I learn? How much will it cost?

Globally there are many diver-training schools. Within them are multiple variations as well, depending on how far you want to take your commercial diving career, whether scuba work or saturation-diving from a closed bell. There are also degree programs available in commercial-diving technology. Contact a local accredited training school for a breakdown of qualifications and costs, and prepare a list of questions in advance. Ask when the training starts, the course duration, what is included or not included, i.e. tuition, training materials, equipment, room and board, and the school’s accreditation. Also, find out how and where graduates find work afterwards. Will the school help you find work placement upon graduation? Typically, as a ballpark figure, expect to spend $25,000 USD and several months to complete your initial training.

The rewards and the reality

There is the potential for high earnings within commercial diving. And, while the training costs may appear high, in a buoyant industry when work is readily available, you’ll quickly recoup these costs. The industry also offers the potential for travel. However, be mindful that commercial divers don’t have a ‘normal’ life. The industry can be volatile, and you may spend extended periods away from home. This is not a typical 9-to-5 job. In addition, the career span of a working commercial diver is often short — much like professional athletes, commercial divers usually leave the industry relatively young. And, there is, of course, the risk associated with working in extreme conditions.

Being a commercial diver is vastly different from being a recreational diver. Grasping the basic physics and physiology of diving, together with a basic comfort level in the water give you taste of the underwater world. Other than that, the similarities are scarce. However, for those with the inclination, drive, and qualifications, commercial diving may be the right career. Contact your local training school to find out more.