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SCUBA vs Commercial Diving: What You Need to Know

Diver covered in algae. Photo courtesy of Richard Smindak.

When someone asks you “What do you do for a living” and your response is “I’m a commercial diver” the odds of getting a blank stare are about 9 out of 10 times.  That being said, it makes a great conversation starter on a first date!

So what is commercial diving? How is it different than regular SCUBA diving?

In SCUBA diving you bring your air with you (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus). There are two different types of SCUBA diving- recreational and technical. Recreational diving is what you see people do on their once-in-a-life-time trip to Fiji or their yearly cruise to Hawaii. Generally you only have one tank of air on your back that will last about 45 minutes to an hour. It is where we all start when being introduced to the underwater world. Technical diving on the other hand is the next step in SCUBA. In technical diving you bring more air with you, have a specialized air “mix”, or reuse your air with specially designed equipment. This let’s you go deeper or stay at certain depths longer. Technical diving isn’t for everyone and requires extensive training in order to use the equipment needed and to know your limits to keep yourself safe.

Now there are different specialities within recreational and technical diving you can achieve. Also you can do work while on SCUBA (i.e. conducting research surveys and sampling, filming or photographing a wreck/site/animal behavior for National Geographic, or teaching others how to dive), but in SCUBA diving you are mainly enjoying your time underwater with no obligation other than staying within your limits.

Dam inspection diving. Photo courtesy of Rick Smindak.

Commercial diving takes things up a notch. Instead of floating neutrally through the water column enjoying the marine life, commercial divers have a specified task at hand and they are usually weighted to sink. Instead of carrying their main source of air with them, commercial divers are tethered to the surface with their air constantly being delivered to them by umbilicals. Also in place of a regulator that a SCUBA diver holds in their mouth, a commercial diver’s full face or even head will be covered in a mask or dive helmet. This allows the diver to communicate back and forth to his team on the surface. Constant communication with the surface team is extremely important. This is because the work a commercial diver does can kill him/her if they do not have contact with the surface. Commercial divers also usually deal with heavy equipment that is either hydraulically (water/oil) or pneumatically (air) powered. Occasionally a commercial diver even handles electricity in the water (welding). Depending on the depth or duration of a dive a commercial diver is working at they can also have a special mix of gases delivered to them.

So what can you do as a commercial diver? A lot actually! Especially if you don’t mind long hours, hard work, potential for near constant travel, and a hierarchal system of “breaking out” as a diver after you do your time in other roles as surface support.

Sometimes even as a diver you have dry work to do. Photo courtesy of Chris Corley.

Most commercial dive jobs are categorized as either off shore or inland. Off shore is just what is sounds like. These are the rough and tough oil rig and saturation divers- the ones you don’t pick a bar fight with. These guys spend weeks to months on oil rigs or even up to a month at the bottom of the ocean fixing and inspecting pipelines. Inland divers have a bit more of a variety of work. Bridges, dams, water towers, piers or other manmade features in the water need to be inspected or even built. While an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) can do some visual inspections, only a diver can do more extensive inspections that go beyond looking at the visible structure by also conducting non-destructive testing (NDT) inspection dives that determine if the actual structure of an object is solid or needs replacing. Inland divers can also find jobs in ship husbandry, salvage, search and recovery, and inspection and maintenance.

Commercial divers are a special breed. They can do the same work underwater as most people do on the surface. Sound like the career for you? Check out the two regulatory agencies that set the bar for what it takes to become a commercial diver- ADCI and IMCA. There are dive schools all across the United States as well as several internationally that you can attend to make your underwater dream reality.

 

Aquarium inspection is one of the many facets for commercial dive jobs. Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Ziegler.

 

 

**This article takes a broad snapshot look at the differences of recreational and commercial diving. There are many different specialties within diving that require specialized training and equipment that may have not been mentioned.**

About Rebecca Ziegler

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Rebecca currently works for the Mouse (Disney) in Orlando as a commercial diver. She holds Bachelor’s in Marine Science and Communication from the University of Hawaii at Hilo as well as her commercial dive certification from the International Diving Institute. When not working underwater, Rebecca can be found exploring her new home in the Sunshine State.

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