Inside the life of a deep sea saturation diver, one of the most dangerous and isolated jobs in the world

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Inside the life of a deep sea saturation diver, one of the most dangerous and isolated jobs in the world
A screenshot from the official UK trailer for "Last Breath" showing photos of Chris Lemons.Dogwoof/YouTube
  • Chris Lemons was a saturation diver for 10 years working on oil fields on the North Sea floor.
  • Now, Lemons is a supervisor, who gives instructions to divers and is responsible for keeping them alive.
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When he's not playing golf or spending time with his wife and two daughters, Chris Lemons is living in a small pressurized chamber at the bottom of a boat, hundreds of meters below the surface of the sea.

He spends 28 days at a time here, working on an oil field on the floor of the North Sea. Lemons is a supervisor now, but formerly worked as a saturation diver, named after the process of breathing pressurized air that saturates the blood and tissue of divers so their levels are in line with the pressure of the sea floor.

"I was just very young, my very early twenties, and in truth, I didn't really know what to do with my life," Lemons told Insider about finding his way into his 18-year diving career.

A friend's father helped him out with a summer job working on the back deck of a dive support vessel. There, he got to see a glimpse of the world he would soon enter — a world he said he didn't have any real concept of or even knew existed.

"They all seemed like enigmas a little bit," Lemons said about seeing saturation divers emerge from their chamber. "They probably turned up in fancier cars than me on the key side as well, so that was an appeal. Very quickly, I thought that's what I'd love to do."

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He continued working on the boat and completed training for air diving — the process used for diving in shallower water than deep sea sites — in Scotland.

For eight years, Lemons was required to work as an air diver to gain experience for saturation diving courses, which he eventually did in Marseille, France, before spending 10 years as a saturation diver.

He talked to Insider about what the job's like, his career path, and his incident that inspired a documentary.

Life in the pressurized chamber

Lemons joked that the most important skill for being a saturation diver isn't diving, but being personable enough to live in the pressurized chamber. There can be up to 11 other people in the chamber, and not everyone gets along all the time, he said.

"I've always found it's a great leveler of people because you get people coming in with egos and whatever and it doesn't last very long because you're brutally exposed everyday when you're working," he told Insider.

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Inside the life of a deep sea saturation diver, one of the most dangerous and isolated jobs in the world
Footage of Chris Lemons from the "Last Breath" documentary trailer.Dogwoof/YouTube

He continued: "It's quite a monastic way of living because you are in those chambers, so you don't have any access to alcohol, you're exercising every single day because you're working in the water. You live pretty clean really, and you breathe pure gas."

The chamber is filled with heliox, a combination of helium and oxygen. It's pressurized to the same level as the depth of the seabed the divers are working on. If they are working at 100 meters, for example, the chamber is pressurized to the same level as 90 to 95 meters below sea level.

The downside is a lack of sunlight, he said. But living in the chamber too long has its psychological impacts too, Lemons said.

"I think the day you start feeling that's a normal thing to do, a normal place to live or operate, then it's probably time to get out," Lemons said. "I certainly felt that's what stopped me. I enjoy the diving, but eventually you get tired of living in those conditions."

Lemons said he can talk to his family while living in the chamber because he has access to internet and telephones, but his voice is affected by the depth the divers live at and the helium in the chamber.

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After spending 24 days near the bottom of the sea, coming straight back to the surface is not an option, because a diver could die of decompression sickness, or as its more commonly known, "the bends."

The deeper a diver goes, the more nitrogen is absorbed into their tissue. If they ascend too quickly, the gas bubbles in the diver's body will expand and can rupture the tissue or block arteries and stop the flow of oxygen to the brain.

If Lemons goes to the depth of 100 meters and spends six hours down there, the process of decompression can take four days.

"There's no circumnavigating that four days of decompression," Lemons said. "If you break your leg or your mother dies, it doesn't make a difference, you still have to do four days of decompression."

In the UK, Lemons said saturation divers are legally limited to living in the chambers for 28 days, so they might spend 24 days working on the seabed, then decompressing for four days.

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Working at 100 meters below the surface of the sea

Lemons works in the North Sea which he said probably has the highest safety standards in the world for divers.

There are four teams of three divers on his vessel who each cover six hours on the seabed. The boat runs 24 hours a day.

Divers are lowered toward the seafloor on a diving bell which takes about an hour to launch and an hour to come back, meaning divers are in the water for about eight hours a day.

"It's really a routine, you basically do the same thing at the same time, every single day," Lemons said.

When the divers wake up, they're sent a food menu from which they can select what they want to eat. The food is sent in on silver trays through a gas lock.

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Afterward, the divers are given paperwork telling them what work they are doing for the day, and are briefed by the dive supervisor on the mitigations and risks.

One diver always stays behind in the diving bell as a rescue diver, and to manage the three "umbilical cords" that are attached to the divers in the water, Lemons said. One cord is for gas to breathe, one is for heat, and one is for light.

Lemons works exclusively in the oil and gas industry, putting in and inspecting wells, pipelines, and the hydraulic and electronic infrastructure that keeps the oil field going.

"You can have days when it can be fairly intricate work," Lemons said. "You always have an engineer and a dive supervisor talking to you through an earpiece, so you're fed information and procedures."

Other days involve the divers lumping sandbags around the seabed for six hours, he said.

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The incident

In 2012, Lemons was on the job when the dynamic positioning system, which keeps the boat in place, failed.

Lemons's umbilical cords snapped, and he was left at the bottom of the sea with only five extra minutes of breathing gas. He was rescued after over 30 minutes, during which he said he was mostly unconscious.

Inside the life of a deep sea saturation diver, one of the most dangerous and isolated jobs in the world
Footage of Chris Lemons after he was disconnected from his vessel from the "Last Breath" documentary trailer.Dogwoof/YouTube

A documentary called "Last Breath" was made in 2018 about Lemons's incident. But he says he feels disassociated from the incident when thinking about it or watching the film.

"I think for all three of us who were involved in the water that day, I don't feel any of us feel we've suffered any kind of trauma," Lemons said. "It was a significant event in our lives, definitely, but in a weird way, it's been a positive thing for me."

Because he was still early in his career, Lemons said he was more worried about losing the job after his incident than grappling with the gravity of almost losing his life.

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After a three week investigation, Lemons said he chose to return to his job, and the three members of his diving team resumed work as usual.

"The people who suffer are not really the three of us who can affect the outcome, it's the people you leave at home — your family, your friends, the ones who have to sit at home and imagine the worst."

Now, Lemons publicly speaks about his career as a saturation diver, and talks about the incident to promote safety and share what he learned from the experience.

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