Under the sea

Under the sea

Saturation diver Pierre LeFèvre reveals what it’s like to live at the bottom of the ocean

There’s just something about standing on the bottom of the ocean, hundreds of metres beneath the surface, engulfed in cold, impenetrable darkness—and being able to breathe, says Pierre LeFèvre. At 62, he’s been diving since 1981 and just can’t seem to retire.

“I was thinking of next year, but I did so well on my medical, I might delay it again,” he says. “I still enjoy it.”

Saturation divers, or “sat divers,” work in the deep sea, often on offshore oil and gas installations. Working at great depths makes going to the surface at the end of each day impossible: the time required to decompress, plus the risk of decompression sickness is too much. Instead, they live in pressurized chambers on dive support ships for up to four weeks at a time. “I’ve done 42 [days] when I was in Iran in 2002,” LeFèvre says.

A pressurized diving bell lowers them to the seabed each day, much like a subsea elevator.

The living chamber has a bathroom, bunks, and chairs. Anything coming in or going out of the chamber—even toilet flushes—must pass through a pressure “lock” system, operated from the outside. The chamber in Iran, in which LeFèvre lived for 42 days? It was about six feet high and ten feet long, he says. And he shared it with three other people.

“You have to be disciplined, you can’t be claustrophobic and you need a good sense of humour,” he says.

When they go ‘outside’ to work, divers are tethered to the bell and breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen. The gas prevents nitrogen narcosis, a dangerous state of mental impairment (like being drunk) brought on by the crushing water pressure past 30 metres. The resulting disorientation and irrational thinking can lead to fatal misjudgments.

“The gas that we breathe is so expensive, it’s recovered on the surface, cleaned out, purified… and recirculated back to us,” says LeFèvre.

Growing up outside Montreal, diving was an early fascination. He was rescued from the St. Lawrence by a neighbour when he was just four. He’d jumped in, hoping to explore its depths. He started scuba diving when he was 14 and later went to diving school. “I feel safer in the water than I do on land,” he says.

He’s worked all over Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Atlantic Canada. He was part of the team that mobilized the Hibernia platform from Bull Arm, in Newfoundland. These days, he’s diving for Rever Offshore in the North Sea.

Diving has its moments of darkness. He’s been stuck in bells with people he didn’t like, and he’s had inevitable accidents while working (including a subsea explosion). He was part of the recovery mission after a 2013 helicopter accident off the Shetland Islands. “I look at it ultimately like you’re bringing closure,” he says. “Once [the family] has a body, the grieving process can start.”

And of course, there are sharks. Once, off South Africa, what he thought was a sea lion who regularly swam by turned out to be a great white. There was nothing to do but keep calm, keep still and wait it out, LeFèvre says.

Though he often spends his days with just a few other human beings within a 100-metre radius, he says loneliness is rarely an issue. From an octopus he named “the supervisor” who’d watch him work off the Ivory Coast, to the time in West Africa where he was beneath a pod of mating humpback whales—LeFèvre says the dark is full of life. •

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  • Robert Fitzsimmons of the Campobello whale rescue team
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