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As Salvage Code Red illustrates, emergency marine salvage is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Because of their sheer size and highly toxic cargo, supertankers can be great liabilities at sea. When they are involved in an accident, the environmental cost can be high and the media spotlight bright. We take a look at five of the worst oil tanker disasters that occurred close to the British Isles in recent decades.

The Amoco Cadiz
March, 1978

One of the single worst oil tanker disasters close to the British Isles occurred when super-tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the coast of France in bad weather in March 1978, en route from the Persian Gulf to Le Havre.

The environmental impact was catastrophic.

Attempts to save the ship’s cargo and oil were waylaid when storms caused the Amoco Cadiz to split in two, releasing all the oil on board into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the Brittany coast. The isolated location of the ship and the rough sea restricted the cleanup efforts for the first two weeks after the incident. As much as 220,000 tonnes of oil flooded the sea – the entire 1,619,048 barrels on board the ship - creating an oil slick 30 km. wide and 130 kms. long and polluting 320 kms. of coastline in the process. More than 30 ships tried to contain the oil slick, including Royal Navy tugs and a special vessel from Holland equipped with mechanical shovels. Although the clean-up operation did manage to collect as much as 100,000 tonnes of oil and water, less than 20,000 tonnes of oil were recovered from this liquid after treatment in refining plants. The oil slick was responsible for killing or injuring an estimated 300,000 sea birds.

Torrey Canyon

March 1967: The Torrey Canyon supertanker crashes near Land’s End, Cornwall

In March 1967, the Torrey Canyon supertanker struck Pollard’s Rock and spilt 31 million gallons of oil into the Cornish sea. Desperate rescuers, in a bid to minimise the oil slick and the environmental impact, used napalm and petrol to try and burn off the oil on the sea’s surface. The ship’s entire cargo, approximately 860,000 barrels, either ended up in the sea or were burnt off over the next twelve days.

Salvage crews worked hard to save the vessel, but several attempts to float the ship off the rock failed; one member of the Dutch salvage team involved was killed in the process. In the end, to try and stop as much oil as possible from leaking into the ocean, the RAF bombed the vessel so that the ship would sink and the remaining oil would burn. It is believed that as much as 190 miles of Cornish coast and 80 kilometres of the French coast were contaminated by the spill, killing more than 15,000 sea birds and marine animals. A later inquiry into the cause of the crash, held in Liberia, where the ship was registered, pinned the blame on the captain of the ship who had been hoping to take a ‘short cut’ en route to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, West Wales.

January 1993: The Braer runs aground off Shetland, Scotland

Travelling from Norway to Canada in January 1993, the Liberian-registered supertanker Braer encountered hurricane-force winds off the Shetland Islands and ran aground. Though all the crew were evacuated via rescue helicopter, 85,000 tonnes of crude oil spilled. The North Sea is fierce in January and the clean-up operation was severely hampered by a month-long storm that made access to the ship and the site difficult. However, the bad weather did have one positive effect in that it helped to disperse the massive oil slick caused by the incident. However, more than 6,500 sea birds are believed to have been oiled as a result.

February, 1996, The Sea Empress grounds in Milford Haven, West Wales

Travelling to the super Texaco Refinery in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, West Wales, in February, 1996, the Sea Empress grounded at the entrance to the harbour. The resulting oil spill – 72,000 tonnes – caused a major environmental disaster in an environmentally-sensitive area. The Pembrokeshire coast is well known for its wildlife and is the only coastal area in Britain to have national park status. Over 3,500 dead sea birds were washed ashore, with a similar number found alive but covered in oil. The spill polluted more than 200 km. of coastline and cost £60 million to clean up; many local volunteers were involved in the clean-up effort. The rescue operation for the Sea Empress was hampered by weather and the ship ran aground a total of three times before finally being refloated. Half of the Sea Empress’s total oil was lost in the incident.

December, 1999, The Erika sinks in the Bay of Biscay

In December, 1999 the 180m (590ft) oil tanker, Erika, heading for Italy from the northern French port of Dunkirk, split in two south of the Brittany coast after coming running into 100 km. winds and 6-metre-high waves. The rescue operation of the 26 Indian crew aboard the vessel involved British Royal Navy Sea King helicopters from the UK that were called in by the French Navy for assistance.

The tanker, which broke up in the Bay of Biscay, encountered further problems when rescuers tried to tow the stern of the ship out into deeper waters to minimise the risk of oil spillage, but the ship’s stern began to sink and eventually the Erika disappeared into the Atlantic. The ship spilled about 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil and 400 km. of coastline were affected - an area that had already been hit by an oil slick when the larger Amoco Cadiz supertanker ran aground in 1978. In January, 2008, French oil company Total was fined 375,000 euros (£280,000) and ordered to pay a share of nearly 200m euros in damages for the accident. Between 60,000 and 300,000 sea birds died as a result of the spill.

When super-tankers heavily loaded with oil crash, the environmental cost is always high and the global media spotlight bright. We take a look at five of the worst oil tanker disasters to take place close to the British Isles in recent decades.


Emergency marine salvage is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Smit, which is one of the salvage companies featured in National Geographic’s ‘Salvage Code Red,’ is one of the oldest salvage rescue companies in the world, with more than 165 years of service in the maritime sector. Over the years it has worked all over the globe on many sizes of vessels. But while the company may be best known for its part in salvaging the Riverdance ferry in Blackpool in 2008, featured in an upcoming episode of Salvage Code Red, Smit also responds to smaller, but no less dangerous and technically-complicated, salvage operations every month.

We take a look at some of their biggest salvage operations that they encountered in 2008.

Zhen Hua 10
2nd February – 5th February 2008

In February 2008, the heavy cargo vessel Zhen Hua 10, carrying five massive gantry cranes, grounded in heavy wind just outside Rotterdam, where Smit is based.

As soon as the salvage contract had been awarded to Smit, the company immediately deployed a Salvage Master via helicopter to assist the captain in the rescue operation. To lighten the vessel, the salvage crew removed some of her ballast. Using a powerful 220-ton oceangoing tug and three harbour tugs, the Smit team successfully refloated the Zhen Hua 10 during high tide on 5th February, 2008. A later inquiry into the incident suggested that the anchors and engine power of the Zhen Hua 10 may have been insufficient to cope with the “wind sensitive” high cranes, which towered high above the cargo decks and would have put additional strain on the ship in bad weather.

Sibulk Innovation
24th April 2008 – 5th May 2008

The bulk carrier Sibulk Innovation, en-route from India to China, was fully laden with bauxite when she collided with another tanker off the Singapore coast. The carrier suffered ruptures in two topside tanks and two cargo holds, the latter of which flooded on impact so that the vessel was under-water at the head. A Smit salvage team was immediately mobilised to the scene of the crash. After the extent of the damage was surveyed by Smit divers, the salvage team set about patching the vessel underwater. They then pumped all of the water out of Sibulks holds and eventually moved the ship, under its own power, to a secure anchorage point.

24th July 2008 – 3rd August 2008

In July 2008 the multi-purpose vessel Westernstar grounded in a shallow patch of sea off the Indonesian Coast, approximately 100 miles from Singapore. When Smit took on the salvage contract, parts of the ship were on fire and the entire engine room was flooded. Smit mobilised a salvage team, a work/diving barge, two tug boats and a diving support craft.

Upon arrival, the salvors found the fire under control and took anti-pollution measures, while the underwater diving team assessed the damage. After patching all the flooded compartments, Smit pumped the onboard water from the vessel and refloated the Westernstar. A tug then towed her to a Singapore shipyard for repairs.

12th September 2008 – 19th September 2008

Hurricane Ike caused considerable damage in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico during the Atlantic Hurricane season in September, 2008, and shipping was not immune from his wrath. After leaving Port Arthur in the USA, the Antalina suffered engine trouble in the Gulf of Mexico and was adrift 90 miles from the Texas shore, directly in the path of the approaching hurricane. An operation to rescue the crew aboard the vessel had to be called off by the US Coast Guard due to extreme weather conditions, which included six-meter-high waves, 80-knot winds and poor visibility. The Smit team was called in to rescue the ship and dispatched two specialised tug boats to bring the floundering ship to safety and avoid a potential disaster.

The Grandiosa
27th – 9th October, 2008

On 25th September the Grandiosa grounded on a sandbank in the Argentinian waters of Río Paraná. Several re-floating attempts by a local salvage company failed, and Smit was called in to rescue the stricken vessel.

The salvage team removed cargo to lighten the Grandiosa in preparation for refloating her away from the sandbank. Using a harbour tug from Buenos Aires and two pusher tugs the Smit team refloated the Grandiosa on 9th October. She was moved downriver and reloaded with cargo.

The salvage teams featured in Salvage Code Red can respond to a code red alert and get their teams to a stricken vessel anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours. We take a look at some recent salvage operations undertaken by salvage team Smit.


Super Ships: A look at some of the largest ships on the ocean

The Xin Los Angeles

Designed and built by Samsung Heavy Industries, the Xin Los Angeles is one of the world’s largest cargo ships.

Capable of carrying a staggering 9,600 six-meter cargo containers – 8x18 tiered rows on the weather deck of the >vessel, 16x10 in the hold itself - the Xin Los Angeles is 337 metres long and 46 metres wide. Despite being far larger than most ocean-going ships, she only requires a crew of 19.

The Emma Maersk

Currently the largest containership on the seas, she can carry more than11,000 six-metere containers in one go – similar to a 71-kilometer-long train capable of carrying 528 million bananas in a single trip. The Emma Maersk just squeaks by the Xin Los Angeles for the title of biggest ship at 397 metres long and 63 metres wide with an engine that produces the equivalent output of 1,156 cars! The anchor alone weighs in at an impressive 29 tonnes.

Ships of the Future: Super Supertankers

And if you thought the Emma Maersk was impressive, the near future could well see the dawn of mega-sized cargo vessels that are regularly able to carry more than 20,000 six-metre containers. South Korean ship-building company STX Shipbuilding has designed – but as yet not built – a new prototype of a containership that is 450 metres long and 50 metres wide, with a full load capacity of 22,000 containers.

Cruise Ships Get Supersized

While the need to transport more and more cargo in a single journey to save on fuel consumption makes the rise of bigger and bigger container ships almost inevitable, the desire to go big is also affecting cruise ships, as companies vie to offer cruise ship passengers more and more choices on board. Built by STX Europe in Finland, the largest cruise ship ever – the Oasis of the Seas – will set sail in late 2009. At 360 metres long and 47 metres wide, she is unique in that she features in the middle of the ship her very own 110-metre-long and 19-metre-wide version of Central Park, complete with green space, lawns, plants and trees.

Technical advances in ship building mean that modern ships are getting bigger. From colossal cruise ships to super supertankers, check out these monster ocean-going vessels of the present and not-too-distant future.


People involved in marine salvage operations are often expected to work in extremely dangerous environments, where one wrong move could lead to tragedy. But with so many major shipping disasters reported every year, marine salvage teams are constantly in demand. Major salvage companies like Florida-based Titan have to be able to respond to a code red salvage alert and get their teams to a stricken vessel anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours.

Titan, along with Rotterdam-based Smit, which also features in Salvage Code Red, is today one of the biggest marine salvage companies in the world, but started out back in the 1980s as a one-tug towing firm. It was only after working on a successful salvage operation in the Caribbean in 1982 that the company quickly expanded to take on additional barges, tugs and cranes and focus on marine salvage operations. Today, Titan is the US Coast Guard’s main salvage contractor in Mississippi and much of the Gulf of Mexico and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, successfully re-floated no less than 65 vessels.

We take a look at some of their recent marine salvage work.

SCF Tomsk

In October 2007 the Liberian-registered, 551-foot-long and 23,500-gross-tonne gas carrier SCF Tomsk ran aground off the coast of the Dominican Republic as Tropical Storm Noel wreaked havoc on the Caribbean. The ship was carrying approximately 330,000 gallons of fuel oil and 33,000 gallons of diesel as well as 1.5 million gallons of liquefied petroleum gas, which, mercifully for the environment, did not leak into the sea but was contained within the vessel.

Hired under the Lloyd’s Open Form – an international framework used to clarify salvage contracts and remuneration between salvage companies, vessel owners and their insurance companies - Titan put into action a full team of experts and their equipment to rescue the floundering ship. After inspection, the Titan team found that the Tomsk still had considerable liquefied gas on board, stored in ballast tanks that had been damaged, though not enough to cause a leak into the surrounding sea. After moving the liquefied gas into secure tanks, the team was able to re-balance the vessel so that it would float free from the reef on which it was stuck.

The Cougar Ace

In July 2006, the Japanese car carrier the Cougar Ace, packed with 4,700 Mazda cars and Isuzu trucks bound for the North-American market was traveling from Japan to Vancouver, Canada, when it stranded in the Pacific Ocean.

The ship’s condition quickly began to deteriorate as it took on water, listing to a dramatic 80-degree angle in the middle of the ocean. There began one of Titan’s largest salvage operations of recent years as the expert team pulled out all the stops – working solidly for 24 days straight to try and save the vessel and its extremely lucrative cargo. The first part of the operation involved towing the vessel into the Wide Bay area of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where weather conditions facilitated the salvage operation. The salvage team then got to work pumping out the water on board the ship so that the Cougar Ace could be successfully refloated. The entire Cougar Ace salvage operation was highlighted as a major feature by Wired magazine.

The APL Panama

The 835-foot container ship APL Panama ran aground on the beach of Ensenada, Mexico, on Christmas Day 2005. The vessel was packed with 2,000 cargo containers and the subsequent rescue operation to refloat the vessel was one of the largest ever. No less than twenty lorry loads of salvage equipment, as well as five 300-tonne hydraulic pullers, seven tugboats, three cranes, a specially-equipped helicopter, a dredge and a flat-deck barge, as well as several salvage crews, were all utilized in the operation. After removing all the oil and more than 1,200 cargo containers that were left on board the APL Panama, the Titan team had to remove large amounts of sand that had buried part of the ship on the beach, before being able to successfully refloat the cargo ship. The APL Panama was redelivered to its owners in March 2006.

Palo Alto

Known as the ‘Cement Ship,’ the SS Palo Alto has been a California landmark since it was intentionally grounded at the end of Seacliff Pier in Aptos, California, in 1930. But after reports from local authorities and environmentalists that the ship was polluting the sea and endangering wildlife, the Titan team was called in to rescue the ship. After inspecting the wreckage and finding the leak, the Titan team set about removing the oil – as well as more than 100 oil-covered dead seabirds and other marine life.

Salvage teams such as Titan, as featured in Salvage Code Red can respond to a code red alert and get their teams to a stricken vessel anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours. We take a look at some of their recent salvage operations.


Despite being packed with state-of-the-art navigation systems and built to ever-increasing specifications to withstand all that the world’s oceans can throw at them, there are still many major shipping disasters reported every year – good news for the marine salvage companies featured in Salvage Code Red, less so for ship owners.

But what causes these shipping disasters? Whether wild winds, ferocious fires, clumsy captains or sinking ships, the causes of modern-day shipping disasters are numerous.

Bad Weather

While the casualty toll of modern-day commercial shipping as a result of bad weather may not be as alarming as it was in the days of sail ships, weather conditions still account for numerous shipping accidents every year.

High winds on the ocean can cause severe problems for commercial shipping, pushing the ships into shallower waters where the possibility of grounding is significantly increased. The grounding of the Zhen Hua 10, which was carrying five massive gantry cranes and grounded in high winds just outside Rotterdam in February 2008, is a good example of how heavy wind can wreak havoc with ships.

Collision with another Ship

In busy harbours and shipping lanes the world over, the risk of crashing into another vessel remains high.

Numerous ships have come undone in these cramped shipping areas, where ship captains have to be ever-vigilant.

But accidents can easily happen, with devastating effects, as the Panamanian scrap metal ship, the New Flame, discovered in August 2007. After colliding with a petrol tanker just off the coast of Gibraltar, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the New Flame partially sunk and salvage teams had to be called in.

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Fire on Board

When fires break out on board a ship, whether in the engine room, hold or living quarters, the effects can be devastating. In 1991, the oil tanker the Haven, loaded with one million barrels of crude oil, exploded off the Mediterranean coast near Genoa, Italy, killing six crew members and heavily polluting the coastline.

More recently, in February, 2008, as featured in Episode One of Salvage Code Red, the Adriyatik ferry, laden with 200 trucks and oil, caught alight off the coast of Croatia. All her cargo was destroyed and the salvage crew took six days to tame the fire.

Wild winds, ferocious fires or clumsy captains? The causes of modern-day shipping disasters are numerous. We take a look at what causes some of the major shipping disasters reported every year.

Captain Error

Captain error often goes hand-in-hand with bad weather, where high winds and crushing waves can push ships off course into shallower waters. These terrible conditions usually make ship movement more difficult and one wrong turn by a captain can spell disaster. But sometimes, bad weather has nothing to do with shipping accidents at all, and the blame can be pinned on the captain of the ship alone. One of the most famous cases of captain error was the 1967 Torrey Canyon shipping disaster, in which the captain of the supertanker, en route to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, decided to take a ‘short cut’ to disastrous effect.


Interested in learning more about the shipping industry and the exciting world of marine salvage as featured in Salvage Code Red? Batten down the hatches, grab your lifejacket and set sail on the web to discover the great and the good of the maritime world.

Want to recommend your own link for inclusion? Email us

International Salvage Union - The international body representing marine salvage members from around the world. Visit the Site

Shipwrecks UK – A regularly updated list about losses from shipwrecks in the seas around Britain and Ireland. Visit the Site

The New Carissa Wreck – Photos and information from OregonLive about the cargo ship New Carissa as featured on Salvage Code Red. Visit the Site

The Riverdance Webcam – Updated every half an hour, images of the shoreline where the Riverdance wreak is located. Visit the Site

Ship of the Day – Concentrating mainly on ships entering the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands this is a popular blog, which, as the name suggests, showcases a different ship every day. Visit the Site

Smit - One of the oldest salvage rescue companies in the world, with a proud tradition of more than 165 years of service in the maritime sector. Also one of the marine salvage crews featured in Salvage Code Red. Visit the Site

Titan - Titan are today one of the biggest marine salvage companies in the world, but started out back in the 1980s as a one-tug towing firm. They are also one of marine salvage crews featured in Salvage Code Red. Visit the Site

Wired Magazine – High Tech Cowboys of the Deep Sea: The Race to Save the Cougar Ace – An informative feature from US Magazine Wired on the world of marine salvage, highlighting the Titan Marine Salvage team’s mission to save the cargo vessel the Cougar Ace off the coast of Alaska, USA. Visit the Site

gCaptain – A website dedicated to maritime professionals, includes shipping news, blogs, photos of ships and online navigational calculators. Visit the Site

Lloyd’s List – Watch weekly video updates on all the latest news affecting the maritime industry, plus get inside the industry with the latest company news. Visit the Site

Ship Recycling Industries Association (India) – Find out more about the Alang Shipyard and how ships are recycled. Visit the Site

The National Geographic Channel is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

Batten down the hatches, grab your lifejacket and set sail on the web to discover the great and the good of the maritime world with our pick of the best maritime web links.


Emergency marine salvage, as documented on Salvage Code Red, may well be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but the danger doesn’t end once a ship has been saved. If a ship cannot be repaired after a major incident, it is often sold for scrap. We uncover more about modern-day ship breaking and how it’s actually done.

What is Ship Breaking?

Ship breaking is the process of dismantling ships and selling their parts - primarily the steel - for scrap. It is estimated that between 200 and 600 large, end-of-life ships are broken up and recycled every year worldwide.

The main impetus for breaking a ship down is that maintenance costs go up as a ship ages. Shipping companies also have to pay port charges, crew salaries and oil fees for their ships, so when they are no longer economically viable they are sold to ship recyclers who strip the old ships down, salvaging anything of value.

It is big business globally, particularly in the developing world.

Dismantling a ship and recycling its parts is a very labour intensive process that involves a wide range of activities, from removing all the equipment and items left on a ship, such as engine parts and fittings, to cutting down and recycling the entire ship’s infrastructure.

Where in the World is Ship Breaking Done?

Due to cheaper labour costs and because there are fewer health and safety regulations that have to be followed, the developing world hosts the vast majority of ship breaking efforts. However, in the US, it is government policy that all US Navy vessels be broken down on US soil. In America alone there are more than 130 old ships, or ghost ships, waiting to be broken down.

The four largest ship breaking nations in the world are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. These four countries handle an estimated 85 percent of the world’s ship recycling by weight.

India is a major destination for ship recycling. Alang, on the west coast of India, north of Mumbai, is the world's largest ship breaking yard. Its unique location and features make it ideal for ship breaking because its shipyard has a high tidal range, a 15-degree slope and a mud-free coast, making it easy for any ship, regardless of size, to beach with ease during high tide. These features, combined with the easy availability of cheap labour, mean that Alang is a thriving ship recycling yard, recycling more than 100 ships each year.

How Dangerous is Ship Breaking?

Ship breaking is a very dangerous activity involving numerous risks, many of which could be avoided if simple health and safety policies were implemented. Thus, ship recycling is only really economically viable in countries where wages are low and there is less regard for safety in the workplace.

Among the dangers ship breakers face are harmful substances. These substances include asbestos, lead, mercury, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), radiation and low levels of radium, among others.

Workers are also constantly at risk from accidents caused by falling material, fires, electric shocks and fumes.

There is also the risk of workers falling from great heights..

To make matters worse, typical ship breaking activity takes place in 40°C heat on beaches without personal protective devices or equipment; if something does go wrong, workers have little or no protection. Another potential hazard, and a cause of many accidents, is the fact that many yards re-use ropes and chains from ships without inspecting them for suitability. Additionally, testing of equipment such as cranes and lifting gear is far more relaxed, or non-existent, as compared to more developed countries.

Is Ship Breaking Big Business?

Ship breaking is becoming increasingly important economically. In the developing world, ship breaking not only employs thousands of people in breaking down a ship, but the material produced is important to other industries, such as re-rolling steel plants.

Because of the increase in international trade and global shipping, ship recycling is on the rise. Most ships have a life expectancy of just 25 to 30 years, at which point many ships are scrapped. Shipping experts predict that every year, four percent of the world’s 89,000-strong shipping fleet should be scrapped or recycled. It is predicted that by 2010, 24 million tonnes – 4,000 ships - should be scrapped annually. This is unlikely to happen as currently less than 600 ships are estimated to be dismantled each year.

Shipbreaking is big business, but it's deadly too. We uncover more about modern-day ship breaking and find out how the dangerous work is actually done.


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.

Listen to the interview with Seb Chander, Marine Salvage Diver, Click Here>

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.

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


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