Superheroes of the deep

 By Giancarlo Strocchia

Beyond the darkness, beyond the crushing pressure, men of great passion and skill work in even prohibitive conditions, over 150 meters deep, with the precision of a surgeon and the expertise of an engineer. Among them is also Daniele Galvani, a former professional diver, now Eni supervisor of diving and underwater activities. During his long career, he has inspected platforms and put together kilometers of tracks of international pipelines, confronting the dangers of the deep…

“Passion is the main reason I decided to do this job, the top motive. If I had not done this, I probably wouldn’t have done anything else”. A deep thought, expressed spontaneously, that manifests all of the impetus that drives Daniele Galvani in his profession. And Daniele knows all about depth, if we consider that most of his 30 years that preceded our meeting were spent practically sunk to a depth that most humans would consider to be rather “out of their depth”.

Daniele Galvani
My story begins on January 7, 1982, when, after I was discharged from the Navy, I began my underwater adventure for Eni. To do this career was real luck, as well as a great privilege, in my life...

Daniele is now a supervisor of underwater activities for Eni, but before this he himself, previously in the Navy, was an experienced diver in shallow and deep waters. He is part of a small, international contingent of seemingly ordinary men, but who should, however, have all of the requirements to be considered extraordinary and who work at a depth of over 100 meters, in the deep sea, where activities are required to construct, inspect and repair platforms, plants and major pipelines carrying oil or gas from one end of the hemisphere to the other.

In the blue painted blue

The best in the world, as if that wasn’t enough

In his story, he begins with a burst of pride “we Italians are the best in the field”, and that’s no small feat. Daniele gives firmness to his words but also the calm that must have characterized his entire career. “I started doing even 230-240 dives per year, an extremely strenuous training program living together with a team of 6 divers”. The working pace of a deep sea diver is marked by periods of limited work, and must inevitably follow strict rules to ensure that the body can recover and avoid exposure to possible health consequences.

There are two types of divers: those involved in shallow water activities who work at a depth of no more than 40 meters and those who, on the other hand, can manage to work at depths of almost two hundred meters. It is in this latter case in which procedures are taken which, as can be imagined, are extremely delicate and meticulous.

Twenty-eight. This is a fateful number for a deep sea diver, as defined in the jargon. Twenty-eight is in fact the maximum number of days that a diver can have in a shift, considering the conditions of pressure and darkness of the deep sea. The team of men who work in these places must be placed in suitable conditions to work in safety. It starts, first of all, with the saturation procedure that brings the diver’s physical state to the same pressure level found in the external underwater environment. This activity takes place with a saturation system, that is, the pressurized environment in which they live during the shift when they are not in the water. The team is divided into pairs, to cover 24 hours in 8 working-hour shifts. It is inside the so-called bell in which they are submerged to the depth at which they need to work, and it is inside the bell in which, having finished their day shift in the water, they are brought to the surface on a boat that follows the activities. This is what happens every day, for twenty-eight days. The bell and saturation system become their home, the place where they spend their “dry” hours.

“It’s a very small space to share with other colleagues. It is here where we become a team. Because ” adds Daniele.

Safety as a top priority

Obviously nothing is left to chance. The divers are monitored 24 hours a day during their work. The team involved consists, in addition to the men who actually carry out the underwater operations, also of a foreman who oversees the mission and 4 supervisors: two for each 12-hour shift.

The safety of operating staff is always the priority. In Italy, there are hyperbaric hospitals along the Adriatic coast, where the main offshore activities are located. In countries most deficient in highly specialized hospital equipment, a hyperbaric physician follows the activities on board the support vessel.

“The trained eye of a supervisor, who has often already carried out underwater work, must be able to prevent any possible risk” adds Daniele “Only in this way can any inconvenience be avoided which, for those who live and move 150 meters deep, could prove fatal”. Together with professionalism and scrupulous checks, there is also a little room for superstition “my lucky charm, for all these years, has been a playing card, a queen of hearts, inserted into my wetsuit”.

Currently Eni, as well as almost all major international companies, do not have deep sea divers within their staff but turn to specialized external companies. There are 5 members of the operating teams of underwater supervisors, which Galvani belongs to, who works at Eni and who leads the “expeditions”.

“Going out to sea, and offering my experience and support to twenty-year old youngsters allows me to have a constant exchange and contact with the profession” reiterates Daniele. “They may have a different way of approaching the profession. I can sometimes be a bit grouchy but I am happy with the respect that the guys have shown to me”. This shows Daniele’s dutiful respect that he also has for members of the opposite sex who have been part of the teams working at saturation on the deep seabed. “It happened about 5 years ago. I pushed myself to take a girl whom I believed to be very good, who never gave up and who, in many operations, had proven to be much more capable than us men due to being much more precise. It was a great satisfaction.”

Lights and colors under the sea

But what is in store for the future? Will technology be able to replace the work that these men carry out under water?

ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), units remotely piloted that enable operations at depths which man cannot physically reach, that is, beyond two hundred meters, are already currently being used. We are still, however, far from the day when an ROV will be able to fully take the place of a human operator, in terms of both accuracy and reliability. The relationship that can then be created within teams of divers goes beyond the simple relationship between colleagues and makes these men a team of super-specialized professionals.

Men from whom no robot can ever take away the pride of completing, on a daily basis, a true “mission impossible”.

A real world apart is that of these superheroes of the deep; a world that can take on entirely new characteristics, considering only the fact that, as Daniele half-jokingly explains “over 200 meters deep, the human eye distinguishes only three colors: brown, blue and green. In fact, if we were to injure ourselves, our blood would appear blue, and not because of our noble origin”. Well, if we remark on this expression, we could conclude by saying that in certain cases nobility is not measured on the origin of ancestors but on the example of courage, perseverance and strength that these men show on a daily basis.

about the author
Giancarlo Strocchia
Journalist, started his career first at radio stations headlines; after that he worked with TV stations and daily media press (La Voce di Montanelli, Euronews, Rai Format). He has been working for over a year with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations in New York and he has been involved in corporate communications and CSR. Today collaborates with the headline Oil Magazine and the web portal