Interview with offshore diver/photographer
Offshore Energy Today has interviewed Mr. Christian Schachta, a commercial diver working in the offshore oil and gas industry. The reason we talked to Christian is the fact that apart from being a diver, he is also an outstanding photographer.
OET: So Christian, tell us something about yourself? What are the perks of being a diver in the oil and gas industry?
Christian Schachta: For me, working offshore is the big adventure. It’s not just about being a diver, which is definitely a job with a lot of action. But working with so many different people is adding the extra piece of adventure to the cake. It’s like the characters of a Playmobil pirate ship – you can find almost all of those figures on board of a ship. The Russian captain with crazy tattoos, the Indonesian cooks, Filipino seamen and many more. Every time it is very exciting to work with those guys.
OET: Where in the world have you worked? Which countries, which offshore fields? Where are you stationed now?
Schachta: Up to now, I saw the most places during cable route surveys for Internet cables, pipeline inspections or bathymetry surveys for charting. I have been to Norway, the North Sea, the Baltic, through the Mediterranean and Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, the Arabic Sea and Indian Ocean. Right now, I am working as an offshore diver, surveyor and sometimes as client rep for RS Diving Contractor, mainly in the German sector in windfarms. There, we do a lot of inspections jobs.
Usually, the things we do couldn’t be reached or done by our ROV.
OET: What are some of your responsibilities as a commercial diver?
Schachta: At the moment, the most jobs we do are inspections of welds. Sometimes, we also clean structures from marine growth or conduct installations of anodes or other special devices like sonar transponders, sometimes some construction support or salvaging. Usually, the things we do couldn’t be reached or done by our ROV.
For the most dives, we are a group of two divers in the water. One is sitting close to the dive site as a standby diver in case of an emergency or helps out when something else is needed. Two guys are tendering. One deck foreman is in control of all deck operations. A technician functions as crane driver. And our supervisor is in contact with us during the whole time of the dive. Depths are mostly between 20 and 40 meter and we often stay 2 or 2.5 hours under water using hot water suits which makes it very comfortable for us.
Having a background experience as a surveyor, I take care of the systems for the diver and ROV tracking, the navigation as well as the USBL systems. The good thing is that everything is pretty much automized so I don’t have to sit in front of it all the time and can also be a part of the dive team. Sometimes, we also do survey tasks with sonar 3D scanners, multibeam or imaging sonars, side scan or ROV based, of which I am taking care during the acquisition of the data.
It is very important to have good briefings and to have a supervisor talking to you.
OET: Diving is considered to be a high risk job when it comes to health and safety? Would you paint some color on that?
Schachta: It is very important that all persons are handling the diving operations in a very focused way, concerning equipment checks, maintenance and also when preparing risk assessments for the jobs. Since very often the working depth is quite deep and we regularly work during night, it is very important to have good briefings and to have a supervisor talking to you.
As we dive with air, we get the nitrogen narcosis, which makes tasks way more difficult than on surface, for example installing a flange. Even though those tasks seem quite easy, it is important that the supervisor confirms every step and monitors what the diver is doing.
Also, in the North Sea, the tides play a very important role. Usually, there are 3 tide windows during which it is possible to dive. The current can be very rough and sometimes makes it very hard to reach the job destination, especially when you are carrying a lot of tools. Being a sport diver also, I know that those drift dives or currents are nothing compared to the ones you experience during offshore job dives.
The nitrogen narcosis combined with darkness at night and cold water can cause stress.
The good thing offshore is that often the visibility under water is good enough to use your eyes for working. In my former inshore jobs for example, most times, you could not see at all. Everything was pitch black when you dived for example in a construction site.
Additionally, since we often go quite deep offshore, the nitrogen narcosis combined with darkness at night and cold water can cause stress. Yet usually, this is “taken” away by the good equipment and you feel very safe. During construction tasks of larger installations such as pipeline pieces or concrete matrasses, heavy loads move around in the water. There can be differential pressure and quite often, forceful tools are being used. So it’s always very important to be certain about your position and the next steps of the task.
OET: According to a report by HSE UK worldwide, there continues to be a high level of demand for experienced divers, supervisors and support staff.
Do you agree this is the case? Considering thousands of jobs have been lost in the oil industry, how does this affect the divers?
Schachta: Honestly, I think there is a lack of jobs for all the divers out there. As far as I am experiencing it right now, a lot of highly trained and experienced saturation divers have to work as normal air divers because there are no jobs in sat diving. Some of them even do part time jobs inshore.
If you have no experience, unfortunately, it is very hard to get a foot in the door.
So of course, if I would have to choose between a highly experienced diver and a youngster, I would pick the former. Thus, the chances for unexperienced divers are really low at the moment I would say. I know a lot of young divers who just finished their courses and got frustrated because they did not find any job. So they even had to go into a totally different sector.
At least at the moment, it seems as if the time and money they spent on the diving course is just lost. If you have no experience, unfortunately, it is very hard to get a foot in the door. The same goes for ROV pilots. There are so many very experienced guys looking for a job. Why should companies pick unexperienced people and risk their reputation on jobs, especially because there is a much higher competition since a lot of companies have free capacities.
As a logic consequence, there seems to be a lack of jobs. But I haven’t seen a lack of experienced divers. This sometimes rather feels like a little marketing gag to get people interested in this new “career” and to pay a lot of money for the diving courses.
OET: As we mentioned before, you are a photographer too. How did you find yourself in that area?
Schachta: I don’t really remember, it just started. I enjoyed taking pictures in situations the most people are not able to do that, for example during climbing or during some military training in the Alps with 4 meters of snow. Since I also part-time run a techno label for which I often need promotion pictures, I have always been taking a lot of party pictures of musicians and the dancing crowd.
It was a very spontaneous decision when I decided to buy the camera together with a lense.
First, I took different crappy cameras with me, also during recreational diving. Yet, I really enjoyed the challenge of getting good pictures out of crappy devices. But in the beginning, the results were horrible. After I drowned one of my cameras in my underwater housing because of a stupid mistake (never use too much grease on the o rings to seal the housing), I wanted to buy a suitable housing for my other Canon EOS 450. But the guy in the store told me that it won’t make sense to buy a housing for such a “weak” DSLR, since it is not worth to buy a housing, which is three times more expensive than the camera.
Sure, it was a professional store and he wanted to sell me something. So he gave me the 7D for trial in his store. It was a very spontaneous decision when I decided to buy the camera together with a lense. And it was even during my studies. So I had no money at all after buying it. That meant I had nothing more than cheap shit in my fridge for the next couple of months. Yet, I had the camera, but still no housing.
This was how everything started to become more serious for me. I think I have had the camera for 8 years now. Of course, I had it repaired several times. Actually, it is being repaired right now because there was some struggle with the electronics. Probably, I will use it some more years, even if it just functions as back up camera as I guess I will buy a new 7D in the following months.
OET: Any interesting stories or anecdotes from the subsea-meets-photography world?
Schachta: During a recreational dive, we once met a large catfish in a lake. lt was longer than me including my fins. It swam around us for minutes and came very close. It looked like a Russian submarine and I could take lots of pictures of it. Who knows, maybe it thought we were some female catfish. It is also very great if you can see big, wild animals passing by the ship, especially orcas or whales, that’s always a strange feeling of freedom.
When we were in the Gulf of Aden close to Yemeni waters, I took a picture of a suspicious vessel, probably a pirate mothership, passing by in front of our bow, towing three skiffs. Our security guys were already watching them, but on the horizon there were a lot of war ships. Anyway, if you zoomed in very far on the picture, it was interesting to see how curious they watched us and how many people have been on the boat.
Very often people ask me what exactly I am doing on my job. Showing pictures is a good way to explain it.
Another time, there was a navy vessel close to a small cargo vessel, or more precisely an “unidentified vessel”. Suddenly, the latter started to burn. The flames lasted the whole evening and the whole night. It looked like a military training, but our master said that there was no official training announced in that area. There was also no other information about a fire on a ship. So we never found out what happened there.
OET: You recently started a website named Offshore Focus (https://www.offshore-focus.com/). Can you describe the website a bit, and tell us what made you build it?
Schachta: I have been collecting a lot of pictures during the past years. In the beginning, it was just to show them to my friends and family at home so that they can see what I have been doing offshore. Very often people ask me what exactly I am doing on my job. Showing pictures is a good way to explain it.
I just love to do pictures of special offshore ships.
Some pictures I also took for my company, so that they had nice pictures for their websites. And of course, often I shared them on Facebook. However, honestly, for me the pictures are too valuable to just spread them in the trashy world of Facebook. Finally, this was the main reason why I decided to share all my impressions on my own website, which feels much better for me since this gives me more control over my pictures. And maybe, some people become interested to use my pictures for professional reasons or hire me as a freelance offshore photographer – that would be also a nice add-on. But at the moment it is just a hobby which I am very passionate about.
On my website, I created differnt galleries for different topics such as ports, at sea, under water or ships. I do not know exactly how that developed but I just love to do pictures of special offshore ships. Those vessels are really fascinating me. It’s kind of ironic, since I have always been smiling about the geeks who stood on bridges taking pictures of trains.
OET: What kind of photographic equipment you use? I myself own a Nikon D7000, and while preparing for the interview, I’ve learned that an underwater housing for a DSLR camera can be more expensive that the camera itself?
Schachta: I have a Canon EOS 7D, which is heavily used and has suffered definitely a lot in the past years. But I took it with me almost everywhere I went. For example, the humid salty air in Djibouti is not very helpfull to keep the camera going. When I bought it, I chose the 7D as it is better sealed and a bit waterproof when you want to use it in the rain in comparison to former full format cameras within the same price class. It also works faster.
However, I always wanted to buy a Canon 5D. But then I realized that it would mean to buy also a new underwater housing and new lenses which made me finally stick with the 7D. Honestly, it is more than enough at the moment. Maybe I’ll jump on the MK II, but for now, my old one is still working.
And yes, you are right, the housings are very expensive, so I chose a Ikelite housing which is almost the same price as the camera. All other housings are almost twice as expensive and eventually you end up with the same pictures.
For the pictures on my jobs, I use a 16-300mm allround lense which gives me everything that I need in one lens. Larger teles are not very usefull on a ship because of the motion of the ship. Under water, I use a 10mm wide angle which helps me to come as close to objects as possible. Even in a bad visibillity, the results are good. Sometimes, I take my 60mm macro lens with me, if there are some nice things like little snails and stuff. Plus, a very important element for under water photographs is a strobe that gives you a nice flash. Without it, you would always have blue or green pictures.
OET: Finally, any piece of advice for a diver starting in the offshore oil and gas industry, or photography? Also, any advice for a photographer looking at starting some recreational diving, or even offshore industry?
Schachta: From my point of view, an advice for starting to work offshore is not to stick too much to your profession as a diver. Also try out other things. This way, not only will you broaden your horizon but also will you get a foot in the door of offshore business more easily.
Don’t cut corners on your camera equipment.
Another advice would be not to put too much pressure on yourself, for example to attend a very expensive course to start your diving career and then expect someone to directly offer you a job. Maybe start inshore first, even if it is sometimes a much tougher job than offshore. It will definitely help to gain a better acceptance in the business and also from your future colleagues.
To work as an offshore photographer, you probably don’t need to add much of knowledge if you are already a professional camera user. You maybe would need to do the offshore survival courses.
For underwater photography, I would recommend: Don’t cut corners on your camera equipment. You will get the best results with a DSLR, a lot better than if you use a less expensive compact or system cameras. And automatic modes are not very successful under water. It is better if you set your camera manually, for example at ISO 100-400max. More ISO is ok in dark lakes, but if it is too dark for 400, it is just too dark for very good results. The exposure is good at something like 5.4 & 1/60 – 1/100. And always use the flash for close distances of 1 to a maximum of about 3 meters.
You need time for good pictures.
Also, underwater photography is serious photography and has nothing to do with snapshots. You need time for good pictures. Therefore, most times it is better to be on your own with your buddy and not be part of a fast moving group. Also stick to less objects. Then the results become better and better.
Using RAW format depends on the photographer. I am barely doing any photoshop work on my pictures because I like the realistic catch of the moment. In my opinion, if the picture is not good the way how it comes out of the camera, it simply is not good. I wasted much time on photoshop editing in the past, but right now I believe that it is better to have the right setup before the shot and spare the photoshop work in favor for great authentic photographs.
Offshore Energy Today Staff