By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
The first and only Norwegian-produced diving bell was made during the years 1969 to 1971 by Alfred Paulsen AS outside the Norwegian town Stavanger. When the Directorate of Petroleum's safety demands became stricter in the 1970s and 1980s, the diving bell was put out of operation and stored. The diving bell was promised as a gift to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. At that time, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum had no storage space, and the diving bell was stored at the owner, the company Subsea Dolphin.
Today, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum has opened its exhibitions in new premises in Stavanger. Much attention has been paid to the health and security situation of the divers in the pioneer era of the oil business in Norway. Many were killed in accidents at sea, and the working conditions caused serious physical and mental problems. Some divers have since committed suicide.
The diving bell from Alfred Paulsen cannot be seen in the Norwegian Petroleum Museum today. Instead, there is a far more modern diving bell on display, which does not reflect the working conditions of the pioneer divers. The explanation for this is that the diving bell that was given to the museum to begin with, and was supposed to be the centre of what could have been a monument of the dangerous and difficult work environment of the divers, is in operation again - outside the coast of Bombay in India.
- Today, the diving bell is owned by Bombay Underwater Service. We sold it in the mid 1980s. At first, it was operated in a joint venture between us and people from India. But today our partners in India have taken over completely. You can say that we helped them to get started. Today the diving bell is in operation again, says Øystein Berge.
Berge is working for Subsea Dolphin, which was taken over by Stolt Comex after Fred. Olsen sold the company one year ago.
- But this diving bell is not approved for use in Norway?
- No, it is too small for that. But we have sandblasted it, changed many parts and installed lights.
Jan Hagland in the Directorate of Petroleum is familiar with the story of the diving bell. He does not believe this diving bell could be used in Norway, with the demands on health and security we have here.
- This diving bell is only half the size of the bells we use in Norway today. It would not make sense to use it today, says Hagland.
Hagland refers to the working conditions in the North Sea in the 1970s as "anarchy", and says:
- The divers' safety was not regulated by the authorities, and there were many accidents. In 1978, the Directorate of Petroleum was made responsible, and tried to clean up. In 1996, he contacted Subsea Dolphin regarding this matter. The company promised to help to get the diving bell back to the Petroleum Museum, but this did not succeed.
Svein Terje Pisani Førland works as collecting consultant at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. He confirms that Subsea Dolphin donated the Paulsen diving bell to the Petroleum Museum in the 1980s, but they never received it.
- We have tried to have the bell returned. But after a while, we gave up. We regarded it as lost when we prepared the exhibitions for this spring, says Førland.
Two diving bells
Former employee of Subsea Dolphin, Øyvind Lie, believes that it was Subsea Dolphin that gave the diving bell to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in the mid 1980s. Since the museum was not built at that time, the diving bell remained in the company storehouse. Lie believes that an Indian named Mohan Samant turned up and became interested in the bell.
Øystein Berge confirms that Mohan Samant bought the diving bell, and says that he was a good friend of the manager of Subsea Dolphin. Samant owns the company Bombay Underwater Service.
Another former employee of Subsea Dolphin, the diver Rolf Guttorm Engebrethsen, points out that the major problem with the Paulsen diving bell was not its size. Subsea Dolphin exported two different systems to India at the same time, says Engebrethsen. He has dived both with the old Paulsen bell and with the French ULIS system, which was exported to India after many years of use in Norway. When he visited the Petroleum Museum and saw the diving bell that was on display there, he became angry and disappointed.
- What is in the Petroleum Museum today is not a museum piece, it is a complete and functional diving bell! says Engebrethsen.
- We called the Paulsen bell "the rat trap", says Engebrethsen. It had a difficult opening, and there were many critical situations which could have resulted in accidents.
- One of the problems with "the rat trap" was the winch system and the wire. It had only one wire, and the bell was very heavy. With the extra equipment that was used, its weight was 5.8 tonnes. Today, we use both two and three wires. This increases security. Engebrethsen says that the Paulsen system's lifting capacity was bad.
- Another problem was the so-called "David", a hoop we used to get out of the bell. It twisted and turned, and was difficult to use, says Engebrethsen, who also thinks there were many problems with the ULIS system that was exported at the same time.
- ULIS was very small. Only 160 cm in diameter, and round as a ball. Inside this ball, three fully equipped men are supposed to sit with air hoses coiled up against the walls. We had to crouch up throughout the dive.
Both the French ULIS and the Norwegian "rat trap" were used by Tri-X Diving, the company that later became Subsea Dolphin.
Engebrethsen says that the Paulsen diving bell was put on land in the late 1970s. According to him, the ULIS system was used with exemption from the security regulations until sometime in the mid 1980s, when its use came to an end. He does not like that these two diving bells were sold to India to be used there:
- This is a sad story, and something that happens fairly often. We have old equipment that is no longer approved for use in Norway, and then we send it to countries like India, or to Israel, Vietnam, Benin and other places where you can get some money for it. After a while, the equipment is not maintained, and then people start to die. If the equipment cannot be used here, there is no reason to believe it will work better in a poor country, says Engebrethsen.
Nevertheless, Subsea Dolphin exported two discarded diving bells from Norwegian offshore activity to India. As far as NorWatch knows, both the diving bells are in operation in India today.
"ULIS was very small. Only 160 cm in diameter, and round as a ball. Inside this ball, three fully equipped men are supposed to sit with air hoses coiled up against the walls. We had to crouch up throughout the dive."
Rolf Guttorm Engebrethsen, former diver of Subsea Dolphin
"We have old equipment that is no longer approved for use in Norway, and then we send it to countries like India, or to Israel, Vietnam, Benin and other places where you can get some money for it. After a while, the equipment is not maintained, and then people start to die. If the equipment cannot be used here, there is no reason to believe it will work better in a poor country."
Rolf Guttorm Engebrethsen, former diver of Subsea Dolphin
Subsea Dolphin in India
Stolt Comex Seaways took over Subsea Dolphin from Fred. Olsen in 1998. Subsea Dolphin was the new name of the former Tri-X Diving Company, which operated in the North Sea in the 1970s. Stolt Comex is quoted on the New York and Oslo stock exchanges. The major shareholder is Stolt-Nielsen with about 40% of the shares. Subsea Dolphin sold two discarded diving bells from Norwegian offshore activity to India in the mid 1980s. These are still in operation.
Norwatch Newsletter 17/99