Mr Edwin Tan Eng Hoe works below the water’s surface, using diving gear to inspect, repair or maintain ships, rigs and structures. He also uses a variety of power and hand tools, such as drills, sledgehammers, torches and welding equipment, and even conducts tests or experiments, rigs explosives, or photographs structures or marine life.

After a two-decade career as one of Singapore’s accomplished commercial divers, where he faced perilous situations, the word “danger” is not in his vocabulary.

“You need a lot of passion for this job. It may be viewed as a blue-collar job with high specialist skills but with reasonable returns,” says the 48-year-old, who is chairman of the Commercial Diving Association (Singapore) and manages Subsea, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mencast Holdings, which is one of Singapore’s leading MRO (Marine maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) solutions providers, servicing the region’s offshore, marine, oil and gas sectors.

“The thrills come from being in a very specialist field of work and getting to work in a totally different environment — in the water. The spills come from elements which are beyond our control undersea and impose difficulties. Dangers arise when you are not correctly trained and disciplined. This is a high-risk job and the risks are inherent.”

He says there are about 200 commercial divers in Singapore and emphasised that “trained divers are very much in demand with a buoyant subsea oil and gas sector”.

Love of diving

Mr Tan’s love of diving began after he left St Joseph’s Institution and joined the Republic of Singapore Navy’s elite diving unit when he was 17 years old. After a decade, he switched to commercial diving in 1991. He can’t reveal much about his work, but he offers an insight into discreet undersea missions.

“The riskiest diving missions I’ve encountered normally come from works involving the lifting of heavy loads and working in strong tidal conditions, heavy seas and poor visibility,” he says. “Some examples are salvage operations on wrecks or dropped objects, underwater welding and burning. The world’s toughest diving fixes are underwater ‘thruster installations’ to submersible oil rigs.”

He recounts a hair-raising incident in 1988, off Darwin, where he risked his life to fight very strong currents.

“Sometimes it’s a life-and-death situation. It’s one aspect of the underwater environment that is often overlooked by those unfamiliar with the industry,” he says. “The list of such aspects includes current, visibility, sea state, tides, vessel traffic, possible contamination and vessel movement.”

Reasonable salary

Asked if commercial divers command a six-figure annual salary, as reported in global marine magazines, he says: “Divers are paid a day rate in most cases, so when they are not working, they are not paid. Yes, they’re well paid when working offshore in the oil and gas sector, while when working on our type of projects, inshore and inland diving projects, the salary is reasonable.”

But marine industry sources say there is more to look at than just the base pay and benefits, with a lot of incentives offered. A commercial diver can earn a variety of incentives and bonuses, including a safety bonus and recruiting bonus. Divers earn “depth pay” or additional incentives and saturation diving earns even higher incentives.

Mr Tan’s role model is the late Jacques Cousteau, better known as the “Father of Diving”. He says: “He was a successful explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water. He co-developed the aqua-lung and pioneered marine conservation.”