Salvage Part I: 5 Rules of Salvage Diving

Salvage Part I: 5 Rules of Salvage Diving

Have you ever dreamt of exploring the ocean for lost treasure?

Or help excavate sunken ships?

And make historic discoveries underseas?

Those dreams may have seemed like fantasy, until now.

Introducing: Salvage Divers

The truth is, oceans, rivers, and seas all over the world are filled with hidden, lost treasures. Some of these sunken treasures are ancient.

Others have only recently been lost due to a hurricane, tsunami, or other catastrophe.

The men and women who travel the world to recover sunken and lost vessels are called salvage divers. And their jobs are truly some of the most exciting jobs in the world.

Ships, aircrafts, and other vessels are some of the biggest structures lost under the sea. And salvage divers are often the ones who help recover these objects and bring them back to shore.

Factors For Salvaging Large Vessels

Recovering sunken vessels is extremely dangerous and very expensive.

But it is often necessary, for a number of reasons.


Salvage divers help bring back loved ones to their families who may have been lost on or under the sea, such as those lost on the Costa Concordia in 2012.

Hazardous Cargo

If a sunken ship has hazardous cargo, such as oil or radioactive material onboard, then recovery of the material is crucial. The owners might find themselves being fined huge sums of money unless it’s dealt with. And that means recovering the vessel so those materials don’t wind up harming the watery ecosystem.


In cases such as a plane crash, salvage operations provide valuable evidence that helps determine the cause of the mishap.


Another reason for risking a salvage dive comes back to simple economics. If the value of the lost property is more than the value of a salvage operation, then it makes sense for companies to retrieve their lost property. In the case of lost oil tankers, for example, the value of the oil and the potential for environmental catastrophe are reason enough to undertake a salvage operation.

Sensitive Information

Finally, if the ship had sensitive technologies onboard, as frequently happens with Navy ships, then governments will usually cough up the costs of recovering it.

So there’s lots of reasons to salvage various vessels, but what exactly does it mean and how does it work?

How Salvage Diving Works: Tactics and Rules For Salvaging Different Materials

As you might expect, the recovery of underwater objects as big as ships and aircraft is no easy feat.

The way that a wreck salvage is done differs from case to case. But there are a few guidelines every diver should know.

It is no doubt one of the toughest, but most worthwhile careers out there.

Types of Salvage

There are a lot of factors that determine how a salvage job will be accomplished. Here are a few examples:

Resurfacing The Vessel

Some salvage operations involve divers fixing giant metal boxes known as caissons to the side of sunken vessels.

As in the case of the Costa Concordia, ships are then pulled by metal winches into an upright position where the caissons are then filled with oxygen. This gradually has the effect of allowing the ship to right itself and float so it can be towed back to dock.

“Fishing” Out The Wreckage

A quicker but more abrasive tactic uses a grabber  to ’fish’ parts of the wreckage from the seabed. These are then loaded onto barges and brought back to land for processing.

Handling Delicate Material

A much more sophisticated kind of salvage requires a delicate hand.

After the nuclear-powered, Oscar-class submarine Kursk sank in 2000, the Russian government decided to undertake a salvage operation to bring its lost ship and dead sailors home.

The operation cost $65 million, becoming the largest salvage operation ever undertaken.

For 10 days, salvage divers had to slowly cut away the submarine’s bow because of the fear it would detach while being lifted and destabilize the lift.

After this was done, the Kursk was lifted and carried back to dock under a modified Giant 4 semi-submersible deck barge.

While most kinds of salvage operations involve lifting much smaller craft, these examples show the main approaches to retrieving wrecked salvage.

The Rules of Salvage

Provided the depths are not too deep, commercial divers will play a big role in everything from surveying the site to prepping the ship or aircraft for the lift.    

Given that each salvage operation is very different, there are a few ABC’s that salvage divers can look out for to ensure they do the job as safely as possible.

  1. Always keep an eye on your umbilical.  Make sure your umbilical it isn’t getting twisted or caught on something. A diving umbilical is called this because it is your lifeline. If it gets twisted or damaged a diver will lose their vital oxygen supply and communications to the mothership.
  2. Be aware of what is above you. One of the biggest dangers for divers is falling debris. If a wreck has sunk after an explosion, it will be inherently unstable. The chances of a strong current or activities by divers disrupting wreckage and causing it to fail are high.
  3. Be aware of hazardous and material and where it is located. A DIT grad shared his experience of dealing with a dangerous chemical while salvaging a barge on Lake Erie. Theo Matthews helped identify a leak by bubbles coming out of the barge . “They looked like air bubbles,” he recalls. “But when you touched them, they burned.” This bubbles were chemicals that Matthews had to carefully deal with before excavating the barge.
  4. Study the wreck plan carefully. A huge danger that divers face is getting lost in a wreck. For more complex wreck penetrations, divers should set up guide ropes to ensure that they don’t get lost.  
  5. Beware of pressure differentials. These are strong underwater suctions that occur due to water movements. If a diver gets any part of their body stuck in a pressure differential, it can be impossible to free themselves.

Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into a salvage dive.

Training, experience, and motivation are all requirements if you want to be a part of this amazing industry. Salvage divers not only have exhilarating experiences, but their impact on the world is monumental.

It is no doubt one of the toughest, but most worthwhile careers out there.


Aran Davis, Writer for Water Welders


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