Somma ’06 makes her living under water
for hours at a time, Danielle Somma ’06 keeps tabs on marine infrastructure in
the New York City area as an engineer diver. It’s dark. It’s cold. And she
by David Svenson
Edited by Alanna Conn
Photos by Robert Snelgrove
How did you
get from studying on the shore of Sebago Lake to making a living under water?
I started at
Saint Joseph’s as a mathematics and secondary education major. When the College
introduced the pre-engineering program my sophomore year, I decided to change
my major. It was a three-plus-two transfer agreement with Manhattan
College—three years at SJC and two years at Manhattan.
I was the
first person to go through it. It was a little nerve-racking to know I was the
first person. I didn’t know what to expect and whether I’d make it or how well
I’d do. But I set my mind to it. I took it one step at a time and figured it
out along the way.
with mathematics and pre-engineering degrees, and then I graduated from
Manhattan College with a civil engineering degree in 2008. Now I’m studying to
take the Professional Engineering License exam. It warrants nearly 300 hours of
Did you know
all along that you’d become an engineer diver?
had never dove before. I went to a career fair my last year at Manhattan College,
and there was this guy standing there with a dive hat. I thought, “Now that
looks cool.” I went up to him and he told me what he did—it was engineering but
on the coastal marine side. I grew up in Maine, always near the ocean. I knew
for a fact that I wouldn’t be landlocked with a job like that.
I got a job
right out of college with a firm in New York City, and they put me through
SCUBA training. Eventually I got a job with Ocean and Coastal Consultants
(OCC), the company I currently work for as an engineer diver. OCC sent me to
commercial dive school out in Minnesota to become trained as a surface-supplied
What type of
work are you responsible for at Ocean and Coastal Consultants?
engineer diver, I’m involved in so much. I’m not pigeonholed—I do both
underwater and topside (or above water) inspections.
underwater inspections, we typically do either rapid emergency inspections or
routine inspections. We had a lot of rapid emergency inspections after
Hurricane Sandy. We were out there making sure clients’ structures were cleared
to keep using.
inspections normally occur every three to five years. From the collected data,
we’ll create a report that assigns a condition rating to the structure and
outlines repairs or maintenance the client can do to prolong the structure’s
Who are your
We work with
anyone from private clients who have a house on the water and need a seawall
inspected, to projects for large, liquid product terminals. The structures we
typically work with are seawalls and steel bulkheads, both of which hold back
fill. We also inspect piers. Piers usually consist of timber, steel, and
concrete piles. The project I am currently involved with is the rehabilitation
of the timber piles on FDR Drive for the NYC Department of Transportation.
Is there a
meet the guys at 5:30 in the morning to pick up the boat at the marina. It
takes us about an hour to get to the site. Then we tie up the boat, go over the
plans for the day, and get dressed to dive.
dive, we never stay at one depth. We’re constantly moving up and down the
structure. It’s a workout, especially when there’s a high current. Recently I
did a dive and the current was around two knots. It doesn’t look like much
topside, but when you get in the water it’s just ripping.
It can be
relaxing, though. It depends on what you need to do—it’s a lot more relaxing in
the summertime. In the cold, the dry suit is like wearing a big rubber bag.
It’s hard to move around in. But I like it. It’s better than sitting behind a
desk all day.
mean you’re under water for a large portion of the day?
I’ve done was between three to three and a half hours. Typically we’re in there
for two hours or so. There are many factors that affect that.
a lot to the day. We put in almost eight hours or so just doing the inspection.
There’s not really time to go back to the office. You go home and plan for the
next day. It’s after the whole inspection that you start incorporating the data
into a report that you can give to your client.
What kind of
gear do you have with you?
surface-supplied diving, which is what we do, the diver’s air supply is pumped
through a hose to the diver from the surface by a compressor. Other hoses and cables
are attached to the diver including a communications wire, a depth-sensing
hose, and a video line. The bundle of hoses is called the diver’s umbilical.
Unlike SCUBA, you have an unlimited supply of air, and an emergency air supply
provided by the bailout tank on the diver and two high-pressure bottles
topside. The redundancy in air supply and constant communications with the
topside crew makes surface-supplied diving much safer than SCUBA diving. I
always have my dive knife. I wear fins, too, to move about the structure.
Some of the
tools we typically use are folding rulers, pick hammers, calibers to measure
diameter of piles, and non-destructive testing equipment, such as an ultrasonic
surface thickness gauge to measure the thickness of steel elements, so we can
tell how much they have deteriorated.
described the job as both relaxing and challenging. Is it ever scary?
nervous on my first inspection—nervous about what I was going to find under
water. There’s that weird fear of the unknown. And when you’re diving in NYC,
there’s such low visibility. You can only see six inches to a foot in front of
you. Sometimes things jump out at you. You’ll see a crab or a fish. It’s
startling when they come out of nowhere.
Also, it’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. You
can’t be claustrophobic under water. The light on your helmet might go out in a
very confined area. Sometimes you can feel the fear creeping over you, but you
have to just focus on your task. When I first started diving, I was much more
vulnerable to that kind of stuff. But now it’s just an everyday thing. Get in
the water, do some inspections.