DanielleSomma ’06 makes her living under water

Under waterfor hours at a time, Danielle Somma ’06 keeps tabs on marine infrastructure inthe New York City area as an engineer diver. It’s dark. It’s cold. And sheloves it.

Interviewedby David Svenson
Edited by Alanna Conn
Photos by Robert Snelgrove 

How did youget from studying on the shore of Sebago Lake to making a living under water?

I started atSaint Joseph’s as a mathematics and secondary education major. When the Collegeintroduced the pre-engineering program my sophomore year, I decided to changemy major. It was a three-plus-two transfer agreement with ManhattanCollege—three years at SJC and two years at Manhattan.

I was thefirst person to go through it. It was a little nerve-racking to know I was thefirst person. I didn’t know what to expect and whether I’d make it or how wellI’d do. But I set my mind to it. I took it one step at a time and figured itout along the way.

I graduatedwith mathematics and pre-engineering degrees, and then I graduated fromManhattan College with a civil engineering degree in 2008. Now I’m studying totake the Professional Engineering License exam. It warrants nearly 300 hours ofstudy.

Did you knowall along that you’d become an engineer diver?

Actually, Ihad 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 thatlooks cool.” I went up to him and he told me what he did—it was engineering buton the coastal marine side. I grew up in Maine, always near the ocean. I knewfor a fact that I wouldn’t be landlocked with a job like that.

I got a jobright out of college with a firm in New York City, and they put me throughSCUBA 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 tocommercial dive school out in Minnesota to become trained as a surface-supplieddiver.

What type ofwork are you responsible for at Ocean and Coastal Consultants?

As anengineer diver, I’m involved in so much. I’m not pigeonholed—I do bothunderwater and topside (or above water) inspections.

Forunderwater inspections, we typically do either rapid emergency inspections orroutine inspections. We had a lot of rapid emergency inspections afterHurricane Sandy. We were out there making sure clients’ structures were clearedto keep using.

Routineinspections normally occur every three to five years. From the collected data,we’ll create a report that assigns a condition rating to the structure andoutlines repairs or maintenance the client can do to prolong the structure’slife.

Who are yourclients?

We work withanyone from private clients who have a house on the water and need a seawallinspected, to projects for large, liquid product terminals. The structures wetypically work with are seawalls and steel bulkheads, both of which hold backfill. We also inspect piers. Piers usually consist of timber, steel, andconcrete piles. The project I am currently involved with is the rehabilitationof the timber piles on FDR Drive for the NYC Department of Transportation.

Is there anormal day?

I usuallymeet the guys at 5:30 in the morning to pick up the boat at the marina. Ittakes us about an hour to get to the site. Then we tie up the boat, go over theplans for the day, and get dressed to dive.

When wedive, we never stay at one depth. We’re constantly moving up and down thestructure. It’s a workout, especially when there’s a high current. Recently Idid a dive and the current was around two knots. It doesn’t look like muchtopside, but when you get in the water it’s just ripping.

It can berelaxing, though. It depends on what you need to do—it’s a lot more relaxing inthe 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 adesk all day.

Does thatmean you’re under water for a large portion of the day?

The longestI’ve done was between three to three and a half hours. Typically we’re in therefor two hours or so. There are many factors that affect that.

But there’sa 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 thenext day. It’s after the whole inspection that you start incorporating the datainto a report that you can give to your client.

What kind ofgear do you have with you?

Withsurface-supplied diving, which is what we do, the diver’s air supply is pumpedthrough a hose to the diver from the surface by a compressor. Other hoses and cablesare attached to the diver including a communications wire, a depth-sensinghose, 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 supplyprovided by the bailout tank on the diver and two high-pressure bottlestopside. The redundancy in air supply and constant communications with thetopside crew makes surface-supplied diving much safer than SCUBA diving. Ialways have my dive knife. I wear fins, too, to move about the structure.

Some of thetools we typically use are folding rulers, pick hammers, calibers to measurediameter of piles, and non-destructive testing equipment, such as an ultrasonicsurface thickness gauge to measure the thickness of steel elements, so we cantell how much they have deteriorated.

You’vedescribed the job as both relaxing and challenging. Is it ever scary?

I wasnervous on my first inspection—nervous about what I was going to find underwater. 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 ofyou. Sometimes things jump out at you. You’ll see a crab or a fish. It’sstartling when they come out of nowhere.

Also, it’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. Youcan’t be claustrophobic under water. The light on your helmet might go out in avery confined area. Sometimes you can feel the fear creeping over you, but youhave to just focus on your task. When I first started diving, I was much morevulnerable to that kind of stuff. But now it’s just an everyday thing. Get inthe water, do some inspections.