Damien Brunelli is a professional diver at Implenia. Yes, you read that correctly. In western Switzerland, Implenia employs a small, highly skilled diving team to carry out construction work in rivers and lakes, and sometimes in water treatment plants. 25-year-old Damien Brunelli and his colleagues are ready for anything.
“I need the buzz,” says Damien Brunelli with a smile. A heating engineer by training, he decided that riding a motorcycle in his spare time wasn’t exciting enough. He was working as a welder in 2015 when he heard about the chance to do some welding under water. That was when he decided he wanted to become a professional diver. No sooner said than done – he quickly completed his training at the “Institut National de la Plongée Professionnelle” (INPP) in Marseilles. This involved three months of learning theory combined with daily dives. In 2016, with the certificate in his pocket, he joined Implenia in French-speaking Switzerland on a temporary contract. It wasn’t long before he was given a permanent post. Damien Brunelli is part of a 20-person team that works on hydraulic projects on land and under water. The team includes two other divers (Emilien Gete and Jean-Baptiste Houot), a diving foreman (Thierry Aillain), a diving construction manager (Jean-Philippe Rauch) and the Sector Head (Alain Berrut).
“I very much like working for Implenia. The company is well set up, it’s in a good position to handle large and interesting construction projects, and it has highly professional diving equipment.”
Today’s job is an unusual one at a water treatment plant in Satigny, Canton Geneva. “Good visibility” is a relative term under the water. But this doesn’t deter our divers. “Sometimes conditions might make diving seem less than desirable, but as soon as your helmet goes below the surface, the joy of diving comes back and you just concentrate completely on the task at hand,” says Damien Brunelli. After planning the manoeuvre precisely, and meticulously arranging his professional diving equipment, he enters the water. For jobs like this, which are rarer than dives in clearer lake or river water, his diving suit is completely pressurised to prevent anything from penetrating. Once below the surface, Damien Brunelli makes light of the limited visibility and the difficulty of working in gloves, successfully replacing a defective air pressure valve. Thanks to his efforts, the customer no longer faces the expensive job of emptying and cleaning the treatment tank.
When people dive for fun, they usually do it at least in a pair with a dive buddy, but Implenia’s divers work alone under water. You might think this would be less safe, but you would be wrong! “I’m in constant telephone and camera contact with my two colleagues on the pier via what we call the ‘waterpipe’. That keeps things safe,” Damien Brunelli explains. Air and electric power for lighting is also delivered down the pipe. The diver also has an air tank on his back in case there’s a problem with the pipe supply. All three divers are present for every dive. While today’s dive manager, Thierry Aillain, keeps a constant eye on the pipe supply and dive times, the back-up diver for this job, Jean-Baptiste Houot, is ready at all times in full gear to dive down to Damien Brunelli if there are any problems.
Weather: Damien Brunelli has experienced waves of up to 1.5 m when the wind gets up on Lake Geneva. Once he’s under water, the waves don’t really matter anymore, but the weather can make it harder to reach the dive site.
Unforeseen hazards: The biggest risk is a poorly sealed or broken vent, which could suck a diver in and leave them stuck in a passage.
Currents: Divers can be exposed to strong currents, especially when working under water in rivers. If this is the case, Implenia uses protective shields developed by the company itself. With their dense mesh screens, these steel structures create a calmer zone behind which the divers can do their work.
Repairing a valve in a treatment tank is one thing; laying an eight kilometre long pipe with a diameter of 1.8 m at a depth of up to 55 m in Lake Geneva is quite another. But that’s the next job on the list. The pipe will extract lake water that will be used to cool nearby buildings. As it’s only 4 degrees Celsius down at the work site, the divers have to prepare carefully. “We’re well equipped against the cold and have several layers of insulating clothes beneath the suit itself,” says Damien Brunelli. Such deep dives are physically and mentally exhausting, so dive times are limited to three hours in every 24, including decompression stops. After three hours, the next diver takes his turn to continue the underwater work. In addition to laying the pipes, this includes welding, flame cutting, formwork installation, reinforcement and concreting. “In fact, we’re doing all the building and civil engineering work you might do on land; but we’re doing it under water,” says Damien Brunelli. “It’s just that not many people know about it. Operating under water certainly makes the work more exciting and varied.”