Ocean Industry | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ocean Industry

The search for hydrocarbon resources in offshore areas, the driving force behind the development of the ocean industry, began in earnest in the early 1960s in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ocean Industry

The search for hydrocarbon resources in offshore areas, the driving force behind the development of the ocean industry, began in earnest in the early 1960s in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, the hunt has expanded to include the coastal waters of the North Sea, Australia, South-East Asia, India and Canada. More than 40 countries have plans for supporting such activities, creating a potential for the export of services and equipment, which has heavily influenced the development of the Canadian ocean industry.

In 1978 a federally sponsored sector task force identified 180 companies engaged in the ocean industry. Of these, 40 were core organizations depending on the market for most of their revenues. By the end of 1982 the number of companies in the field had grown by about 15%. Approximately 50% of all industry sales, including hardware (drilling rigs, SUBMERSIBLES, offshore-drilling accessories) and diving and subsea SURVEYING services, are exported.

Drilling Platforms

The largest items produced in Canada for offshore work are the various platforms which support drilling equipment. Between 1978 and 1982, MIL Davie Inc (formerly Davie Shipbuilding Ltd) of Lauzon, Québec, the largest shipyard in Canada, moved strongly into this field when orders for conventional vessels dropped off in the wake of a worldwide shipping slump (see SHIPBUILDING AND SHIP REPAIR). In 1983 Davie had orders for construction of 12 jack-up platforms under licence from the designer, Marathon le Tourneau Inc of Vicksburg, Miss. Most of these systems, designed to operate directly on the seafloor in relatively shallow water, were destined for the Gulf of Mexico. During the 1980s, none of the Canadian-built jack-ups had been built specifically for use in Canadian waters, although foreign-constructed rigs of the bottom-supported type were in use in the shallow, ice- free zone off SABLE ISLAND, Nova Scotia. The slump in the oil industry in the late 1980s has adversely affected sales.

In 1987 Davie had no orders for platform construction. Development of bottom-supported systems capable of withstanding impact by moving SEA ICE is being studied by several Canadian organizations, including Mobil Oil Canada Ltd and Dome Petroleum Ltd.

In areas where floe ice and ICEBERGS do present dangers, such as the BEAUFORT SEA in the western Arctic and the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, the most widely employed strategy is one of avoidance rather than confrontation. Hence, mobile drilling platforms are used, either drilling ships or semisubmersible rigs (ie, platforms mounted on submerged, neutrally buoyant pontoons, which are anchored or positioned by motors over the drill site). The first Canadian-built semisubmersible was under construction in 1982 at Saint John Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co Ltd of Saint John.

Undersea Vehicles

It is in the HIGH-TECHNOLOGY field associated with exploration in the deeper waters of the world's continental shelves that Canadians are probably best known - particularly in the design and construction of manned and remote-control undersea vehicles and systems. One of the most famous Canadian submersible builders (until it went into receivership in 1978) was International Hydrodynamics Co Ltd of Vancouver, which manufactured the Hyco family of manned submarines, named after signs of the zodiac. During its best year, 1976, Hyco employed 165 people, but a surplus of submersibles on the world market, coupled with a drastic cutback in North Sea operations by a major British customer, eventually contributed to the breakup of this innovative company.

Submersibles have been around for nearly 20 years, but only since the mid-1970s have remote-control vehicles (which do not require complex and expensive life-support systems) become sophisticated enough to challenge manned craft. Remotely operated submersibles, built by International Submarine Engineering Ltd of Port Moody, BC, are being used in the Far East, the North Sea, the Middle East and other oil-producing areas.

Founded by company president James McFarlane in 1974, when the field was still in its infancy, ISE had designed and built more than 158 systems by the end of 1987, mostly for export. ISE manufactures a family of submersibles, most of which are unmanned and controlled through cables by a surface operator. New technology is conceived and developed with breathtaking speed. Early remote-control submarines were equipped with cameras for PIPELINE inspection; modern computer-controlled machines can perform more complex tasks, including oil-rig inspections and underwater shackle-ups at depths exceeding 1000 m. On-board diagnostic apparatus on the latest models enables technicians at ISE's Port Moody laboratory to monitor the internal workings of a submersible operating from a drillship as far afield as Australia.

A vehicle, designed to support drilling to even greater depths (about 2500 m, a world record), was constructed at ISE in 1983. In 1987 it was adapted for depths of 5000 m. The first in a new generation of untethered submersibles known as ARCS (autonomous remotely controlled submersible) has also been developed by ISE.

In addition to manned and remote-control self-propelled submersibles, Canadian companies also design and manufacture towed underwater devices, designed to perform tasks ranging from location of enemy submarines to identification of shipwreck sites and of geological structures capable of containing hydrocarbon deposits. A leader in this field is Fathom Oceanology Ltd of Mississauga, Ontario, which has grown steadily since it was founded in 1978. Fathom's products include fish-shaped housings for detection packages and associated shipboard towing systems; drilling-rig accessories (eg, fairings for cables, pipes, drill risers) and SONAR domes for naval vessels and related marine equipment. The company's expertise extends beyond the purely mechanical side of underwater towing systems into microprocessing and electronics.

In 1986 Fathom exported about 75% of its sales, while the navies of North America and western Europe accounted for half of the company's revenues of $19.4 million. A towed system known as BATFISH, designed by the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and equipped to carry oceanographic-research instrument packages, is manufactured by Guildline Instruments Ltd of Smiths Falls, Ontario.


For the most delicate tasks associated with the ocean industry, divers working with their hands are still needed. Because they are exposed to enormous pressures and other potential dangers, Canadian divers earn good wages. In 1987, those working in domestic offshore oil and gas fields earned up to $60 000. Specialists willing to work elsewhere in the world earned even higher wages, a situation that raised concern over whether these highly trained people would be available to work in Canadian waters. Today, about 75% of divers working in the domestic industry are Canadian. Newfoundland is the only province that discriminates in favour of residents in its offshore industry.

Divers operating from diving bells now work at depths of more than 330 m and tests have indicated that humans can survive (though not very efficiently) at more than twice that depth. Work at even 200 m by unprotected divers was unheard of until 1968, when Phil Nuytten, president of Can-Dive Services Ltd of Vancouver and a pioneer in the development of underwater systems, along with a team of Canadian and US divers, established a commercial DIVING record to that depth.

As humans have gone deeper into the oceans, new problems have been encountered and, while technology has provided some solutions, many dangers are still only partially understood. Rapid compression to working depths was found to cause uncontrollable muscle tremors, dizziness and nausea.

Consequently, divers now spend up to 24 hours inside a hyperbaric chamber, slowly adjusting to the immense pressure. This delay in attending to an underwater problem can cost tens of thousands of dollars in oil rig downtime. Under pressure, divers sometimes complain of painful stiffness, where joints creak and pop and any movement causes discomfort. Sometimes bone necrosis (bone death) occurs under pressure, a problem whose cause is not fully understood.

Perhaps the best-known danger associated with deep diving is decompression sickness ("the bends"), which can occur if a diver ascends too quickly. On the way down, under increasing pressure, gases are dissolved in the blood. Reduced pressures during ascent cause the gases to bubble out; if this occurs too quickly, the bubbles can lodge in joints and cause severe pain, even death. Divers must ascend slowly or, as is often done with divers working in waters too cold for dallying, spend hours, days or even weeks in a surface decompression chamber which gradually reduces outside pressure on the body. Divers are paid for time in the chamber, so deep dives, even of short duration, are expensive.

Wherever possible, the dangers and associated costs are reduced by using one-atmosphere armoured diving suits that allow diver-operators to breathe air at sea-level atmospheric pressure. The suits are not cheap (they can cost about $250 000) but they offer greater safety, quicker response time and savings in breathing gas. A 2-week decompression can consume more than $100 000 worth of helium and oxygen breathing gas.

Can-Dive (formerly part of the Oceaneering International group of Houston, Texas, now an independent, Canadian-owned company) developed in 1986 an atmospheric diving suit called Newtsuit. It is an articulated suit with arms and legs, meant for walking on the ocean floor or on underwater platforms up to depths of 300 m.

The company has also been involved in the development of submersibles. The Haida, a ROV that can operate to depths of 700 m, was developed in conjunction with ISE in 1984. DEEP ROVER, which was launched in the same year, was built in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in co-operation with Deep Ocean Technology of San Francisco. It is a one-man acrylic "bubble" known as the underwater helicopter and can operate to 1000 m.


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