This blog is part of a series following Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star on their journey to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015.
Written by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star has made its mark on the sea ice covering McMurdo Sound during Operation Deep Freeze 2015. It opened a channel for supply and fuel ships that allow the research conducted at the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to continue.
The ice also has potential to leave its mark on Polar Star. The controlled collisions between the ship and ice formations can cause damage to the ship’s undersea components. To maintain a clear picture of what is happening to the ship beneath the waterline, a team of seven ice-qualified military divers were embarked on Polar Star. They are trained to operate below the surface in one of the most remote, dangerous environments on the planet.
“We are here to provide the command with a situational picture from the bottom up,” said Chief Petty Officer Michael Perrault, a machinery technician and the dive team leader temporarily assigned from Coast Guard Regional Dive Locker-East, in Norfolk, Virginia. “If there is any suspected damage to the ship, we have the capability to give an eyes-on account from underwater.”
Lowered on a staging platform attached to one of the ship’s cranes, two divers entered the water wearing about 80 pounds of gear, including specialized equipment with configurations unique to the cold water environment. Redundant air systems, thermal protection layers and variable volume drysuits protect divers from the 30-degree water temperatures. A standby diver is always dressed and ready to deploy in case of emergency. Cutter personnel are also on standby in case of any emergency evacuation of divers in the water. Tending lines are attached to each diver and manned by qualified tender on the surface for the entire duration of any underwater evolution.
“Diving in the high latitudes makes an inherently hazardous job even more dangerous,” said Perrault. “Before any diver is allowed to deploy in support of Operation Deep Freeze, they must attend the Coast Guard’s Cold Water Ice Diving course, held in consecutive stages in Seattle and British Columbia, Canada, which is the military’s only formal school for ice diving. There, we are able to prepare for emergencies beneath the ice in a controlled environment.”
This specialized training is managed and instructed by Coast Guard divers, and hosts students from other branches of military as well.
Like every other Coast Guard diving evolution, before any diver is allowed to enter the water, the dive supervisor ensures that everyone involved understands the dive’s mission and all emergency procedures. There is no hyperbaric chamber on Polar Star, but McMurdo Station’s recompression chamber has been inspected by a member of the dive team who is a qualified U.S. Navy dive medical technician andserves as the emergency chamber. Safety procedures are in place and everyone involved on both the cutter and on land understands their role in the event of an underwater emergency.
Beneath the ice, divers have a variety of equipment they can use to inspect Polar Star and the surrounding area. Using eyes and hands or a remote operated vehicle, they are able to ascertain the condition of the ship’s hull, propellers, hubs and shafts. That information is relayed to the surface and allows for continued safe operations in support of Deep Freeze.
“We were able to deploy our ROV and conduct reconnaissance of a piece of ice lodged underneath a propeller,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Korte, a boatswain’s mate temporarily assigned from Regional Dive Locker-West, in San Diego. “That capability allows us to have a clear picture of what we are up against before we get into the water.”
Dive team members are also equipped to install cofferdams, conduct thorough hull surveys and assist the ship’s engineers with calibration of the controllable pitch propeller system.
“It’s an awe-inspiring experience to be diving with such a vast amount of ocean beneath you and expansive formations of blue sea ice above you,” said Perrault. “Polar operations support is a tier-one mission for us. The impact that we can provide is such that it’s an honor to represent the Coast Guard Dive Program in such a remote area.”
Only a small fraction of the world’s population will ever have the opportunity to visit one of the most remote places on earth. Of that small group, an even smaller contingent actually performs their duties below the frozen surface in support of science that has the potential to benefit the entire planet.