Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Meredith Manning
Arctic fog filled the air, adding moisture to the icy temperatures that bit at exposed skin and cut through layers of clothing. The small 36-foot aluminum Coast Guard boat was filled with people from bow to stern as the coxswain butted it up against a large ice floe. The crew launched grappling hooks over the side and tugged on their lines, causing the sharp edges to claw themselves into the ice anchoring the boat in place.
“All non-essential personnel please move to the stern,” piped a small, athletic woman in a black dry suit.
A few crew members and bystanders slipped to the back of the boat, but a large portion of the people stayed in place. She addressed them as she read from a small booklet and jotted notes as they checked their equipment.
This was the first time divers would enter Arctic waters from a Coast Guard vessel since a tragic accident took two military divers’ lives in 2006.
The divers on the small boat were part of a joint United States military dive team, consisting of six Coast Guard divers and six Navy divers, deployed to Coast Guard Cutter Healy to support the 2017 Coast Guard Research and Development Center Arctic patrol.
During the patrol, the team conducted cold water ice dive operations from both the small boat and a dive platform that was lowered from the Healy. A total of 18 dives were performed with a maximum depth of 38 feet and subsurface time of 18 minutes.
The team’s operations marked the culmination of specialized oversight, training and proficiency since the loss of Lt. Jessica Hill and Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Duque. Since the accident, the Coast Guard has implemented a dive rating, required advanced military dive training and developed a military ice diving course available to all branches.
“The aftermath of the deaths of Jessica Hill and Steven Duque breathed life into a new Coast Guard dive program and diver rating,” said Capt. Greg Tlapa, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy. “This summer was a great milestone towards restoring, not only Healy’s full dive capabilities, but cold water ice dive capabilities for the entire U.S. military operating in the Arctic.”
As the only U.S. military surface vessel that deploys to the ice-covered waters of the Arctic, the reintegration of diving on the Healy assures year-round access for national security, sovereign presence and increased maritime domain awareness in the region.
The dive team also trained with a Navy recompression chamber that was brought onboard the cutter. For the dives performed during this deployment, access to a recompression chamber within six hours is mandatory. Due to the remoteness of the Arctic, having a chamber onboard during the mission was essential.
“The locations where we were diving were outside of our capabilities,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Geri Cabrera, a Coast Guard dive supervisor, referring to the distance from the nearest recompression chamber. “It was through our partnership with the Navy dive team that this mission was possible.”
The chamber serves as a lifeline and a training platform for the divers. During the deployment they worked through scenarios using the chamber, trained on operating the chamber and completed chamber familiarity drawings.
Although the chamber was available and required in proximity, the divers successfully completed dive operations during the deployment without incident.
During the last dive of the mission, Tlapa addressed the crew as they stood in formation, a small sea of red winter coats, on the fantail of the cutter.
“Lt. Hill and Petty Officer Duque were taken from this world 11 years ago, but their spirit lives on in the hearts of loved ones and with the restoration of dive operations to the Healy. In their memory, we stand united as one ship, one crew, and one family. We honor them each time we pause to evaluate risk before a dangerous operation and we honor them by reintroducing dive operations to the Arctic.”
Two divers were lowered on a platform into the icy Arctic waters. A Coast Guardsman played taps on his trumpet as the divers swam out far enough for the crew to watch them disappear in the vast ocean as ice floes surrounded the cutter. The fog that hung in the air of the first dive has long since lifted and the sun peaked through the overcast sky. Just beneath the surface, the divers released a weighted plaque, honoring their brother and sister whose loss paved the way to this moment.