Ice Diving in Antarctica
Deploying to the most remote continent on Earth requires a ship to be self-sufficient. If an underwater issue arises, it’s necessary to have skilled divers who can inspect the problem and make a report to the command. It’s for this reason the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star embarks a Coast Guard Dive Team for its annual deployment to Antarctica.
Making the voyage to the bottom of the planet every year presents many unique challenges, one of which is transiting through one of the harshest environments on Earth: the frozen Ross Sea.
The 399-foot icebreaker creates a channel that provides safe passage for supply ships destined for the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station. Those crucial supplies keep the operation at McMurdo running for an entire year, including the brutal dark winter.
Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Smith, the Polar Star’s operations officer, said having Coast Guard divers aboard gives the ship the capability it needs to inspect the ship if it suffers any damages in the harsh Antarctic conditions. “If we had a situation where we had a jammed rudder or a calibration issue with one of the propellers, we wouldn’t have the ability to check that out without the dive team,” said Smith.
The Polar Star’s dive team has a complement of six divers. An actual cold-water dive operation consists of two divers, two dive tenders, a standby diver and a dive supervisor.
Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Eversole, who was previously a marine science technician, entered the Coast Guard’s dive program in 2013. The Coast Guard Dive program requires the completion of the Coast Guard’s Cold Water Ice Diving Course in Seattle and Canada in order to be considered for Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military’s logistical support for the NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program.
“It’s a crawl-walk-run method of teaching how to dive in a cold weather environment,” said Eversole. “It begins with the familiarization of dry suits and the equipment we use to dive, which is different than normal SCUBA or surface (supplied) diving operations because it relies on a redundant air source. It’s all familiarity training at first, then we go into the cold water dunker tank and get experience in the cold environment where we have to ditch and don our masks to feel the effects of cold water on our physiology and learn to deal with that.”
The course also simulates a situation in which a diver becomes inverted underwater due to equipment failure. The training culminates at a frozen lake in Canada where members learn to cut entrance holes into the ice and establish a dive site.
Eversole said it’s a pretty rigorous process to make sure all members get the training they need before even becoming eligible to come on a mission like this, but it’s worth it for the experience of diving in Antarctica.
“We realize the power of Mother Nature and how little we are in the grand scheme of things,” said Eversole. “Then to get to come to such a remote location as this and be surrounded by the beauty and magnitude that Antarctica is—I’m not sure there are words to describe how awesome it really is.”
Senior Chief Petty Officer Don Selby, the senior diver aboard the Polar Star, was a gunner’s mate and then a maritime enforcement specialistbefore making the switch. He said his dive team is top notch, and his emphasis is on ensuring the divers’ well-being and success.
“For me it’s just making sure everyone is focused on their role, making sure everyone’s doing the maintenance that needs to get done, and taking care of themselves and each other,” said Selby. “My goal is to provide the boat with the diving services it needs and to maintain trust with the captain so he can call on us when he needs us.”
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.