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Coast Guard divers return to Arctic, with assist from Navy

By ED FRIEDRICH | Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 20, 2017

BANGOR — After 11 years and some big changes, the Coast Guard is diving in the Arctic again, with an assist from the Navy.

Three Bangor sailors participated in the first Arctic dives since two Coast Guard members died during one on Aug. 17, 2006. Lt. Jessica Hill and Boatswain's Mate Steven Duque, from the icebreaker Healy, descended into the 29-degree ocean for a scuba dive. They never resurfaced.

An investigation found the deaths were the result of across-the-board failure — of the Coast Guard, the ship's command staff and the dive team. The Coast Guard conducted a comprehensive dive program review that resulted in it becoming its own duty instead of a collateral job, and the creation of three regional dive lockers to centralize control, training and operations, as in the Navy.

Dive capabilities were recently re-established aboard the Seattle-based Healy. Beginning July 29, six Guardsmen performed 18 dives as a half dozen sailors manned a recompression chamber borrowed from the Navy.

"It's really surreal when you're diving up underneath the ice," said Chief Chuck Ashmore, from the Coast Guard's San Diego dive locker. "The ice formations are just incredible. Each one is unique. ... Visibility is unlimited. You've got all colors of blue. It's out of this world, about as close as you can come to being an astronaut."

The water is colder than freezing, but better than the air.

"It's a factor, but it's more of a factor for topside personnel," Ashmore said. "Once you're in the water you're good because you've got so many layers."

Divers must be within a certain time span of a recompression chamber, in this case an hour. There are none in the Arctic, nor are Guardsmen qualified to operate one. The Navy lent a portable chamber, and six divers from Bangor and Everett to staff it.

Richard Dutton, Mathew Villafuerte and Ryan Levins, first class petty officers with the Bangor dive locker, normally make underwater repairs on submarines. They joined the icebreaker up north as inside tenders, who operate the chamber and render medical care. They also screened Guardsmen on the chamber's use and taught them about diagnosing diving-related illnesses.

Diving has become more consistent across the services. The Coast Guard adopted several Navy characteristics, Guardsmen and sailors attend the same school and all military services are guided by the Navy dive manual. The Coast Guard is the expert on cold water ice diving and offers training to divers from other services.

"We like to phrase it as continuing to train and exercise together," said Capt. Greg Tlapa, Healy commanding officer. "It's just another chapter in drawing closer together, to complement each other. The dive program is front and center for showcasing joint capability."

Coast Guard diving missions include repair, maintenance and placement of aids to navigation, such as buoys; polar operations; ports, waterways and coastal security missions; salvage and recovery operations; and coral reef and environmental surveys.

The Healy is a high-latitude research vessel that carries teams of scientists to the Arctic. It began a mission Friday in which 45 scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will retrieve instruments they left on the sea floor last year. The Polar Star, also based in Seattle, does the same in the Antarctic.

Returning divers to the Healy marked the final chapter in recovering from and learning lessons from the accident 11 years ago, Tlapa said.

"It gives our crew great pride to re-establish dive capabilities to Healy and meet the subsurface needs and challenges our service will face in the coming years in the Arctic," Tapa said.

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©2017 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)

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