It takes a special kind of person to look into Antarctica's McMurdo Sound, all sub-30, frigid degrees of it, and think, “I should get in this water.” It's not just cold, either. Before the 13,000-ton Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star came storming in to make a channel between Ross Island and the Antarctic mainland, there was a solid 5-to-10 foot layer of ice acting as an effective deterrent to any swimming-related activities. That layer is partially gone now, but the leftovers bobbing in the cutter's wake range in size from soccer ball to mid-size sedan.
But as luck, or rather proper planning, would have it, there are seven specially trained members traveling with the Polar Star during Operation Deep Freeze 2016. These are Coast Guard and U.S. Navy divers. And entering freezing, ice-strewn water is exactly what they signed up to do.
Operation Deep Freeze is the U.S. military's annual logistical support of the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program. The Polar Star crew plays the role of channel-maker, this year breaking a 13-mile channel through the ice allowing two supply vessels to reach the NSF's McMurdo Station: a haven for scientific research on the Southern Continent.
The mission takes the icebreaker over 10,000 miles from its homeport, and nearly that far from the nearest person qualified to dive on the ship's hull to inspect for damage. If a rudder or propeller becomes jammed with ice, or encounters some other unforeseeable mishap, the wait time for a trained diver could be crippling to the time-sensitive mission.
A trained shipboard diver isn't just an enthusiast with a certificate earned over a couple weekends, either. Coast Guard divers have to know vessels, not just how to dive. And working in a place as remote and cold as Antarctica only adds to the necessary training to complete the mission.
“We're required to go to the Coast Guard cold-water ice course, the military's only ice diving course,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Harris, a diver with Coast Guard Regional Dive Locker West, or RDLW. “It's different than regular diving because if something goes wrong you can't just go to the surface. There is no surface; it's hard ice.”
When the cutter first came to a halt in the fast ice of McMurdo Sound, the dive team was ready to put their training to use. While most of the crew scrambled out onto the ice for games of football and photos with penguins, the seven divers were focused on the opening just off the ship's stern. They wanted to be under the ice, not on top of it.
With the help of the cutter's deck department, two divers were lowered in a crane-operated dive stage into the slush below. Months of preparation came to fruition as the team familiarized themselves with the underside of the Polar Star and the surrounding ice edge. Their excitement showed as they went about doing what they do best. You can't very well wake up and go to work in full view of an active volcano, a majestic mountain range, and a smattering of Antarctic wildlife and not realize that it's an awesome day.
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star deck department lowers two Coast Guard divers from the cutter into McMurdo Sound at the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Jan. 19, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)
“So far my experience diving in Antarctica is definitely a lot different than any other dive operation I've done,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Dylan Smith, a diver with RDLW. “Not many people in the world get to visit Antarctica, let alone dive in the ice. We've seen orcas, we've seen penguins; the first dive we completed we got to dive with Minke whales. It's a different world under there.”
Equally as apparent as the enthusiasm as the divers took turns kicking around in McMurdo Sound and driving their remotely operated submersible, were the layers of safety built into the operation. After conducting a thorough brief, outlining the day's plan, the dive team maintains line tenders for each diver, through-water communications, a dive supervisor, an emergency standby diver, and a dive medical technician on immediate standby. The only emergency stopgap they didn't have on-scene was ready at nearby McMurdo Station: a recompression chamber, the only way to avoid decompression sickness after a fast ascent.
“You have to have other things on the backburner in the event that something goes south,” said Chief Petty Officer Chuck Ashmore, the maintenance chief at RDLW, and the dive team leader for Operation Deep Freeze 2016. “That was one of our first hurdles, making contact with McMurdo and ensuring that all the key personnel for emergencies were available.”
Coast Guard and Navy divers perform an equipment check before a dive from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star at the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Jan. 19, 2016. The dive team exercises a series of equipment checks to mitigate risk in the remote austere Antarctic environment. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)
Thanks to their preparation, the dive, and a later dive at McMurdo Station's ice pier, went off without any problems. Things were going as planned, and it looked like the divers wouldn't have to do anything other than familiarization and training dives. Right up until the Polar Star's last few days in Antarctica.
A predecessor to the McMurdo Station ice pier, the man-made means of mooring for vessels visiting the science station, had broken free from some nearby fast ice and was positioned dangerously close to the pier approach created by the Polar Star. One supply vessel had already come and gone, but the second, the fuel tanker Maersk Peary, was still offloading its content at McMurdo Station. With two days until its scheduled departure, the steel and cable-reinforced pier raised concern as it drifted astern of the tanker, potentially exposing the vessel's propellers and rudder to loose cables, protruding rebar, and dense ice.
With the end of their Antarctic mission in sight, the Polar Star crew developed a plan prior to escorting the Maersk Peary from its mooring. This involved deploying their divers, who were itching for a chance to do something other than a practice dive.
“We were lucky enough to be called on to use our specialty to do something for the mission,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Keith Closson, a diver with Coast Guard Regional Dive Locker East. “They wanted to make sure that nothing would be in the way of the vessel.”
One of the cutter's landing craft launched with the entire dive team embarked. The first step was to see if the boat could simply push the wayward ice pier up onto shore, where it would be safely out of the way. With a few careful nudges the ice pier moved closer to shore, and McMurdo Station personnel stepped in to tie it off to land securely. There was still a concern that anchor cables might be lurking beneath the surface, so it was time to send in the divers. Both Harris and Closson suited up to enter the slushy, though pristine, water.
Coast Guard divers check equipment on Petty Officer 2nd Class Dylan Smith, a Coast Guard Regional West diver, on one of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star's landing craft in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, Feb. 6, 2016. As the standby diver, Smith was prepared to enter the water in an emergency situation. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)
They tipped off the landing craft into McMurdo Sound with a splash, and with a thumbs-up to the tending crew, their inspection began. The water was crystal clear.
“We saw the wire ropes that had previously been connected to anchors. It kind of looked like tentacles of a big jellyfish draped down into the water,” said Closson. “Even though it looked hazardous from above, anything that could do damage was either directly under the ice or back towards land. We were able to give the Captain a good feeling that there would be no interruptions to the mission.”
There's no usual or routine for Operation Deep Freeze. At the bottom of the world, no matter your job, every day can bring a new problem to solve. Now the divers will be able to go home and pass off what they learned to next year's dive team, who will take on the same mission and a new set of challenges.
“There's a huge difference between normal dive operations in San Diego; everything, almost from square one, has to be done differently,” said Smith. “We're trained to meet these obstacles head on and overcome them.”
By U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst
Provided through Coast Guard
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