Scuba divers part of USCG Cutter Healy's arctic mission

Published: Jul. 21, 2017 at 6:16 PM AKDT
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Every summer for the past 17 years, the U.S Coast Guard Cutter Healy has headed north to test new technologies off Alaska's coast, and for the first time since tragedy struck in 2006, scuba divers are part of the mission.

On August 17, 2006, Coast Guard Cutter Healy shipmates Jessica Hill and Steven Duque died in a diving accident about 500 miles north of Utqiaġvik. While a number of factors played a role in their deaths, a report by former USCG Admiral Thad Allen says the divers sunk to a depth of roughly 200 feet, when they were only supposed to be diving at a depth of 20 feet. According to the report, each diver had two to three times more weight than normally used by divers in similar conditions.

As a result of the 2006 accident, USCG officials installed a new policy, protocol, and centralized its diving operations.

"The dive accident from eleven years ago is part of the Coast Guard and Healy's history," said Capt. Greg Tlapa, "We've taken some corrective actions to prevent that from happening again. These people weren't lost in vain and our current practices, like everything else are written in blood, never to forget."

Two crews of divers, six from the USCG and six from the U.S. Navy, are on board the Healy until August 21, and will be conducting about a week's worth of ice dives. USCG Dive Supervisor Geri Cabrera says even though they're capable of going down to 130 feet, it's unlikely any dive will exceed 30 feet.

Cabrera says the Coast Guard will be conducting the ice dives while U.S. Navy divers are on board to support the mission by operating the Navy's re-compression chamber in case of dive emergency.

"The risk is inherently higher," said Richard Dutton, U.S. Navy Diver First Class. "Diving in general is dangerous, and then you add four feet of ice on top of you through a six-by-six foot hole in the ice. And then you go down into that. When that water touches you, it takes your breath away."

In addition to ice dives, a memorial is planned to honor the victims of the 2006 diving accident. Capt. Tlapa says as long as conditions allow, the memorial will be held where divers Hill and Duque died.