Decade after fatal accident, ice divers back on USCGC Healy
As the nation’s only Arctic icebreaker, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy is familiar with Alaska’s icy waters.
Dive instructor Geri Cabrera is about to be, too.
“I was fortunate to dive down in Antarctica with the Polar Star. So, coming up here to the North Pole is a check in the box for me. I’m very excited,” Cabrera said
She’s one of a dozen ice divers aboard the Healy for the first time since 2006 when a diving operation in the Arctic Ocean killed two people.
Commanding Officer Greg Tlapa said that tragedy inspired many changes to the program over the past decade.
“Like any organizational task, if you don’t learn from your mistakes you’re bound to repeat them. It’s very important,” he said.
Diving is now a specialty. They also airlifted a recompression chamber onto the vessel that is borrowed from and operated by the Navy. It’s an essential piece of life-saving equipment and the Healy couldn’t have divers on board without it.
“Any diving related injuries that were to occur while we’re out, this chamber would be on site to treat that individual,” said Navy Diver First Class Richard Dutton.
In addition to the Arctic training, divers will also be a support team for scientists. Their research on this trip is looking at how new, unmanned technology performs.
Lead scientist Scot Tripp said an autonomous underwater vehicle they’re testing would be useful during an oil spill because it can scan ice floes from underneath.
“We’re very good at cleaning it (oil) off the ice– like in the Great Lakes– it freezes over and you can clean off the ice. We’re good at cleaning in the water. But, that in between space where you’ve got ice floating and little bergs floating around, it creates a few different challenges for the technology,” Tripp explained.
His team also built a prototype for an unmanned surface vehicle which is equipped with a fluorescent oil detector. As off-shore drilling in the Arctic gains more interest, Tripp expects their technology testing to pay off.
“We can have it make circles around the rig, just keeping track. We work with the oil companies because they’re concerned, too,” Tripp said.
The mission will be Cabrera’s inaugural dive into Arctic waters. She said it’s rewarding to be a part of the first dive team back on the icebreaker.
“It’s an honor to be here, to be a part of the crew working with the Navy. I’m so happy to be here,” she said.
The Healy left Seward on Friday and will take about a week to reach the Arctic Circle. The crew will hold a special remembrance ceremony for Lieutenant Jessica Hill and Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Duque who died in 2006.
The vessel is expected to be back in Seward in mid-August.