Under the ice: Military and RCMP divers work together in Arctic dives

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Under the ice: Military and RCMP divers work together in Arctic dives

Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP specialists were scuba diving under Arctic ice this week as part of annual sovereignty exercise Operation Nunalivut.

The divers were working in 12 metres of water just off the Arctic coast near Resolute, Nunavut. The ice is about 1.5 metres thick, with sheets of ice plunging from the surface to near the sea floor.

"Amazing ice formations... Those big sheets of ice are actually forced down underneath the water… You can swim right down under them with shallow clearance," said John Fleming, an RCMP diver from Kelowna, B.C.

Fleming said the water temperature (1 C) is comparable to ice water dives in other parts of the country, but the surface air temperature is the main challenge.

"You need an army of guys to come in and set this up to be able to dive in these conditions," said Fleming.

At below -30 C, skin can freeze in minutes, plastic cables become brittle, and even special fuel is required to ensure generators keep running.

The aim of the exercise with 31 scuba divers from the Canadian Army, Navy, and RCMP is to increase collaboration between the units and better understand the equipment needed for High Arctic dives.

The seven army divers participating specialize in demolition, and reconnaissance. The 14 navy divers handle port inspection and underwater engineering. The 10 RCMP divers handle security clearings, and the recovery of bodies and evidence.

This is the first time RCMP divers have participated in a major military operation in the High Arctic.

"We brought our 10 senior guys up here, so any knowledge we gain when we debrief at the end of the operation, they can farm out to their teams," said Sgt. Jay White, national training co-ordinator for the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team.

"We have in the past worked alongside the Canadian Forces divers… but at that point it was two teams working side-by-side.

"This exercise is actually combining into one team where we are having our diver with their diver and one supervisor. And working on our equipment configurations to make them match. It's sort of a teamwork building exercise."

The joint exercise also brought in Canadian Rangers from Resolute to keep an eye out for polar bears.

"My main responsibility is predator control," said Ranger Joe Amarualik.

"We have to keep people safe, so, try to keep it away from people and camp... firing off warning shots or chase it off with the snowmobile."

Operation Nunalivut wraps up on March 10.