Divers clear mines in shallow water training

Navy News / December 16, 2019

By Peter Mallett

Members of Fleet Diving Unit (Pacific) (FDU(P)) battled poor visibility and close encounters with local sharks during their participation in multinational training in Australia.

The training event, called DUGONG, saw teams of clearance divers from Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States gather at Fleet Base West near Perth from November 7 to 22, 2019.

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) contingent – consisting of nine divers from FDU(P), one diver from Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic), and four supporting personnel – focused on Very Shallow Water (VSW) Mine Countermeasures at depths of 10 metres or less.

“It is always great to have the opportunity to work and train with some of the best [clearance diving] teams in the world in a setting where we can freely exchange tactics, training and procedures with our partner nations,” said Lieutenant (Navy) (Lt(N)) Viachaslau Khabian, head of the FDU(P) Mine Countermeasures Department.

VSW Mine Countermeasures are performed in preparation for amphibious landings and are normally done under the cloak of darkness for clandestine purposes.

Each nation and their divers were given specific lanes near the shoreline to find and dispose of underwater mines. They dove in groups of two and were inserted from inflatable boats at a considerable distance from shore in order to avoid detection.

“Clearing mines during night-time operations proved to be challenging, as our divers were forced to contend with rough sea conditions, high turbidity and low light that caused extremely poor visibility,” said Lt(N) Khabian.

Challenges aside, the scenario provided the RCN divers with a tremendous opportunity to cooperate and solve problems with participating navies.

“Whenever RCN clearance divers are called upon to clear mines, we rarely do it alone. Generally, we are integrated into an international task force and work closely with our allies to accomplish our mission,” said Lt(N) Khabian. “It’s a great opportunity to learn how to work together, and to learn each other’s capabilities and limitations so we do not run into logistical problems and communications issues when the real thing occurs.”

Sometimes the unexpected and “real” things happen in training, too. During one dive, Lt(N) Khabian and his dive partner, Leading Seaman (LS) Patrick Kory, encountered a shark as they combed the shoreline area for a piece of ordnance that was spotted earlier by an autonomous underwater vehicle. As they approached what they thought was the target object, LS Kory saw the object start moving on his hand-held underwater navigation and imaging system.

“As I started to approach the object we could see on the screen this object was now moving away from us,” said Lt(N) Khabian “My dive partner started to pull me back when he realized it was a shark, but thankfully it wasn’t interested in us.”

Because of the poor visibility, the two men couldn’t make out the species of shark, but after review of sonar imagery, they estimated it to be approximately three metres long.

The experience, said Lt(N) Khabian, certainly gave him and his dive partner something to talk about during an event organized by their Australian hosts.

During DUGONG, partner nations also participated in a marksmanship contest using rifles. Despite some fierce competition from the Aussies, LS Justin McKinstry of the RCN beat out all competing nations with an astounding demonstration of quickness and accuracy.

Overall, DUGONG provided FDU(P) divers excellent insight into the challenges of operating in a VSW environment, including local marine life. Continuing to operate in close conjunction with partner nations will only help to strengthen and reinforce the RCN’s commitment to its international allies.