Jan. 25, 2021 —
A childhood memory of standing at the edge of the diving board might provoke sweaty palms and a pounding heart. Now imagine that the deep end is 5,000 feet deep and you’re tethered to a motorized hunk of steel. For a Coast Guard diver, that scenario is a regular occurrence.
While each dive requires a meticulous routine associated with safety measures, no two days as a diver are the same. “My favorite part of being a diver for the Coast Guard is the diversity of the mission,” said Chief Warrant Officer Michael West, dive program manager in the Coast Guard’s Office of Specialized Capabilities. “One day you can be diving off the coast of Midway Island in the Pacific—in the most crystal blue waters you can imagine—helping with aids to navigation work. Then the next [day], you’re diving in the zero visibility waters of Bayonne, New Jersey—in the winter—checking hull conditions.”
The missions a diver supports are as varied as the operating environments. “We are responsible for supporting any need that is subsurface,” said Master Chief Paul Smith, Dive Rating Force Master Chief describing the area where divers operate to support the subsurface needs of the Coast Guard. “Our divers perform a range of activities, from annual hull inspections and cleanings to assisting local law enforcement in evidence recovery.”
Wherever a diver is assigned, they’ll be expected to train and deploy to a range of mission areas. “We’re really like a Swiss army knife,” said West. “We sweep ports after a hurricane to ensure safe conditions. We survey aids to navigation for the protection of endangered marine life. Just like the swiss army knife, we go where needed and do a little bit of everything that’s subsurface.”
The Coast Guard has used divers since World War II, training with the U.S. Navy under the Office of Strategic Service. At that time, divers or “frogmen” were the heart of the Operational Swimmer Groups deploying to the European Theater and the Pacific Theater to include China, Burma, India.
While the program has a rich history, it only became an official rating in 2015. Prior to this, diving was a collateral duty—something you did in addition to your regular duties as needed.
“You’d be doing your normal job the whole time,” explained Smith, “and then someone would need a diver. So—you’d suit up and dive for a bit, but then return to your normal duties. This didn’t give divers adequate time in the water, learning the skills they needed to be successful.”
In 2006 two divers died while conducting a dive operation from the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker.
“The Healy incident was a pivotal moment in Coast Guard diving,” said Smith. “It was then the Coast Guard said, ‘Something needs to change, or we cannot continue diving.’”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Duque, a boatswains mate, and Lt. Jessica Hill, both assigned to the Healy, lost their lives while attempting a training dive off the bow of the 420-foot icebreaker. Both divers descended in an uncontrollable manner and, due to their lack of dive experience, neither was able to correct their decent fast enough.
“We took the deaths of these two members seriously,” said West, about the impacts of losing two shipmates. “Their sacrifice pushed us to change within the program to ensure that never happened again.”
The Coast Guard launched a comprehensive investigation into the tragic deaths to understand all the contributing factors of the incident. The findings of that report were the catalyst for moving the dive program from a collateral duty to an official rating.
While it still took about nine years after the Healy incident to make diving an official rating, many concur that this move was the best decision. “The professionalism of the program today is astounding,” West said about the level and quality of training necessary to be a Coast Guard diver.
“I was a diver back in 2006 and the way we did things then compared to the way we do things now is worlds apart.” Smith explained. “Our divers are more prepared today than I was when I graduated dive school because they’ve had the time in the water practicing and preparing that simply wasn’t around 10 years ago.”
Before diving became an official rating, members attended a five-week scuba class to become dive certified. After completing training, they were expected to lead dive crews on operations, such as hull inspections, while having spent a relatively small amount of time in the water.
Since becoming a rating, the process to become a Coast Guard diver is competitive with a robust training requirement. All enlisted members that are E5 or E4 who are E5-eligible, regardless of rating, can apply to the dive program when the solicitation goes out in February each year. Applicants are screened at the Dive Candidate Screener, a one-week selection process at Training Center Cape May. From there, only five to 10 applicants are selected to continue with dive training at the Navy Diver “A” School in Panama City, Florida.
Completing dive training is another challenge, altogether.
“It’s like going to boot camp all over again,” said Smith. Members are expected to work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, completing a mix of physical training and academic training. They then return to the water at night to complete more dive trainings in the darkened water.
“It’s very, very physical,” said Smith. “You need to be comfortable in the water. The [dive] training will challenge you and simulate the worst possible conditions to make sure you’re prepared for whatever your mission may entail.”
Simulated conditions include performing many of the tasks in low to no visibility environments over the course of five months at second class dive school—or as the diver’s call it “Two Chuck.” Divers who wish to lead teams of divers must do additional training at the first class dive school.
While the physical demand of diving might seem obvious, academics receives equal attention. Trainees learn extensively about dive physics, strengthen their math skills, and gain knowledge of first aid and other general medical necessities.
Ultimately, it is not the physicality or the technical knowledge that makes a great diver. “The best divers have the perfect mix of determination and teamwork,” said West. “The determination will keep you going when the work gets hard, when you feel too tired for the job. But it’s the ability to work well with others that is the single most determining factor in whether or not someone is going to be a good fit for the diver rating.”
The intense training regime that goes into becoming a Coast Guard diver creates a tight knit community feel. “Diving is a team-oriented capability,” said Smith. “You rely heavily on your fellow divers to stay safe and get the job done.”
Becoming a Coast Guard diver is no easy feat, because the job itself is, as West says, “no cake walk.” It requires focus, flexibility, and a significant time away from home. “There is no hiding or escaping your crew when you’re a diver,” explained West. “I always tell interested folks, ‘Are you ready to put in maximum effort for the next 20 years?’ because that’s what it takes to be a successful Coast Guard diver.”
Despite the hardships that come with the job, divers are some of the most satisfied members of the Coast Guard. “Our members love coming to work,” said Smith. “They genuinely enjoy what they do each and every day.”
If you are interested in joining the dive program, or simply just want to learn more, please visit the Dive Program portal page (CAC required) or the PSC-EPM-Diver portal page (CAC Required).