Underwater Guardians – following the call of the deep

Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Henry G. Dunphy

Nimble U.S. Coast Guard boats cut through the water alongside a Navy ship transiting into port, providing an armed escort in a crowded channel. This is a common sight in many harbors around the world. What the casual observer may not know is that, long before the incoming ship reaches the harbor, there was another team of Coast Guardsmen working in the murky underwater twilight to ensure the safety of the ship’s crew and cargo.

Searching piers for explosive devices and other underwater hazards prior to the arrival of a Navy ship, or other high-interest vessels, is one of the many missions carried out by the Coast Guard divers assigned to Regional Dive Locker West, explained Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Mellon.

Mellon and Petty Officer 2nd Class Roy Mesenscott are two of the Coast Guard’s newest divers, fresh from 18 weeks of training at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Fla.

Tucked away in several buildings within San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Regional Dive Locker West is responsible for underwater operations anywhere on the West Coast, including Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. Missions the divers execute range from underwater maintenance of Coast Guard vessels’ hulls, inspecting and repairing aids-to-navigation buoys, supporting ice operations aboard the polar ice breakers and anti-terrorism missions like pier and vessel sweeps.

Mellon, a gunner’s mate, spent four of his six years in the Coast Guard determined to become a diver. His first exposure to Coast Guard divers was while he was stationed at Maritime Safety and Security Team Seattle. He was so impressed with the caliber of people in the dive community that he was determined to become a diver himself. After volunteering for a tour in Bahrain he got a top priority pick for his next duty station and was assigned to the Dive Locker.

Similarly, Mesenscott was interested in becoming a diver for several years before accomplishing his goal.

“The main reason I wanted to become a diver was the highly motivated people in the dive community,” said Mesenscott. “Being a health services specialist, I get to work with the Coast Guard’s best resource – its people. Since there are not enough of us in the dive community, I decided to give it a try.”

The hopeful dive students spent eight weeks at Dive Locker West prior to the school “mud pupping”- being put through their paces by the seasoned divers in intense workouts and pool exercises.

Getting to dive school was only the first challenge. Next, the two Coast Guardsmen faced the grueling training schedule alongside their Army and Navy classmates.

“It was very physically and mentally demanding,” said Mellon.

“I went to school a little anxious, a little tentative,” said Mesenscott. “My surface skills, like treading water, and my breath hold technique were pretty limited.”

Mesenscott said the biggest challenge for him was pool week. The students had to perform exercises in the water under adverse conditions.

“The first day we had to tread water in a big circle with our hands or feet tied while the instructors threw water in our faces,” Mesenscott said. The instructors wanted make the situation as difficult as possible to see which students would panic and drag others down with them and which could resist the “fight or flight” instinct and remain calm under pressure.

“When I did it here when I was mud pupping I didn’t last a minute and a half, I was freaking out,” Mesenscott said, “but, I managed to work with the guys to get myself under control and when I got to school it was one of the easiest things I’d ever done.”

The curriculum covered everything from basic scuba, underwater welding, patching and drilling, to lifting objects from the sea floor with inflatable bags.

“The hardest part for me was advanced physics,” said Mellon. “For instance, you have a diver down at a certain depth and he has a convulsion. What are the step-by-step procedures you have to do to get this diver treated and make sure he comes out alive?”

Mellon said he put in extra hours with the instructors during weekends to prepare for exams.

All the hard work paid off and both Coast Guardsmen returned to Regional Dive Locker West as qualified 2nd Class Divers.

The rigorous training during dive school prepared Mellon and Mesenscott for the variety of potentially dangerous environments the divers work in.

“Most people’s idea of scuba diving is like the Discovery Channel – water with great visibility and tons of little cute fish that make for great pictures. For our work it’s often low visibility in cold, murky water,” Mesenscott said.

The enthusiasm was apparent in both divers’ faces after achieving a goal that both worked toward for several years.

Though less visible than some other Coast Guard units, Regional Dive Locker West and the Coast Guard’s two newest divers execute unique and vital missions that take them around the world and into the depths.

“I’m excited to go to work, I didn’t take any leave. I’m ready to go wherever they want to send me,” Mellon said. “My job is to breathe compressed gas underwater, I don’t know what more anyone could ask for. I love it.”

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