New police dive unit trains on Kittiwake

Dive staff lower a mannequin into the water ahead of a police dive training exercise on Monday. - Photos: James Whittaker

Flashlights flicker in the dark, underwater corridors of the USS Kittiwake as a team of police officers combs every corner of the famous shipwreck.

In the gloomy interior of the ship’s hold, the raspy sound of divers breathing through scuba regulators provides an eerie soundtrack to the search.

Police Constable Richard Connolly is the first to find the body. He taps on his tank to alert his fellow divers and they muscle the lifeless form out of a porthole and on to the sand.

In this case, the body in question is a mannequin in a wet suit, hidden on the wreck by instructors from GoPro Cayman as part of a training exercise.

But Mr. Connolly, a marine police officer who heads up a new scuba unit being developed by the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service, warns that next time could be for real.

Concerned about issues of liability when community volunteers become involved in search, rescue and recovery operations under the water, police are in the process of establishing their own dive response team.

The divers, volunteers pulled from various units within the police force, will be involved in regular training exercises, like this one, to hone their skills and be ready to deploy in a real emergency.

Mr. Connolly, who has trained as a dive instructor as part of the project, said he had established a team of 10 officers that would be certified as “rescue divers.” Eventually, he hopes to expand the unit to as many as 25 officers.

Police Constable Richard Connolly helps lift the mannequin out of the lower compartment in the front port side of the Kittiwake.

He said Monday’s exercise on the Kittiwake had shown the officers’ ability to work in tight spaces, to control their buoyancy and conduct searches in difficult conditions.

“We are trying to make these kind of search and rescue efforts more professional, to do more training and more teamwork,” he added.

Typically, when a diver or swimmer goes missing on Cayman’s reefs, it has been local scuba instructors that have stepped up to lead the search.

Mr. Connolly said police still hope to draw on the expertise and guidance of the professional dive community, but he cited the potential for volunteers to be injured during a search and rescue operation among police’s primary concerns in such situations.

He added that having a specialist dive unit within the police force will enable officers to develop plans and work on specific skills relevant to search, rescue and recovery.

Monday’s exercise was not without problems. The challenge of bringing the body to the surface without lift bags was one of a handful of issues that will be addressed as the training exercise is reviewed.

Mr. Connolly added, “You can never practice for every single situation, we couldn’t practice on every coral reef. It is really about getting the system right and putting the processes in place that will make it a safer dive environment for everyone.”

Superintendent Pete Lansdown said he had personally volunteered for the unit as “visible leadership” and a show of support for the project.

He said the exercise had shown the abilities of the officers, but also exposed areas where specialist skills needed to be developed.

“We are going to have to practice grid search patterns and things like that, and practice as a team,” he said. “We also need to work on the planning we do before we go in the water.

“We found a mannequin body on this occasion. We all learned from it. I think we also need more equipment, which is something we learned through that training exercise.”

He added that police divers could also be used in criminal investigations to recover drugs, weapons or other evidence thrown from boats.

Ash McKnight, owner and PADI course director at GoPro Cayman, said he had been happy to help facilitate the training exercise.

“The dive industry has been very active over the years and has helped in search and rescue, helped in recovering bodies,” he said. “I’m sure they will continue in the future also.”

He said dive accidents were relatively rare in Cayman but it was important to ensure any rescue or recovery operation, when required, was well planned and well executed.

“We are just trying to prepare, [so that] in the unlikely event that there is an accident, we will be able to act fast and take care of the situation,” he added.