NEWS | April 30, 2019

U.S. Navy and Spanish Navy Divers Working During Ice Diving Exercise in Spain

By Master Chief Navy Diver Will Wittman

High in the Spanish Pyrenees of Aragon lies an alpine refuge and luxury resort named Balneario de Panticosa that, for much of its centuries-old history, has served as a destination for both dignitaries and adventurous travelers alike. The spectacular surrounding landscape, winter sports and the enchanting waters of the resort’s thermal spas act as a magnet for visitors.

For each of the last three years, the adjacent reservoir has served a different purpose. The reservoir doubles as a destination for bi-lateral ice diving training for diving personnel of the U.S. Navy and their hosts, the divers of the Spanish Center for Navy Diving, Centro de Buceo de la Armada (CBA), and Military Diving School, Escuela Militar de Buceo (EMB). The shared goal of this enduring bi-lateral engagement is to showcase each country’s ice diving capability, with the training particularly focused on dive station set-up, in-water standard and emergency procedures, and also to foster good relations and a better understanding of each nation’s navy diving doctrine, equipment and capabilities.

This year’s iteration of the event was executed from Feb. 18-22, and featured 20 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians and Navy divers from EOD Mobile Unit (EODMU) 8, stationed in Rota, Spain, and 30 Spanish divers based in Cartagena, Spain. The reservoir is located approximately 5400 feet above sea level, making it an excellent training site for the practice of both altitude and ice-diving procedures with its high-altitude location consistently yielding stable ice conditions. Additionally, Panticosa is easily accessible by ground transportation – albeit, following a two-day line haul of gear and personnel across the Iberian Peninsula from Rota.

Following the arrival of the team and equipment, the American participants worked on the multitude of tasks associated with the establishment of an expeditionary camp that included: building two tents, one inflatable igloo shelter and the set-up of the Transportable Recompression Chamber System (TRCS) that was housed within the igloo. Each of the tents played a vital role in the execution of diving operations, with one established as a “hot zone” with electrical and ventilation connected to the trailered 35kW Generator ECU Trailer for personnel to change and dry equipment. The other tent was utilized on the ice as a shelter for personnel and to shield the primary ice access site from the elements.

Simultaneous to the set-up of sustainment equipment, officer in charge, Lt. j.g. Andrew Couillard and diving supervisors, Chief Navy Diver Jon Trusty and Navy Diver 1st Class Troy Crowder, did a risk assessment of surface ice conditions on the lake and determined that the combined 15-inches of black and white ice on the lake was sufficient to execute safe ice diving operations.
Having done the very same preparations during the two prior years of the exercise, the core group of EODMU 8 personnel were very proficient in cutting the triangular entry hole, cutting the escape hole, staging pallets, and the preparation of mission essential equipment inside the tent to engage and optimize diving operations.

The primary objective of EODMU 8 was to cycle all personnel through a minimum of two dives - practicing emergency procedures including: ditching of the Interspiro “AGA” Divator Full Face Mask, with transition to the emergency Poseidon XStream second-stage regulator, lost-diver drills, unconscious diver recovery drills, and the evacuation of a stricken diver across the ice to the TRCS.

“We are always impressed with the quality of training up here,” said Navy Diver 1st Class Troy Crowder. “It’s not every day that we are able to test our altitude and ice diving capability in such a magnificent environment.”

On the Spanish dive station, Spanish Lt. Juan Garcia Gen and his team of diving instructors briefed the 16 students of the Spanish “technical and specialized” diving course on the week’s events that employed a “walk-then-run” approach.
The training team had already completed the initial, or “crawl,” phase of training with three-weeks of pier-side and open water diving, utilizing their dual Interspiro DP-1 diving systems, including dry-suit familiarization and emergency actions training.

After completing dive station set-up and pre-dive checks on Feb. 19, the Spanish dive team completed eight dives with buddy pairs from the lake’s short quay wall to reinforce the previous weeks’ training for all students prior to diving the students through the ice. During the subsequent two days, each of the Spanish dive students made a dive with 20 minutes of bottom time to an actual maximum depth of 41-feet. The diver’s depth was altitude-corrected from the diver-worn depth gauge readings, in which the nominal 6,000 feet of altitude was then applied to the actual depth and resulted in a sea level equivalent depth of 60.

An additional line of effort by the Spanish was to cold-water test the Spanish Navy’s semi-closed-circuit diving UBA and the Aqualung manufactured C.R.A.B.E, which was executed by Spanish Lt. Ignacio Zaragoza Ruiz and his Operational Diving Team, Equipo Operativo de Buceo (EOB).

Altogether, between the U.S. Navy and Spanish navy, more than 40 dives were safely executed during the exercise using three distinctly different UBA configurations between the three dive stations. This enabled more than 25 personnel to experience their first dive under-ice and in doing so, to experience the uniquely challenging techniques, procedures and environment of altitude and ice diving operations.

Additionally, operator feedback was discussed and invaluable lessons learned were documented by the teams, which included important critiques of diver-worn gear, emergency evacuation equipment, and topside support equipment. The final take-away by the leadership of both sides of the bi-lateral training was that this year’s engagement was successful in all mission objectives while offering new opportunities for future operations, further collaboration and improved interoperability.