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Diving ops resumed in Arctic: Coast Guard had stopped diving there after 2006 accident

KETCHIKAN (KDN) — The U.S. Coast Guard resumed Arctic shipboard dive operations in July aboard the Seattle-based cutter Healy, more than a decade after two divers died while submerged nearly 500 miles north of Alaska.

U.S. Navy personnel assisted the Coast Guard in reintroducing its Arctic presence with a joint dive made on July 29.

The shipboard dive operations ensure access for national security, sovereign presence, and increased maritime domain awareness on a year-round basis, according to the Coast Guard.

Diving from the 420-foot-long Healy in August 2006, Lt. Jessica Hill and Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Duque died during a “cold water familiarization dive” planned at a 20-foot depth in the Arctic Ocean about 490 miles north of Utqiagvik, the northernmost U.S. community formerly known as Barrow, according to the Coast Guard.

Rather than using standard weight belts, Hill and Duque were packed with 60 pounds of lead loaded in their buoyancy compensation devices — two to three times more weight than normally used during similar dives. Unable to easily jettison the weight, they ultimately plunged to a depth of about 200 feet, according to the Coast Guard.

The Healy crew also was hosting “ice liberty” — a sort of shore leave — that day, while Hill and Duque were submerged, that included polar-bear plunges, football and drinking, according to the agency.

A resulting investigation into the deaths showed numerous departures from Coast Guard policy and failed leadership, according to the Coast Guard.

In an Aug. 10 announcement, the agency said it has since “improved diving proficiency and retention by making diving a primary duty and created the first three regional dive lockers to centralize control, training and operations.”

The dive on July 29 “marked the culmination of this increased oversight, training and proficiency,” according to the announcement.

“There is no prospect more sobering than the death of a crewmember,” Capt. Greg Tlapa, the commanding officer of the Healy, said in the announcement. “We honor the memory of our shipmates, Lt. Hill and Petty Officer 2nd Class Duque, and will never forget their sacrifices. It gives our crew great pride to re-establish dive capabilities to Healy and meet the subsurface needs and challenges our service will face in the coming years in the Arctic.”

The Healy is a 420-foot long medium icebreaker with extensive scientific capabilities.