SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. – With a final check of their tanks and hoses, the divers raise their hands and signal the OK. Falling back into the murky, blue-green waters of Puget Sound they break the surface with a loud splash and are swallowed by the world below.
Immediately feeling the cold shock of 50 degree water, the divers’ muscles tense. The adjustment to the temperature and the tug of a strong current make this environment all the more bewildering. Keeping calm, they begin the more than 100-foot decent to the aquatic moonscape of the seafloor.
The lush, green vistas of San Juan Island on the surface are a stark contrast to the grey, rocky habitats found below the waves. Here, forests and mountains give way to hills and valleys of swirling sand, shells and sea creatures. Crabs, starfish and other invertebrates scurry about, curious yet apprehensive of their new visitors.
Finally reaching the bottom, the divers begin their work. With hand tools and line cutters they excavate and release hundreds of square feet of derelict fishing nets, gillnets and abandoned lines. Removing and collecting what they can, they return to the surface having done their part to heal and protect the underwater environment.
This is the job of Army divers from the 86th Engineer Dive Detachment. They are currently partnered with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and coordinated through the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program.
“The mission is an outstanding opportunity for the detachment and comes with great value to the state of Washington,” said Capt. Robert Cornell, 86th Dive Detachment commander. “The challenges and complexity of the problem-set provide a tough realistic mission for the detachment.”
Braving the elements and the challenges of deep diving, the detachment has recovered four gillnets totaling 3,562 square feet of rocky habitat and two lines measuring 1,543 feet since July 7. This does not include another larger net that is still being processed.
“All of the nets have been found off of the west and southwest sides of San Juan Island, mostly between Eagle Cove and Hidden Bay,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Laspe, master diver. “All nets recovered were at a depth range of 98 to 180 feet.”
This mission has provided an exciting new challenge for the divers from Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Virginia.
“This is a very unique opportunity for us,” said Sgt. Jared Lausen, dive team member. “We have a very broad skill set but the environment of the Puget Sound presents many interesting challenges, particularly with its strong currents, cold water and depth.”
Recovering derelict nets from Puget Sound is one of many projects Washington DNR sponsors to protect habitats and wildlife in the area.
“We have found lots of marine life in and around the nets,” Lapse said. “Crabs, starfish and various muscles are the most common finds. They are undoubtedly attracted by fish that become entangled in gillnets.”
The project will continue through July as the team continues to train, recover nets and complete diving projects for the Puget Sound community.
“Our peacetime and wartime mission is essentially the same,” Lapse said. “Every mission we execute benefits local populations, military populations or the environment; this provides a level of dedication and fulfillment you aren’t likely to find anywhere else. Everyone in this field is smart, motivated and driven. I recommend it to anyone who can make the cut!”
The detachment has already scheduled their next project and will head to the frigid waters of Alaska for a training mission supporting the Coast Guard in August.