Vol. 81, No. 2Ask an expert

Two RCMP divers pull a bagged drowning victim from the water while male officers retrieve it from a rocky shore.

Deep dive

Bringing closure for families of drowning victims

For RCMP divers like Sgt. Andy Pulo and Cpl. John Stringer, returning a loved one to their family is the most rewarding part of their job. Credit: RCMP

In most Canadian provinces, when a body is lost in the water, RCMP underwater recovery divers like Sgt. Andy Pulo and Cpl. John Stringer are ready to search the cold, dark depths to find it. Pulo and Stringer, who work in Manitoba and British Columbia respectively, have 46 years of diving experience between them. Patricia Vasylchuk spoke to them about their work and what motivates them to dive.

What's diving like?

JS: Envision yourself in complete darkness, because 50 to 90 per cent of our work is done in zero visibility. Nobody likes that when you're down there but, if you're focused on the task, you can convince yourself that it's an OK place to be. You've got to really love diving first and be OK with searching for evidence or human remains in an unknown, dangerous environment.

What's finding a body like?

JS: My first few recoveries, when you come through the water and all of sudden there's a dead body in front of you, it was a little bit shocking. But I've learned to make finding it the goal, so when I'm searching I constantly expect to find it.

AP: I was on highway patrol for two years, and some of the horrific scenes I've seen there don't even compare to recovering a person who's been a victim of drowning.

Why do you do it?

JS: For me, bringing somebody back for the family is the incentive. When you do, the family is just relieved and thankful.

AP: There's been many people who we weren't able to recover. In those cases, families don't get the closure needed as part of the grieving process. So when we're successful, bringing families that closure is very rewarding for me.

Is the victim's family usually at the dive site?

JS: Quite often. I always talk to them when we're done and they give you a hug and are thankful that we just show up to look. It makes it worth it.

AP: At more isolated spots, the families are usually not there. But, in some remote Indigenous communities, there's usually a big crowd that gather for vigils and to give us ideas about where they think the victim might be.

Do you get nervous?

AP: There aren't many things that scare me. I think that most of the time the scariest thing is what's in your own imagination. There aren't any monsters that are going to reach out and grab you. It's a matter of remaining calm and keeping in mind that you're in a risky environment.

JS: I'm totally comfortable; I wouldn't do it if I wasn't. You need to have the confidence that when you're in the water, you can get out of any situation.

AP: And you have to rely on your teammates.

JS: Yeah, when you rely on the strengths of the team, you know that if you get into a situation that you can't get out of, somebody's going to rescue you.

How fast can you respond to a call?

AP: It depends on the availability of team members. Most of the divers do this part time — there are only eight full-timers nationally — so it's sometimes difficult to get a team together because you're competing with their substantive positions. Also, most of my team is spread out through the province, we don't have a centralized team in one spot. I even have two members in isolated posts, so if I can get them, I have to fly them. Realistically, it can take up to two days to assemble a team and attend a dive call in Manitoba.

How often do you get calls?

AP: With my team it depends on the year. We've had as few as 17 calls and as many as 36 calls in a year.

JS: In B.C., we had 90 calls this year.

Is there a busy season?

JS: Ours is about May to September. That's recreational time on the water, which means a lot of drownings.

AP: For us in Manitoba, the calls are more spread out until the lakes and rivers have good thick ice on them. Then the calls drop off because there are fewer falls through the ice.

Do you search only for bodies?

AP: We've recovered all sorts of items that were used in crimes that were needed as evidence in a police investigation. We recover a lot of cars and planes, too. We also secure the waterfronts that are being visited by VIPs. Like, in Manitoba, when the Queen was here, she was going to take a vessel ride on the Red River and we had to clear the harbour for possible explosives.

Do you preserve evidence?

JS: If there's lots of little pieces everywhere, like from an explosion, you'd grid that off into sections like a crime scene on land. For most of our work dives, though, we're only talking about a few items. Body parts or pieces of evidence we bag or put in a can with the water sealed in it.

AP: We even bag the hands of murder victims to preserve evidence that might be underneath the fingernails.

What's the visibility like underwater?

AP: It varies from site to site. Most of the dives we do in Manitoba we really can't see anything. The water looks like chocolate milk and you're just feeling around trying to find what you're looking for.

JS: On occasion there's a good one though. We just did an evidence recovery on the north coast of B.C. and it was unbelievable visibility. It was spectacular. Huge kelp beds moving in the surf, shells and fish. It looked like an aquarium. It was the nicest work dive I've ever done.

What could go wrong?

AP: Snagging, decompression, equipment failure. The most common thing is swimming into something and getting stuck, like in timber or fish nets. Bridges are really bad for items being thrown off of them and timber stacking up around pilings. I've even seen a big stack of bicycles one on top of another by a bridge piling. Even stacked cars, which could topple and crush a diver.

JS: Diving in a current is very risky especially when you can't see. If your line gets stuck or if the current is pushing you into a tree root ball it's much more dangerous because now you have to fight against the pressure of the water to get out.

What do you wear?

JS: We have a rubberized dry suit to protect against contaminants, whether it be oil, gas or body fluids. It's completely sealed at the wrist and neck down. You can vary the layers underneath because the suit doesn't insulate, it just protects you from the water. So, if you're in freezing water you can wear a thick undergarment. In the summertime, I'd probably just wear a light shirt and pants. The tanks we use are steel, so they're heavier than sport diving gear. And we use a full-face mask that allows us to talk to each other through a microphone and ear piece. The complete package weighs close to 100 pounds.

How deep do you dive?

JS: Most of our dives are above 20 meters, but the max depth that we will go is 45 metres.

AP: Most dives in Manitoba are under 18 metres.

What's the fun side?

AP: We do a lot of plane crashes in Manitoba. So once we remove the remains, for me the fun part's actually raising the plane and getting it to shore — the mechanics of rigging it up and lifting. It's challenging and I like the problem-solving aspect. I've only ever done one helicopter but bush planes are quite common.

How can someone become an RCMP diver?

JS: They need to have been working with the RCMP for two years. And they need to already be a certified diver from an accredited SCUBA diving agency, and have logged 25 hours under water.

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