An experienced marine photographer was taking pictures of coral in Nootka Bay, B.C., when something went wrong. The 69-year-old diver descended rapidly, sinking too deep for his diving mates to follow.
In the hours and days following, the RCMP's Underwater Recovery Team (URT) in British Columbia scoured the ocean for the missing man without success.
"We never like to walk away from water empty-handed," says Cst. Erik Stelter, a URT diver in Surrey, B.C., and an experienced sonar user. "We're passionate about what we do — bringing closure to families and gathering evidence for criminal cases."
A year after the man went missing, the RCMP's underwater team returned to the site, following a new lead.
Armed with new tools and technology, the URT searched the area — this time, with success. Using new methods of sonar — sound waves to detect objects under water — along with a remote-operated vehicle (ROV), the team recovered the man's body.
British Columbia's URT now has the capability to revisit many historic cases of people who have gone missing in water. New advancements to tools and training now allow RCMP divers to investigate deeper than before.
All URT members work general duty policing jobs in detachments across the country, only diving when the need arises. Despite this, URT divers receive extensive training. After passing a three-day selection process, members attend a gruelling five-week Underwater Recovery Induction Course to learn police-related diving techniques.
"It was a lot of hard work, days were long," says Cst. Kathryn Ternier, a URT diver in Manitoba. "We'd come in and get our gear after leaving it to dry all night and start the process over."
Following underwater recovery training, URT members can complete eight additional courses, including ice diving, rescue diving and underwater explosive recognition.
"We don't train people to dive, we train them how to do police work underwater," says Sgt. Jay White, head of the National Underwater Training Centre in Nanaimo B.C. "We take their police knowledge and their dive knowledge and meld them together."
According to White, as technology and best practices evolve, so does the training for URT divers. In 2013, the program instituted a new decompression diving standard, allowing members to dive deeper. All 68 of the RCMP's URT members across Canada came to the training centre to complete the mandatory course.
"Not long after we instituted the new guidelines, a boat sank with two people on it," says White. "We conducted two of the deepest recoveries in the dive program's history at 155 feet (47 metres)."
Other recent changes to training include an added crime scene examination class to the induction course, which teaches divers how to complete to-scale planned drawings of underwater crime scenes.
In the case of the missing coral photographer, B.C.'s recovery team returned to the area with a new lead and new technology: the ROV. With a better starting point and a year of experience operating the ROV, the team launched a second search with renewed optimism.
Within a few minutes of scanning the new zone, a large white shape appeared on the ROV's sonar screen, more than 70 metres below the surface. RCMP divers can go no deeper than 48 metres, so the team stayed above water, operating the robot from the boat.
"The technology is complex, so making sure people have an understanding of how it works is important," says Stelter, who is advocating for more technological training for URT members. "We want to have greater efficiency to complete searches in a timely manner."
Purchased last year, the ROV has only been used in a handful of cases to date, and only a couple URT members know how to operate it. Equipped with sonar and a high-definition camera, the remote-controlled robot is often used as a last resort, going where divers can't.
At the base of a steep underwater cliff, the ROV found the diver at 73 metres. Using a mechanical claw, the ROV grasped the missing diver and brought the victim to the surface.
"To be able to go back to a place and apply some new technology and be successful makes us feel good," says Stelter. "We can bring closure to families — it's very gratifying and fulfilling."