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A male RCMP officer looks at two screens that display shapes from the sea floor.

Teamwork and technology key to finding fishing vessel

The RCMP navigator of a remotely operated vehicle watches the sonar screen and the map, which tells him where the equipment is in the water. Credit: RCMP


RCMP divers are experts at plunging deep underwater to find evidence or recover remains, but not every search requires them to get wet.

That's because they use technology to keep officers safe when operating in dangerous conditions such as extreme depth, rough seas and bad weather.

And those very conditions were evident in January 2021, when Sgt. Jay White, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the RCMP's National Underwater Recovery Training Centre (NURTC) received the call to use their state-of-the-art equipment to help find a sunken trawler at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

The gear included a new remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) with multi-beam sonar. The equipment was named "Fab" in honour of RCMP Cst. Fabrice Gevaudan, an underwater recovery diver who was killed during the 2014 Moncton shootings.

An ROV is designed to comb the sea to get a view of what's below.

"Think of it like the device the explosive disposal unit sends in to investigate a possible bomb," says White, who is based in Nanaimo, B.C. "It's like an underwater drone and we can put it in places where we can't go or where we don't want our divers to go."

The search

On Dec. 15, 2020, the Joint Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (JRCC) began a search for the Chief William Saulis and its crew when an emergency beacon was activated off the coast of Delaps Cove. This search resulted in the recovery of one of the missing fishermen.

After the JRCC ended its search, RCMP took the lead. With assistance from partners, including Ground Search and Rescue teams and the Department of Lands and Forestry, the RCMP continued air and ground searches, including along a 55-kilometre stretch of shoreline from Delaps Cove to Margaretsville.

On January 4, the Nova Scotia RCMP Underwater Recovery Team began conducting sonar exploration with support from the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

"We go back and forth over the ocean with a sonar, like a towed torpedo, looking for a target," says Sgt. Mark Bishop, co-ordinator of the Nova Scotia Underwater Recovery Team.

A "target" refers to something unusual that's unlikely to be found in nature and would warrant further investigation. Normally, divers try to verify what the unusual shape is, but the depths and tides of the Bay of Fundy can make it a dangerous place.

"Combine that with diving around a boat with ropes and rigging and being mindful of the tether used to attach the ROV to the surface vessel, it's not the best of conditions," says Bishop.

As the URT search continued, Bishop kept in touch with Jay White. When weather conditions didn't improve, they decided to send the NURTC team across the country to assist.

The three-member expert dive team, along with the new ROV and sonar, arrived in Nova Scotia on January 11.

After several ROV dives to locate the ship, the URT members expanded their search zone to an area of more than 10 square kilometres.

Despite poor weather and the bay's notorious tides playing havoc with the search, NURTC operators managed to get the ROV on the floor of the Bay of Fundy.

The ROV navigator used mapping software to move the ROV towards a visible anomaly, which the URT sonar had uncovered on the sea floor. The ROV confirmed it was the Chief William Saulis. The vessel was sitting upright in 68 metres of water, in very low-visibility conditions.

That exceeds the maximum safe diving depth for RCMP divers.

The URTs were not able to determine whether the fishermen's remains were on board the vessel given the challenging and demanding conditions.

The RCMP approached the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to determine whether their divers might be able to help. Following a thorough risk analysis, the CAF determined that the risk to the lives of their divers was too significant.

At that time, the RCMP concluded its search activities and shifted focus to supporting investigations by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.

Throughout the operation, the RCMP received extensive support from other federal agencies such as the CBSA, the CCG and the Transportation Safety Board.

"It was a perfect example of the co-operation between agencies," says Jennifer Richens, director general of RCMP Learning and Development, which oversees tactical training, including the NURTC.

"Everyone worked very long hours in tough conditions to see this through," says Richens, who notes the new equipment helped ensure the work was done safely and effectively. "One of the key things is equipping people with the right technology," she says.

The RCMP continues to extend its sympathies to the family members and those impacted.

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