Under The Surface – A Podcast About the Irish Garda Water Unit
Forget the Great Barrier Reef, the Garda Water Unit dive into cold rivers, dams, dark sewers and sludgy ponds to search for evidence and missing persons. In a unique documentary, student journalist Radek Kasa presents a podcast narrated by four members of the team from Santry, Dublin
Scuba diving is an exciting, sometimes dangerous activity. Police professional scuba diving, however, is a completely different ball game. It is undoubtedly not what many would class as a 'normal' occupation.
'Not everyone can do this job, to put it mildly,' says Tosh Lavery, a 30-year veteran of the Irish Garda's dive team, writing in his memoir. Retired in 2004, Lavery, 65, was one of the first recruits to the Garda's Sub-Aqua Unit. Recruitment is not easy – to become part of the unit, candidates must pass a number of strict pre-selection courses, physical tests, interviews and medical examinations.
The Garda Sub-Aqua Unit was created during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in response to a loss of vital evidence following the seizure of the MV Claudia in March 1973. The vessel was carrying more than five tons of weapons destined for the IRA, but the evidence implicating Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the smuggling of arms to the group had been thrown overboard.
Before army divers could get to the site, local fishermen who had marked out the area made sure that the missing package – which contained a large sum of approximately £50,000 in cash, and a list of contact names and false passports – got to its intended destination. As the response to this incident, discussions in the Dáil (the Irish equivalent of parliament) prompted the formation of what it is now known as the Garda Water Unit, established in 1974.
The operational procedures and risk assessments took shape during the latter half of the 1970s. The team's first official 'call-out' was in 1975, after the fishing trawler Evelyn Marie sank off the Donegal coast. All six members of the crew had gone missing, and the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit was brought in to search for them. Tosh recalls the moment when he and two other Garda divers were about to make the 30-meter jump from a helicopter into the wild sea:
'When I look back now, it was a crazy thing to have us do,' says Lavery. 'We had no prior experience and were wearing substandard clothing and using substandard equipment, usually used for leisure diving rather than searching the sea for dead bodies. We were so traumatised by the helicopter jump and the sea was so rough that we ended up being pulled into a boat and brought back to shore shortly after.'
Fast forward to 2019, and Garda Lorcan Byrne is the assigned dive supervisor for a search in Dublin's River Liffey. With a calm but firm voice, he describes the dive site, the current and water conditions, and discusses and assesses all possible risks. Holding a black folder in his left hand, a pen balancing in his right, he ticks off notes on his bulletin. The briefing takes only about fifteen minutes, then the lads get up off the bench set inside the truck and commence a concert of clinking sounds and hissing air as they prepare their gear.
'Health & safety has improved greatly,' says Sgt Glenn Brady, talking about today's safety standards. 'Technology has been a great asset too. The risks that might have taken place years ago, would not take place today.' As part of those safety standards, a stand-by diver gets geared up with the main team. He sets himself near the bank, well prepared and in an immediate state of readiness should something go wrong. Two other members of the team look after the rest of the necessary tasks, including setting up the aquacom, a device used for underwater communication.
Writing about research into human performance underwater, Dr Laura Walton, a clinical psychologist and PADI IDC Staff Instructor, explains that the brain and nervous system organise the way how divers behave – all the actions rely on mental processes linked to memory, attention and perception. When a person comes under pressure in hostile conditions, any of these three key aspects can eventually disorientate the brain, which can lead to dangerous changes in the way the diver thinks and acts. These factors are called ‘stressors’ and can include such incidents as equipment failure, strong currents, low visibility, or entrapment. The stressors are understood as both physical or psychological. Although they do not necessarily have to be perceived as life-threatening, survival is governed by the diver’s behaviour.
As Byrne finally gives the green light for the operation in the River Liffey, the first diver begins his descent. It is late October and the water is cold; the visibility is extremely poor and quickly disappears in brown darkness, only bubbles reaching the surface revealing his exact position. He is now subject to a multitude of the stressors described by Dr Walton.
On a biological level, when an individual is exposed to an emergency, two main physiological systems are activated – the sympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), coupled with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In layperson's terms: 'the fight or flight' response. This prepares the body for action by increasing production of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. While these hormones enhance the physical responses to danger – increased strength, speed and higher tolerance of pain, for example – the simultaneous neurochemical changes in the brain have a negative impact on cognitive processes such as attention and memory.
To combat the fight or flight response, Garda divers are trained to build resistance against the stressors by way of taking control of these physiological processes, an area of expertise where the passing on the experience of more senior members of the dive team is invaluable to the newer recruits.
Sgt Brady recounts an example in which a less experienced member of the team started to show signs of nervousness after becoming entangled underwater when the unit was called out to the fishing village of Howth, not far from Dublin, to search for a missing fisherman. 'Fishing trawlers tend to have a lot of debris like nets and lines, [and] there was no visibility on that day,' said Sgt Brady, 'and when you can’t see exactly what [you're entangled in], it’s quite unnerving.' Remaining calm in such a situation is of paramount importance in order not to let the stressors take control – but is also very difficult unless properly prepared. 'I could feel in his voice the worry that was there,' said Brady, 'but as we do in our safety training, and because we know each other so well, he was happy to stay calm, knowing that he wasn’t there alone.' By touch and feel alone, Sgt Brady located the spot where the diver was snagged and freed him instantly.
'Diving is like anything; I suppose the more you do of it, the more confidence you get in it,' added Garda Paul Neville. 'We train regularly, we are in the water every week. That breeds its own confidence.'
I joined the Garda Underwater Unit during a search of the Grand Canal basin in Dublin, in early October 2019 as they searched for something (I'm not allowed to reveal what) that was thrown into the water during a car chase and may have proved to be vital evidence in the ensuing prosecution. The operation is being supervised by Garda Enda Broderick, who describes the conditions as 'a small area with good, relatively clear, safe water.'
'We are only putting one [diver] in, and we’ll let him work on his own,' says Broderick. 'We are using a line search, having one diver in on scuba, with a harness, and on a line. He was down there yesterday, and there is lots of weed. So, it’s a small area, but what he has to go through, we’d refer to it’s a fingertip search. So it has to be a very thorough search,' he adds.
Garda Paul Neville is conducting the search, wearing a drysuit. I ask him if it's particularly cold and he says it's more about environmental protection as the water is quite warm at this time of year. 'There is a lot of rubbish, cans, bottles, shoes, bicycles, motorbikes, bits and bobs,' he says, describing what he has bumped into at the bottom of the canal. One would not believe some of the things that are buried in there.
For many of us, diving is such conditions is something we can barely imagine, and yet for the Garda Water Unit, it's just another day at work. Although they often face challenging scenarios, they mutually agree that working in the unit is something very rewarding.
'It’s great to be part of a very small, specialised team,' says Broderick. 'A lot of it is to do with the people I’m working with – to work in the unit with a bunch of lads who really enjoy it, aren’t afraid of the work and are just as enthusiastic about the job on day fifty as they were day on day one.'