BALTIC SEA (NNS) -- The water temperature is just above freezing and, despite the dry suit, the diver feels it. Going down, everything gets quiet; as he dives lower he forgets about the temperature and the uncomfortable gear and stays focused on his objective.
It's a wrecked freighter that has lain on the ocean floor for 70 years, its deadly cargo still intact - some of it scattered around the ship. Getting closer he pauses and takes in the whole picture.
"The profound silence along with the large quantity of explosives around you and the amount of history that is all wrapped up into this mission really puts you in awe," said Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician 1st Class Dustin Lawson, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU 8), Platoon 802 leading petty officer, of his dive. "It is an extremely humbling experience."
Seventy years ago, the Baltic Sea was filled with thousands of naval mines as a result of World War II. In Exercise Open Spirit 2014, EOD technicians from EODMU 8, Platoon 802, the 'Sled Dogs,' and EOD technicians from NATO nations came together to make the sea lanes a little safer, one mine at a time.
Though mostly removed, some still remain and are a potential hazard to navigation, fishing and the environment. For EODMU 8, the primary target of this year's exercise is removing mines from the wreck of a German freighter off the coast of Pavilosta, Latvia.
Removing mines from a wreck is a process that can take days. Before ever putting EOD technicians in the water, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and remotely operated vehicles (ROV) are sent to check out the wreck before deciding if the wreck can or should be acted on.
"Taking what we as a community have learned from recent land conflicts and implementing that mind-set with mine counter-measures (MCM) is a major game changer," Lawson observed. "We try to stay as remote as possible for land-based IEDs because the last option you have is walking down in the bomb suit to complete the mission. Using that train of thought, it benefits MCM teams to have a ROV get eyes on your problem before you have to send a diver down on that long swim."
At this year's Open Spirit, the new Iver III AUV was employed. Using side-scan SONAR, it detected potential mines in and around the wreck, which were then investigated by a Seabotix mini-ROV. EOD technicians on a rigid hull inflatable boat operated the Seabotix, and could see what the ROV saw via a live-feed video camera as they maneuvered it around the wreck and verified the location of mines.
"We were able to use the data we gained right on the boat to be able to put it all together and look at the current condition of the wreck and locate mines," said Chief Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician Jake Sherman. "The Canadians who were out there with us were able to see that imagery and be able to write down those marks and go directly dive to those marks that day."
American and Canadian EOD dive teams then performed reconnaissance on the wreck to assess hazards and prepare particular mines for disposal. The Canadian team chose a mine laying on the seafloor near the freighter, but EODMU 8 went for a more challenging target.
"My team elected to try to remove one from the cargo hold, it wasn't exposed but we could see the mine sitting in there," explained Senior Chief Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician Philip Ibanez, EODMU 8, Platoon 802, leading chief petty officer. "The challenge with that is you're dealing with corrosion factors, you're dealing with the structure, metal everywhere, which makes the problem set more difficult. You run the risk of snagging mines on something on the bottom."
After the reconnaissance dive, the mine is prepped for removal as detonating it in place could set off other nearby mines. The conventional means for removal is attaching lifting straps or using a cargo net to lift the mine, which is attached to a lift balloon that is inflated and brought to the surface. It is then towed to a safe area where it is lowered back down to the seafloor, rigged with a demolition charge and safely detonated. That is, if everything works out smoothly.
But with the cargo hold mine EODMU 8 had chosen, they ran into a problem on the reconnaissance dive.
"The mine casings had corroded so much that they'd fused themselves to the deck," Ibanez said. "We didn't know this at first because the ship is covered in silt; we had to dig down underneath the ordnance to see if we could try to put lifting materials on which we determined we couldn't. At that point, there's not much else we can do but turn it into a salvage operation where we would have to go down and cut the structure of the ship which is a much bigger task."
Though EODMU 8's mine was immovable, the day still ended with a bang as the Canadian-targeted mine was able to be moved and detonated. The Baltic is safer by one less mine and as the annual exercise continues, it probably won't be the last to go.
Exercise Open Spirit 2014 is led by Latvian Naval Force Flotilla, consisting of 26 ships and five dive teams from 13 countries; two Maritime Mine Counter-Measure units, the Baltic Naval Squadron (BALTRON) and the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1).
EODMU 8 provides an operational explosive ordnance disposal capability to locate, identify, render safe, recover, field evaluate, and dispose of all explosive ordnance as directed by Commander, Task Force 68.
For more news from Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet, visit: www.navy.mil/local/naveur/