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Multimedia Practical Project | 6MZ028 | University of Wolverhampton | Faculty of Arts

Radek Kasa (Student Number: 1913868)

Academic Year 2019 – 2020

Under The Surface

A Story About Garda Water Unit

Forget conditions like those at the Great Barrier Reef; they dive into cold rivers, dams, dark sewers or sludgy ponds to search for evidence and missing persons. Here comes a unique documentary about the Irish Garda Water Unit narrated by four members of the Santry team.

Four members of the Santry unit share their experience and stories about what it takes and how it is to be a part of the Irish Garda Water Unit.

It is recommended to play the podcast projection in full screen and at  the  highest quality (1080p).

Being Sub-Aqua

“It’s great to be part of a very small, specialised team – 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 work and are just enthusiastic about the job from day fifteen as they were day one.”

Scuba diving is a dangerous and exciting activity at the same time. Police professional scuba diving is a completely different ball game, though. Undoubtedly, it is not considered as a usual occupation as a truck driver or store assistant, for example.

“Not everyone can do this job, to put it mildly,” says Tosh Lavery (65) in his memoir, who had served in the dive team for 30 years, retiring in 2004. Tosh was one of the first recruits to the back then only established Sub-Aqua Unit. From a different point of view, to get into the unit, the candidates must pass a number of strict pre-selection courses, physical tests, interviews and medical examinations.

During the troubles in the North, a loss of vital evidence in March 1973, that had gone missing from the MV Claudia vessel which carried over five tons of weapons on board to be donated to the IRA by the Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, was the main motive to create the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit. Before an army diver got to the site, the local fishermen had made sure by marking the area that the package, containing large cash of about £50,000, list of contact names and false passports, got to the original destination. As the response to this incident, the following discussion in the Dáil prompted the formation of what it is now known as the Garda Water Unit, which was established in 1974.

The operation procedures and risk assessments were yet being shaped back in the 1970s. A fishing trawler, Evelyn Marie, had sunk near the Donegal coast, and all six members of the crew had gone missing. The Sub-Aqua Unit was called to search for them. In 1975, this operation was officially their first real call-out.

A helicopter hovers over the dive site. Grey, frothy waves are angrily striking against the gusts made by the helicopter’s blades when Tosh and other two divers are about to make 30-meter jump into the wild sea.

“When I look back now, it was a crazy thing to have us do. We had no prior experience and were wearing substandard clothing and using sub-standard 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,” writes Tosh in his book.

Fast forward to 2020, Garda Lorcan Byrne is the assigned dive supervisor for a search in the river Liffey. He is going through the description of the dive site. With a calm but firm voice, he describes the current water conditions, discussing and assessing all possible risks. Holding a black folder in his left hand, a pen reluctantly balancing in his right, he ticks off his notes on the bulletin every now and then. The briefing takes only about fifteen minutes; then the lads get up off the bench set inside the truck and commence a concert of clinging sounds and hissing air getting all the gear ready.

“Health & safety has improved greatly. Technology has been a great asset too. The risks that might have taken place years ago, would not take place today, “says Sgt Glenn Brady when he talks about contemporary safety standards.

Together with diver one, a stand-by diver gets geared up too. He sets himself near the bank, being prepared for an immediate state of readiness in the event if something happens. Other two members look after all the necessary tasks including setting up the aquacom, a device used for underwater communication.

Regarding human’s performance underwater, Dr Laura Walton, who is a Clinical Psychologist and PADI IDC Staff Instructor, explains in her article 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. Being under pressure in hostile conditions, any of these three key aspects can eventually disorientate the brain, which leads and causes dangerous changes in the way the diver thinks and acts. These factors are called ‘stressors’ such as equipment failure, strong current, low visibility, or getting trapped. The stressors are understood as a physical or psychological. Although they do not necessarily have to be perceived as life-threatening, still the likelihood of survival is governed by the diver’s behaviour.

Lorcan finally gives the green light. It is late October, and diver one makes his way into the cold water, entering some of the conditions described by Dr Walton. He quickly disappears in brown darkness, only bubbles reaching the surface reveal his exact position.

To understand this on the biological level, when an individual is exposed to an emergency, this state activates two main physiological systems – sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the more slowly responding hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. They both are to prepare the body for action by increasing two main hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. Despite that the hormones help with physiological changes to enhance physical responses to danger, the neurochemical changes happening at the same time negatively impact cognitive processes such as attention and memory.

The garda divers are simply trained to be able to build resistance against the stressors in a way of being in control of the described physiological processes. One of the main factors of succeeding is about the experience the senior members pass on the newer colleagues. During our talk, Glenn depicts a story when the unit went for a search near Howth looking for a missing fisherman.

 “Particularly fishing trawlers tend to have a lot of debris like nets and lines. There was no visibility on that day,” he begins the story. His colleague got snagged and “when you can’t see exactly what it is, it’s quite unnerving.” Over the comms, the diver communicated his entrapment to Glenn. He then by touch and feel located the spot where the diver was snagged and freed him instantly. Staying calm is probably the most important and the hardest part to not let the stressors take over the control. “I could feel in his voice the worry that was there. 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.”

 “Diving is like anything; I suppose the more you do of it, the more confidence you get in it. We train regularly; we are in the water every week. That breeds its own confidence,” Says Garda Paul Neville, explaining how training plays the key role.

On a different operation at the Grand Canal Basin in Dublin, in early October last year, this search had been requested in order to find an item tossed into the basin that “made a splash.” After a car chase given by local garda members, the suspect threw something into the water, which could have been regarded as an important evidence.

The assigned dive supervisor, Garda Enda Broderick, 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. 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,” says Broderick.

I was advised not reveal any description of the sought item and whether they found it or not. Paul conducted the search. He wore a drysuit, a special diving kit which provides the wearer environmental protection including exclusion of water. Asking him whether he felt the coldness in the water regardless, he modestly said: “Nah, the water would be warm at this time of the year anyway, and the drysuit keeps you warm.” “There is a lot of rubbish, cans, bottles, shoes, bicycles, motorbikes, bits and bobs,” he further describes what he bumped into on the bottom of the canal. One would not believe what is buried in there.

While for many of us, it is something we can barely imagine what the lads are up to, for them, this was just another day at work. Although they often face challenging scenarios, they mutually state that working in the unit is something very rewarding.

“It’s great to be part of a very small, specialised team – 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 work and are just enthusiastic about the job from day fifteen as they were day one,” says Broderick.