Guided by the equipment in his hands, Const. Martin Dompierre is able to navigate the murky waters of the Welland Recreational Canal.
Visibility is low. In some spots, the member of the Ottawa Police Service dive team cannot see more than a foot or two ahead.
But thanks to technology, he steers straight toward his intended target — a fellow diver waiting in the depths.
Dompierre was one of eight police divers, both from Ottawa and Niagara, that took to the chilly waters of the canal Thursday for a training exercise focused on teaching use of equipment meant to aid officers during underwater search, rescue and recovery initiatives.
The exercise was part of a four-day training course offered by the NRP to Ontario’s six police dive teams.
Each diver began the day using sonar technology to locate various targets in the waterway before moving on to use of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to undergo searches.
The highlight of the day for most divers, however, was learning to manoeuvre the state-of-the-art MAKO Diver Delivery System, a one-of-a-kind self-propelled underwater sled with a built-in, programmable navigator.
Thursday marked the first time the machine, built by St. Catharines-based Shark Marine Technologies, was used by police in Ontario.
Niagara Regional Police Const. Joe Shatkosky took the sled on its maiden voyage and emerged all smiles from the canal’s dark waters.
“It’s easy,” he said of the MAKO, which can carry a diver to a targeted location.
“It’s like riding a couch. There’s no effort at all.”
Shatkosky said the built-in navigation “makes all the difference in the world” when moving through underwater areas with low visibility, like the canal.
When Dompierre returned from his trek through the water, he was impressed by the speed of the device.
“It’s like flying a plane underwater. It moves quick,” he said.
“And less time in the water means it’s less dangerous.”
Dompierre also noticed a difference in his underwater air consumption, which dropped significantly because no physical movement was required aboard the sled.
That helped to reduce some of the limitations imposed on divers, he added.
Sgt. Bill Wiley, in charge of the NRP’s marine and underwater search and recovery unit, said that along with it’s design, the sled’s most unique feature is its programmability.
Its ability to search a specific route, without covering the same ground, is invaluable for police divers, he said.
Similar to the way evidence is located and carefully documented on land, sonar, whether on the MAKO, a ROV or handheld navigator, allows for that same careful detail to be documented underwater, he added. Underwater operations are also recorded with cameras to aid in investigations.
The NRP occasionally contracts use of ROVs, Wiley said. They can be particularly useful in locating items, such as cars, when water visibility is low, water is too deep or contaminated.
The other benefit, he said, is that ROVs can be controlled from a command post or truck, requiring less manpower and working more efficiently to search difficult areas.
“That means we can have two officers running the ROV instead of a five-person dive team. It saves time and personnel costs,” Wiley said.
“We don’t have one, but we’re working on grant proposals to get one,” he said, adding the equipment could cost upward of $200,000.
“We have to be ready for whatever comes our way, in all conditions, day or night,” Wiley said, adding new technology could greatly benefit the force.
“A lot of our work is done at night. If something happens in the canal at night, we can’t wait until morning to get in there.”
Police dive teams from across the province train together as much as possible throughout the year, Wiley said.
Being able to share experiences and knowledge about what has and hasn’t worked in the past during different scenarios is beneficial to all involved, he said.
“We can learn a lot from each other.”