In the watery darkness men work by feel alone
They grope for knives and bodies amid the sludge, shopping trolleys and cans. We join a police diver on the Clyde
Look, stop a minute. This really is the stuff of nightmares. I’m high on the quayside, peering down at the deep, thick, soupy water, which gloops against the slime-worn stone below the high-tide level.
The surface, ten metres below, is greasy with a slick of oil; bobbing beneath, half-sunk, I can just decipher a few vaguely recognisable things – cans, crisp bags – and then objects I can only guess at… rotting things.
And yet I’m watching a man happily step off the edge into the bottomless filthy water, wearing a contented look on his face like he’s off for what he knows will be a good day in the office.
Which, in a way, he is. Sergeant Ian Bell is a police diver. This is his place of work. Down there on the river bottom, in the pitch darkness, just as blind men would, he and his men move by feel alone, guided solely by the sensations in their neoprene-clad fingers.
Nil viz, they call it. Zero visibility. The divers cannot see their hands even if they touch their own face masks. It’s just them and the blackness. The ultimate fingertip search, inch by inch, one hand on the weighted rope that guides their search pattern; the other hand groping, sieving the blancmange-like sludge. Experience teaches them to recognise objects, by feel, in seconds. They get “in the zone”. They love it.
“To be honest, nil viz is very chilled,” says Bell, 41. “Some of us would rather it was nil viz. It’s almost therapeutic. There’s nothing to take your concentration except the job.”
But how do they do it? It’s the unknown unknowns that terrify me. Down at the bottom of the river – 13m deep at high tide; 8m deep on this dry, windy low-tide morning – there are all kinds of things embedded in the waist-deep mud.
Things to catch and ensnare, to pierce and trap. Even worse, perhaps, things to fly at you in the tide, to brush against your face in the pitch darkness, to tug your arms and hold your feet.
Down there, at the bottom of the Clyde, one of the great industrial rivers of the world, alongside the phantoms of one’s imagination, there also exists an industrial scrapyard. Shopping trolleys, cookers, road signs, cones, bikes, scaffolding poles.Less routinely, there are other things. Guns, knives. Crucial evidence. Bodies. Body parts.
Which is where Bell and his team comes in. Sergeant Bell, a former Navy diver from Liverpool, looks a bit like an underwater version of Ross Kemp: shaven-headed, stocky, assured; a man you’d like on your side. Bell is a regular operational diver, one of the close-knit team of six who make up Strathclyde Police’s underwater support unit, but as officer in charge, he also runs one of only two police national dive schools in the country. All police divers in the UK are trained either by him or at Newcastle.
Today Bell is training apprentice divers, down at the King George V docks in Glasgow. Three or four days a week he’s either teaching or doing training dives with his team. They vary the location – sometimes they go to a quarry outside Glasgow, equally nil viz, which he describes as being like an underwater NCP carpark.
One particular classic scenario, says Bell, is a van which is missing its back doors. “When it’s nil viz, you can be swimming along and completely without realising it you swim inside the van. The first you know is when your arms hit something solid in front of you. Then when you feel upwards, you can’t go anywhere, then to the sides. You’re competely boxed in and have to turn and swim out.” Some of us cursed with an imagination feel we deserve the George Cross just for listening to a story like that.
After a morning diving, afternoons are spent cleaning equipment and getting it ready for the next day. This is a heavily gear-dependent job: everything the divers do is precise, triple checked, risk-assessed. They dive to a maximum of 50m; they are always on lifelines. This is one job where no one moans about health and safety. “There are risks, but we eliminate them,” Bell says. He has been in the police for eight years.
Bell and his team, like all specialist units, are on constant stand-by. On the two or three days a week when they are not doing training dives, the six men work together on normal support duties – crowd disorder, land searches, football matches. They are always kept together, with a van vehicle loaded with equipment nearby, ready for the call.
How often that comes is variable. Sometimes they are called out twice a month; sometimes it’s four times in one weekend. So far this year they’ve had 100 call-outs. Crime is year-round, but accidents tend to be seasonal. Winters are quieter now, since climate change means fewer frozen ponds and lost children. They’re thankful for that, because it was inevitably tragic. They are tough guys, hardened to horrible things, but they hate it when children are involved. In summer, when people succumb to alcohol and sun and cold lake water, the divers are busier.
Their job, says Bell neutrally, is largely recovery – retrieval of evidence or dead bodies. It’s not, by any means, a sought-after job. The last time they tried to recruit trainees from the 7,500-strong Strathclyde force, they got only five or six volunteers. “Everyone wants to join firearms, or the mounties, or the dog squad,” says Bell. Divers get paid no different rates from other police officers – Bell, 41, earns a sergeant’s wage of around £33,000. He is married with two teenage girls, and struggles a little when you ask him why he does it. “What’s unpleasant for one person isn’t for another. It’s a good job. It’s enjoyable. It’s rewarding. It’s challenging. It’s exciting – on occasions – though to be honest most of the time it’s not exciting.
“And there’s a positive side to it in that we are the only people who can bring closure to an incident. It means people aren’t left not knowing.”
Funnily enough, there are lots of jobs that police divers say they couldn’t do. Dealing with grieving families. Teaching in a secondary school. Working in a care home. Anything boring or emotional, really. And who can blame them? Under the water, they are the elite; masters of their own alien universe.