Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of diver in water © DNR File Photo

This isn't "Sea Hunt" but the stories are still fun and engaging.
© DNR File Photo

June 2011

Carrying out the mission

Meet DNR's divers.

Mike Kitt

Sixty feet beneath Lake Michigan's rippled surface, two divers slip silently along the sandy bottom, with 40 feet of heavy plastic netting looming ominously overhead. Lake trout, whitefish and alewives swim uncaringly 10 feet away on the other side of the barrier.

One diver swims a little too close to the netting and gets his scuba tank caught in the webbing. Trapped like the fish on the other side of the net, there is no panic, no struggling. This diver is well trained, like his partner.

The second diver slips in and untangles the first diver, and carefully pulls him back crisis averted. The divers continue along the 1,300 feet of net and continue their job of counting and clipping salmonids trapped in the net.

Resembling a scene from a popular TV series of the early sixties, it is not Lloyd Bridges who is engaged in underwater battles with evil-doers as on "Sea Hunt," but two of the Northeast Region's dive team members.

On this day, the team is conducting its bi-weekly count of trout and salmon in commercial fishing nets to help determine incidental mortality. The results will be analyzed and factored into future management and regulation strategies.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has used divers from time to time for years, but nothing was ever formalized. Department employees, who happened to be divers, were sometimes used to recover lost equipment.

My first department dive in 1984 consisted of plunging into an underground cistern on top of Rib Mountain State Park to remount a valve that had fallen off. Diving into the vault in pitch blackness made more sense than draining it and sending in a certified confined spaces technician to reattach the valve. Trying to screw on the valve with a monkey wrench underwater proved to be quite a challenge due to the lack of leverage and positive buoyancy. I finally managed to "get 'er done" by wedging my head between the feeder pipe and the wall in order to use both hands. I didn't say divers were the sharpest tools in the drawer!

As underwater diving offered value to resource management, employees who were certified divers quickly saw the need for formalized activities and training. After transferring to the Northeast Region in 1985, I met other personnel who were divers or interested in becoming divers.

District limnologist Tim Rasman was a very active diver and instrumental in kindling the fires of the state's first formalized dive team; however, it took until approximately 1988 to establish a real team complete with its own set of rules to organize and govern it.

The original team was a blend of divers from the warden force as well as fisheries and water quality specialists. This blend of expertise continues to be the team's real strength. Original dive team members included myself along with wardens Todd Wipperman and Dave Weber, as well as fisheries technicians Tim Kroeff and Don Bielfuss, and fisheries biologist Paul Peeters. The team was lead by Tim Rasman.

The regional dive team members have assisted in many projects over the years ranging from equipment recovery, to evidence gathering, to body recovery. Some of the more notable projects included placement and recovery of Astroturf egg mats for lake trout rehabilitation on Lake Michigan. Activity over the last several years has included counting skeins of perch eggs on Lake Michigan's Milwaukee Reef in the Southeast Region in order to determine spawning success during a critical rehabilitation period.

Northeast Region divers have also been recruited for assessment projects on Lake Superior in the Northern Region. They have gathered evidence for littering cases as well as pollution and water regulation violation cases. Warden divers have recovered several drowning victims. Team members have made assessment dives on dam faces and outflows to determine causes of fish mortality.

The view below is sometimes clear, but all too often it is more like coffee with creamer. Some of these projects have been rather complicated as well as dangerous, but always fun.

Diving is not for everyone and DNR diving is not for all divers. During a rather hectic several weeks of trap net assessments in the mid 1990s, schedule conflicts and lack of qualified personnel caused a shortage of divers needed to complete the project. A local sheriff's department dive team volunteered their help. After one dive on a trap net, they decided they would stick to easier and less intimidating dives. Tim Rasman recalls swimming through a culvert with his tank under his arm, due to the tight squeeze, in order to recover a crow bar dropped into the auger in a water lift station at a state wildlife area. The alternative was to bring in a crane to remove the entire lift station, which would have been costly.

Many dives have saved the department thousands of dollars in time, equipment, and hiring commercial divers. Team divers have also saved other agencies a lot of money. A few years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard requested the NER Dive Team to recover a $50,000 submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle that had become entangled in a shipwreck near Death's Door in Door County. The equipment was returned to the Coast Guard unharmed.

The dive team members train several times a year and are required to make a minimum number of dives each year to remain on the team. All members are certified and most hold advanced certifications.

Some equipment is department owned and some is personal gear. All warden divers supply their own gear. Each diver receives a physical once every three years specifically aimed at diving physiology. The average diving experience for team members is 15 years, with some members having over 30 years of diving experience.

Mike Kitt recently retired from DNR and was a warden in Marinette.