Members of the Customs Diving Team search for hidden drug shipments beneath the largest carriers and container ships. “No matter what happens, don’t panic.”

The daily work of members of the Customs Diving Team revolves almost entirely around narcotics. Together, these op-and-top professionals have searched more than 1,500 vessels for hidden drug shipments – mainly bulk carriers and container ships that have arrived from Latin American and Caribbean waters. This dangerous work doesn’t suit everyone: “Every time you are hovering beneath such a colossus, you start breathing faster and your heart rate shoots up.”

“We prefer to dive in open sea, beneath ships that are anchored off the coast. That is relatively safe, because we are free to surface on all sides of the ship. The water is often somewhat clearer there, so we can see a little better. And we can operate there out of the sight of any shady figures who could try to unload a stash of drugs. But mostly we work in ports, for instance, alongside Rotterdam’s quays. The water here is considerably polluted, with lots of surface oil, other chemicals and vermin. Sometimes there may be a couple of meters of residual waste piled up alongside the quay-sides. We wear dry-suits with neoprene gloves and fully sealed head-wear to protect ourselves from these elements. This means we do not come into direct contact with the water. An important part of our equipment is our knife, which we can use to free ourselves in case we get caught up, e.g., in pieces of fishing nets or tangled fishing lines that are floating around. We also have two strong flash-lights with us – one on our head and one on our wrist – to be able to see further than twenty odd centimetres. But the enormous amount of sediment often causes so much glare that you prefer to swim with one lamp, and you work with reduced visibility or by simply groping around. And of course, we have our depth gauge, another indispensable instrument.”

“We can’t start diving immediately after our own vessel has pulled up alongside a ship. The person in charge of the dive, together with the captain and his crew – who by the way are not informed about our visit – first have to run through a safe-to-dive list. For safety’s sake we run through an entire step-by-step plan: including turning off or securing the bilge chests, the propeller, and any ICCP-systems. This ensures that divers cannot be sucked into the ship’s parts and get jammed, nor will they be hindered by annoying and risky electrical fields and acoustic signals. Two members of our team check on the bridge and in the engine room that all points have been covered. Only when the all-clear has been given does the team-leader start with his briefing. For instance, he tells the two divers who are to carry out the job whether there are certain circumstances, and what should have their particular attention under water.”

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