Under sunny skies, two divers prepare to jump into the L28 canal in the Big Cypress National Preserve, but it’s not a pleasure trip.
As members of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s Dive Team, the two deputies are on a mission to locate a vehicle submerged in the murky, alligator-infested canal in the Everglades, north of the Broward County line. A fisherman spotted the vehicle and reported it to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Dive Team is on call 24/7 to respond to incidents on the water, ranging from submerged vehicles to missing person calls to drownings. Divers are trained in crime scene evidence collection and have recovered everything from murder weapons to stolen vehicles to human remains.
The deputies locate the vehicle from aboard a sheriff’s Marine Patrol vessel with the help of high-tech side-scan sonar. The sonar also reveals two alligators near the vehicle at the bottom of the canal, which is about 15 feet deep.
Two deputies armed with rifles – one on board the vessel and the other at the water’s edge – keep watchful eyes on a gator hovering around about 120 yards away. They let the divers know when it’s safe to go in the water.
“Every time we get in a canal, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Lt. Scott Barnett, the Dive Team supervisor for the past 23 years, adding that alligators usually leave the divers alone.
The two deputies, each wearing about 45 pounds of gear, jump in. It takes them just a few minutes to attach a metal hook to the vehicle’s axle. They climb back on board the vessel and wait while a tow truck on shore lowers a cable out to the boat.
The divers jump back in the water and attach the cable to the hook, and the vehicle is pulled from the water. Further investigation later reveals the vehicle, a 1997 Mitsubishi Montero Sport, was reported stolen out of Miami-Dade County in 2001.
Gator filled canals, inland lakes and quarries are just a few of the places CCSO divers jump into.
“It’s a lot different than what people see on TV,” Lt. Barnett said. “They’re diving in clear water during the day. We rarely dive in the Gulf (of Mexico).”
He said most dive operations take place in the middle of the night under poor weather conditions in low to zero visibility. Divers develop a search pattern for a site and then literally dive by touch. They also utilize the high-tech side-scan sonar and underwater metal detectors. Divers work in every division of the Sheriff’s Office and are called out to extend the arm of law enforcement below the waterline.
Divers recover physical evidence such as weapons, stolen property and vehicles used during the commission of a crime. Recovered weapons can include handguns, rifles, shell casings, knives and more. Divers have recovered more than 89 vehicles in the last five years. The vehicles end up in the water as the result of accidents or suspects dumping them in attempt to hide evidence.
The Dive Team is not a permanent unit. Each member holds other skilled positions in the agency.
The sheriff’s Dive Team prior to 1974 was a group of deputies with scuba experience who volunteered to dive if needed. In 1974 then-Sheriff Doug Hendry started an actual team with organized dive training. That first team has evolved into a highly trained group of public safety divers. All the divers on the team are trained up to Master Diver level with Scuba Schools International certifications.
Additionally the divers are multi-level-certified public safety divers trained through Public Safety Dive Association and Water Rescue; a national public safety diving organization. Two of the divers on the team are certified instructors and a third is an assistant instructor.
Additionally, many of the dive team members are also on the SWAT team or in the Marine Unit.