>I have since gone on to a 20-year career as a freelance underwater photographer. In that time I have shot the majority of my assignments while freediving and have tried to focus my camera on people who dedicate their lives to the ocean — researchers, conservationists, freedivers, filmmakers and swimmers. With each story I hope to document what the subjects' relationships with the ocean mean to them personally.
>I was curious about the conditioning that allows swimmers to excel in the absolute worst conditions. I wanted to see if it was possible to train away one's physical and mental limits.
>To cover this story I traveled to three key locations on the USCG map: Savannah, Ga., where I qualified to exit a hovering helicopter; Elizabeth City, N.C., where I swam alongside recruits undergoing training; and Kodiak, Alaska, where the USCG conducts its best-known operations as often seen on TV.
>While the key to the project was the Duck qualification I gained in Savannah, the heart of it was at the Aviation Survival Technician school. At AST school, which is in a cavernous building on Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina, classes of young men (and occasionally women) enter an 18-week course designed to test, stress, train, condition and ultimately drop or pass the hopeful rescue swimmer recruits. Classes start with more than 15 recruits but may graduate only one or two candidates (or occasionally none at all).
>Every recruit who participates in the course, regardless of whether he or she passes, undergoes an evolution that involves self-doubt. The doubt might be mental or physical. It may be encountered underwater while sharing a breath and pushing a brick from one end of the pool to the other. It might be encountered when hanging from the pull-up bar while a shouting instructor demands more repetitions. Or doubt might be encountered when fans and lights transform the pool surface to more closely resemble a rough sea, and six people with unknown injuries need to be rescued.
>I know this because I spent a week in close contact with a group of recruits and witnessed both doubt and determination sweep across faces. Some of my strongest images were taken in these moments, and I can attest that while each recruit wanted to do another pull-up or swim another length underwater, they generally didn't want to do it with a camera in their face.
>Aviation Survival Technician (AST) school candidates enter an 18-week course designed to stress, challenge and evaluate rescue swimmers.
>In the extreme, an aircrew flies through the black of night in typically adverse Alaskan weather conditions in which snow and wind combine to make flying a straight course challenging. Below the helicopter, the same snow falls, but there are also waves, towering, breaking and freezing. But when the helicopter gets where it is going, the door opens, and a swimmer jumps out.
>I began this project fascinated by the thought that rescue swimmers require a helicopter and a three-person aircrew to complete their mission. And conversely, a multimillion-dollar aircraft requires an athlete in a pair of fins to fulfill its mission. But after seeing the training in Elizabeth City, I understand that a rescue depends not on a powerful helicopter or a powerful swimmer, but rather on a team of people who have decided that this is their life's work.
>This entire hovering assembly of man and machine advances and defines the Coast Guard's motto "so others may live."
>Emergencies such as the shallow-water blackout Tim Calver experienced in Bimini are all too common. Both training and quick action are necessary in such cases to prevent serious injury or death. The same is true of many injuries that occur in the water: Nonfatal drowning, hypothermia, decompression illness and cardiac and pulmonary problems can become unmanageable without quick, appropriate interventions. People who spend a lot of time in aquatic environments must be trained and able to respond to emergencies when the nearest help could be more than an hour away.
>Prepare for the Worst
>The DAN® Diving First Aid for Professional Divers (DFA Pro) course is one way to prepare yourself to respond to these kinds of emergencies. Designed for professionals and volunteers who need to be prepared for the unique and challenging nature of aquatic environments, the course is USCG approved and meets or exceeds first aid and CPR requirements for both merchant mariners and diving professionals. The course provides training in the management of aquatic emergencies such as scuba diving incidents, injuries caused by marine life and neurological and cardiopulmonary emergencies.
>For more information or to find a DFA Pro instructor near you, visit DAN.org/training.
>Watch the video to learn more about U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers.
>© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2017