662 SQUADRON EXERCISE DRAGON TALON ASCENSION
3 Regiment’s Exercise DRAGON TALON ASCENSION deployed 12 divers to Ascension Island in July (2015). Over the 12 days spent on the South Atlantic Island, the expedition conducted 185 dives and accumulated 6890 minutes underwater. Seven participants gained the BSAC Sports Diver Qualification and all developed their diving skills and experience whilst enjoying the diverse marine life that Ascension Island hosts.
S even of the participants were from 662 Squadron, who were allocated the expedition slot whilst on the final tour of Op HERRICK in 2014. The heat of the Afghanistan desert was a whole world away when the 6 novice divers had to endure the chilling waters of the National Diving Centre, on a cold spring weekend for mandatory preexpedition training. It was hard for the new divers to stay motivated for the expedition to the clear warm waters of the South Atlantic when faced with ice-cold low visibility conditions of a quarry in Leicester.
Fortunately, all of the novice divers progressed well through the pre-expedition training and soon found themselves on the small British territory of Ascension Island some 550 miles south of the equator in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Initial impressions of the island were mixed. Whilst the air was warm and the weather was generally fine (although often quite windy), exactly how hospitable the barren, lava wasteland of an island would be was yet to be seen.
The diving started on the first day and all returned to the surface with smiles on their faces having seen plenty of marine life, in particular plenty of large moray eels. The initial excitement of seeing the large eels quickly dissolved as the days continued. They were in abundance at the dive sites and turning your head to see an open-mouthed sharp-toothed moray eel less that a metre away soon became a little annoying. We all quickly learnt not to put hands into any cracks without having a good look first.
Day two was a memorable dive for most of the expedition as they saw a green turtle on their dive whilst progressing with the skills and training required for the Sports Diver Qualification. I was less fortunate as my dive buddy Lance Corporal Maynard (who was dive leading for the first time) was unable to leave his PTI role behind at Wattisham and insisted on covering the most ground of any of the groups, resulting in us missing the green turtle. He made up for this later on in the expedition by (voluntarily) doing his best impression of a baby turtle crawling from his ‘nest’ to the sea by dragging himself down the beach using only his arms, taking nearly 5 minutes to get to the sea.
The Lance Corporals and Airtroopers were rarely content with simply developing their diving skills whilst underwater. They made sure that they didn’t miss any opportunity to improve their individual and pairs battle-drills (whenever a Go-Pro camera was present). Underwater grenade drills and cave clearances became common practice on their dives.
One of the highlights of the expedition was a dive at Boatswain Bird Island, which was just under an hour transit in the dive boats from the jetty near the dive centre. This was reported to be the dive site to see the ‘big stuff’. Sharks, dolphins, and manta rays had all been seen there previously. We were joined by a pod of dolphins on the transit, who enjoyed surfacing near the boats and playing in the wake. As soon as we were in the water I spotted 3 blacktip reef sharks near the bottom beneath us. As we reached 25 metres they were close by. They were juvenile and probably between 1 and 2 metres long, not big at all as far as sharks go, but it was exciting to be in close proximity to wild live sharks.
Along with plenty of daytime diving, the expedition also conducted two night dives. Just like life in a forest or jungle changes on nightfall, the marine life changes significantly too. Most of the usual fish can be found sleeping in holes or cracks in the rocks and coral, whilst the weird crawling creatures come out of hiding. On the second night dive ‘the four huntsmen of the cray-pocalypse’ returned with 7 crayfish in net bags. The proven tactic was to freeze them in a bright torchlight before grabbing them with gloves and wrestling them into net bags. The next day Staff Sergeant Wallace cooked them on the barbecue at the expedition centre and even those that didn’t like seafood enjoyed the tasty meat.
In the down time from the diving we spend time snorkeling and swimming, and on one of the days off diving we drove up to the national park at the peak of the island. We walked the short distance to the highest point on the island at 2,817ft above sea level. The summit is draped in a bamboo forest, a wildly different environment to the black arid lava fields below.
The expedition was a success and all the student divers achieved the Sports Diver qualification, additionally three instructors gained their Diver Coxswain boat handling qualification. For very little personal expense the expedition provided members of 3 Regiment a great opportunity to develop their diving skills and experience in a relatively unique environment that few people get the opportunity to explore.