Working with our partners to make the Baltic Sea safer

A controlled explosion takes place in the Baltic Sea to countermine unexploded remnants.
An M-06 naval mine is detonated off the coast of Mērsrags, Latvia, on August 28, 2017 as part of Operation OPEN SPIRIT 2017, an annual multinational operation dedicated to the clearance and disposal of explosive remnants from WWI & WWII. Photo: Cpl Jordan Lobb, Canadian Forces Combat Camera IS14-2017-0003-135

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By Ashley Black, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

Imagine being out on a warm summer day on board a recreational boat, knowing that there may be unexploded remnants from distant wars sitting on the sea floor below you.

The Baltic Sea is one such region, as it was a scene of heavy fighting during the First and Second World Wars. To make the sea safer for recreational boaters and fisher men and women, the Canadian Armed Forces teams up with ally and partner nations once a year to rid the sea of unexploded mines.

This mission is known as Operation OPEN SPIRIT, and is hosted on a rotational basis by one of three Baltic nations. This year, the operation took place in Latvia.

While Operation OPEN SPIRIT is not a NATO operation, it is conducted in the spirit of Partnerships for Peace, a program of practical cooperation between NATO and Euro-Atlantic countries.

Lieutenant-Commander William Barter is the Canadian Task Force Commander on Operation OPEN SPIRIT and he is also a clearance diver. He says all the participating nations rely on each other for different aspects of the operation. Since Operation OPEN SPIRIT requires diverse skills, knowledge, and equipment to identify remnants and dispose of them safely, every participating nation brings something important to the table.

“The countries within the tasking unit that have autonomous underwater vehicles go out and search our investigation area for mines or mine-like objects,” explains Lieutenant-Commander Barter. “Of all the nations working with the shore-based dive team, Britain, Estonia and Norway all have the underwater vehicles required to identify contacts for the divers. They go on a mission that lasts about three or four hours and come back with contacts and those contacts are passed onto the Canadian and Latvian divers and it is up to them to further investigate,” he says.

Once the divers are prepared to enter the water, they dive down to the contact locations to determine whether the objects are unexploded mines or if they are other objects.

“If a mine is identified, the diver works to determine the type for historical purposes and to aid future searches,” says Lieutenant-Commander Barter.

If the commander task group grants permission to countermine the remnant, explosives will then be placed on the mine to dispose of it.

“The idea is that once enough mines are identified by the dive teams, we’d have one disposal day to get rid of all the mines at one time instead of doing them individually,” explains Lieutenant-Commander Barter.

When so many different areas of expertise are involved in an operation, it’s important for the participating nations to work closely together. The mission would not be successful without the interoperability that takes place between them.

“When we’re not diving, we’ll sit down and talk about what our individual countries’ standard operating procedures are,” says Lieutenant-Commander Barter. “We’ll look at our different techniques and ways of doing the job. We exchange tactics, techniques, and procedures with allies in order to refine our explosive ordnance disposal capabilities.”

For Lieutenant-Commander Barter, Operation OPEN SPIRIT 2017 was a positive experience.

“Our team enjoys training for operations and appreciates opportunities to deploy and work alongside divers from around the world,” he said. “All the countries that participate in Operation OPEN SPIRIT come together with a common goal to rid the Baltic Sea of remnants from the world wars and make the water safer for fishermen and recreational boaters.”

During Operation OPEN SPIRIT 2017, Canadian Armed Forces clearance divers dove 21 times for a total of 4 hours and 29 minutes. 38 mine-like contacts were identified in the Baltic Sea and two contact mines were identified and confirmed. The Canadian Armed Forces countermined one mine, while the Latvians countermined the other. In total, the participating nations cleared 20 square kilometres of the Baltic Sea. Operation OPEN SPIRIT began on August 18 and concluded on August 31, 2017.

Though only two mines were countermined by the shore-based divers, this is a positive finding for the mission. It confirms that the areas investigated are safe for Latvians to travel through.

Image gallery

  • Three sailors work at a table to prepare charges. They work together to hold the charges together.
  • A controlled explosion takes place in the Baltic Sea to countermine unexploded remnants.
  • Three sailors work at a table to prepare charges. They work together to hold the charges together.
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