The art of minesweeping: Operation OPEN SPIRIT 2018

A large burst of water erupts into the air from the ocean
Near Muhu Island, Estonia. May 21, 2018 – Royal Canadian Navy clearance divers detonate explosives to clear unexploded ammunition from the First and Second World Wars during Operation OPEN SPIRIT. (Photo: Cpl Desiree T. Bourdon, Operation OPEN SPIRIT)

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By Capt Matt Zalot, Operation OPEN SPIRIT 2018 Public Affairs Officer

During the First and Second World Wars, hundreds of thousands of naval mines were laid by military forces in the Baltic Sea, and in waters around the world. It was a tool to cripple shipping and hinder ship movement in order to gain a strategic advantage in the conflicts. This, combined with aerial bombardment and naval gunfire, resulted in tens of thousands of potentially dangerous pieces on unexploded ordnance (UXO) being left off the busy shores of the three Baltic nations – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. These relics of war still pose a risk to commercial shipping and fishing.

Operation OPEN SPIRIT works to lessen that risk. The annual operation is in the spirit of NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Although it has been conducted since 1997, this is Canada’s fifth year participating. It is also the second time the Royal Canadian Navy’s clearance divers have worked jointly with their Allies off the coast of Estonia.

Along with divers from Estonia, Latvia, Poland, the U.K., and the U.S., the Canadians—largely drawn from Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic) (FDU(A)), based out of Halifax—spent two weeks searching for, marking, and detonating UXOs to increase safety in the region. They also gained valuable experience in a very challenging environment.

The Operation OPEN SPIRIT Task Force Commander, Lieutenant (Navy) James “JR” Gallant, is no stranger to Estonia, and certainly no stranger to ordnance disposal. A member of FDU(A) for nine years, this is his fifth time in Estonia and the third anti-mining operation he’s been a part of. He previously deployed on Operation OPEN SPIRIT in 2014 and 2015.

Along with the clearance divers, his team of 12 also includes a supply technician, a marine engineer, and a doctor; together, they follow a rigorous daily routine of searching for mines in the murky Baltic waters, and marking any “mine-like contacts” they find. When they positively identify a mine, they build, place, and detonate explosive charges to ultimately render it safe.

In 2018, the team used hand-held sonar technology to identify more than 200 mine-like contacts that required further visual inspection to sort dangerous UXOs from harmless objects like a large rock or an oil drum.

“I think Canadians would be surprised to realize how many mines are actually remaining from the two World Wars in the Baltics,” said Lt(N) Gallant. The RCN’s work on Operation OPEN SPIRIT is important because those mines pose a “risk to navigation, and a risk to fishermen” in the region.

Aside from the obvious benefit of reducing the threat from explosive remnants of war, the operation also aims to foster goodwill and relationships with defence partners in the region. “We get along very well with the divers of the other nations and I’ve met several of them more than once because of this operation,” said Lt(N) Gallant.

Operation OPEN SPIRIT is an annual, combined and joint operation. It is hosted on a rotational basis by one of three Baltic State NATO members – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Image gallery

  • A large burst of water erupts into the air from the ocean
  • A diver is pulled from the water into a small boat
  • A man cuts green cord and yellow explosive material with a knife
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