Going Deep with the 25-Man Dive Patrol Keeping the Port of L.A. Secure

The Port of Los Angeles is among the busiest in the world. For the cops who protect it, keeping an eye on the docks is a challenge like no other.
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Port of L.A.
Frank Huan, a member of the Los Angeles port police dive team after a “Splashing Down” in the harbor

Photograph by Spenser Lowell

Swimming in the port is a ballsy move. The water isn’t as polluted as it used to be, but there’s still engine oil, bilgewater, and a listless blizzard of silt churned up by the constant boat traffic. It looks only half bad through the GoPro. When Heem and Blair surfaced after inspecting the sunken vessel, both had a general sense of what they saw—a 20-footer encrusted with barnacles. Reviewing the GoPro footage in the dive house, though, Heem pointed to faded letters on the side of the vessel that read SAN PEDRO and said, “I didn’t see that when I was down there.”

At times it’s so murky, there’s no difference between swimming with your eyes open or closed. “You know you’re lucky if you can spot a body before you bump into it,” Edwards told me. Edwards has been involved with 12 in-water body recoveries since joining the unit in 1998. The following year a fisherman poisoned his wife and daughter, bound their bodies together, and dropped them into the harbor. But they floated back up anyway. A commercial diver doing hull maintenance on a nearby craft found them wedged under the fisherman’s boat.

Edwards dug through a file cabinet with images documenting the team’s other gruesome discoveries. One image showed a guy, maybe 19 or 20, who’d fallen off the jetty at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. They found him facedown on the ocean floor, about 20 feet below the surface, the hood of his sweatshirt filled with air. Another time two small planes collided a few miles offshore. One of the pilots was hanging mostly out of the doorless cockpit. Near the wreckage of his plane’s tail end, a young flight student was in a semifetal position, a pair of shorts making him seem that much more vulnerable. There was the guy who shot himself in the head; the drunk guy who fell off his houseboat in one of the marinas; the guy who ran helter-skelter across the Nissan storage yard, leaped into the water fully clothed, and drowned before anyone could get to him.

Then there are the people who jump from the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the green span that connects Long Beach to Terminal Island. In August 2012, 68-year-old Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun and Days of Thunder, parked in the middle of the bridge—it had appeared in at least two of his films—climbed the chain-link fence, and hurled himself 185 feet into the water. The team used GPS coordinates from the jump site and boat-mounted sonar to find him. Not everybody reaches the water; one person miscalculated and landed on concrete.

If body recoveries are the grimmest aspect of the job, the most harrowing involves searching a freighter’s hull. A large ship’s propeller rig can be 30 feet in diameter and spin fast enough to suck in anything within a dozen yards. It can mince a whale the way your blender hacks a clove of garlic. Before inspection, port police and dive team members shut down the boat, though there are times, Edwards said, “when you’re swimming two feet away from a massive propeller and you’re wondering, ‘Just how well did we lock down this ship?’”

L.A. port
L.A. port police divers take time for an equipment check before inspecting the hull of cruise ship

Photograph by Spenser Lowell

The first task for divers is to check for “parasitic objects”—typically big metal containers welded to the bottom of the boat like giant zebra clams. Then they swim into the sea chest—a grated opening on the side of the hull that draws in salt water to cool the engines. “It’s very dark because once you’re inside the ship,” Edwards told me, a smirk on his lips, “there’s no ambient light—just the beam from your headlamp. And if that goes out for some reason, yeah, it can be scary. We’ve had guys come up disoriented with barely enough air to find their way back out.” Divers tie a guideline near the point of entry so they can follow it back if need be. Microphones and earpieces don’t always work perfectly, and even with the main engines off, gas generators are still running, so hearing can be difficult. “I think everyone has had one of those moments where you get disoriented and you have no communication with the surface,” Edwards said. “And you’re in a black room with nothing but a line to guide you.”

WATCH THE DIVE TEAM AT WORK

In a busy year Edwards and his crew might check cargo ships and tankers once a month. As with inspections done by Customs, most dive missions are prompted by intelligence—a tip from a DEA agent with a confidential informant, for example, or a Customs officer stationed in another country. The team has found two major hauls of drugs from Central and South America in boxes welded to the sea chests. Once, a load of cocaine valued at $1 million was discovered in a ship’s steering mechanism. Another time, dive team members walking through a ship’s rudder compartment found half a dozen Central Americans being smuggled in.

What they haven’t found are explosives, though anyone whose business it is to protect the port knows there’s a rich history of harborside pyrotechnics. During World War I, German saboteurs bombed a train depot in the port at Jersey City. In the 1960s and ’70s, the bombing of Russian and Cuban ships was a preferred method of anti-Castro terrorist groups such as Alpha 66, El Poder Cubano, and the Second Front, which killed hundreds in Cuban waters and seriously damaged several boats in places like Biscayne Bay, Florida, and Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1983, the Port of Sacramento was shut down for three days when a “patriotic scuba diver” claimed that his associates had mined the harbor to prevent the Russian ship Nikolay Karamzin docked there from departing. He lied.

Passenger ships have come under threat as well. In 1973, retired Yankees second baseman Gerald “Jerry” Priddy called Princess Cruise’s San Pedro offices and demanded a quarter million dollars if the company didn’t want its 850-passenger Island Princess to blow up on its way to Mexico. The suspicious packages were thrown overboard, their contents unknown to anyone but Priddy, who was sentenced to nine months in prison. In 1975, as Carib Star, a mainland-to-Catalina ferry, sat empty in the port, a bomb went off in the engine room, sinking the ship. Authorities suspected that a member of the Jewish Defense League was trying to foil the boat’s rumored sale to an Arab business concern. So it’s no wonder the LAPP routinely sends out divers to inspect cruise ships, while others sometimes search the remainder of the boat with help from a dockside X-ray machine.

Watching the port function must be what it’s like to observe Earth from outer space—disorienting in scope, always in flux, but never betraying itself beyond the subtle winking of lights. The sheer enormity creates a sense of awe, yet little is readily apparent, even during a search. The containers all look the same. The divers are invisible in the blackness. The ships are vast and still, like mountains. This is the modern port paradox. Back when the harbor was made official in 1907, beating out Santa Monica Bay, shipping was of a more human dimension. Stevedoring required multitudes to lug everything from 140-pound bags of coffee to crates full of bananas—there was no uniformity to what was being transported. L.A. Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis helped see to it that the port grew fast, but for the early decades of the 20th century, fishing and canning remained the primary industries, supporting communities of newly arrived Italians, Japanese, and Mexicans.

What radically changed the port—all ports, really—was the shipping container. A North Carolinian named Malcolm McLean introduced the idea in 1956, and efficiency transformed everything. As of 1971, according to the book Singlejack Solidarity by Stan Weir, the national dockworker force had decreased by 90 percent. Where tens of thousands of people used to load and unload ships in the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, about 15,000 do so today, moving exponentially more goods.

Fewer workers, more places to hide stuff, less time to search it, vast shipping networks, and ever-present concerns about terrorists—it’s a combination of variables that has dictated so much of what the MLETC, the dive team, and Customs do. But port police chief Ronald Boyd’s biggest concern isn’t just a dirty bomb; it’s cybersecurity. (A few months after this visit, there would be another concern to add to his list: A grand jury indicted Boyd on corruption and tax-dodging charges for his alleged secret stake in a taxpayer-funded smartphone app being developed for the port.) The schedules and contents of every ship that enters and leaves the port are tracked and logged in a database that’s shared with other ports throughout the world. If those databases were to be breached, cyberterrorists—al-Qaeda, hacktivists, whoever—could delete or alter information, slowing or stopping the shipping business to create an economic headache at best and a crisis at worst. A large-scale cyberhack would make February’s West Coast labor dispute look like a dinghy next to an aircraft carrier. In the month of September 2014 alone, according to the department’s data, hackers attempted 489,902 “Internet sourced attacks” on the Port of L.A.’s computer system.

A few floors beneath his office in the port police administrative building, Boyd and I were buzzed into a glass-doored room that holds ten computer screens along two rows of desks. On the front wall six large screens displayed CNN along with Twitter feeds from the world’s ports, airports, best-known hackers, and terror groups. Other screens showed the port’s phone and Internet activity. The two men already in the room—I agreed not to use their names—oversee the system. They were divers in their own right, going deep into the digital murk to search for threats. After the main operator tapped a keyboard, each screen showed details about potential malware, worms, and viruses that had been detected. At that moment 27 hacking attempts on the port’s servers were under way. The operator pointed to a black screen with a futuristic line-drawn globe encased in a web of arcs that stretched from the cyberthreat’s country of origin to the Port of L.A. Six of the attempted hacks originated in China, three in Russia, one in Southeast Asia, seven in western Europe, and ten in the United States.

One man at the computer said he wasn’t at liberty to elaborate on whether the would-be attackers from overseas were governments or private citizens. The more I pried, the quieter he got. When I asked whether this number of threats was cause for concern, he said, “Yes, of course. But it can be much worse.” He nodded toward a screen that categorized threat levels by name and color—red for “severe,” orange for “serious,” et cetera—and pointed to the green indicator at the bottom. “Today,” he said, “the threat level is low.” Somehow the words weren’t very reassuring. The room felt less like a virtual fortress and more like a bull’s-eye. I was glad when Edwards arrived to take me onto the water.

Later I asked him whether he’d ever considered leaving the dive team to work cybersecurity. We were standing on the deck of the dive unit’s boat, next to a Norwegian Star cruise ship whose hull was being swept. “No way,” he said, clad in a wet suit as thick as a quesadilla. “That’s not me. At all. The work is way too desky. I like to be out here in the open.” He pointed to some bubbles coming up to the waterline, and a moment later four LAPP divers popped their heads above the surface like seal pups. One gave a thumbs-up. “All clear,” Edwards said to me, and waved his team back to the boat.


Mike Kessler is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. His feature “Gone Girls,” about underage sex trafficking victims, appeared in the November 2014 issue. This feature appears in the May 2015 issue.

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