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An animated collage image of a boat moving on open water.
Illustrations by Franziska Barczyk

What Lies Beneath

By Katie Chalmers-Brooks

Lieutenant (Navy) Steve Dyck’s favourite action movie isn’t Trolls, the soft and cuddly children’s hit. That’s pretty clear despite a joke to the contrary from a colleague who’s just out of frame during a Zoom interview with this no-nonsense member of an elite Naval Tactical Operations Group.

On this particular Wednesday, Dyck [BA(Adv)/2013] is aboard a warship monitoring the Arabian Sea for vessels carrying illicit cargo. The 31-year-old is trained in weapons-use, rappelling and hand-to-hand combat.

The team boards suspicious fishing ships to intercept illegal weapons or narcotics that finance criminals and terrorist groups in the Persian Gulf. It’s not unlike the plot of a nail-biting blockbuster, but with at least one notable difference.

“There’s always way more paperwork that they fail to show you in action movies,” Dyck says from the ship’s flight deck.

For this counter-smuggling mission, known as Operation ARTEMIS, the specialized crew embarked with Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Calgary (HMCS Calgary) to patrol off the coast of Oman in the Middle East. Earlier this year, the UM anthropology grad was behind a record-setting heroin bust when he helped undercover and confiscate 1, 286 kilograms—the largest seizure in the history of the Combined Maritime Forces. The team also set a record for the number of successful busts during a single mission.  

Dyck, who grew up in Winnipeg and now lives in Victoria, B.C., says he’d never categorize himself as an adrenaline junkie. His approach is too calculated for that.

“I always have, like, a conscious thought process and am pretty good in regards to notice of risk that’s being assumed and how to mitigate some of those risks. But, yeah, I definitely enjoy the more dangerous aspects of my job now. There’s certain parts where there’s a very small timeframe where the worst things can possibly happen and those are definitely the most exciting.”

There’s certain parts where there’s a very small timeframe where the worst things can possibly happen and those are definitely the most exciting.
The selection process to join this specialized unit is tough.

They choose less than a dozen members to train and deploy on these missions. “I have the utmost trust in the people I work with, which is a pretty amazing feeling because I don’t know if that’s completely shared, you know, in other sectors of business,” Dyck says.

Policing international waters wasn’t always his plan. He joined the Navy because he saw an opportunity to gain more experience doing something he loved: deep-sea diving. While these days he’s focused on scanning the ocean’s surface, he’s always been intrigued by what lies beneath—a world still relatively unknown.

“It’s like the last unchartered, undiscovered portion of our Earth,” he says. “It’s the last thing really left to search to the fullest extent and that’s pretty interesting.”

He also likes the physical challenge that comes with taking your body to depths of 40-plus metres, as well as the mental test of navigating dark, particulate-filled, brackish waters. After graduating from UM, he worked at maritime museums in the United States, exploring underwater shipwrecks off the coast of St. Augustine, Fla., as well as Bermuda.

Following wicked storms, he’d search for newly revealed remnants of sunken schooners or merchant-class ships from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sometimes all that had survived years of salt water were the ballast stones (the rocks used as counter-weight to stabilize the vessels). Other times, they’d drag up wine bottles, still intact and sealed. Uncovering the cultural histories of communities was key to making sense of the findings.

“When they used to construct ships they used to put a single coin under the mast for good luck—that’s an easy way to be able to date a shipwreck site, by finding that coin. There were all these tidbits to pick up,” says Dyck.

As a kid he went on a lot of back-country, family camping trips throughout Manitoba and Ontario and he eventually chose anthropology at UM, with a minor in archaeology, because it felt like an adventurous type of degree.

“It was about working in isolated locations, you know, austere environments,” says Dyck, who will now find himself surrounded by towering waves, with no view of land for days.

What’s it like to be in a storm at sea?
Audio transcript

“Ideally, you’re transiting with your bow into the seas because if your beam is into the seas it can be a lot more brutal. I guess the best way maybe to describe it for someone who’s never experienced it is like being in an airplane that’s just experiencing constant heavy turbulence, maybe in a little more of a slow and methodical manner. It’s interesting, the entire ship will shudder. You know, you get instances where you get negative gravity or additional gravity based on how the ship is going, kind of like you’re on a roller coaster. So it can be an interesting environment to work in. The waves can get pretty big. I mean we always try to avoid the worst storm systems possible. I’ve been in some six to eight-metre swells during some bad storms. I mean, in the middle of the ocean, say in the Pacific during like a big storm, you could see 12 to 14-metre swells.”

At UM, he remembers being in awe when learning how our biology adapts over time to the challenges unique to our specific place in the world, from changes in the skin’s melanin to better deal with a community’s proximity to the sun, to changes in fat cells to guard against cold climates. 

“I always thought that was incredibly interesting: how people’s traits have been developed simply by their environments and how people have just adapted over time to be able to deal with certain things—whether it’s just their proximity to the Equator or a high altitude—and seeing that changes in the human body are just derivatives of the natural environment.”

As a student, he spent a summer with Distinguished Professor Haskel Greenfield’s cohort in Israel, excavating the Early Bronze Age city at Tell es-Safi, home of the Biblical Goliath. From Kent Fowler, associate professor in anthropology, he learned about mine archaeology in Central and South America, and from UM archaeological anthropologist Brook Milne, about remote sites in the Far North.

“I was fascinated by those classes. I had quite a few professors who would always talk about working in different parts of the world and the importance of having a basic background in the culture and history, like a baseline respect going to work in those areas. And that’s something that I’ve definitely used going forward in my career in the military.”

He’s carried this with him working alongside Navy groups from across the globe (his most recent role was part of a larger coalition of 34 countries).

“That has paid dividends when going on those different operations, having that baseline knowledge, and being able to strike up a conversation on something personal and meaningful to [colleagues]—whether it be politics or economics or some niche part of their social life,” says Dyck. “It can really help to make connections and really break down those borders.”

Working with the military, Dyck says he’ll never forget witnessing the struggles of refugee families who took to the water on their journey to find safety.
Audio transcript

“I got to work in 2016, between the Greek islands, like Chios and Lesbos, and the mainland of Turkey. And that was the height of the migrant crisis and it was just pretty astounding to see. You know, it’s pretty remarkable during modern times to see a mass exodus of people trying to leave an area. You see it in the news, you see the numbers and it’s really difficult for a person to fathom what’s actually going on but seeing it first-hand is quite astounding. It was people essentially trying to leave, like they had to come into Turkey and then trying to leave and getting onto the Greek islands for refuge. So, you know, 50-person rafts, stuffed with 100 people. Sometimes, after say like a night patrol, you know the next morning there would just be like thousands of life jackets on the beach, of people that had, you know, gone one way or another. Just seeing that, like it just wasn’t what you would expect when you hear of something like that. These were everyday people just trying to get out of their current conditions but imagine just having to leave all of your personal belongings behind, all your major things, and essentially make a run for it with your family, spend whatever money you could to get away.”


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