Down in the Seine

Despite my fancy lined ski jacket I instantly turned blue in the freezing headwind as the Zodiac with its powerful outboard motor picked up speed. The three members of the Paris River Police with me seemed oblivious in their specially designed black cold suits. No wonder people stopped and stared from the bridges and quays; we looked like commandos on a mission.

As the only one out of uniform, onlookers probably assumed I was the commander — or someone the others had just arrested. I concentrated on the novelty of seeing Paris from so low down, the city towering above and the swirling waters up close.

Fifteen minutes into the ride I witnessed a real-time intervention. Snowmelt upstream had brought down an entire tree that lay jammed up against the end of the Ile de la Cité. If this snagged a propeller it could immobilize a vessel, leaving it helpless to drift into another boat or a bridge piling.

One of the river policemen got astride the trunk, legs dangling in the icy water as he attached chains. It was then dragged away by a powerful tug.

Diving in the Seine is not diving in the Maldives. Commandant Michel Constant gave me the lowdown as we sat in his office on a floating pontoon at the Quai d’Austerlitz (the only office I know in which the furniture undulates queasily every time a boat passes).

He explained that candidates for the river police train in swimming pools with black tape over their masks to simulate zero visibility in the muddy river waters. If you can handle the disorientation and the potential panic that goes with it, then you are probably ready to confront the frigid Seine in winter.

Unlike open-water diving, you don’t have a buddy for safety in the Seine — how can you help each other if you can’t see each other? Instead, you’re attached by line to a colleague in the boat, who will drag you out if necessary.

Divers are heavily weighted to avoid “flagging” — being swirled around by strong currents like a flag in the wind.

The toughest job is recovering bodies. An average of 100 each year end up in the river, either victims of accidents or suicides. Then there are the vehicles that end up on the riverbed — giant catfish, the length of an adult human, inhabit the Seine and sunken cars make for an ideal burrow. It is not unknown for a diver to come nose-to-nose with one of these beasts. Michel told me that it’s not always clear who panics more, the diver or the fish.

The night of June 21, the “Fête de la Musique,” is a sleepless one for the river police and the only time they patrol in hard hats. In the carnival atmosphere of the summer solstice music festival, some folk choose to cool off in the Seine. The police drag many revelers to safety, often with cans and bottles raining down on their heads from the quay above.

In hot weather, nude sunbathers stretch out below the Austerlitz bridge in full view of the metro running above. A megaphoned warning from a police boat, and a reminder about the steep fine for such exhibitionism, is usually all it takes for the sun worshipers to rediscover modesty.

While most public services are feeling the pinch in 2011, the well-equipped river police have recently increased their strength to 100. Michel explained that they cannot cut corners as they are considered a showcase for the forces of law and order.

They also police the busiest inland waterway in Europe, and their remit is very wide — from towing paralyzed barges to fining boat owners for illegal parking.

In Michel’s office I noticed a sword hanging on the wall, dredged from the river depths. Unusual finds from the Seine span the capital’s turbulent history, ranging from Gallo-Roman artifacts to a World War II antiaircraft gun with ammunition belt still attached.

A photo on Michel’s computer showed three divers grinning at the camera, one of them cradling a beautiful statue of a crouching nude.

A private collector reported its theft by one of his dinner guests who, in a panic, dumped the evidence in the Arsenal basin before later confessing. A police diver who was new to the force, found it on her first dive of active service. No wonder she looks so pleased — the work she is clutching is by Camille Claudel.

Chris Spence, a tour guide in Paris.

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