Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Underwater Investigator Mike Berry poses in a river under a bridge
For Mike Berry, the ocean is a perpetual crime scene where fish may tamper with the evidence or assault investigators (Berry was once bitten on the lip by a fish). Photo by Mike Morgan

Coastal Job: Underwater Criminal Investigator

Mike Berry has been diving for bodies and evidence for more than three decades, helping solve high-profile crimes around the world.

Authored by

As told to Raina Delisle

Article body copy

Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Mike Berry has been an underwater criminal investigator for more than 35 years. In 1987, he launched his company, Underwater Criminal Investigators, and trains police forces all over the world.

From ocean dives that push the limits of depth and time to crawling on my hands and knees in shallow polluted creeks, I’ve been involved in over 1,000 underwater investigations. I’ve found bodies and weapons within minutes, and I’ve spent weeks looking for evidence in cold cases. My longest recovery operation lasted three months and involved a contract killing. I don’t even know how many bodies or weapons I’ve recovered over the years. Lots.

Growing up, I watched TV shows about scuba divers and stared at a black-and-white photograph of my dad standing knee-deep in water holding a speargun. I always thought that one day I was going to do that.

After I got out of the military, I got certified as a diver and joined the Virginia State Police. When I was training, the trooper I was riding with asked if I wanted to go on a dive for some stolen handguns. I didn’t even know there was a police dive team. Of course, I was interested right away. Out of all the people diving, I was the only one who found a gun. I was hooked.

I joined the dive team as soon as I could and was always the first one in the water and the last one out. After a few years, I became an instructor and later started my training company, Underwater Criminal Investigators. It exploded because there wasn’t anybody in the country teaching police diving.

Most of the dives are very challenging and dangerous. The sites are not your beautiful coral reefs with tropical fish and 100-percent visibility. A gun isn’t sitting there on the sand for you to see it. It’s below the silt layers, and we have to get down there and search by feel. A lot of our waterways are contaminated and we have to wear special drysuits and full face masks. The idea is to not let the water touch you and definitely not to ingest it.

Evidence is always going to be hiding in the water. It surrounds us and it’s an easy dumping ground. You don’t have to dig a hole—you just flick your wrist. The people who put these items in the water never think that there are divers trained to go down there and find them. I’ve had murderers tell me, “You’ll never find it.” And then we do.

It’s about helping other people. I get to use my love for diving to solve someone’s problem—it could be an investigator looking for a murder weapon that was thrown off a bridge, or it could be a family that lost a loved one and won’t have closure until the body’s recovered.

The strangest thing I ever found was a wooden box duct-taped to a brick. In the box was a tiny bag with some candles and a male voodoo doll with a needle right in its groin. You don’t find that every day. I pulled out the needle and told everyone on the boat that somewhere a man was thanking me.