Diving in the Antarctic

We are within the Southern Polar circle “ below 66Ëš 33' 38" S degrees. The water was just above freezing, at 0,5°C, the air was still outside and air temperature was zero at midday. The sky was clear blue, the water crystal blue. Even the ice was blue, the sort of a blue that is opaque “ almost too translucent to be real. This is truly the blue planet!   By Don and Andre Shirley

Amidst all this blue was I who am allergic to water colder than 24 degrees â“ arm twisted right back by Don to actually venture into the freezing Antarctic waters! I told him in no uncertain terms that we're going to be lugging all this excess dive gear around the world, and I'm not going to be using it.

It seems like the twisting of the arm did not stop, and I found myself in my cabin kitting up one day. The kitting up was probably the hardest part. There's the physical side of getting all the gear on “ I cannot get my mask on with these cumbersome dry gloves, never mind getting my long hair which wants to go all over the place out of said mask “ then let's not forget the mental state… what am I thinking? Its freezing out there, will I be able to press the power inflator with frozen hands in the cold water gloves? Then there's the waiting for the zodiacs to come alongside the ship. I'm sure they take their time to make us quit beforehand so they can go back to their cabins and drink hot chocolate.

Once on the zodiac, I was thinking of going in feet first instead of the usual backward roll – just so that when the icy waters hits my face I am in an upward position instead of inverted. I’ve seen the scary movies when people fall into frigid water and I want a fighting chance please. But sense and dignity prevailed and one backward roll later I was in. And hey, what a surprise – I am comfortable, you could even say toasty – thanks to my extreme thermal dive gear.

Diving under this Antarctic sea is surreal. Don and I had travelled to the bottom of the world together, leaving southern America from Ushuaia. The area is called Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire – the native Indian’s lived naked, and had fires to keep them warm. From their ships the Spanish saw the land dotted with fires), sailing through the Beagle Channel, then across Drake’s Passage (two days at sea) after which we worked down towards the Antarctic peninsula, visiting islands along the way and diving in some of the remotest places on earth.

Twenty to thirty minutes is a good time to end the dive, as your feet and hands start the quick journey to numbness as soon as you hit the water, even if they are encased in the latest thermal technology. Depth was an average of about 15m.

Marine life comes in the form of millions of krill, thousands of crustaceans, hundreds of nudibranchs of small and large proportions and lots of kelp along the coastlines. There’s also the chance of seeing penguins, Fur seals, Leopard seals and whales underwater. Some were lucky enough to be circled by a Leopard seal trying to figure out just what to do with these bubble-blowing things.

The dives next to icebergs were another story. The ice was breathtaking in all ways, for its colour, beauty and temperature. Under water the bergs were like giant golf balls – regular and uniformly pitted. The water density and clarity changed depending on where you were – close to the berg you found fresher water, and buoyancy needed to be adjusted accordingly.

Bergs are almost living creatures – they bounce around like giant ice cubes and scrape along the bottom, making the most horrific sounds – the noise of the groaning vibrates in your chest and you cannot tell from where the sound is coming. You’re sure that they are coming after you to crush you, almost as if they know you’re there and easy prey. As they grind on the bottom, chunks of ice break off and try and take you out on their way up. You should also be watchful for ‘calving’ from the top – when chunks break off and drop down on you. And if it did not get you with any of those methods, it might decide to become unstable, do a roll-over and you could suddenly find yourself on the top (which was bottom five seconds ago) of its surface with rapid bubble expansion taking place in your body. These icebergs really are cunning!

This experience was a big first for both Don and I. Don had dived under ice in frozen lakes and around the Falklands (1996) previously and wanted to get further south since seeing South Georgia in the 1982 Falklands war. This was a dream come true for him.

Diving in the Antarctic was scary but exhilarating at the same time! In retrospect, I was glad my arm was twisted so badly. I would advise anyone going that way to be properly trained for those conditions; it is not the place to find out you cannot cope. Help is also days away on a clear day, and it’s not going to happen if the weather is bad.

Antarctica, ice and ozone

Icebergs were once snow, which over time, compressed to ice – this can take 25 to 50 years. All Antarctica’s ice slowly moves to the sea, with some ice fields being 4,8m at the deepest point. They say that the older the ice the richer blue it becomes. I wonder how old the icebergs were that we have been swimming next to. What has it seen it its time?

Due to the compression, the sea salt gets pressed out, called leaching, and it forms stalagmites under the ice. I would still love to see some of this type of formations underwater. We saw the start of sea ice forming when we were in the Lemaire Channel – this is called ‘grease ice’ as it looks a little a film of grease over the water. The water is thick and still. It has thin veins of unfrozen water and the ice is very thin. As it gets thicker the ice forms ‘pancakes’, which is when the thin grease layers are pushed on top of each other and become round. Ice forms in the sea very quickly, and once it starts it advances by around 100 000 square kilometres per day. It eventually doubles the size of Antarctica, adding up to an extra 20 million square kilometres of ice around the land mass. That's one and a half times the size of USA. It then melts each summer.

A lot of research has been done on ice fields for climate change projections. Global warming is a ‘hot issue’. The general consensus from various research stations and the glaciologists says it is actually worse than what the general public is told!

The ice field around the American Palmer Station is receding at the rate of 10 feet a year. A large chunk of the Wordie ice shelf collapsed last year, giving back a huge area of sea. The western Antarctic is showing the most signs of global warming, alarmingly so. Whether the ozone hole is connected to global warming is an open question. They are finding that it is opening earlier and closing later each year – in other words the hole stays open longer each year. The hole distorts as the polar year progresses, and opens as far as South America and South Africa.

The ozone hole was first discovered in 1985 at the British Station Faraday on the Galindez Island (65 o 15’S, 64o16’W) by John Shankline. The British research station was first on Winter Island in a hut called Wordie hut, which is now a historic site. It comprised of a kitchen and bunk room, and was later expanded to include a generator shed, office, store and toilet. (I’m sure the staff were pleased not to venture outside to the toilet). The research station is now owned by the Ukraine and renamed Akademik Vernadsky. When the station was handed over (for $1) in 1996 the two teams of scientists played football to commemorate the day. It has always been a metallurgical station and is the oldest station in the Antarctic Peninsula area.

Visiting the all male personnel (their motto: “No women, no cry”) at Vernadsky is an interesting experience. They have a wicked sense of humour, and their home-made vodka hits just the right spot on a cold Antarctic day. As we entered the station we saw a monitor that displays the Ozone hole’s state; any count above 234 UD was bad news. It was at 300 UD that day, and we were told not to go outside without good sunglasses and other protection.

I had a long chat with Egor Quosdofsky. He operates the current measurement instrument which is in the same place as the original machine. The original is now in a museum in UK. The current machine is named Virginia, after John Shankline’s mother. All machinery on the base has names – a custom which started with the original British guys. The machine room also doubles as Egor’s bedroom and office and he had beautiful drawings pinned to the wall – a hobby in his spare time. Egor said that they still play football when the sea freezes in the small inlet between the rocky islands.

Wordie hut

Antarctic is in a time warp. It is a place where anything left stays literally frozen in time. Take Wordie Hut for example. It is maintained as a museum – it was just left as is when the new base was built. The log for 12 May 1958 (my first birthday) read:

12 MAY 1958 (Rogation day) Dull all day started to blow and drift after lunch, doubtless all our new snow will vanish as usual. Doug struggled with tent all AM and did harness in the PM after we weighed the dogs. Been cloistered in the office as usual, except for the occasional melodious journey south [to toilet]. Gaps in the sea [ice] have become longer. Pups have taken to wandering down the corridor and pinching the boys [other dogs] blubber etc- not a healthy pursuit.

The capital ‘D’ and lower case ‘d’ were written as Mum used to write them. It was like going back in time. It was very homely and reminded me of when I was a young child, the same type of paraffin heater we had; the same more modern heater; the typewriter and other odds and ends in the shed; the construction of the hut with its wood and roofing felt with the big flat nails – just like my dad’s shed.

South Pole

The South Pole has a base, The Amundsen – Scott, at the true, fixed geographic, (90 deg South 90 deg North) South Pole – there is an actual red and white pole there.  It is in the ice shelf and is re-surveyed each year as it moves slightly due to the ice slowly moving to the sea (2,8km thick at this point). They first built the station underground – actually under snow. But it was crushed, then they built a dome-style place that survived better, and now they have built the station on stilts, which gets jacked up every year. This seems to be the correct solution, as the snow can then blow through and not pile up and bury the building. 

Interesting facts about Antarctica

  • Fire is a huge hazard on the stations, as the weather dries out everything. It has not rained in the Dry Valley for two million years.
  • The biggest iceberg ever broke free from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2000. (The Ross Ice shelf is the size of France). If the Ross Ice Shelf melted, the sea level would rise by between 5m to 17m. (British Antarctic Survey researchers). If all the ice melted the sea would rise by 65m.
  • Antarctica stores 098% of the worlds ice volume, and 70% of the world’s fresh water.
  • A snotsicle is an icicle of frozen mucous hanging from the nose of the owner. Once they start to form, they cause the nose to run, so speeding up the growth.
  • Your freezer keeps the temperature at about -20°C. Summer temperature on the East Antarctica Icecap is -30°C and winter is -60°C. The lowest ever temperature recorded was at the Russian Vostok station. It was – 89,6°C
  • The term Cryosphere refers collectively to the portions of the earth where water is in solid form, including snow cover, floating ice, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, seasonally frozen ground and perennially frozen ground (permafrost).
  • -2°C is the freezing point of sea water, below zero because of the salt.
  • Bergy-bits are small chunks of floating ice broken off from an iceberg.
  • In 1981 a swarm of krill was tracked and estimated at being up to 10 million tonnes in weight. This is the equivalent of more than the entire populations of the UK and Germany combined.
  • A fully grown Blue whale eats about four million krill per day – that's 3 600kg or four tons every day for six months.
  • A wind speed of 320km/h was recorded at the French Dumont d'Urville base in July 1972
  • In 350 B.C., it was the ancient Greeks who first came up with the idea of Antarctica. They knew about the Arctic – named Arktos, meaning The Bear  from the constellation the great bear – and decided that in order to balance the world, there should be a similar cold southern landmass that was the same but the opposite "Ant-Arktos". They never actually went there, it was just a lucky guess!
  • Antarctica was a part of the Gondwanaland super continent, attached to South America, the southern part of Africa, India and Australia. They drifted apart until they reached their current positions. Antarctica shares some types of fossils with South America and South Africa and also some rock formations.
  • The USA spends $300 million for the whole Antarctica programme. They support a wide range of projects: environmental, geological and philanthropic.

Dive gear used (each):

  • DUI drysuit (CLX450 for Andre, CF200 for Don) with attached (zip-locked) dry gloves
  • 2 x 5mm Hoodies over each other
  • Weezle Extreme Plus thermals and socks
  • Halcyon backplate, harness, wing (30lb for Andre, 40lb for Don)
  • Single cylinder with H-valve
  • 2 x Scubapro MK17 1st stage (environmentally sealed to protect against freezing)
  • 2 x Scubapro G650 2nd stage

Author: Don and Andre Shirley