Just like players anxious for that first pitch or kick off of the regular season of competition, our dive team was anxious to get our new season of diving at Palmer underway. The pros usually shake the bugs out with an exhibition game. Our dive team essentially did the same thing but our only spectators were our dive tenders and some seabirds flying around.
Our first dive in Antarctica is preferably as simple as can be. The majority of our dives throughout the ‘regular’ season are at nearby local islands reachable by small rubber boats called zodiacs. One easy way to simplify the dive process is to dive from the shore right at station. Divers can suit up in the warm and dry comfort of station dive locker. Tenders appreciate helping divers get ready in such relative luxury without all the bobbing around in a zodiac. The dive locker is conveniently located a short walk away from the dock and the waters of Arthur Harbor surrounding Palmer Station.
Kevin and I were first in the buddy pair line up, Anne and Chuck were next on the roster. At about 9:15 Kevin and I started the long process of donning our gear. A few minutes before 10:00 we each were resting on a flat rock dangling our drysuited legs in the water and panting slightly after our gear-laden walk. Designated tender Hla patiently waited for us to recover, before handing us our last gear item to put on. Watching me put me on fins must be like seeing a slo-mo replay - the weight of the gear, coupled with the bulk of all the insulation forcing me to cross my right, then left leg in slow motion.
Ahhhh- what a great sensation it is to be weightless as I bob in the water after scooting off my rock. The seawater temperature is about 2C (36F) and feels refreshing. I float and momentarily savor the feeling of being free my excess but necessary baggage before refocusing on the task at hand. One of the goals of this inaugural dive is to verify that our gear was not damaged during the long travel from Alabama. Kevin and I are content with this initial check and decide to submerge.
Another goal of this dive is to make sure we are weighted properly to be able to stay underwater. Although we simulate conditions as much as possible during our Alabama quarry training dives, we do need to make adjustments here for the increased buoyancy imparted by the seawater and the additional layers of insulation we wear. Kevin and I each wear the same amount of weight we did last season and have no trouble dropping down to the shallow rocky bottom. The extra weights Hla is standing on the shore with will not be necessary. Kevin and I exchange “ok” signs and head off for a short dive.
The sights as we swam along were all too familiar. I have made many dives in this same area over the last two seasons collecting seaweeds for a time course study. I felt like I was meeting old friends again. We were surrounded by many species of red algae in various forms- feathery, small shrubs, leather-like sheets. There is also lots of brown algae but primarily just two species. One looks like triple wide whole-wheat lasagna pasta ribbons and the other approximates sapling-size tree compared to any of the neighboring reds. With my blunt ended knife, I pried a small brown alga specimen of the tree-like variety off the rock on which it was attached and carefully sealed it in a fine mesh bag.
Amongst the many fronds of this branched alga hide small shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods. We need to start collecting these “pods” for use in experiments. As Kevin and I fan away the algae to view the rocks beneath, we start seeing stars- sea stars that is. Another goal of this dive is to collect Odontaster validus, a purple hued sea star. Our project needs to maintain several hundred of these stars in a large aquarium. Both the stars and the pods will be used as taster testers in our feeding experiments.
Due to this dive site’s proximity to the station and dock, we almost always find interesting artifacts. Kevin and I each found old, well-encrusted coke bottles. In another area I noticed many big broken egg shells scattered about the bottom. They were much too big to chicken eggs misplaced from the galley. I put one of the intact halves into my collecting bag and later showed it to the ornithologist on station. It was a penguin egg. Earlier in the season, a skua (gull-like bird) was regularly seen sitting on the dock, just above where we dove, eating pirated penguin eggs. I apparently found that skua’s trash heap.
Kevin and I returned to the surface 29 minutes later, after reaching a maximum depth of 41 feet. Our inaugural dive was a success – no errors, no equipment problems, we scored animals, algae and even a few curiosities. Our research team looks forward to a winning season of stellar diving and collecting.