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Maggie Amsler
Research Assistant

Diving in Antarctica: a tender perspective

Journal By Maggie Amsler

Posted On 3/16/2004 6:36:17 PM

Continuing with the “Diving in Antarctica” series, I will write about some pretty heavy stuff: dealing with the diver’s gear when they are not wearing it. I will describe a typical tending operation with ideal conditions - which means that some of what you will read now is truly fiction! Later this season, I have no doubt we will have ample opportunity write about non-ideal tending days.

At our 0800 (8AM) meeting, the w’s of our field operations for the day are outlined: what we need to collect, where to best collect and when to leave. Currently the latter w has been 0915 for the morning dive. Usually the divers will start their preparations about 0830. A couple journal entries ago, Chuck described that a diver’s gear is either methodically packed into bags, assembled or donned. Necessary gear (egg. weight belts, dual regulator-rigged tanks, gear bags) that the divers will not wear in transit to the dive site gets piled up on the front porch of the dive locker.

Included on the porch pile is a bigger-than-kitchen sink-sized assortment of spare stuff including an extra tank. It serves double duty as a spare tank in case something happens to one that is already rigged with regulators. The spare tank can also be used to communicate with the divers. Its y-shaped double valved neck is noosed with a short rope ending at a carabineer. The latter is a D-shaped clip and one of the long axes opens so it can clip to the zodiac and allow the tank to be hung in the water. A hammer in a bucket is standard issue on every dive and that tool is used to rap on the submerged tank. The sound transmits through the water warning the divers of either a weather danger (3 taps, pause 3, taps, pause, etc) or a leopard seal (continuous tapping - well, OK, more like down right hammering than "tapping"!).

In the hammer bearing bucket is also waterproof bag with dry gloves, mask straps, wrist tubes - any small essential item whose failure or forgetfulness would ding a dive round over before the clock even started out at the dive site. Also in that bag is a submersible, hand held depth meter used to help locate specific depths and a handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver used to acquire the exact location of each dive site. Each person on the zodiac puts out a similar bag with spare socks, gloves, a bottle of water, maybe a camera.

Since the reason we dive is to collect, also on the porch pile is an assortment of collecting devices depending on the targeted organisms. That stuff though the divers swim around with underwater, so it usually bantam weight stuff like mesh bags. Dive slates to record data, and knives to pry or scrape attached organisms from their attachment substrate are in the mix too. We always take several empty buckets in order to transport our collections back to station in seawater.

Well assembling all that gear on the porch is the easy part. The heavy work begins now for the tenders, as the gear needs to be transferred to the boat. A two-wheeled wooden cart expedites this process. Tenders fill the cart with some of the gear and mule-like pull it down to the boat dock. As seen in my previous journal entry, the path to the zodiacs is mostly down hill on the graveled dirt road. The cart is emptied at the dock and pulled back up to the dive locker porch for another load. Usually three cart trips are sufficient to get everything to boat dock.

What had been a porch pile of dive gear is now a rock mound of dive gear. The first two cartloads of gear are heaped out on the big flat rocks just above the lapping, icy water line and our floating zodiac. I usually leave the last cart unloaded – let’s be sensible and not handle all the weight unnecessarily. The tenders now need to get the gear into the zodiac.

The zodiacs are loosely tied up at the dock with a bowline and paired stern lines. The bowline is knotted to a large metal ring, sunk in one of the rocks. One tender hand over hand shortens the generous slack in that line pulling the zodiac close enough to shore so the other tender can hop aboard. The tender in the zodiac performs the necessary ‘pre-flight’ checks (as described in Kevin’s previous journal) and pull starts the motor. Sputter sputter. … and pull starts the motor. Sputter sputter and yanks on that darn pull cord and purrrr the engine turns over. This activity usually chases away any chill I might have felt!

The ‘captain’ then puts the engine in gear and sidles back up to the dock to pick up the ‘mate’ and the untied bowline. Mate secures bowline to zodiac (loose lines can snare propellers and spoil your day!) as the captain slowly backs out to an overhanging line to which the stern lines are attached. Once the stern lines are unhooked, the zodiac is free floating and no longer tethered to land.

The zodiac is piloted over to the rock mound of gear, the bow is run up on the flat rocks and the mate jumps out. With the engine in gear, the zodiac stays in place pretty well and allows the tenders to perform their special choreography of passing gear from the shore to the zodiac. Mate hands off a rigged tank to the captain who sets it in the boat and if necessary runs back to tiller to reposition the zodiac while the mate goes for goes for more gear. The captain organizes the gear as it is handed over. Chuck’s tank, weight belt, gear bag and drybag up against the gunnel on the portside floorboard Anne’s matching set on the starboard side.

Back and forth the tenders haul, scurry, pant! The gear in the cart goes straight into the zodiac, deleting that unnecessary two-step of putting it on the ground and picking it up again. This dance is usually easy to perform. Ice and/or swell though complicate the flow. Sometimes the divers assist with the loading process but as Chuck explained, pre- dive exertion, hence sweating, is best to be avoided in a drysuit.

Once all the gear, divers and tenders are aboard, we shove off and back out of the ‘loading’ zone. Both tenders have a two-way radio and a one ‘phones’ home and a typical conversation like the following takes place:

Tender: “Palmer Palmer this is Divers”
Palmer : “go ahead Divers”
Tender: “Palmer, Divers, leaving the dock with 4 onboard and heading to Kristie Cove”
Palmer: “copy that divers- have a good one”

Off we zip to our dive site du jour, Kristie Cove. Once reaching our intended location, we again radio Palmer relaying that we have arrived. The divers then go into slow but steady action; donning that heavy gear. Tender pick up the diver’s weight belt and helps guide the harness straps on to the diver’s shoulders. Next the tank is lifted onto the gunnel, held by the tender arranges the straps on tank jacket as the as the diver sits down in front of the tank, easing one arm into the already buckled vest strap. The tender helps position the tank on the diver’s back, buckling the other shoulder straps and getting all regulator and inflator hoses in proper position.

Sometimes, one tender can help both divers hopping between port and starboard as the divers gear up on opposite sides of the zodiac. The other tender deals with keeping the boat steady and safe and scouting for problems like leopard seals. Most of our dive sites are in protected locations and often the engine will be put in neutral and the zodiac allowed to drift so both tenders can lend dexterous assistance to the divers as they become increasingly encumbered by the weight on their backs and finally by the  thick gloves on their hands.

The gloves are usually the last things the divers put on. The tenders add the final touch pulling the thick rubber cuff of the dry gloves up and over the hard wrist ring on the drysuit – gloving the diver in the process. The gloves fit very snug against that ring and tenders need reasonable hand strength for the simultaneous stretch out over and pull up. We giggle a bit with this last process “hey Maggie- you’ve lost that gloving feeling”, “Kevin, will you still glove me tomorrow”. Our project is a fun gloving bunch!

Ok, back to business, the zodiac is brought into the pre-determined position for diver drop off. The engine is put in neutral and the divers back flip or slid into the water. Exchanged “ok” signals and the divers submerge out of sight. The tenders note the time they go down and radio the station to announce “two divers in the water”. If at a new dive site, the little hand held GPS will come out of the drybag and we commune with outer space and a satellite relays our exact latitude and longitude position on a small boat in Antarctica. Technology is too awesome sometimes!

Back down to earth tender space cadet. The tenders just don’t sit contemplating the universe or watching the pretty scenery- well maybe a few photographs are snapped. While the divers are down, the tenders hang lines over the boat for the divers to hang their gear upon surfacing. We keep vigilant for sudden changes in weather and keep a look out for leopard seals. Mostly, the tenders just watch the divers’ bubbles. The zodiac putt putts around in circles over the bubbles or does an engine forward- engine reverse cha-cha to keep the boat as close to the divers as possible. Remember, this an idealized account of tending: sunshine, flat calm clear waters with no froth or foam to camouflage the bubbles.

The divers resurface in about a half an hour. As if lead by unseen partners, the divers swim away from each other as the zodiac slowly approaches, the bow nosed between the pair. Just before the zodiac slides between the divers, the engine is momentarily put in reverse in effort to stop the zodiac in place. “Neutral” hollers the tender at the tiller and the divers know it is safe to go the stern most suspended carabineer close to the now disengaged propeller and hang the mesh bags with the collected specimens.

The divers swim to the middle of the boat and both tenders stand over a diver as they begin striping off gear to lighten hauling their chilled body out of the water. In reverse order from dressing, the tank is first clipped onto the suspended carabineer. The straps undone, various hoses disconnected and the diver is free. The tender hoists the tank back into the boat as the diver pushes from underneath. Ugh! Heavier when wet!

Next clipped off onto the zodiac and striped off the diver is the weight belt. Concerted push me- pull me effort again and the heavy wet weights plop back into the boat. Time to get out of the way and allow a self-hoisting diver to come aboard. Our once organized tidy zodiac is now awash with wet gear, fins and masks strewn about.  Buckets of seawater are ready for sample bags once pulled in.

“Palmer divers ……. Palmer two divers out of the water……”

After a few minutes of chatting about the dive, tidying up the gear, putting on a dry warm hat, sunglasses, the divers are ready to head back to the station. We of course ‘phone home’ with our intention.

As we approach the dock, we have one last radio conversation with the station announcing that we are -- “pulling into the driveway” have to have some fun… -- “back at the dock”. Everything I described above with the loading process now happens in reverse. This direction of the process seems harder - all the gear is wet, the tenders are likely wet and cold and hungry. Us tending mules struggle getting each cart full of gear up that earlier appreciated downhill and to the dive locker! Tie up the zodiac and head into the warmth and comfort of the station.


TitleFromClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Re: Diving in Antarctica: a tender perspectiveMary Ellen Peters3/19/2004 6:39:34 AM

Maggie, I had no idea so much was involved. A question, if you are diving in the afternoon does everything still go back up and come down again?. Thanks.

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 3/19/2004 6:39:36 AM

Hi Mary Ellen! What a sensible question! Yes, some of the gear will remain in the zodiac. The spare scuba tank and drybag of extra stuff stay in the boat. If a diver, your son Kevin for instance, is planning to dive in the morning and afternoon, his weight belt remains in the boat. Otherwise, his tank needs to go back to the dive locker to be replaced with one full of air. Fins and mask might remain in the boat but they are light enough anyway. When I get 'burdened' by the weight of tending, I think of how really involved it was two years ago, Kevin's first time in Antarctica. Fast ice in the harbor prevented boating and we dove through holes drilled in the ice. All the gear that we now load into motorized zodiacs was loaded onto banana sleds and pulled by snow-shoed tenders like Kevin and me out to the ice hole! For a glimpse of that ice tending routine check out : Thanks for being such a devoted reader!

Re: Diving in Antarctica: a tender perspectiveLinda Stude3/27/2004 1:48:49 PM

Hi Maggie: I've been enjoying reading your postings. Got a question. Why do you have to warn the divers about leopard seals? Do they attack the divers? Linda

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 3/27/2004 1:48:50 PM

Hi Linda! Thanks for following our website! It is a fun way to keep in touch with the 'outside world'. Anytime there is a leopard seal sighted before a dive or during a dive, operations in that area are cancelled or aborted. In the latter case, the divers are recalled to the zodiac as a safety concern. Leopard seals are (along with killer whales) are the lions of the ocean, the top predator. Leopards are bigger than we are and have a very unpredictable nature. In addition to normal ecological behavior like eatting penguins and other seals, they will aggressively chase zodiacs and even attack and puncture zodiacs. Tragically, last year, a leopard seal attacked a scientist while she was snorkling at her study site at a British station, not far from Palmer. The autopsy revealed that she had drowned, presumably held underwater by the leopard seal. This is the first documented case of a leopard seal related fatality. We have no desire to add to the statistics.

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