My expectations for ice diving were founded on all of the stories from others who had been to Palmer Station. The complexity and abundance of dive gear we brought down was daunting in comparison to all other dive work I have done. I have to admit that I was slightly apprehensive and wary of the sea here before entering the water for the first time. My biggest fears were not so much the cold, but my restricted functionality in all the gear I’d be wearing and the leopard seal. Previous to this I’ve simply worn a wetsuit or bikini when working underwater. You’re very flexible and the water is inherently warmer. The apex predator has always been a fish, more instinctual and less playful. Working in areas with seals before, I know they enjoy holding onto your fins and tank, playing hide and seek, and stealing your gear. A leopard seal is a horse of a different color, with its huge head and teeth. When this beast gets playful with you, I think you want to get out of town.
Just a bit about the gear: In a dry suit all the air come straight up to your shoulders once you get in the water, it’s a bit like being in a tight inner tube. Underneath the rubber body-shaped bag you’re in, you wear a fluffy suit that is reminiscent of a down sleeping bag. Underneath this sleeping bag you are wearing polypropylene long underwear and heavy socks. Other gear worn for ice diving includes heavy weight belts, a buoyancy compensator and tank, ankle weights, fins and mask, dry suit gloves with hand warmers, and collection gear. As you can imagine, no matter how cold it is outside, suiting up is a very hot experience and getting into that cold Antarctic water is in actuality a relief. To descend you tilt your left arm up and air comes out of a dump valve on your shoulder. This allows you to sink down to depth, where you re-inflate your suit/dump air in order to maintain neutral buoyancy. Voila, dive gear run down.
Our first dive in Antarctica was in the harbor, next to the boat “parking lot”. We dove down and I got to see the benthos for the first time. I was shocked at first by the temperature, seemingly warm in comparison to my expectations, and then by the comfort I felt down there. We are currently experiencing a phytoplankton bloom, perhaps mixed in with glacial melt. During my first dive the visibility was restricted to approximately five feet, even at sixty feet. In this situation you are very happy that your buddy is wearing a red suit so you can pick him out of the soup-like surroundings (pea soup to be exact). Since then the visibility has been the best at 68 feet at another site, but even still it was 10 feet give or take. I’ve done four dives so far, scouting sites for my experiment and doing collections for the chemists. It’s nice to see forests of algae again, although here it is very different from the Pacific. Weedy Desmarestia species cover the bottom like brown mermaid hair and there is an absence of fish and large invertebrates that I would normally expect. Also, the only encounter we have had with a seal has been while I am boating on the water, not swimming in it. I am excited to ‘back in the saddle’ diving, and to begin my experiment (which should be shortly weather allowing). Most of all water conditions can only get better, and that is going to be one fine day.