And in the beginning there was diving

Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr, related to this post
By Kate
Posted on 02/25/10

 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.




  1. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by Kevin on 02/25/10


    Ahhh...memories! Kate, it is good to hear how comfortable you are in the water. I know how much of a difference it can be from warm water diving. The main question I have for you is how have you been feeling 30-35 minutes into the dives? Are you still enjoying it as much? If so, then you are in the right place! If not, then you still might be in the right place! I hope that things continue to go well and I look forward to hearing about your project(s) throughout the season.


  2. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by Terri Schoenrock on 02/26/10

    Wonderful blog Kate. I am going to enjoy these stories a lot. Can you please tell me what a "benthos" is???? Love Mom

  3. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by Reyna Hofmann on 02/26/10

    Kate, I was riveted by your story telling and detailed account of Antarctic dive gear. I highly look forward to hearing more from you. You rule. You are the coolest human being to ever walk the earth.

  4. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by Chris Voisard on 02/26/10

    I echo Reyna's sentiment about you being the coolest human being ever, except to add that there is no pun intended!

    I just watched Groundhog Day again, so stuck in my head is that radio saying "it's co-o-o-o-ld out there!"

    Can't wait to hear more...

  5. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by Terri Schoenrock on 02/27/10

    I do have to echo that Kate. But I have a natural bias. Hope you are enjoying the Tsunami preparations - I am not! I thought Midway was enough to worry about. Danger does follow you my sweet.

  6. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by James White on 03/01/10

    To Kate's mom:
    When she's talking about the benthos, she's just talking about all the marine life on the bottom of the sea floor (ie benthic).

    This is rad! You keep on trucking and I'll find a way to get someone to ship me down there to assist you in future endevours.

  7. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by grandma on 03/02/10

    Loved your description of the Leopard Seal, bet underwater that was an amazing sight. and--yeah, you are the coolest

  8. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by melissa foley on 03/05/10

    very cool, kate! looking forward to hearing about more of your adventures...

  9. Re: And in the beginning there was diving
    Posted by kendra karr on 03/18/10

    first & foremost. James, I get to go 1st.
    Please Kate can I come. I everything I need plus expensive camera gear to take photos of you cuddling with the leopard seals.

    you rock g-money K... sending you hugs

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