Living, researching, and diving here in Antarctica is one of the most interesting experiences of my life so far. It took a lot of work to get here though, especially to dive. I got my open water SCUBA certification back in 2005 when I was studying at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. Even though I spent a lot of time on the North Carolina coast in an area known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic” for the spectacular shipwrecks that can be dove (one famous example is Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge), I accumulated less than 20 dives between 2005 and 2009. Scuba diving is expensive if you don’t have your own gear, and gear is expensive too. But it was wonderful getting underwater, and I loved every dive- even my certification dive, which took place just after Hurricane Ophelia swept the East Coast of the US, meaning that we did our skills test with 3 feet of visibility and as a result I kneed a sea urchin – ouch!
When I joined lab of Amsler and McClintock at UAB this past August, we weren’t positive that I could complete all the requirements needed in order to be able to dive this season. First, I had to become certified by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) as a scientific diver. This certification required 100 hours of training and a dive physical. Towards this training I took an advanced open water course through Alabama Blue Water Adventures in a freshwater quarry near Birmingham. We covered skills such as navigation, Nitrox diving (Nitrox is a breathing gas mixture with higher concentrations of oxygen than normal air), deep diving and night diving.
I also took a Rescue diving course with the university’s Dive Safety Officer Mike Dardeau at Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the coast of Alabama. Mike taught me how to avoid and to deal with scuba emergencies; how to rescue conscious and unconscious divers and how to get myself out of potential emergency situations (for example, a free flowing Buoyancy Control vest inflator hose). I did my first scientific training dives taking sediment cores in 5 feet of water in Weeks Bay, Alabama, and I completed the exam to become an official AAUS scientific diver 2 days before we left for Antarctica.
I also had to become certified to dive through the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). This required dry suit training with a minimum of 25 dry suit dives and 50 dives total. With only 16 lifetime dives, I had a lot of diving to do but I couldn’t have been happier. Pretty soon, Chuck, Maggie, Kate and I were going to the quarry every week to get in 4 or 5 dry suit dives a day.
I was extremely nervous for my first dry suit dive. It kept me up at night. Dry suit diving, especially in the huge rubber dry suits we use, is so different from wet suit diving. First, the suit itself feels gigantic. It has to be large in order to fit the thick warm dive underwear we wear underneath. I remember thinking that there was no way I could fill that suit out. I was so surprised to find that the feet are actually the perfect size once you add 2 layers of thick wool socks and fiber-filled stuffed booties! Second, as you know from previous blogs, it’s a lot of work just to get into all the gear and it makes you extremely cumbersome and limited; more so on land, but underwater as well.
And then the whole process of maintaining neutral buoyancy underwater is completely different in a dry suit than it is in a wet suit. When dry suit diving, you actually use the air inside the suit to maintain your buoyancy instead of using your Buoyancy Control vest (BC). To add air to the suit, you press a button on the chest, and you dump air from a valve located on the left shoulder. You simply raise your shoulder so it is the highest point on your body, and the air naturally rises and flows out of the suit. During my first few dives, I was hesitant to put enough air into my suit because I was worried about not being able to dump it fast enough and shooting to the surface too fast. However, as I got more comfortable I began to slowly figure out all the little quirks of dry suit diving- how air can get trapped near your feet and cause them to float higher than you’d like until you wiggle vertically to let the air move up to your torso; how to tighten your ankle weights high enough that they don’t threaten to push your fins off; how to not accidentally dump a bunch of air when you raise your arm to look at your dive computer…
With the time and help of many patient people, I completed all the necessary dives and was cleared to dive at Palmer as a scientific diver through the USAP. However, as I found, nothing could have totally prepared me for my first polar dive.
I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to dive in Antarctica. Most of the time, I imagined being extremely cold, to the point of suffering. I thought that it would be bone-chillingly cold; the way you feel when you stand outside in a winter wind with too few layers on, where the cold just eats at you. Interestingly, despite the anxiety I felt before my first dry suit dive in the Pelham quarry, the morning of my first Antarctic dive, all I felt was excitement to finally try it out.
The first thing that hit me was, yes, the cold. I was shocked in two different ways. First, the freezing cold water on my face was physically shocking. I wasn’t prepared for how cold it would actually feel, which is so cold that it stings all over. I got a piercing headache- kind of like an ice cream headache- for the first few minutes of the dive, which I found extremely distracting. I wear a thick neoprene hood to help keep from losing so much heat from the head and it really works. Your head still gets wet- you have to crack the hood and flood it so that there is water inside and around your ears. If you don't, the air trapped right outside your ear will become a vacuum as you sink because the pressure increases and causes the gas to shrink, and it will expand as you come back up. This is bad and can pop your eardrum. But anyway, our faces are wet, and there is no getting around it- it is cold. However, after a few minutes, my face went numb, the headache went away, and the cold ceased to be an issue.
At that point, I was shocked by how NOT cold I felt! Since that dive, sure I have gotten chilly at times and yes my hands and toes have gone numb on occasion, but I can deal with that. That sort of site-specific cold is okay in my book - in small doses at least. I was so relieved to find that our polar diving simply is not the painfully cold, bone-chilling experience that I imagined. After my 3rd or 4th dive, I stopped getting the ice cream headache at the beginning of the dive as well. Maybe my body is getting used to that initial shock of freezing water.
Despite the effort and preparation it takes to dive here, I love it. It is worth every minute of preparation, every pound of weight, every uncomfortable hood and numb finger to be inside this freezing underwater world; to see firsthand this place that is so inhospitable to human life and to be among the creatures who are adapted to live in this habitat that we spend hours preparing to share with them for 30 minutes.