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UAB in Antarctica
Our dive season in Antarctica has officially begun!

Today Julie, Chuck, Maggie and I all did a check out dive at the dock of Palmer Station to prepare for our upcoming trip to the Lemaire Channel. We do these every year before the diving season gets into full swing anyhow to make sure our gear and weight belts are all set. So before we even had all our personal gear unpacked, we were prepping for a swim from shore in a small building near the water called the dive locker .

In order to ‘comfortably’ dive in the cold water here we wear large rubber dry suits, shoulder-strapped weight harnesses with upwards of 30 lbs. of lead and large tanks of air. Underneath all of this we wear many layers of warm clothing that help insulate us from the cold water along with the air we put into our dry suit.

Diving in a dry suit is very different from diving in a wetsuit. Instead of using a buoyancy compensator to keep you at neutral buoyancy in the water column like you would in the tropics, you use your suit. So essentially you are swimming around in a big bag of air. This keeps us warmer but also makes us slower and more awkward under water when we’re trying to do our research much less get in the water from the shore or from a boat which is how most of our dives are conducted.

Meanwhile, Kevin was schooling up on how to handle a zodiac.  He was with the resident marine tech whose duty includes making sure everyone is trained in how to drive our small inflatable boats through the cold and sometimes icy waters around Palmer Station.  Captain Kevin was a quick study!

This year there’s a new floating dock where the boats tie up (“parking lot”) that proved to be a nice diving platform with a ladder. Chuck and Julie did the first dive from the dock while Maggie and I tended – helping the divers get their fins on and any other necessary adjustments. We swapped roles for the second dive. We all agreed the ramp down to the solid platform was much nicer  to deal with than working from the large flat rocks right at the water's edge.  Palmer dive resort??
The dock is a shallow, rocky bottom site where the stations zodiacs are usually parked, but it quickly slopes down to a silty bottom habitat at 60 feet and deeper. It is a great dive site for a few organisms that we research; the shallow rocky habitats are covered in the red algae Iridaea cordata, limpets and coralline algae while the rocky slopes have species of canopy forming algae like Desmarestia spp. and Himantothallus grandifolius as well as the red algae Plocamium cartilagineum. Deeper, there are lots of invertebrates like the brittle stars that Chuck and Julie collected for a colleague of ours. You will see lots of underwater pictures of these critters soon.

Ideally with the drysuits we use, our heads should be the only thing that gets wet and exposed to cold Antarctic waters. So when we plop into the water there’s a freezing sensation, a feeling akin to an ice cream headache. But after a few moments this passes and we go about our business. Today, while we were diving, I discovered that my dry suit had a large hole in the shoulder and my arm was very wet afterwards. You can see how these check-out dives show us where our gear might fail before we go out in the small boats and away from station.

Maggie and I collected algae for an experiment she is working on with P. cartilagineum, and I collected Desmarestia to get initial measurements for our climate change experiment this year. We also tend to find nuts and bolts that have gone astray of the zodiacs as well as personal effects of station boaters like glasses and radios. I was glad the dive locker was a short walk away from the water because I got very wet inside my ‘drysuit’.   But I will patch it up and be once again a dry and happy diver!
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