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UAB in Antarctica

Ever get a song stuck in your head that you had not thought about or even heard for years?? That is what happened to me the other day as I was sitting on a wood planked dock at Alabama Blue Water. My black finned feet were dangling in the quarry waters as the twangy tones of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, drifted into my head.   “I’m back in the saddle again” is how the legendary vocalist sang it but the little singer between my ears substituted drysuit for saddle. That little singer must not have known all the lyrics as broken record-like just that line was sung over and over again….

I did not share news of a cranial concert with my companions. I wanted my trusted side-kick and partner Julie to prepare for our inaugural drysuit dive of the season unbridled of distractions. This was the first time since last year at Palmer Station that we had used our Antarctic dive gear and during the interim months some of the equipment had undergone an annual repair or cleaning. Better to find out in Alabama that some critical piece of gear needs further attention. Fellow team members Chuck and Kate had done a similar gear check dive in the quarry a few weeks ago. Everything was fine so Julie and I expected no problems. Who would have thought a croning cowboy would be my biggest concern.

Julie and I were not alone at the quarry on the cool but sunny day. Just as in Antarctica, our dive team consists of a pair of divers and a pair of tenders who assist or tend to the divers. Today our tenders were seasoned and trusted Chuck and novice but clearly willing and demonstrably- able Kevin. This will be Kevin’s first trip to Antarctica and his first trip to the quarry as tender in training was yet another new experience for him on his growing list of firsts.

As Julie and I went through the very familiar dive prep ritual Chuck explained each step to Kevin. With plans to become a diver himself, Kevin was already keen to learn the basic gear issues and to recognize gear problems and solve them.   Drysuit diving includes a couple extra items on the check list. It is much nicer and more comfortable for a tender-in-training to learn the ropes and nuances in a milder climate.
Probably the most important pre-dive assistance the tenders provide is gloving the divers with the thick and tough rubber gloves the divers wear over the thick, wool or fleece gloves that keep the hands warm. The rubber gloves are what will keep the divers hands dry so it is vital the glove positioned and secured properly by the tender. The procedure requires strong tender hands to stretch the tough rubber over the rigid cuff ring at the wrist of the drysuit arm. Also required is a tender tender with no sharp fingernails to tear the glove. Even a pinhole leak in a glove can mean a very cold handed, unhappy diver. 

Chuck demonstrated the gloving procedure on Julie’s right hand. Kevin then honed the procedure with Julie’s left then my right. His third gloving was the charm as he nailed (hole-free) my left hand with perfection! Julie and I eased ourselves into the water, did a final surface check to ensure all systems go, then gave the hand on head “ok” sign to topside tenders and slipped below.

Our dive plan was to mosey over to greener pastures – in this case – submerged beds of Chara a green aquatic plant that covers shallow areas of the quarry. Our quarry in the quarry was beyond, the deep hole. Meanwhile, back at the dock, Chuck explained to Kevin what the tender in Antarctica would do while the divers are down.

The edge of the hole loomed ahead of Julie and me, the steep rock facing angling sharply into darkness. We floated down the rock face the light dimming rapidly. Off to our right the long stiff suckered arms of a giant squid began to materialize through the fading light. Closer we swam to inspect, deeper and darker it was when I realized it of course was not a giant squid but a tree! What looked like arms directed at us were branches, the suckers were where smaller branches had been attached. Simultaneously, Julie and I realized there might me a tangle of smaller branches just beyond our now very limited visibility. Getting hung up on a tree would make for a very unhappy diver so we turned around and moseyed back to clearer, greener pastures and eventually the smiling faces of our tenders. Mission accomplished partner Julie!
I am not sure when the cowboy concerto ended and to date through have been no encores. I am looking forward to soon being back in the drysuit again in wilds of Antarctica. So saddle up and come on along for the ride as our UAB team continues to investigate the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification in the waters around Palmer Station, Antarctica.