Author: Adrian Pfeiffer
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Latitude: -54.8088 / S 54° 48.528'
Longitude: -68.304703 / W 68° 18.282'
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Diving Expedition in Antarctica
Diving in Antarctica is diving of a special kind, a unique and unforgettable experience following in the tracks of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton.
Diving in the coldest, stormiest, and driest continent, which in the 17th century was marked on world maps as “terra australis nondum cognita”, is simply unforgettable. After almost 1500 dives in fresh water and tropical reefs we thought it was time to “do something else”. The real initiator for a diving trip to Antarctica was a journey on the M.V. Professor Molchanov in June 2003 to Spitsbergen where we were able to indulge in our passion just beneath 80 degrees Northern latitude.
But what we experienced in Antarctica in February 2005 under as well as above the water was worlds apart. The underwater world is unexpectedly colorful and speciose. Sea anemones (i. e. brightly orange Isotealia antarctica), snake stars, sea stars (especially the red Odontaster validus), sun stars, sea slugs (i.e. Doris kerguelensis), triton slugs, shrimps, sponges, mauve stingers, and even tiny white soft corals, next to huge regions of kelp forests (Cystosphaera jacquinotii), that offers divers under and above its leaves a true macro paradise (Amphipoden). Dives along the gigantic and seemingly endless vertically sloping icebergs are simply mindblowing. Several times we were lucky enough to encounter sea leopards under water (well, to be honest: it gave us a slightly queasy feeling…). One of the great memories was a dive in front of Alice Creek, the old whaling base, where the remainders of the industrially processed blue whales were disposed of into the sea and where you can marvel at back bones 60 feet and longer. Diving in Antarctica is like diving on another planet. The panorama (icebergs, glaciers, pack ice) and the residents (penguins, seals, whales etc.) are as unsociable as they are foreign to us.
08. – 11.02.2005: Getting There
At 7:45 am the IBERIA airplane starts in Zurich-Kloten to bring us to Madrid connecting to Buenos Aires where we land at 9 PM local time (4 hours time difference). But what did we read in the travel leaflet? “Please note that each person is only allowed to bring 20 kg (44 lbs.) of luggage.” The same was printed on our flight tickets. When we received the travel information it was clear: we can never comply with that! How can two scuba-gears with two separate first stages and two regulators, buoyancy compensators, dry suits, underwear, fins etc. plus camera pack, underwater flash, flash arm, underwater lamps, warm clothes and more possibly only weigh 40 kg (88 lbs) total? This was sheer impossible! IBERIA demonstrated stubbornness from the start: no additional luggage, not even if we paid an extra fee (after all, we did not want to harm anyone…). Finally, we decided to send the entire scuba gear via air cargo to Argentina in advance. This was a good idea but in the end we had to pay about 600 EUR covering transportation, fees, taxes, insurance, the cost for the taxi for picking up our gear at the cargo terminal as well as storage costs – and all this for just one-way, Zurich to Buenos Aires. For our flight from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and the return flight home we were just going to try our luck. Lo and behold, no one gave a hoot about the weight of almost 70 kg (154 lbs.) of luggage (not counting our hand luggage). Smile and be friendly, that was our motto (and not more than one piece of hand luggage per person).
After a few days in Buenos Aires and one night in the southernmost city of the world, Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, at the “Fin del mundo”, the time had finally come! On February 12, 2005, together with 19 divers and 20 non-divers we checked in on the Grigoriy Mikheev, a Russian research ship equipped with two 1700 HP diesel engines, built 1990 in Finland. It can break through ice and is 66 m (216 feet) long and 12,8m (42 feet) wide.
12. – 14.02.2005: At Sea
What started nicely and peacefully ended abruptly. After the required security check, the allocation of the cabins, the first meal on board and a beautiful and calm journey at sunset through the Beagle Canal, catastrophe loomed shortly after passing Cape Horn. Those who experienced a sea journey with hurricane strength winds (12) for two days while trying to get through the Drake Passage, infamous with all seafarers, know what we are writing about. Nothing, absolutely nothing stayed where it had been stored! Boxes and drawers, shelves and toiletry cabinets: they all spit out the things we had stowed away in such an orderly Swiss manner. Though the bunk beds were equipped with “save all” nets and we squeezed flat as flounders into the beds, sleeping was the last thing on our minds. The water lashed up to the third deck and the giant waves let the ship roll over on its side to 50° (guard mate Valery answered our question how much further this could go in an assuasive tone: “…more than 180° degree is not possible.”) The whole horror lasted until the early morning hours of February 15 when finally land was in sight. The passengers had all but disappeared from the face of the ship during the rough journey. Despite all this, the two always good-humored Russian hostesses served meals to the few passengers that were able to keep food in their stomachs as if nothing happened.
15.02.2005: Telefon Bay, Whaler’s Watch (62° 59’ South; 60° 33.3’ West)
The First Dive Finally! More than a week has passed since we set sail and to top it off we had to endure the adverse weather conditions. Divemaster Mike Murphy from Canada does not miss out on anything. The former professional diver who used to weld pipelines 100 m (328 feet) deep underwater around several islands in the North Sea and who is now a cold water dive guide observes the divers mounting their automats and jackets to their 12 liter bottles. He soon realizes that he will have to have a wakeful eye on some of them… (more about that one later.)
We took a dive in Whaler’s Bay near an abandoned whaler station in the middle of a desolate volcanic landscape. Under water we found a gently sloping rock pile with a lot of crabs and snake stars searching for food on the ocean floor. With an air temperature of 5° C (41° F ) and water temperature of 0° C (32° F) the dive is over in 31 short minutes (max. depth: 26,7 m – 87 feet).
16.02.2005: Cuverville Island, Paradise Bay (64° 43.5’ South; 62° 37’ West)
Two dives were scheduled at this location. The first was planned for 9 am and led us in the middle of a snowstorm to a steep rock face covered by a dense olive-brown kelp forest. This underwater region was brimming with life. Exploring the kelp leafs is always worthwhile since they are home to numerous slugs, amphipods, and other small creatures. Visibility was good with 8 m (26 feet) on average. After diving 23,7 m (77 feet) deep for 29 minutes we had enough. It was freezingly cold and after 20 minutes our fingertips were numb despite our dry gloves. But we soon did not think about it anymore since after a short drive in the zodiac we encountered two almost “tame” leopard seals near an iceberg that obviously had fun to snorkel with us and see their reflection in the glasses of our diving masks. But divers beware: leopard seals are meat eaters and hunters. They eat up to 4 penguins a day and have very sharp and pointy teeth. With their length of 3 m (9.8 feet) and their weight of up to 250 kg (551 lbs.) they are one of the biggest seal species on the planet.
The afternoon dive at 3:30 pm led us to an even more beautiful “macro” bluff: an accumulation of clams, snails, sea stars and shrimp made us forget that we had crossed the 30 m (98 feet) limit. The 60 mm macro lens had been the right choice. But soon Mike had to flash the first red card: Yvonne from France, who had shown buoyancy problems during the first dive in the morning, was extremely nervous and demonstrated signs of anxiety and problems with her equipment.
In the evening we had an outdoor BBQ party on the rear deck of the ship. A sumptuous buffet, wine and beer, a jolly mood, dancing and singing in the middle of the eerily beautiful panorama of Antarctica was the perfect ending of this exciting day.
17.02.2005: Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island, Port Charcot (65° 05.6’ South; 64° 02.3’ West)
Today two iceberg dives were scheduled. Mike and François, a marine biologist and Antarctica insider from France, led us in the zodiac to find a stable iceberg. This was easier said than done. The iceberg has to be grounded so it is stable during the dives. North of Pleneau Island we found a suitable subject. The zodiac was able to anchor in frozen ice and snow and we glided gently into the water. The water temperature of -2° C (28.4° F) made us shiver. On the surface, in particular, when there is less air in the dry suit, we can feel the cold creeping through our bones. A few shots taken half above and half under water with the 16 mm fish eye lens and then let’s get under water quickly. Then finally we saw what only few had seen before: a vertically dropping and partially overhanging ice wall with a honeycomb pattern glided by into the eternal darkness. What a feeling to dive weightlessly into the icy cold blue. But there it was, the second red card: This time it is the last dive for Bill from the U.S. with his brand spanking new dry suit and digital camera in a new underwater case. The same is true for him as for Yvonne before: serious buoyancy issues, too serious to even think about what this could lead to in these conditions.
But for the rest of us the morning could not have been better. And then again it was getting even better: The sun came out and we were able to dive again at another iceberg. We could hardly believe our eyes: leopard seals were our under water companions observing us nosily from nearby. The second iceberg revealed its full might and breathless beauty only underwater, just like the first. What an experience!
Back on the zodiac we searched for a blue iceberg. Blue icebergs are rare. Most icebergs are white since tiny air bubbles in snow and ice reflect the white light. Old glacier ice however, pressed down for centuries by the weight of ice and snow, only reflects the blue part of the color spectrum. And then we found it, our first blue iceberg! It would take up page after page to relate our impressions and fascination with our encounter and it would only be halfway close to reality.
On the way back to the Grigoriy Mikheev we passed several crab eating seals and leopard seals taking a nap on one of the floes. We were just as tired… but before we could go to sleep we repaired the ripped latex neck collar of Amos’ dry suit, a tedious and long task. Murphy’s Law, this only happens when you really do not want it to happen. And before you know it, your vacation is down the drain. But we were prepared and were able to save the collar with super glue and an inner tube. Amos was able to participate in all dives without water seeping through his suit. (You can see his fascinating pictures at www.biganimals.com).
18.02.2005: Petermann Island, Vernadsky Station (65° 10.6’ South, 64° 7.7.’ West)
The first dive of the day started at 10:25 am at a location even unknown to our diving pros Mike and François. An exploring dive so to speak across the canal and east of Petermann Island. It had stopped snowing and we rolled back out of the zodiac as usual very exited for the things to come. For our taste, the terrain was too flat and stony with sandy areas in between. We experienced heavy surge with a limited visibility underwater. The water temperature was -1°C (30° F) which we were almost accustomed to by now. Going ashore in a dry suit (yes, perfectly suitable for Antarctica!) was much more interesting. Colonies of Adélie penguins with their youngsters posed unbashfully for our cameras just a few steps away from us.
The dive in the afternoon was much better. We dove across from the Ukrainian weather station Vernadsky inside a bay surrounded by ice, but underwater the steep face revealed its beauty and treasures: big slugs like Doris kerguelensis, sponges, sea cucumbers, kelp and sea anemones in different shades of red and orange, thousands of sea stars, and to top it off, five nosy leopard seals fascinated by our activities. It started to snow again and it was windy and we experienced a slight drift. The drift was quite dangerous as the ice floes could drift together and close up above our heads. Mike and François however, watched the conditions very carefully and got us out of the -1°C (30° F) cold water on time.
Afterwards we visited the Vernadsky Station founded originally by the British. There is no trace of the British Past – instead of Broken Orange tea these days vodka is flowing freely. Together with the friendly Ukrainians we sang, drank merrily in the Southern most bar on earth while outside wind and snow were heavy (a drunken Ukrainian even fell into the ice cold water and was just barely saved from drowning…).
19.02.2005; Bertholet Island, Argentine Islands (65° 14.5’ South, 64° 17.3’ West)
At night the Mikheev made its way toward the Southern Arctic Circle hoping to be able to cross it. The ship fought slowly and bravely through the thick ice floes. The cracking noise was directed along the body of the ship and could be heard everywhere. In the middle of the night there was no way of going on. The Mikheev had to turn around at 65° 40’ South (another 2700 km (1,677 miles) to the South Pole!). We barely missed the South Arctic Circle, however, Mother Nature was stronger than us! During our return through the Grandidier Canal we passed humongous icebergs. At 3 pm we took another dive in the same area as the day before near Vernadsky Station. Once again the bluff densely covered with kelp with its rich maritime life and the great visibility – with the leopard seals nearby observing us closely, enchanted us. After 27 minutes diving to depths of 23.4 m (76.7 feet) we had enough and took a long tour with the zodiac along the icebergs with the sun shining from the sky.
20.02.2005; Yalour Islands, Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy (65°05.9’ South; 63° 58.8’ West)
While the passengers going ashore had an unpleasant encounter with a leopard seal, which attacked and broke one of the air chambers of the zodiac the divers had the last opportunity to dive among icebergs. After a quick search we found a suitable iceberg, which was grounded down to 18 m (59 feet) and thus offered perfect conditions for our dive. Carefully we glided into the water along the slippery ice wall until we reached the bottom. The ocean floor brimmed with red sea stars typical for Antarctica (Odontaster validus). Unfortunately, the light was mediocre and we were unable to take pictures in mixed light. But the dive was full of adventure: we dared to dive under the iceberg to the place where it bounced against the floor rumbling in the rhythm of the waves.
After our lunch we had the option to do a critter dive (macro photography) or to try our luck at the abandoned whaling base Alice Creek. Mike reminded us that the floor at Alice Creek is made of fine sandy sediment and that each thoughtless flap of the fins would impede our visibility. Nevertheless we decided to go diving at Alice Creek. It was windy and snow fell as we started the trip at 4 pm. The snow deposits on top of the -1° C (30° F) salt water made it feel like swimming in “Frappe-like waters”. After some time, we saw something light in the green and algae-like water at about 8 m (26.2 feet) deep, something that resembled an oil barrel. Suddenly we realized what it was: the body of a completely preserved spine of a blue whale, which was at least 25 m (82 feet) long! We were completely in awe of this eerie sight. If we had not been already halfway frozen we would have shuddered. We remembered Mike’s reminder and glided carefully around the large skeleton so not to destroy our own pictures.
21.02.2005: Orne Island, Melchior Island (64°28.4’ South, 62°53.5’ West)
After a long morning walk in fantastic weather on Orne Island where donkey penguins raise their youngsters at the end of the breeding time and greeted us with the usual twitter we took a dive at the Melchior Islands in the afternoon. These islands became popular due to a film of the BBC titled “Life in the Freezer”. The expectations we had because of the film epic were a bit too high, since there was nothing to see except some brown algae and kelp plants. The terrain was extremely steep, almost like a canyon. At 35 m (114 feet) we reached the floor of the canal. The stony floor was covered with clams, sea stars, see cucumbers and anemones. After 30 minutes our fingertips were, despite our dry gloves, yet again (almost) numb and we had to come back up.
22. – 24.02.2005: At Sea
After rinsing our diving gear with lots of fresh water and hanging it up to dry in a safe place – or so we thought –we were disabused of this conviction quickly. The Mikheev left the sheltered Antarctic Peninsula and turned north and into the open sea towards South America. Two humpback whales surrounded the ship and “posed” for close-up pictures. But before long, we had wind strength of 8. “Not again,” we said to each other and started to bring our diving gear and clothes to safety. Our prayers were heard and the wind strength remained at 8. Those two last days at sea in choppy waters passed in no time and were interrupted by interesting presentations, slide shows and the first films from our journey. On February 24, 2005 we arrived in Ushuaia on time. A 2560 km (1,590 miles) long trip was behind us and we were still alive!
After another night in Buenos Aires we flew back home on February 25 taking the flight at 2:10 pm to Zurich-Kloten via Madrid where we landed safely at 11:30 am on February 26.
Those who would like to enjoy their favorite passion diving in the eternal ice have to be in top physical and financial condition. The two dives per day in the up to –2° C (28° F) cold waters – sometimes accompanied by storms and snowfall– can wear you out quickly as well as the costs of at least 7,000 EUR per person including the flight. On top of that you will have to endure the 48-hour return trip from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, to the continent through the stormy Drake Passage, which for most of the passengers was a hellish experience. Nevertheless, such a top-class experience can definitely be recommended for hardcore divers and those who would like to become one. The Grigoriy Mikheev (Murmansk) tried successfully to serve all our needs. Security is very important. Diving pro Mike Murphy (Canada) and marine biologist François de Riberolles (France) – both ice water expert divers – know the dangers and perils of the pack ice, the floating icebergs, and the drifts like the back of their hand. A word about equipment, technology, electronics, meals, etc.: You will find a very high standard on the Mikheev.
The 45 passengers (including 21 divers from all around the globe, their numbers continuously waning…) wanted for nothing. Even a medical doctor was on board, as required by regulations. Those who did not want to go diving (or were not allowed to dive anymore) could take trips ashore with expert guides. Each well-equipped zodiac carried 5 to 6 divers to the sites. The zodiacs were loaded with the diving equipment on deck and then carefully lowered into and out of the water by crane, so no one had to carry any heavy loads back and forth!