Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Antarctica Underwater

Brian Skerry, Antarctica Expedition

Over the last week or so I have made several dives in locations throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. Water temperatures have ranged from 28.5-degrees Fahrenheit to 33-degrees. Visibility in most locations I've dived has not been great, generally averaging between five and ten feet. I did make a couple of dives however, that were wonderful, the first being a wall dive at a location called Cape Well-met on the north side of Vega Island and also very close to a place called Devil's Island (always comforting when making a dive where the water is deep, you're on a sheer wall and you are praying your drysuit zipper doesn't fail!).

Gentoo penguin with chick. Photo credit: Brian Skerry

Cape Well-met was named by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904 and it was here that the relief party under Dr. J. Gunnar Anderson and the winter party under Dr. Otto Nordenskjold rendezvoused after 20 months of forced separation (reference Below Freezing by Lisa Eareckson Trotter). I was diving with Lisa and Lindblad undersea specialist David Cochtran and our plan was to slip off the Zodiac near a cliff face and descend to the bottom in about 15 feet of water. The bottom here was covered with hand-sized volcanic rocks and no marine life could be seen, as icebergs scour this shallow region removing all life. We swam about 100-meters offshore and came to a dramatic drop off -- a wall that was sheer and disappeared into the inky blackness below. I hit the inflator button on my drysuit pumping in more air and swam head first over the wall.

Wall at Cape Well-met, photo credit: Brian Skerry

I descended to 30 feet, then 40, then 50, but saw only bare wall. At 70 feet however, the wall came alive! Leveling off at about 80 feet I looked left, then right and saw color and life in all directions. It was an explosion of invertebrate marine life in a rainbow of colors from yellow and pink to reds and orange. There were brittle stars clustered amongst tunicates and sponges and every few feet giant anemones reached into the frigid sea feeding in the nutrient-rich waters. I adjusted the settings on my camera and began shooting. At one point it became especially dark and I looked up to see the shadowy shape of a giant iceberg drifting overhead, blocking out the sunlight for a few moments.

I fired a few frames aiming up towards the surface to capture some of the ambient light above and lighting the foreground with my strobes. At a depth of 106 feet, I framed a lovely scene of one of these anemones in the middle of all the surrounding life. I cruised along the wall, moving with the current until it was time to ascend. I was using a 10-liter tank and was limited as to bottom time. I slowly drifted upward stopping every so often to look at these strange animals living in this hidden corner of a frozen continent and wondering if another camera's flash had ever illuminated them before.

At about 30 minutes into the dive I crested the top of the wall and was back amongst the rocky scour zone in a depth of 20 feet. I was slowly kicking into the current now, just trying to hold position, studying the anchor ice that was frozen to the bottom when I looked up to see a massive iceberg coming straight for me. I looked to my left and saw Lisa about 15 feet away and yelled through my regulator to get her attention. She heard me and we both scrambled to get out of the way. With only about 700 psi of air left in my tank, I hoped the berg wasn't too large and that I had enough air to safely make it out of harm's way. I did and the iceberg sailed by, just clearing the bottom by about a foot.

Another memorable dive was made at Deception Island along another bluff face though here the bottom was not a sheer wall, but more like a staircase that gradually stepped downward. Though not as prolific as the wall at Cape Well-met, it was still very impressive with a bounty of life clinging to undersea rocks. Also here I came across whalebones scattered on the bottom, remnants of the whaling days in the early part of the 20th century.

Whale bones, photo credit: Brian Skerry

Diving in cold water takes a lot more work than tropical diving; layers of undergarments, drysuits with thick gloves attaching limiting dexterity and lots more weight needed to descend. And the cold is harsh on equipment, not to mention your body, with lips swelling up like you've had an over dose of botox injections and fingers and toes getting numb and hurting from the cold. But there is a stunning beauty in these waters that is unique. I especially love the remoteness of Antarctica and exploring places that few have ever seen and having penguins diving around the boat as you're suiting up is rather special. Cruising back to the ship aboard the Zodiac, with that frigid wind in my face after a dive always gives me a peaceful, albeit cold, feeling.

With the gentle rocking of the ship steaming to our next location, I will sleep well tonight.

- Brian

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