Antarctica is frequently in the news, with many pleas from environmentalists calling for the World's governments to protect its pristine landscape. But what about protecting the seas under the ice? I hope this little essay helps you to appreciate the mystery and beauty of these often-neglected waters.

For several years now, I have had the opportunity to work as a research diver on Sam Bowser's project studying giant, single-celled organisms called foraminifera. Our collecting site at New Harbor, an embayment along western McMurdo Sound, is perhaps the only place on Earth where the species we are most concerned with emerge from abyssal depths to inhabit shallow waters. My job was to collect specimens, assist with experiments, and help run the field camp.

The weather at New Harbor is often sunny and averages a balmy 12 degrees F, with a slight breeze (although the temperature sometimes drops to minus 30 and winds can exceed 100 mph!). From our living quarters on shore, we walk or snowmobile across 300 yards of sea ice to the study site. We constructed Jamesway tents, leftovers from the Korean war, directly above the dive holes to protect divers and their gear from the cold as well as the sand kicked up by the occasionally severe winds. Inside, the tents are heated to 75 degrees F to ensure comfort while the divers suit up. Few things are worse than being cold before diving into ice water!

Specimen collection is basically a one-person task, but we always dive in teams of two: one diver collects sediment, while the "buddy" diver keeps alert for problems. The dives progress like this: An opening fashioned in the wooden floor of the tent serves as a platform for kitting up and donning twin air tanks. We wear dry suits and thick undergarments to protect us from the 28-degree-F water; only our lips and cheeks are in direct contact with the frigid water. Divers access the sea through a 12 to15-foot long tunnel fashioned through the ice. After a final check of our dive plan we descend, one at a time, through the ice tunnel. Surprisingly, the shock of being immersed in this freezing water seems less than what I've experienced diving off Southern California in a wet suit! Emerging from the confines of the tunnel, the underwater world bursts open with up to 800' visibility (no, this is not an error) through the clean, clear, blue water. At about noon on a sunny day, the beauty and clarity of the sea was enhanced by sunbeams glaring from nearby escape holes. I wait as my buddy also descends through the tunnel and becomes oriented. We double-check each other's gear. Once the "OK" sign is exchanged, we "float" down together - free falling to the bottom, sometimes following a ctenophore (a small gelatinous organism girdled by eight rows of iridescent cilia) most of the way down. On the bottom, we once again check our equipment and give the okay sign. As my buddy starts collecting samples, I look around and immediately notice that the sea floor is carpeted with life. Scallops abound. Also seen are many starfish up to 2' across, spindly brittle stars, spiny sea urchins, and elegant pink soft corals. Most conspicuous are the barrel sponges rimmed with crinoids or "feather stars." Some of the barrel sponges are 3 feet tall, and remind me of oriental paper lanterns. A variety of other organisms that can be described as strange, weird, gross and even freaky round out the scene. Spider-like pycnogonids, some the size of my hand, and coiled-up nemertian worms, which can exude buckets of slime and stretch 6 feet in length, give me the creeps.

During such a dive I am sometimes serenaded by the sound of a Weddell seal, seemingly enjoying the water as much as I am. I photograph the area we are studying to help monitor the impact of our activities on the local fauna. It takes enormous concentration to remember that my primary mission is to ensure that everything is going well for my dive buddy. Once the sediment containing the foraminifera is collected, I stake the sampled area and we are ready to ascend. Along the way, we are again greeted by the seal silhouetted against the ice, which glows blue and green from the sun. We watch the seal dance nearby as we slowly approach the exit hole. We hold position at the ice undersurface for that ever important safety stop, which helps prevent decompression sickness ("the bends"). As nitrogen bleeds from my body, I gaze into the seductive depths of Explorers Cove. I then switch attention to the "micro" world immediately in front of my dive mask, and watch ice crystals form in the water column while checking my dive computer. I make a mental note that the diving here is truly the best in the world.

After 5 minutes or so the safety stop is over, and up the ice tunnel we go. Looking toward the surface, I am greeted by the blurred image of the tender waiting to assist with removing our bulky dive gear. I break the waterline and grapple with the tank straps. At this point you become acutely aware that your hands are numb and that your bladder feels like it will burst. Teeth chattering through blue lips, the tender helps remove my tanks and the dive is only a pleasant memory. After a frantic trip to the "U barrel" (all our wastes are removed from the camp), we finish taking apart our gear, rinse it with melted sea ice, and hang it to dry in preparation for the next day's dive.

Walking back to camp, I stop to look around and am enchanted by the sound of the ice shifting and cracking, reminding me that the "ground" below is as ever-changing as the tide itself. Back at camp I log the dive, sip a hot cocoa, and return to the tasks of the "real" world - helping chip sea ice for wash water, fuel the heaters and generators, prepare the evening meal, or whatever else needs to be done.

This experience changed my life by making me acutely aware of the under-ice environment. I am comforted to know that the researchers working there are also concerned about this untarnished environment, and share a deep commitment to preserving it for future generations.