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
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.