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Antarctica Diving… The Cold Truth

written by Robert Johnston – Perth Scuba

Your face burns from the cold Antarctic breeze… As you exhale… a cold mist obscures the vision of your buddy sitting opposite you as you slowly make your way to the dive site avoiding the small chunks of ice floating in your path. It’s zero degrees!Antarctica penquin

The light reflection from the surrounding pinnacles of Ice is almost blinding but you still manage to take in what has to be the most amazing and picturesque views you have ever had… This is Antarctica and you are about to dive it! Suddenly from the tranquility of this truly fantastic scene, a massive thunderous crack and then movement as one of the thousands of glaciers and icebergs across the way disintegrates before your very eyes. Sheering off and leaving a perfect fresh new side with a fantastic blue tinge in what is otherwise the most, sheer white you could imagine…

Most people only ever dream about having the opportunity to visit our most Southern Continent. Only a few get to live that dream. Even less get to dive there, only a thousand before us on the whole continent. The trips can so far be summed up in a few words, stunning, awesome, exceptional and unique. And we haven’t even hit the water yet. Back in 2009 a crew of divers from Perth Scuba joined the Ice strengthened research vessel, “MV Grigority Mikheev” on a trip of a lifetime. Departing  from Ushuaia at the Southern tip of South America across one of the world’s most renowned and roughest sea passages “The Drake Passage” all the way across to Antarctica.

The trip over the passage from the beautiful picturesque sea side village of Ushuaia for us was very calm and almost what you would get any other day diving at Rottnest Island – (where most of us spend our free time diving). The vision of those first White ice caps and of the continent is breathtaking and it just keeps on getting better from there. As you get closer, you become part of the scenery. The glaciers and massive icebergs that you move past look like paintings, the deepest of blues run into the cleanest of light blues and the white ice just emphasizes any colour in or on the water. The penguins and Seals gather in massive colonies and the eerie silence is like nothing you would expect. (This except for the noisy Seals calling out as we pass them. It’s almost as if they are all welcoming us to their pristine home.)

This is a photographer’s dream and even someone like me who is an amateur photographer to say the least, can get the most envious photographs. You just can’t help but get great photographs. (Just make sure if you go to Antarctica – you take plenty of memory cards!) High up on the decks of the vessel you have a great vantage point for some scenic shots that will later have to be seen to be believed. Even the height of the MV Gigority is dwarfed by some of the icebergs and glaciers we pass by.Antarctica iceberg

The cold mist clears and finally your buddy is visible again. Decked out in a dry suit, dry gloves, 7mm thick hood and lots of thermal gear, my buddy looks like she’s about to burst with all of the padding and about an extra 15 Kilograms of weight to compensate for the extra layers. Her nose is red and her cheeks wet as she dusts off the light snow as it falls on her face. Putting our masks on and regulators in, we brace ourselves for our first dive in Antarctica. On 3 we all roll back into the water SAS style – 8 of us all at the same time. It must have looked great from above as within seconds the only one left on the Zodiac was the driver.

The cold water hits your face and surprisingly it’s not as cold as you had imagined. The stories we had all been told prior to departure (usually by people who had never been), were exaggerated to say the least. But they had probably done us a favour because we were prepared for the worst.

As the bubbles clear I start to do a quick body check, I can feel my toes – good start. Amazingly I don’t feel that cold at all! The dry suit and all of the extra layers are working! My buddy has obviously done the same thing as there is a smile on her face as we gather our composure after the reality of it all hits home. We made it… here we are – probably the most isolated people in the world right now and doing what we love the best… Diving! Our dream is realized.

We descend and to my instant surprise I can see the bottom which is sand. I know that sounds weird, what did I expect??? To be honest I hadn’t even thought about it but what else would there be? Then the critters… WOW! Everything here is big! There are Starfish that span at least 45cm and fish species that I had never seen before. Not as many fish as I am used to – but I guess in Antarctica there are plenty of reasons for fish to go on vacation to warmer waters and making sure they don’t end up as penguin poo.

This dive was a “checkout dive” by the Dive masters to make sure all of our equipment was ok and we were competent divers. Although the prerequisite that we had 300 dives prior to the trip made that part easy for them. The issue with regulators in this type of diving environment is freezing. The metal of the regulator can cool down to the point that water moving through the regulator first stage can freeze – ultimately stopping the air from being able to pass into the 2nd stage to supply you with air. This is the reason all of us had to bring environmentally sealed regulators. A design made for ice diving and quite common in most regulators available in Australia. With all of this in mind, we were given a Y valve on our cylinder which allows us to put 2 regulators on the cylinder just in case one freezes up.

As this was a checkout dive – they put us on a site where we wouldn’t see a lot – they didn’t want us to go too far astray on our first dive in subzero waters and I can understand why. Any longer than 30 minutes in here and you are very likely to get hypothermia – even with the dry suits! We did work out that as long as you kept moving you would be fine although your hands did start to feel cold after a little while.Antarctica Leopard Seal

After crawling back onto the zodiac the reality of cold hits… Your top lip feels like you just had a trip to the dentist and there is no feeling in your face at all. Talking is almost impossible. Finally – my buddy will stop talking – at least until her face thaws out J

With hoots and hollers as we get back to the vessel waiting for us – the non divers with cameras snap away madly at us as we pull up alongside. We quickly remove our dive gear and move into a warmer area to remove our dry suits, hoods and gloves. It’s time to get dry and prepare ourselves for another dive later in the day. At this climate it is not advisable to do any more than 2 dives per day due to the water temperature. Our bodies are not designed for these colder waters, so extreme caution is required so we don’t put our bodies into shock.

The in between dives part is as much fun as the rest of the adventure with visits to the mainland where we visited Penguin and Seal colonies, cruised around the icebergs, glaciers and viewed the stunning scenery with 2 or 3 thousand metre peaks rising straight from the sea. Unfortunately this is a scene you have to see for yourself to believe.

Underwater was without doubt the ultimate experience, we were regularly visited by the most feared creatures of the Antarctic, the Leopard Seals. In certain areas these massive seals were in large numbers and to our surprise – very playful and inquisitive. I guess a diver experience is a once in a lifetime one for them too. These animals have no fear of humans at all – they have no reason to fear us. With this – they are buzzing around you and all over you the whole time you are diving. Their agility is truly amazing. On most dives – it was the Leopard Seals that wouldn’t let us go back to the Zodiac. They just wanted to keep on playing. I would have stayed if I could – they were brilliant. On one dive a solitary Leopard seal came to visit us and sat right in front of me. Tilting his head from side to side like a puppy dog he seemed amused by my bubbles. He sat for a minute or two looking straight at me and then as fast as he appeared – he took off and swam into the distance. Visibility was about 15 to 20 metres on this site. We continued the dive and suddenly out of nowhere, my friend returned. This time he returned with something in his mouth. It was a dead penguin. He sat in front of me again and dropped the penguin at my knees. I wasn’t sure at first what was going on – but then I realized that he had brought me a gift -the gift of food. For him – this would be a regular meal and the ultimate gift. – For me – well… I wasn’t sure what exactly to do because I certainly didn’t want to offend this massive seal otherwise I might be the next gift he takes to another newly found friend. I slowly picked up the quite large penguin and as I lifted it to have a closer look – the Leopard seal took off again. I was saved from having to make a decision under the watchful eye of my new friend. I placed the penguin back on the sand and continued the dive. Once again a few minutes later my friend appeared and again – another penguin – although this time – It was still alive. Not happy – but alive. He dropped it at my knees again and this time the penguin made a break for it and took off with zero agility due to its capture ordeal. I distracted the Leopard Seal by spinning around in the water. This greatly amused him and made him instantly forget the Penguin as it made its unlikely escape. I kept on spinning and doing circles in the water as long as I could but at this temperature, your body slows down a little and you tend not to have the same mechanical movement as you would diving in warmer waters. To be honest though – I have dived in the Swan River in winter and felt colder than this. The Leopard seal eventually became bored of my antics and swam alongside me for a little while before looking me in the eye for a second and then taking off – never to be seen again. It was a truly amazing interaction with one of nature’s best. This is an experience that will stay with me as long as I live. This Leopard seal had given me his very own catch – food from his own mouth to me – a complete stranger and an alien to him. He did it without hesitation and it was his way of showing friendship. My only regret is that no-one got a photograph of this fantastic display. I was even lucky enough that one of the crew on the dive took a photo of him before he took off.

Antarctica diver under the iceDuring the trip we were given great presentations by the many different scientists, biologists and tour guides about the history and wildlife of Antarctica. The National Geographic photographers on our trip are so passionate and their endless work could not be matched by anyone on the boat. They were up before day break and always the last ones to go to bed. They managed to get every second out of their trip and they took thousands of photographs. We saw a few. They were very nice people but they were a little protective of what they had taken. I was getting great photos so I can only imagine what theirs were like!

There is nothing that can quite describe diving under, around and through the massive glaciers that surround the Antarctic region. The first time you do is quite surreal. The ice formations underwater are as awesome as they are above.  Holes which have formed make tunnels and windows in the ice making them visually stunning and exciting to swim through.  They also make great photographs – as if the ice is a frame to the photograph beyond. Even the snorkelers got fantastic shots.

There really is no better experience than diving in Antarctica. I have dived the Galapagos Islands, Sipadan, Komodo, Truk Lagoon, Fiji, Kosrae, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Bali, Wakatobi, Christmas Island, Cocos Island, Mexico and the Great Barrier Reef and still to date Antarctica is an experience that you have to see for yourself to believe. The scenery above water makes this trip complete. Nowhere on earth can you get this from diving. For the 30+ non divers on that vessel – they all had as great a time as we did. We just had an adventure that was a little more extreme.

If you are interested in taking the trip of a lifetime to Antarctica, we would love you to join us on our next adventure trip to Antarctica in February 2015. Departing on February the 26th (ex Sydney) this 14 night trip includes all flights (ex-Sydney) to Santiago and Punta Arenas return, 2 nights’ accommodation at the Cabo de Hornos Hotel in Punta Arenas, 1 night accommodation at the Le Reve Hotel in Santiago, 10 days twin share accommodation onboard the Polar Pioneer Antarctica, all meals onboard, day tours including Snorkeling for the non divers and diving – fully escorted, transfers and airport taxes.

Want to join our Antarctica Tour? Contact Lee or Joey, Perth Scuba (08) 9455 4448 or email us for full details on this spectacular and unique tour to our Southern Continent.

 “Antarctic diving is an experience that lives with you forever. Nothing compares to this”!


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