08 November 2004
A long day.
As soon as I hit the water things start going wrong. My mask is fogged to the point where my fins are a blur. Relaxing and allowing myself to simply sink I emerge beneath the ice. My mask magically clears and nearly 500 foot visibility ensues. The water in the hole was probably a little less salty than the ocean and therefore slushy in its state of near-solidity. With the first problem solved, the second problem is two part. First the bottom is a long way down. Second I can see the baskets and they are a long way off. This is going to be a tough dive. Andrew and I group up and kick down and over towards the baskets. I keep an eye over my shoulder as the hole grows farther and farther away. I feel slightly more concern with every kick. As a first year diver down here the distance from the hole creates enough anxiety that my breathing pace quickens a bit. This is an unacceptable response. With a moment of concentration I calm myself with the reassurance that Andrew is the perfect partner for this dive. He is absolutely dependable and between the two of us we can deal with any problem that might occur. The hole is no longer the first solution to any problem that might occur. I calm myself further by listening to the slow reassuring hiss that my perfectly working regulator makes. The swim seems to get easier and we are getting closer to the baskets now. All of a sudden Andrew turns to me and gives the "let's surface" sign. We are a little deeper than planned and as far from the hole as I have ever been. I easily agree with the abort decision. At the rate things are going we won't have but 2 minutes to image the baskets. The risk benefits of this dive have now teetered towards the risk side. As soon as we turn and start kicking back to the hole the strength of the current is evident. A few moments later I check my air pressure and depth. Half my air for the dive is gone and I am at 97 feet; the dive has been 9 minutes long. Kicking harder and breathing deeper slowly brings the hole closer. With the beam of light emanating from the hole large and our distance comfortably closer I giggle as our next problem becomes visible. Two flippers are dangling from our only way out of the water.
I am going to take a step back for a moment. I tend to dramatize things a bit. My day actually started much more benignly, in fact it actually started yesterday.
A short nap after dinner and I am back in the lab slightly puzzled by the array of seminally unassociated parts before me. Several years ago the method of gathering time lapse data was an underwater video camera and a bright light that would run for a week. The tape would then be sped up to show the starfish and worms doing their best impression of the Keystone Cops. The resolution was real bad and the system was pretty clunky, so a plan was formulated to replace the old system. With the age of the digital camera at hand it seemed the next generation time lapse photography system would be best served by this technology. 2 years later I am faced with the result. A Nikon camera with a wide angle lens adaptor and a remote shutter release/time lapse controller. This system allows any interval to be programmed between shots. The new system also contains a power supply that converts the12 volts coming down a cable from the surface into the 8 volts for the camera and the 6 volts to power the two big bright strobe flashers that are suspended from flexible arms. It sounds simple but there are two cables going to each strobe and all the camera parts barely fit into the tubular custom built waterproof housing. The housing is in itself a masterpiece; hand hewn with a big clear dome for the wide angle lens. The pieces of the puzzle are starting to make sense.
02:45AM I have all the parts in their respective places and it's all ready to be sealed in to the capsule enclosure. With the interval now set at 3 min I point the cylinder out the window and position the antler-like strobe arms to fire at the wall so I will know when it takes a picture. All the parts seem to be working together as the strobes whine after each flash. The picture quality is however are far from acceptable.
04:30AM I am getting pretty good at finding the least used programming options deep in the endless menus of this camera. With these rare settings I now have a good picture and a file size that will allow the camera to store a picture every 10 min for 20 days. The system seems ready to be dangled down a ice hole some time tomorrow and for now I can relax and get a few hours of sleep before our daily 07:30AM pow wow.
08:00 With breakfast behind us, our first task of the day is for Andrew and I to image the exclusion cages at our newest dive hole near Hut Point. These exclusion cages interest us because they were place on the sea bed almost 30 years ago by Paul Dayton. The cages prevent sea stars from preying on the sponges that are hopefully thriving inside. This provides an opportunity to determine growth rates. Obviously it's important to image them every year or so. Andrew will be on the still camera and I with the massive video rig will attempt to visually document the changes of the organisms that have been protected by the cages. The hole at Hut Point is first of all on rough ice. This prevents the big drill rig from being able to help us. The next problem is there is a pressure ridge in the exact spot where we need a dive hole. The solution is to melt a hole as close as possible with the Hotsy. This we started several days ago and have been making trips back out to the site ever 3 hours for fuel. Yesterday Andrew surfaced only moments after entering the water to proclaim the bottom of the hole was only about one foot round. There was no way for us to get through with all our dive gear on. 24 hissing Hotsy hours later and here we are again. If you already read the intro story you know I sort of left you hanging with a pair of flippers floating just beneath the ice when we returned to the hole.
So continuing. Andrew and I found ourselves with a 600lb Weddell seal in our only hole. We halted our swimming about 6 feet away from our occupied exit. His curious tennis ball sized eyes conveyed to me that he might want to play. Being the first seal I have seen underwater I wasn't sure what an aggressive seal posture was. As the moments turned to minutes it seemed this seal didn't seem to mind us near "his hole". The current was still flowing pretty good here and we kicked steadily as the seal was near the down line and therefore out of our reach. I felt we simply didn't want to scare him away more then being concerned with him sharing the hole with us. Andrew and I had pre-planned a 6 minute safety stop and even though my computer said it was cool for me to surface now we enjoyed the stare of this incredible animal for the full 6 minute pause. As Andrew mimed the question you or me first up the hole I mimed back graciously allowing him to discover first if the seal was as friendly as he looked. Andrew approached slowly as the seal gave a powerful kick curving away and back around behind us where a large bubble of our air was trapped in the ice. After sticking his nose into it for a moment he swam some distance away just as it became my turn to go up the hole. I may be a little slower getting my tank and weight belt off then the others. I had been in the hole for some time and with my mask still on and my head bowed below the surface I could see clearly as I unbuckled my fins. A shadow in the blur of the icy water turns into the those two big friendly eyes. With both fins off and feet starting up the ladder rungs I feel a helpful nudge on the back side of my upper leg just as I pull myself onto the floor of the hut. Sitting near the hole with a big smile on my face, I am relived at having this dive behind me but richer for the multitude of experiences it has given me.
4:30PM Lunch may never have tasted better then today's. Still glowing with the mornings new experiences the task Andrew and I have been chipping away at just doesn't seem so bad. We are readying the Outfall hole for Stacy's dive here in about an hour. Or that's the plan. The hole has filled with hard packed snow about a meter deep and we chip and pick and shovel, shedding not only the ice from the hole but layers of clothing as we grunt. 45 min later the expected 10 min job is complete. Andrew shows off his backing skills by placing the hut over the hole with a perfect bulls eye. From the inside of the hut the hole in the floor is centered exactly over the 4 foot hole in the ice. This will make getting the tripod down the hole a cinch.
The Outfall hole is considered contaminated diving. This means several things. Stacy must use the completely closed hat for her dive. No part of her can come in contact with the water. This hat uses a hose to the surface for air and a wire that allows us to hear and talk to her as she is diving. Next, Stacy's normal dry-suit is made from crushed neoprene. Its texture is a little like that of a sponge. This type of suit is very hard to decontaminate. My dry suit however is made from smooth rubber and can be easily washed down. So I reluctantly allow Stacy to dive the Outfall in it. There is a large amount of human waste at this dive site and its a bit hard watching my new suit going into the water. At the same time I am the standby diver. With surface supply there is only one diver in the water. The nearly unlimited supply of air and perfect communications preclude the need to have a dive buddy in the water. There is however a requirement for a diver suited up and ready to go into the water with a SCUBA tank to help if the air line gets tangled or there are other needs. I am really hoping my services will not be needed. I am not sure what the decontamination procedures are for the standby diver but I bet they include a large syringe of intravenous antibiotics.
Occasionally there is a flash from the time lapse camera sitting in a tub on the floor. It has been taking pictures now for over an hour at 10 minute intervals and hopefully will continue to do so for the next 20 days or so. When Stacy is on the bottom and ready we will lower it down to her and she will position its tripod legs firmly in the goop. Stacy giggles and coos allot when she dives and with the comms volume cranked up a bit she makes us laugh. We can hear her huff and puff and groan also as she screws the plastic core tubes into the sediment. When it comes time to lower the camera all went smoothly and with just a couple "pull it up"s and "ok let it down now!!!-- NOW!!!!"s. After she got out of the water we scrubbed her suit down with a Betadine solution, washed our hands, went back to our rooms, took showers, then went to a well deserved dinner.
Not the seal in our dive hole on this day but a nice friendly face
Not very scary is he?
Bob, Good Night!.