19 October 2004

Mike D. here:

Hi again,

After a wee bit more training this morning at the communications center, all of us except our new arrival (Kathy) were off into the field. Stacy, Bob, Andrew, and Jennifer went to the Cinder Cones dive site to do WORK dives, and I went to do a PLAY dive while getting checked out for diving by the local dive god, Rob Robbins. I was lucky enough to tag along with Rob and the Marshians (see Jennifer’s previous entry for a description of our arch-nemesis) to Cape Evans, which is about 15 miles from the station. My first indicator that this was a good spot to dive was when the rest of the team began to drool uncontrollably when they heard that’s where I was going. Apparently it’s one of the most spectacular places to dive in the area, with lots of life on the bottom and a big gouge from a grounded iceberg. After an hour-long ride across the sea ice in a Pisten Bully to get out to the dive site, we met a drill rig that first moved the dive hut from one side of Cape Evans to the other side.

We watched as the rig drilled two holes, one for the dive hut and another for a secondary safety hole about 100 feet away.
 

After fishing out most of the ice and snow from the 4-foot diameter dive hole, the drill rig dragged the dive hut over the hole and we began to set up shop.

While observing all of this I couldn’t help thinking about how luxurious these tools and accommodations were compared to my good old ice-fishing days in Michigan. Back then (in the 80s, man) I dragged a 2-person ice shanty on sleds around using a rope and my own two moon boot-clad feet, manually drilling holes with a dull-bladed ice auger. On the other hand, I was quite lucky that the ice wasn’t nearly as thick as it is at Cape Evans (~ 8 feet), and that killer whales don’t inhabit freshwater lakes.

After what seemed like an eternity getting suited up to dive (with the great help of our dive tenders Lindsey and Doug), it was finally my turn to go. Unfortunately at this point I realized that one of my 3 hoods was too small when I couldn’t breathe. So, I ditched the “gorilla mask” hood that keeps one’s face from directly contacting the water, and went in sporting only my beard for protection. I guess my beard is good for more than catching stray food crumbs!

 

After staring into the cold, dark hole for a minute, I put all anxious thoughts aside and made the plunge.

After descending through the hole and popping out under the ice, I soon forgot that my face was rapidly numbing – I could clearly see the divers on the bottom and a diverse landscape of sponges over 90 feet below! I’ve never experienced diving in water so clear before: easily hundreds of feet. Most of my recent diving has been in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where the visibility averaged about 10 feet, so this was quite an improvement. I was slightly under-weighted, so it took a few minutes to reach the bottom, but when Rob and I finally arrived there, I felt like I had dropped into the deep sea. It was quite dark so we needed dive lights to see, and once we turned them on the seafloor came alive with vast fields of sponges, sea stars, 2-foot long Nemertean worms, red algae encrusting the rocks, nudibranchs (shell-less snails), and sea urchins (sorry, no pictures). There were many more fish than I expected, and they were surprisingly active given the water temperature (28 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale). One of the coolest critters was a Pycnogonid – a spider-like creature that ambled along the bottom on its 8 legs. Many of these were feeding on small jellyfish that had drifted in. Despite the plethora of biological sights to see on the bottom, I kept a close eye on the “down-line”, a rope from the dive hut to the bottom adorned with flashing lights. It took a little bit of mental preparation to deal with the overhead environment of the ice sheet – knowing that I couldn’t surface anywhere I wanted to (like I’m used to doing). I soon got used to it though, and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the dive. Twenty-five minutes from when I descended, Rob and I reached the surface again into the welcoming environment of the dive hut. A couple of cups of hot cocoa later, I could feel my face again. I was a bit surprised, however, that I didn’t get colder on the dive – maybe a result of the initial excitement of diving in Antarctica?

The entire experience was completely surreal. It was one of the most beautiful, bizarre dives I’ve ever done, and now (Wednesday morning) I’m off to do another!

Oh yeah – the other guys. They had successful dives at the Cinder Cones: no fins or masks were inadvertently kicked into the dive hole, and no regulators free-flowed. The one downer was that the housing for the digital still camera leaked like a sieve (luckily, without the camera inside of it), so we’re relying on video and a Nikonos underwater film camera from here on out.

The day was capped by a gorgeous sunset that lasted for hours – a fitting end to a fantastic day!

Lets see the next day!