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Diving 2
Diving 1

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Animal encounters - fur seal

14/ Sometimes the weather is nice enough to bask in the sun for a while too.

On nicer days you could dive somewhat further afield, the limiting factor was how long it took to get back to base after the dive while you were wet. The water was around -2C (around 28F) and ok in your wet suit, but once out of the water, you had temperatures that could be far below this and windchill to deal with too.





15/ Usually it's a case of get there, dive and straight back to base again.

All the diving at Signy base at the time I was there was done using unlined close-fitting wetsuits, long john and then a top with integral hood, boots were similar and hands were enclosed in mittens. With your mask tucked into the top part of your hood, the only exposed flesh was cheeks and lips - and I recall seeing some very blue lips while underwater on dives!

There was a collection of wetsuits on base, most of which had been made to fit the professional divers and then left behind to be used by others when their tour was done. These guys in the picture are both professional divers and they have the luxury of 10mm wetsuits that were made to fit them. I amongst others was a marine biologist, but not a professionally trained diver (I had never dived before I went to Antarctica) and so had to make do with a 6.5mm wetsuit and 4mm vest underneath it. getting in and out of these wetsuits was a 2-man job, but the close fit meant that there was minimal flushing of water and maximum insulation value.

The problem with such thick wetsuits though was that they were very buoyant requiring extra weights to stay down and more attention to buoyancy if your dive-profile varied up and down much during the dive.

On the other hand, the cold water was it's own safety device in that you couldn't really stay down for much beyond 30 mins at depths below 10m as you got cold. The neoprene compressed of course the deeper you went and so you got colder quicker! It was the cold that usually brought you back out of the water. The most I remember was a fishing dive using small hand nets at around 3-7m, when I stayed down for about 50mins and felt like a block of ice when I came out!


16/ Getting out is as difficult and ungainly as you can imagine

Struggling out of the water at the end of a dive. This diving was in the days before all-in-one BCD's that are put on like jackets, instead a separate ABLJ (Adjustable buoyancy Life Jackets) were worn with separate back-packs to hold the bottle, ABLJ,s had a small air bottle separate from the main air supply and could be breathed from in an emergency

You may also notice that the demand valve is twin hose and not single hose (octopus rigs were still extreme exotica, not to become the norm for a good many years). Twin hose rigs had the advantage of being far less prone to icing up in extreme cold conditions and so were used pretty much exclusively in the winter and certainly on under-ice dives. Single hose valves had a tendency to ice-up and free-flow when it got very cold, they could be used without problem in the summer months when sea temperatures rose to maybe +1 or +2C, from the -2C of winter, but the small difference was enough. These days, the technology has progressed and low temperature single hoses are far more reliable.




17/ Check there's no seal to land on and in you go.

Before getting into the water a check needs to be done in case there's a seal around that might just be on its way up for air. One guy I knew had a seal pop its head up at his feet when he was just about to slip into the water! That never happened to me unfortunately, but I did see seals appear when I was being a line man and the divers were down and in particular when we'd just broken the ice on a hole to set a fishing net - they were more common then as we set nets a lot deeper than the shallower areas where we'd dive.

Seals were reputed to be more approachable with the twin hole demand valves we had as the bubbles come out from the unit which is attached to the tank behind you head and not from your mouth. They are a bit harder work than single hose units (have to suck more) but it was nice not to have bubbles going past your face all the time.


18/ A convenient natural gap in the ice is a real bonus

While diving under ice is great as there's no swell, no waves and fantastic viz, this disadvantage is that the entry/exit hole is small and it can be pretty dimly lit down there, especially if there is a layer of snow on top of the ice.

Natural breaks in the ice like this one therefore are particularly good as the ice is still there, but it helps deal with disadvantages.

You can gauge the size of the hole as the photographer is on the opposite side of it to the diver and using a standard lens on the camera. Note, I'm not using a buoyancy aid here, if you get it wrong or have an emergency, you could end up stuck against the ice and unable to take it off!


19/ Sometimes you could walk to the dive site

This has to be pretty much ideal diving conditions in Antarctica. You can walk to the dive site from the dive store where you kit up, the ice edge is over an area a little way out from the shore, so no swimming to get where you want to be. There's newly formed slushy ice at the edge of the older ice, so any sediment in the water has fallen out to give truly amazing viz, but the new soft ice is easy to break through, keeps it calm and also lets plenty of sunlight through.




20/ Ice and weather sometimes conspired to make diving even more fantastic than normal

Here's a happy group of divers returning from a fantastic dive, wonderful viz, bright sunshine, totally calm water conditions and an underwater world that is as colourful as the one of the surface is monochrome.

This picture also reminds me of the emergence of some kind of group of (happy) creatures from the Black-Lagoon.




21/ Scenery is pretty good too when you come out

Unfortunately someone's air started to run out too soon and he ended up waiting on the surface for his mates. The ice to the left is quite slushy and easily broken, you can see air bubbles trapped under it as paler circles following the path of the divers out and back again. This was a great day cold and bright, but relatively warm in the sun.





22/ At other times though, it was just incredibly cold and hard work!

Not every dive was in good conditions! This is me (right) and my mate Paul (left) having come back after a dive about 200m away. The ice in the sea meant we couldn't take a boat or swim at the surface, the snow on land was too deep to walk through, we found that we were too light on weights (all that neoprene makes you very buoyant) to get down and under the ice in 2-3 metres, so we decided to wade through the ice along the inshore shallows to where it was deeper and then force our way through to about 5m and dive down.

Well it was incredibly hard work to get out there, then finally we were ready to dive down and I in particular kept bobbing back up like a cork. To stay down I had to get deep enough for my suit to be compressed and so not be so buoyant as to take me back up to the surface again. I was concentrating on this so much and finning like buggery to get myself to sink that I neglected to clear my ears soon enough - no time to pause, I'd just pop back up again.

The good news is that we did get down and have a decent dive. The bad news was that we had to wade through all this very heavy slushy and lumpy ice again and that ear-clearing episode that I forgot about meant I perforated my right ear drum.

We were so knackered and probably bad tempered when we finally got back to the base, that someone felt they had to record it for posterity, so here it is!

The ear-perforation was painful - like ear ache (unsurprisingly) when the doctor checked it, he said it was about as tiny a perforation as it was possible to ever have. It cleared up after a week or so and has never caused any problems, it taught me a lesson though, and I suggest you don't try this at home!


23/ OK, time for just one more dive if we can find some water that is

And so the diving goes on. The first reaction of people when I tell them I dived in Antarctica is one of horror, so cold and then you voluntarily get in the water! Well, I've heard more than one person say that they've been colder while diving in the UK than they ever were in Antarctica, like everything else there, as long as you are properly equipped and take all precautions, there's no reason that it shouldn't be perfectly safe and enjoyable.

We were lucky on the base I was on to be able to dive recreationally, and in particular I was lucky as a marine biologist in that I got to do it more than most people.

I'm afraid I don't have pictures of them, but my best Antarctic dives ever weren't under ice or even in fantastic viz, they were in about 3-10m of water while surrounded by southern fur seals.

The fur seals would swim through the sea hear your bubbles at a distance and swim over to find out what was going on. Before long, you would be diving with a small group (2-6) of very playful seals that would start by "hanging" from the surface, tips of their hind fins just out of the water while they looked you in the eye, sometimes from very close quarters. They would then dive down and swim around you, sometimes "mouthing" your fins with their teeth (nothing else to feel them with) and generally as curious about the divers as the divers were about them. I remember a seal swimming a circle around me and swimming faster than I could spin on the spot with all my gear on to keep up with him

Diving on an ice berg is a nice "done that" thing to tell people, but for a truly memorable and remarkable experience, I'd dive with fur seals any day.

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