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Diving in Antarctica

Susanne, Thursday 5 June 2008

Scuba diving is a major part of my life, both personally and professionally, so it’s no surprise that I wanted to learn more about the diving operations in Antarctica. As a technical and scientific diver, I understand extreme diving environments and the dangers associated with them, but I was intrigued to see the unique diving challenges of the Ross Sea. Not only are the waters of Antarctica cold (-1.8°C) and deep, they are also very dangerous. The presence of glaciers and sea ice overhead can prevent the diver from accessing the surface in an emergency, and the cold water temperatures can cause breathing equipment to freeze. While there have been lives lost during diving operations in Antarctica, hundreds of dives have occurred since the late 1980s and have led to a better understanding of underwater Antarctic ecology.

Diving in such cold temperatures requires special equipment such as a dry suit and cold water breathing regulators in addition to the normal scuba diving gear. Additional training beyond basic scuba certifications in overhead environments, confined spaces, and ice diving is also necessary. While the training and equipment is time-consuming and expensive, the reward is well worth the effort.

In my quest to learn more about the underwater environment, I discovered that a complex relationship exists between the natural environment and the biological environment. One of the features that I found interesting was the icefalls that form underwater and entrap marine organisms. Sometimes the organism is able to survive until the ice melts, but mostly it becomes food for other scavengers.

Bottom dwelling sea creatures are trapped inside ice crystals that form from icefalls © Bruce Miller 2007

Bottom dwelling sea creatures are trapped inside ice crystals that form from icefalls © Bruce Miller 2007

Anchor ice is the largest danger for bottom-dwelling organisms, as glaciers and drift ice can crush them or sweep them up off the sea floor. One of my favourite Antarctic species is the sea spider. Sea spiders are in the phylum Arthropod that is the same as spiders, scorpions, and insects. While they are found in waters all over the world, the largest and most interesting species are located in Antarctica. Sea spiders are predators that feed on other bottom dwellers such as anemones and sponges. This unique creature is thought to have existed as late as 450 million years ago, but several fossils have been found from the Jurassic period.

Sea spider © Bruce Miller 2007

Sea spider © Bruce Miller 2007

While I truly appreciate getting to see the seals and penguins, the underwater world is more fascinating to me. I won’t get the opportunity to dive while I am here, but I enjoy learning more about Antarctic ecology. Surely the early explorers knew that there was a diverse and wonderful world that existed right underneath them, but I don’t think they would ever have imagined the biological beauty that thrived beneath their vessel as they sailed into McMurdo Sound. Similar to how we peer over the edge of the shoreline in the summer to see the colourful starfish and sea urchins, I envision the men from Scott’s party walking down from Discovery Hut along the edge of the sea and pondering what lies beneath.

Diver floating past stalactites that form from the sea ice © Bruce Miller 2007

Diver floating past stalactites that form from the sea ice © Bruce Miller 2007

5 Responses to “Diving in Antarctica”

  1. Brooke says:

    Wow it would be amazing, and very scary, to dive in Antarctica. A little chilly perhaps! Although the sea spider and other creatures look cool and would be fun to see I think I’ll stick to tropical diving!


  2. William Hanshumaker says:

    Dr. Miller,
    I will be returning to Antarctica in 2010 and am looking for references/specialists who are familiar with sponge and tunicate identification. Do you have any recommendations? We have access to a small ROV, but I might be diving to collect specimens from Deception Island. - Bill


  3. Fiona says:

    Hi Dr Miller, I gather you are based in the States and already working with the United States Antarctic Programme? You may also want to get in contact with Antarctica New Zealand who provide the logistical support to the New Zealand science programme: http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz


  4. Phill says:

    I truly admire anyone who would consider diving in such extreme conditions.

    You are to be envied indeed as you will be one of only a handfull of people to have observed that particular part of our spectacular underwater world.

    Thanks for sharing it with us lesser mortals.

    Phill


  5. Amrita says:

    How big are these sea spiders?

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