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.
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.
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.