Like most of my days thus far, today was another day of firsts.
• Took my first walk on the frozen ocean
• Took my first ride in a piston bully (snow tracker of sorts)
• Saw my first ice hole being drilled
• Took my FIRST SCUBA DIVE UNDER THE ICE!
The ice dive was a clear favorite. ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS! (For those of you who know me, you know I don’t use all caps and exclamation points unless I’m really excited.) More on that later.
Don’t get me wrong, some of those other firsts were pretty amazing, like the creation of our ice hole. We drove out onto the ice on our piston bully. When we arrived, I took that first step onto the frozen ocean, my back facing McMurdo Station and my eyes fixed on the half lit snow covered mountain peaks of White Island, glowing red in the distant morning sun. After a moment it hit me, I’m standing on the ocean right now. I don’t think I can find the words to do it justice. It was such an incredible sensation to know that you are standing on a solid sheet of frozen sea and somewhere 60-100 feet below in the icy waters there is an amazing community of sea creatures to be explored.
The rest of our ice drilling team showed up with three enormous trackers pulling our massive drill and ice hut. The sheet of ice is as solid as ice comes; I mean they can land planes on it. However, the new drill team assembled a massive 4-foot drill on an equally enormous tracker and cored that dive hole in no time at all.
The slowest part was all shoveling we had to do to clear the ice shavings from around the hole. This probably took longer because I was standing there leaning on my shovel utterly stunned by everything. For example: the water temperature under the ice is – 1.8°C or 28°F, but I’m standing there watching steam, yes STEAM, rising off the water as if were a hot tub. It is just that cold down here that below freezing ice water steams like a hot evening bath…
Fast forward a bit to the early afternoon, and our ice hut is centered over the hole with us inside and ready to go. We were all suited up and gathered around the ice hole testing equipment and reviewing our dive plan. Then one by one we slipped into the icy water, descending into the narrow ice tube made by the drill team earlier.
Once below I was amazed by what I saw in every direction I turned. The ice ceiling above us created a soft soothing blue glow decorated with occasional Mini Cooper-sized ice chandelier. The visibility was unlike anything I’d ever experienced SCUBA diving. I could see clear to the anchor ice at the coast and then follow the sea floor straight down to 100 to 200 feet deep. The amount sea life totally shocked me–giant vase sponges, sea stars, fish, nemerdians (1-3 foot tape worm looking creatures), ctenophore, jellyfish, and more.