New Digs

Exciting news! The last few days, the team has been diving at a new (third) site in McMurdo Sound: Cinder Cones. This site is particularly special because it’s the one the proposal for our work here was most driven by. For years there was no seep here, but over the last 10 years, different sections of methane seepage suddenly “turned on”. It’s the first time scientists have known when a methane seep actually started and it gives us a really unique opportunity to watch the microbial community and ecosystem evolve over time. Cinder Cones is the only seep site the Thurber Lab has existing samples from in Antarctica and for that reason it was one of the most important for us to get back to and collect samples to watch the community change.

With the thinner than usual sea ice year we’ve been experiencing down here, it has taken quite some time to make it out, but we finally got there! I’ve been focusing all my dives on sampling, so I don’t have any pictures to share yet, but the team will post some very soon. We’re excited to tell you more about how things have changed since Andrew last saw this site in 2016. For now, here are pictures of the journey.

Although I love the other two sites we’ve gotten to dive at, the Jetty and Dayton’s Wall, one of the most exciting aspects of our dives at Cinder Cones is the hour long commute along the sea ice. Every day Rowan and I can’t help but say “can you believe this is our freaking job??” It’s an incredibly beautiful place that we get to call home right now, and we are very lucky to be able to get off station as often as we do.

Every day now Rob, Andrew, Rowan, and I take two PistenBullys full of dive and sampling gear out and around Hut Point (avoiding some of the big cracks that stretch out from the point every year) and head northward. It’s a bumpy ride, especially for our lovely dive tenders who sit in the back cab, but I think we all agree it’s worth it for the views (and the science obviously!). To our right is the Hut Peninsula we live on, Mount Erebus looms in front of us, and the Transantarctic Mountains stretch out to our left as far as the eye can see. We drive until we’re on the sea ice side of Castle Rock (check out my post about our first hike) and there, near another crack, is Cinder Cones.

The apple we dive out of at Cinder Cones. Castle Rock is just up and left of the open apple door. Erebus looms in the background to the left.

Here we’ve been diving out of an apple (which we dragged out and set up ourselves with the PistenBully). It’s not quite as toasty or spacious as the dive huts the big machines drove out to our other two dive sites, but we’re starting to get the hang of it now.

The extra time in the cold and drives out to the dive site make for long days, so the site of our little McMurdo home off in the distance is always a welcome one. On that note, after another missed lunch out at Cinder Cones, it’s about time for a warm dinner! Thanks for reading and can’t wait to show & tell you more about this exciting site.

View of dive huts from McMurdo Station

Here is a photo showing where two of our dive sites are located, relative to the shores of Ross Island and the McMurdo water intake jetty.

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

As you can see, the huts are located quite close to shore, but the depth of the seafloor under each hut is ~75ft (Jetty) and ~90ft (Dayton’s Wall). I really love this view across the McMurdo Sound sea ice, with the Transantarctic Mountain Range in the distance. A view to behold indeed…

Kitting Up for Antarctic Scuba Diving

We did our first dive 16 days ago (on September 7th), and since then, we have done ~20 dives! Here is a group photo we took immediately after our first full dive.

Our dive team! Left to right: Rowan McLachlan (postdoc at Oregon State University), Rob Robbins (dive safety officer at USAP), Lila Ardor Bellucci (graduate student at Oregon State University), and Andrew Thurber (associate professor at Oregon State University). Rob Robbins has been diving in Antarctica for 44 years!

The first dive we did took a long time to get ready for. The only kit we brought with us was our dry suits and thermal under-suits. Everything else was provided by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). Antarctic waters are among the coldest a research diver can expect to experience (-1.89°C or 28.6°F in McMurdo Sound). In these temperatures, not all diving equipment can be expected to operate properly, and malfunctions can be frequent if the wrong kit is used.

USAP’s diving gear is tried-and-tested, and therefore less likely to fail compared to personal gear, which can be of various models, ages, and qualities. Diving under the ice in Antarctica is not the place where you want your gear to break! So, for this reason, our first dive was slow as we had to check, and re-check our kit, some of which we had never used before. However, two weeks later, we finally got into a nice rhythm. So, for today’s blog, I thought I would walk you through our daily routine of getting kitted up and ready to dive!

At 8:30 am, I walk from the lab down to the dive locker (the little blue building in the photo below). The view on this walk is just awful guys…

Next its time to grab a tank:

The tanks we use are 2400 psi (pounds per square inch) steel cylinders (95 cu ft or 2690 L volume). Steel cylinders are preferred to aluminum cylinders for durability in cold temperatures. Here at McMurdo, divers are required to use two fully independent first and second-stage regulators (a regulator is a device that delivers air to the diver’s mouth underwater). This is because if one freezes and starts to free-flow (i.e., purging air uncontrollably), you can easily turn off the gas to that one, pick up your second regulator and keep breathing…yay! So, for that reason, the cylinders here have a “Y” valve, as shown above.

Next, it’s time to grab the regulators:

The only regulators which are currently approved for use here at McMurdo are the Sherwood Maximus SRB 7600 first and second-stage regulators (shown above). As you can see, one of them has three hoses attached, and these are for 1) your backup regulator, 2) the air pressure gauge, and 3) the dry suit inflator hose. The other regulator only has one hose: for the main regulator. As this regulator only has one hose, valve, O-ring, etc., it is less likely to freeze and/or fail (*knocking on wood frantically*).

Next, it’s time to attach the backplate and the regulators to the cylinder:

The backplate allows us to strap the tanks to our back. This is a good time to turn on the air and check that the tanks are full by looking at the mechanical pressure gauge.

After the tanks are set up, it’s time to pack up our gear bags. All the gear is washed and hung up at the end of every day. Luckily, Antarctica is of the driest places on earth, so our gear is always dry-as-a-bone in the morning!

After loading our tanks and bags into the Pistin Bully (the tracked vehicle we use for getting out onto the sea ice), it’s time to get suited up! The first layer we wear is long underwear thermals, as modeled by Andrew below:

Next, we don our thick insulating layer.

We use The Weezle Extreme Plus undersuit – and I have to say, this thing is amazing. It’s like wearing a sleeping bag – it is SO cozy. In fact, a few months ago, I actually took this camping, and it was perfect!

After this, we wriggle into our dry suits:

We are using the DUI Yukon II suits and they are wonderful. They were made to measure and are by far the best dry suit I have ever used.

Now that we are suited up, we load into the Pistin Bully (red vehicle shown below) are begin the very long drive to our dive hut. It takes approximately 3 minutes to get there 😂

We then unload our kit into the shed. Check out this video:

When we are situated within the warm cozy dive hut, we start to get kitted up!

The first thing we do when we sit next to the dive hole is to put on our ankle weights (2lbs). The ankle weights are just to help us maintain a horizontal position (or trim) when underwater.

Next, we put on our fins. This is a very important step because if we fall into the hole, we want to be able to kick and stay afloat! Lila models this below:

Sometimes, one of us forgets to don the fins first, at which point the team will ask them “have you ever been to FINland?” or “are you sure you’re FINished?”…. sarcasm and puns-galore in the dive hut, daily 😂

Next, we wrestle into the weight belts:

We are using DUI weight harnesses with ditch-able weight pockets. Each of us is wearing 40 lbs (or 18 kg) of lead weight, and boy – are they heavy! We need this much weight to help us sink, as our Weezle undersuits are so puffy, and therefore extra-buoyant. Now is the time in the process to be extra careful: you don’t want to fall into the hole wearing all that weight, but with no tank.

So naturally, the next item we strap ourselves into is the tank-backplate/reg set-up.

But first… the most important step of the day: MAKE SURE YOUR AIR IS ON! This step is so important (for obvious reasons) that when we do it, we even call out “I am turning my air on” to let everyone else know what we are doing – and to remind them to do it too!

Once the tank is attached around our shoulders and waist, we clip the dry suit inflator hose to our suit using the chest valve. In the photos below, the silver clip in the left photo attaches to the silver valve of the dry suit in the right photo.

This inflator hose lets us add air to our dry suit, which is how we control our buoyancy underwater. We do not use SCUBA Buoyancy Compensation Devices (BCDs) when diving under fast ice here at McMurdo. So, your dry suit is the only way in which we achieve neutral buoyancy underwater. This was a first for me in my diving career – and initially, it took some getting used to – but now it is second nature!

Then we clip the mechanical pressure gauge and backup regulator to our backplate webbing to keep them from dangling/dragging on the seafloor.

The next items we don are our hoods…plural!

Your head is an area of your body where you can lose the most body heat. Therefore, we wear lots of layers to try and stay warm.

The first hood we wear is made from thin neoprene (3-5mm thickness) and is referred to as a gorilla hood (top left hood in photos above). This hood covers all our head, except our eyes and mouth. Honestly, it looks like we are about to rob a bank when we put these on. They look a bit silly, but they do keep your face warm, which is more important!

The second hood is made of thin latex and is attached to our dry suits. This helps keep the icy cold water from getting near our neck seal, and around our head.

The outer hood is a thicker neoprene hood (7 or 11mm thickness) and is purely for thermal protection.

When all hoods are donned, we put on our masks.

Left to right: Rowan, Andrew, Lila

We then have to carefully go around the silicon edge of mask and slide it underneath all the hoods. If we don’t manage to get a good seal, we would have a mask flood underwater, which would be annoying, but more importantly, horribly cold. Brrrrrr!

Next, it’s time for the dive computer. A dive computer provides all the real-time information divers need to be able to dive well, including depth, time, safety stop, and no decompression limit (NDL) data. All USAP divers must use the dive computers that are issued by the McMurdo dive lockers. Currently, they are the Shearwater Perdix AI model.

The computer communicates with an air pressure transmitter that is attached to our regulators, and therefore our computer knows exactly how much air we have left at all times.

The last step in getting suited up is our gloves. Hands are the main factor that determines the length of a dive in Antarctica – they get SO COLD! Once dexterity is lost in the diver’s hands, the dive needs to be ended quickly. For me, I can manage about 30 minutes under the ice. After that, my fingers start to get cripplingly sore, and I can’t really move them anymore. As I am usually carrying a camera, this makes it very difficult to take any more photos as I can’t even press the shutter button! More importantly, though, a diver needs to maintain dexterity at the end of a dive to be able to use their suit inflator or change to their backup regulator in an emergency.

We install dry gloves on our suits using the Kubi ring system.

With these, we can attach basically any rubberized glove to a ring. I bought the orange gloves shown above in a fishing supply store! The other ring attaches to the silicon wrist seal on our dry suits. Then these two rings push together and seal by means of a red O-ring. A simple but effective design! So long as no fluff or hairs are caught in the O-ring, we are able to keep our hands dry throughout the dive! Trust me, if there is a leak – you will know about it very quickly as you go underwater!

We insert small diameter plastic tubes under the silicon wrist seal on our dry suit to allow us to fill our gloves with air from the body compartment of our suits. This lets us equalize our hands at depth which prevents skin pinching caused by high pressure underwater, but more importantly, helps to keep our hands warm. Well… they are never warm. It helps us keep our fingers not frozen, which would be a better description!

Under the rubber gloves, we were fleece gloves. I also use hand warmers, as I get extra cold.

Regulators go into mouths, and it’s time to jump in! Check out this video of us getting into the ice hole:

The key is to twist your body enough so that the tank doesn’t catch on the wooden floor of the hut as you go down… because, ouchy.

Finally, here is the coolest video ever made. Andrew used his 360 degree-GoPro camera to film us getting kitted up and jumping into the dive hole!

Underwater Imagery… lots other than point and click

Hi Fish!

We are super fortunate to be able to use really nice underwater image equipment, cameras that are able to capture images that were simply not possible a few years ago. However, one of the aspects of underwater photography is that if anything leaks, the cameras are toast. Soggy toast (i.e. dead). This means we are vigilantly in trying to keep the housings watertight through cleaning o-rings before and after dives. Here is a short timelapse of me changing one of the cameras from wide angle (with a big dome port) to be ready for a dive where I am going to shoot Macro images. This is really around 30 minutes of work each day.

(Not sure why the video won’t embed but there is the video link above).

Hi Baby Fish!

In the video above, I am swapping the camera from Video setup for macro images. Macro is shown above with the wee fish. We use a 100mm lens for that and then strobes and a macro light to be able to get a good image of that. Here is the Macro setup in all of its (super awkward above water but strangely not in the water) setup:

..Macro setup. Lots of lights… some are probably extraneous like the ones at the corners but they make it easier to focus. The strobes on the very ends are just camera flashes to provide a burst of light rather than a constant shine.

When shooting video we have to use constant lights to light the scene. Red disappears in as little as 2m or 6ft so to get well-colored images we have to be within 1m or 3 ft of our subject (cause the light has to go both ways from our lights to the subject and back). So we use stupid powerful lights to illuminate the scene how it looks to us underwater. We also put a really big dome port on the front to allow our lenses a good angle of coverage. I don’t have the camera in the housing at this point (so you can see right through it).

The final setup is when we use strobes with the dome port. The image at the very top was shot that way. It freezes the action and also lights the scene. The strobes (aka flashes) provide WAY more light than even the most powerful video lights. We connect to the strobes with small fiber optic cables that tell the strobes when to fire when a little red light is emitted from an adaptor in the top of the housing. Here is that setup:

Here is the strobe and wide-angle setup. It is also a bit of a beast above water but strangely smooth underwater. In addition, the larger the camera the housing the less it shakes when shooting video. The size smoothes everything out.
Ya… and then sometimes you shoot a landscape scene with the macro setup. No solid rules in photography right?

I see the light

Dr. Rowan taking images of the night sky. A little milky way and already you can see that it is just not getting entirely dark with the faint light on the horizon.

When I say I love light, it means I love the colors and many dynamics of light that make the landscape stand out as one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We have tried to take advantage of the many faces of light as the sun set gets later and later in the day since in a few weeks there will be no more dark.

Stars and aurora on one of the last nights of real (or at least mostly) darkness before the bright light of summer.

The light makes colors here that contrasts with the white and black volcanic ground. Soon we will be taking photos of the various shades of white, but for now, it is a calidascope.

You can see why they call it the Royal Society Range. (ya there is probably a history to that too, but I think it should be simply due the majestic views that this mountain range provides).

We pay for the color by getting out in the (a bit colder) weather to take the images.

Dr. Rowan capturing the amazing light.

But in the end, the time on the ice in the cold (especially when drinking hot chocolate) is well worth it for the experience, and sometimes the images.

I love ice.

Creatures of Dayton’s Wall Shallows

Dayton’s Wall is one of our two main dive sites at the moment – named after Paul Dayton, the pioneering polar diver and ecologist who first characterized many of the sites divers visit in McMurdo Sound today. Here our blinking descent line drops down to a whopping 102 ft, from which we venture even deeper onto Dayton’s Wall itself to collect imagery of the all the critters it is home to. Our time at these depths is limited, and our dive computer soon lets us know it’s time to ascend a little. It’s always hard to leave behind the dense sea life of the wall (just let me take one last picture!), but there are still plenty of cool animals to admire in the “shallows” (anywhere else I would not consider 70 ft shallow).

This sea star and sea spider hanging out on a sponge for example, surrounded by other sponges, anemones, and soft coral. Many of the animals here are suspension feeders (they eat what’s floating in the water) and usually hang out with their tentacles extended. If they sense a threat though, they’re quick to close up into a more protective pose like the anemone below. Also notice how the pink coral below (in the background) has its tentacles out, unlike the ones near the sponge above.

Backboneless animals here are nice because they stay still and are easy to take pictures of. Slightly more challenging (only slightly) are the fish. It’s kind of impressive how slow moving and fearless the fish are here though. The other day I was sampling in one spot for a while and one got so curious it basically ran into my face. Below is a bernacchii with golden galaxy eyes followed by an Antarctic dragonfish with glittering emerald eyes.

After some fun macro photography in the “shallows” it’s time to head to head further up and enjoy the glowing blue world of the real shallows. I know we’ve talked a lot about anchor ice (the cool ice crystals that form on the bottom) but it really never gets old.

Eventually our hands start going numb and we all turn to each other and give the look that says “Yeah. I’m cold. Please let’s leave?” We spend the rest of our safety stop admiring the blue ceiling and trying to wiggle warmth into our fingers before clipping our cameras back on to the down line and heading up the hole one by one, excited to talk about all the cool things we got to see.

Dayton’s wall

Dayton’s wall is named after Scientist Dr. Paul Dayton, one of many pioneering researchers who did the foundational work on the ecology of this region.

One of my favorite dive sites, anywhere in the world, Dayton’s wall is a site dominated by sponges and diversity of life. In this video, you can join us on our dives and see all of the life that carpets the seafloor. You can see in this video why we spend so much time talking about ice….

Sometimes when filming, I miss the action being transfixed by the invertebrates on the seafloor.

The above is a bit more from Dayton’s wall. The funny part is that I shot this video of the sponges and soft corals on the seafloor. I didn’t notice the seal until after the dive when I was editing what I had shot (i.e. filmed) underwater. You can tell that seal really likes Dive Supervisor and all around great guy Rob Robbins.

Portal to Another Dimension

On September 6th, we met the Fleet Operations (“Fleet Ops”) team on the sea ice to start drilling our dive hole!

The first place where we dive is known as “The Jetty” and is located ~100m from the shores of McMurdo Station.

View of the Jetty at McMurdo Station, taken next to Dive Hut 19. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan.

The overall process of getting the dive hole drilled took approximately 4 hours. The first step was to tow the drill and dive hut out onto the ice.

View of dozer towing drill and dive hut to our jetty site. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan.

The dozer dragged the drill to the exact place where we wanted the hole. The next step was to attach the screw bit to the TEREX drill. The drill bit is so heavy that it could not be attached prior to towing the drill.

Attaching the TEREX drill bit. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

Then it was time to start drilling. Check out this video we took of the drilling process:

Video credits Rowan McLachlan and Andrew Thurber

Once the hole was drilled, we had to scoop out some of the platelet ice that had been knocked down into the hole. Turned out, that scooping slushy ice out from an ice hole using nets was a quick way to get warm on this day which was particularly chilly. When the hole was ready, the drill rig was moved away.

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

The next step was to tow the dive hut, carefully aligning it, so that the hole in the floor of the hut was directly above the hole in the ice.

Panorama of dive hut in position. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan
View from inside the dive hut, looking down onto the hole in the sea ice. Photo credit: Caleb Terrey.

The dive hut is approximately 20ft long and 10ft wide. Inside there is a diesel heater to keep us warm before and (more importantly) after a dive.

Through the hole, we hang a weighted “down line” to the sea floor (the rope is ~80ft long). Along the line are various loops where we attach flashing lights (to help us find the hole when diving), an emergency air tank (aka pony bottle), and any other kit or camera equipment we want to pick up at the start of a dive or drop off at the end.

View of dive hole from below the ice with attached down line. Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

The snow on top of the sea ice is ~2ft deep in this area, and as a result, there is very little light that passes through. This means that diving here is basically a night dive. Therefore, the flashing lights on the downline are critical for us to find our way back to the dive hole.