The Last Descent

Today, I entered the portal into the glowing sea ice underworld for one last time. It was fitting that my last time doing so was at the Jetty – the site where it all started. It was difficult knowing that this was likely not only the last time for this season, but perhaps the last time in my life. The opportunity to see the beautiful things we’ve shared with you on this blog is something I will never forget. I hope that through the imagery and blogs we’ve captured during our time here, we’ve been able to convey to you what a magical place this is and how important these habitats are – for their role in the larger Antarctic ecosystem, for what they enable us to learn, and for their inherent fascinating beauty.

On this last dive, I chose to dedicate my time toward capturing better versions of some of the earlier images I think best describe this beautiful place. At the Jetty in particular, one of the most characteristic, but difficult-to-capture features of a dive has been light and the lack thereof. The contrast between dark shadows and glowing ceilings. The brilliance of each animal that we are able to give a moment in the spotlight. Each time I plunged into the world below the Jetty, it was into darkness. It takes a bit, as you blink your eyes and adjust your gear, to orient yourself to your surroundings. And each time it was the glow of the cracks surrounding the Jetty that helped me to figure out where I was. Here, I did my best to capture that glow and the beauty below it, illuminated with the help of our comparatively small lights. I hope that through our pictures, you’re able to feel like you were almost here too.

Magical Seal Encounters

Today was without a doubt one of the most magical dives of my life. It is difficult to describe how special it feels to have the privilege of experiencing these beautiful animals underwater. Although Weddell seals are well built to withstand the extreme cold of life on the sea ice, up there they look anything but graceful. It’s hard to imagine those big gray sausages could ever move this quickly, or spin around so delicately with so much control. Any time I’ve seen a seal underwater it has been special, particularly when we get to hear them vocalizing. I will never not be blown away by the otherworldly sound of their voices.

That being said, today was different. Multiple curious seals came to visit us throughout the dive, but one in particular stuck around for at least 10 minutes. It seemed that it saw it’s own reflection in the dome port of the camera Rowan was using to capture video (and the video she managed to get is incredible!). It swirled upside down, right side up, and sideways over and over. It couldn’t get enough of that good-looking seal.

For a very brief moment, it took interest in me and my camera, but ultimately decided Rowan was much more fun.

Soon after, another seal came by to visit as well. It was especially fun on this dive to take in the differences between each seal – differences in their faces and patterns and also in their personalities and moods.

All the while, other creatures sat below us on the seafloor, and although it was hard to look away from the seals, I’m glad to have captured some moments with them as well. Each animal, big and small, is to be appreciated. Although you need to look at a sea star for longer to notice beauty in the way sea stars move, the march of thousands of tube feet, carrying a comparatively massive five-armed body is a beautiful thing as well.

A shortcut to …microbes!

By this point, we have done many dives at the McMurdo Jetty dive site. It is close and provides a lot of great sampling opportunities. I have done whole research projects here. It is frequently known as the “Great Provider” for research, and it always seems to amaze. To day was no different.

We poked around a little deeper looking for microbial mats with no luck. Above you can see Rowan, Lila, and Rob heading back to the Jetty after our look around deeper with no luck.

Rob had remembered that there may be a mat around the far side so led the way.

CRIMINY! Look at it! A deep bubbly mat right next to where we have been looking for the whole trip down here. And look at all of those amazing critters around it. Bryozoans, hydroids, giant tunicates (sea squirts), and even some fish! Clearly this will fill out last week in Antarctica with some exciting science.

A late night jaunt

One of the challenges of it being light all the time now, is that colors are best at sunset. We got to enjoy a lot of amazing sunsets during winfly but that was a bit ago and now the sun never sets, it just goes behind a mountain for a quick snooze. Now that we are at all of our dive sites, we wanted some more imagery to help communicate the seasonality and different locations, so off we went late in the evening to capture some good light.

Justin, Rowan and I headed out after dinner to see if we could time clear skies with good light and we were not dissapointed.

Rowan has decided that her drysuit undergarments are the most comfortable thing ever and so now wears them whenever the cold is going to be there. So she can do things like sit on a frozen ocean taking photos and not care about the cold. You can also tell that she has gotten used to the cold of Antarctica, no hat, no gloves. It was super warm too… like -20C.

We went out to Turtle Rocks and were treated with a warm pastel glow on Mount Erebus. The light to the right of the image above was an amazing green/blue and the light hitting the many aspects of the glaciers coming down the mountain on the left made our trip worthwhile.

On the way back, the light got better and better. This shot was at midnight, the lowest the sun will get for months. I have been blown away by the panorama shots that Rowan has been getting so this was my attempt to capture images as amazing as what she captures on a daily basis.

As we head home, and the sun starts rising again we were met with one of the weird marages that appears here combined with a spectacular sunlight spectrum. Note that the land is stretched and the sky is on fire. Amazing evening on a frozen ocean to catch the light that both ends and begins the day – which co-occur here.

The Jetty From All Angles

Although we’ve been diving at the Jetty many times since the beginning of the season, there are new beautiful things to take in each time we go. On this dive, we started by descending to the deeper, darker parts of this site that we have visited less frequently. Here, there are huge sponges, looming in the dark until we illuminate their bright white with our lights. Because of how good the visibility is here, even 100+ feet deep and 100+ feet away from the rocks of the Jetty itself, we can see the glow of the beautiful tidal cracks in the background of each shot.

As we approach our “no decompression limits” – that is the amount of time we can stay at a certain depth before our tissues take on too much nitrogen for a regular ascent to be safe – it’s time to start heading upslope. Even here, in areas we’ve visited more often, there are always new and unusual creatures. For example, this jelly. To me, it almost looks like a beating heart. Aside from the vibrant colors, one can also make out tiny little parasitic amphipods throughout it’s clear gelatinous body.

As anyone can see from our pictures, some of the most fun pictures to take are those of other dives, especially against the glow of sea ice cracks above them.

Soon, it’s time to wrap up. Having done our safety stops while in the shallows of the Jetty, we all stay shallow on our way back to the downline, it’s lights beaconing us from a distance. After one last glimpse of the beautiful, anchor-ice-covered mound that is the Jetty, it’s time to head back up through our interdimensional portal in the ice.

Fillin’ Tanks and Takin’ Names

A post by Justin Smith

Diving in Antarctica is demanding.  Really, diving anywhere can be pretty demanding.  Throw in a few layers of complexity in the form of incredibly cold weather and a ceiling of ice above your head and you’ve got quite a situation on your hands.  So what is required, in the most practical sense, to dive in Antarctica?  Support vehicles, dive huts, robust equipment, drysuits, layers of insulation, air, lights, a hole to dive in and possibly most importantly a good attitude and a cool head.  It’s amazing to watch the dive team execute the seamless dance of moving all the equipment into place, getting the work done underwater, pack up the whole show then clean and prep only to do it again tomorrow. 

At the core of this effort is Rob Robbins, the USAP Dive Services Supervisor who has been on site here at McMurdo helping us in countless ways.  The average dive duration under the ice here is 45 minutes (though I’ve seen some as long as an hour).  The entire process from walking in the door at the dive locker to returning, cleaning gear and leaving the dive locker is about a 3 hour process at even the closest location. 

Behind the scenes, Rob is inspecting gear, checking weather, doing repairs, filling tanks and keeping up probably the most tidy shop on the island.  Aside from the physical aspects required to support diving here, Rob is patiently willing to discuss any and all aspects of the sometimes overwhelming mental preparation required to dive under the ice.  Our team simply couldn’t perform the work down here without Rob’s tireless efforts.

Too Much Life

Today we dove at Turtle Rocks, which is a wonderful dive site. But it has a big problem – there is just too much life on the seafloor. Everywhere you look there are sponges, sea slugs, and tons of feather duster worms. Even the sponges are covered with other things (like you can see the yellow sponge covered with tons of different life).

The whole places is covered by life. Tons of our favorite red seastars and then all the stuff they eat from moss animals (bryozoans) to lots of microscopic algae that capture what little sunlight makes it through the ice.

All of those little white structures are the feeding structures of segmented worms (feather dusters/ sabellid polychaetes) that capture food from the water. If you look close at the lower left of the image you just see TONS of them.

Thankfully some of them stand out enough to contrast with the other colors on the seafloor.

But then when you look up, even more life. Each one of those little patches are ice algae that are growing on the bottom of the sea ice. It looks to me like a petri dish from a microbiology lab.

And that is one of the wonderful contrasts of Antarctica. Ice, more ice, and a bit of ice on the surface. Maybe a penguin or seal. Maybe a wee titch of black rock. But underwater is a myriad of colors and life soo crowded that it muddies the photos with diversity. Not a bad problem to have, but it can make some of the photos harder to stand out.

A new perspective

Diving under the ice in Antarctica is an almost indescribable experience. Words and photos do not do justice to the beauty of the lighting down there. On this dive, Andrew and I collected bryozoans for a pilot study on trophic carbon pathways. After collecting a few larger colonies, we explored the north side of the jetty dive site. Here are some of the photos from the dive:

Despite having visited this site several times this trip, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. Just a wee shift in perspective gave me a wonderful new outlook. I suppose that applies to many things in life… I don’t think I will ever tire of taking photos here.

Front Yard Beauty

Thanks to the arrival of a new team member (welcome Justin!), we had the opportunity this week to revisit our first two dive sites. Although it feels like eons since we’ve been there, it’s only been about two months since these sites saw Rowan and I do our first dives under the ice. It felt like coming home and we were excited to show Justin around as he got comfortable with the under ice world.

Since we were focusing on getting Justin (our team videographer) acquainted, we all took down our cameras to capture still imagery while doing a tour of the Dayton’s Wall dive site. After a whole lot of science task diving at Cinder Cones and Turtle Rock, I had forgotten how much darker Dayton’s Wall was and how much there was to photograph. I started off the dive taking pictures of all the spectacular creatures I had missed having the chance to admire. Ruffly nudibranchs and galaxy-eyed fish. We even had a seal visitor off in the distance.

As we headed upslope and into the expanse of 10-foot tall sea ice crack paradise that is the shallows of Dayton’s Wall, I did my best to capture the stunning scene before me. Rowan and Justin were up ahead, illuminating the isparkling ce around them with their cameras. Two silhouettes against a glowing icy backdrop, fringed by the darkness of the deep blue waters beyond.

The sites in McMurdo’s front yard are my favorite of the four. Sure, there may be no breathtaking 1-2 hour commute along the sea ice, and you don’t feel quite as tough and rugged diving out of a cozy heated hut as you do diving out of a chilly dive apple on the sea ice, but their beauty cannot be understated. When we tell people on station about the world below the ice right outside of town, or show our dive tenders videos, they’re always surprised. Surprised that a colorful, lively world like this exists at all beyond the endless white, and surprised that some of the most beautiful sites are those right below the orange dive huts they can see from town.

As we near the two week mark before our departures, I’m doing my best to soak it all in. It’s hard to imagine leaving this world behind, but I look forward to sharing our next two weeks of appreciation with you!

A Year in the Making

A blog by Justin Smith.

Getting things done in Antarctica isn’t easy.  Even the most basic tasks require a bit of planning and preparation.  Nothing is exempt.  Life just isn’t simple or easy here at the bottom of the earth.  SCUBA diving is no exception.  The process of an actual dive down here is a story in itself.  In an attempt to stay focused, I’m going to dive (ha!) into what it took for our team of four divers to get ready for this incredible adventure and those that helped us along the way.  

5 Months before any of us would set foot on the ice a partial assembly of our team did what would be our first official training dive.  The roaring winter seas on the southern coast of Oregon can sometimes be remarkably forgiving.  This time around proved to be a confusing contrast of beautiful skies and unfortunate wind direction, making for a very brief splash in the water.  Though it didn’t prove to be an opportunity to work out any processes underwater, it did kick off the beginning of a wonderful team bonding experience.  Getting to know the team, what they’re most excited about, most concerned about, all helped us start to connect as people and build the trust that is so essential to the challenging trip we had on the horizon.    

With a few fragmented trips in between, the whole team came together again for a weekend of diving, testing camera equipment and continuing to bond.  We planned to bring an ambitious array of camera gear down to the ice.  This ranged from GoPros, fixed lens compact cameras, a large full frame Canon and various lights and strobes.  There’s no way to make yourself feel like an amateur again than by jumping into the water with a camera system you’ve never used before.  Despite all the challenges, we did end up with a handful of acceptable shots throughout the trip.  Beyond camera gear, we started to troubleshoot the actual dive equipment (actually quite important!) required for under ice diving.  This involved tracking down leaks, replacing seals and zippers, fitting dry gloves and in lots of cases just ordering new gear.  The challenge arose when we faced the reality that the dive industry was in no way exempt from the global supply chain issues everyone faced this past year.  

In comes Eugene Skin Divers Supply.  This place is somewhere in between a hardware and toy story with everything you could dream of to assemble a kit worthy of diving under the ice at the bottom of the planet.  And if they didn’t have it on the shelf, they figured out how to get it as fast as possible.  The owners Mike and Diana (along with their entire team) became critical to our success and embraced our trip with a commitment as if it was their own.  Out of stock parts were miraculously found, zippers replaced, holes sealed.  It’s safe to say there’s a 0% chance we’d have shown up on the ice prepared and on time if it wasn’t for the shop going above and beyond.

A long list of requirements had to be met before we could even get on a plane.  The equipment was one hurdle but all aspects of our certifications and recertifications fell into the lap of our steadfast Dive Safety Officer at OSU, Kevin Buch.  Over the last year Kevin tirelessly helped us work through the dive proficiency requirements necessary to be a USAP (United States Antarctic Program) diver.  Ultimately Kevin wanted us to head town to the ice feeling confident and qualified and to have a safe and successful trip.  Over the last year Kevin held CPR, O2, and First Aid classes for us, arranged practice dives and was in constant contact with us to make sure we were on track.  

The list extends on and on to those who helped us each personally as we prepared for this adventure.  We’re all incredibly grateful for our family and friends that patiently waited as we were occupied diving many weekends, pushing off social obligations to complete paperwork, and were maybe otherwise not always entirely present as our minds drifted often towards the adventure to the ice that awaited us.