Like many other things about life in Antarctica, diving here is difficult and definitely not straight forward. Forget about the challenges of diving in really cold water, the list of things that will keep the dive team out of the water in the first place seems endless and varies from weather, sea-ice, charismatic megafauna (especially big sea pandas – Orca and sea-voldemorts – Leopards Seals) and well being of the dive team itself to whether we have enough personal on station to operate a decompression chamber in case of an emergency. So my morning routine now involves the attempt to equalise my ears as soon as I wake up and a short prayer to the weather gods before I frantically check on wind, waves and visibility outside my window.
Generally whether, where and who is diving is decided first thing every morning during boat brief, here a bunch of scientists (me very much included), who are desperately waiting to collect data, have to prioritise what gets done on which dive and who will have to wait for another day – a scene pretty much resembling feeding time at the zoo. Once called to order by our diving officer, the dive team gets assembled consisting mostly of 4-5 people (2 divers, 1 supervisor, 1 coxswain and if necessary 1 tender). The divers then prepare their equipment and get ready to suit up. And this is where I generally get caught out. I am not a big breakfast person first thing in the morning (I know – most important meal of the day and all that) so I tend to skip it, thinking that I either will not be diving that morning or that the dive will be so late that I’ll have time for smoko (second breakfast). So every morning that I am told I’ll be diving straight away, I get surprised all over again (very much like the UKs grasp on snow during winter) and then spend the next 15 minutes frantically stuffing myself with any kind of food available in the building. I might not be big on breakfast but nobody wants to spend lugging heavy equipment around and diving in 0°C water without some fuel in them to burn. A lesson very quickly learned in Antarctica.
Sometimes a dive site is more remote or takes longer to reach because of brash ice on the water or heavy swell and that is where chocolate comes in. Chocolate is basically its own food group down here and can be a substitute for any type of meal – whether breakfast, lunch or dinner. And it is more or less essential pre- or post-dive.
Diving here is demanding, mentally and physically, even when all the stars align and we do get to go out. To protect ourselves from the cold (water conducts heat 20 times faster than air) we are wearing several baselayers, specialised undersuits and a thick neoprene drysuit (unlike a normal scuba suit it means, apart from hands and head we are staying dry during the dive, at least theoretically). Because of all the layers we are wearing, we tend to be very buoyant and require extra weights to sink – which we wear as part of a harness. One of my foes here is the BCD (basically a vest that can be filled with air) which has two steel cylinders attached holding our main breathing air and a bail-out system (in case of emergencies). It is incredibly heavy, difficult to handle because of its size and just generally unpleasant to lug around, especially when your movement is already restricted by your drysuit and you are about to collapse from heat stroke because of the many layers you are wearing. I have to admit, that when it comes to loading up the dive boat I tend to eschew the issue, until it becomes very apparent that no knight in shining armour is going to pick up the slag for me and I’ll just have to bite the bullet and lift it myself (we are all about equality). Once we arrive at the dive site the divers get kitted up. This involves putting on a full face mask which apart from the obvious benefit of keeping your face dry and allowing you to be in constant communication with the boat, definitely adds a touch of star wars to the whole operation. Any additional equipment needed during the dive, such as knive, collection bags, cameras etc. are being clicked onto the harness or BCD within easy reach (A great blog on the kind of science we do by the outgoing Marine Biologist, can be read here). So by the time, a diver is ready to roll into the water he very much resembles a cross between a Christmas tree and a storm trooper.
Getting cold is a more limiting factor than air consumption. And generally, after 30-40 min in the water we are more than happy to return to surface, where we are greeted by the boat team with hot tea or coffee, hot water bottles (which were used to keep our kit from freezing on the way to the dive site) and more chocolate. Upon return to base all of the kit needs to get carried back into the dive store, disassembled, rinsed in fresh water and dried before we go and do it all again. On very good days we do this 3 times a day, on good days – twice, ok days – once and very bad days – such as when wildlife strikes not at all. However one of the many benefits of all of this is, that by the end of the day you can collapse on the sofa (again – it’s a tough life down here) and continue to munch all of the chocolate without the slightest bit of remorse – your body needs refuelling right?