Into the Freezer
With its icebergs and snowy wastes, Antarctica has long been the preserve of the daring explorer – until now.

Stephen Lee joined the first recreational dive tour of the deep south

The iceberg wall plummets beneath us, seemingly to infinity. For divers such as myself and my buddy Dana, the stark beauty of an ice wall is tempered by the disorientation caused by its lack of reference points. Without constantly looking at my console, I can’t work out whether I’m rising or falling – a problem everyone seems to be having.

But nothing can detract from the eerie beauty of the berg, which is etched with uniform, 15cm pockmarks, the bizarre result of natural wind and wave action, lending it the appearance of a giant golf ball.

Dana signals a half-empty tank, so we head back to the Zodiac, battling against a strong current. As the inflatable appears above us, we decide to stop and rest at six metres, while the other divers clamber on board. This soon proves to be a mistake, as weight belts start slipping out of frozen mittens above us, narrowly missing our heads as they tumble into the void below. We surface to profuse apologies, but there’s a tacit understanding that accidents are bound to happen on the first recreational dive tour of Antarctica.

Antarctica is a place most people can only dream about visiting, so far removed from our everyday experience of the world that it’s assumed a mythic quality. Which is why, when I heard that the Russian ship MV Professor Molchanov was taking tours there, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to photograph this wild continent.

Not that this is a trip to be undertaken lightly. An Antarctic tour is serious expeditionary diving. You need to be a confident, self-sufficient diver before boarding the ship, with a minimum of 20 open-water drysuit dives in water colder than 6°C, all undertaken in the previous six months. You also need a seriously healthy bank account – the going rate for a berth in a triple cabin, plus return flight to Trelew, near the Argentinian port of Puerto Madryn, starts at about £3,420.

Everyone on the Molchanov had their reasons for being there. Most of the crew had extensive polar experience, but only three passengers had been to the Antarctic before. My buddy, Dana Schwenzfeier, had been on five previous trips, all non-diving, tourist expeditions. By her own admission, Dana had married badly but divorced well, and is now travelling the world on premier-league dive trips, funded by a generous maintenance. She told me that she prefers the early-season departures for the Antarctic trips; later on, ‘the Russians get horny and start to smell’. Dana was nothing if not candid.

‘Antarctica is a place most people can only dream about visiting,
so far removed from our everyday experience of the world
that it’s assumed a mythic quality’


Another world: top, the Zodiac makes its way through the Gerlache Strait; above, dusk in the Neumayer Channel
Ice life: top to bottom, an orca spotted en route to Antarctica; a pink sea star found off New Island, the Falklands; a seal chills out on Deception Island, Antarctica; green kelp growing wild; a chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica)
Weighed down with 60kg of luggage, I barely knew what to expect when we set sail from Puerto Madryn, the ship escorted by troupes of playful sea lions. Our expedition leader was Greg Mortimer, an unassuming Australian who had already completed nine seasons in the Antarctic. It later transpired that he’d also successfully scaled Mount Everest and the infamous K2, the deadliest mountains in the Himalayas. In charge of the diving was Goran Ehlme, an enigmatic Swede who’s been diving in polar regions since 1994, amassing thousands of ice dives and mastering the art of handling a camera with numb fingers.

Goran’s first advice to us was not to push our bottom time beyond 30 minutes (by which time we’d arrive at a new definition of ‘cold’), and to stick to the maximum depth of 20m. ‘Be extra safe,’ he told us. ‘We’re a long way from help. We must look after ourselves and each other.’ He also advised us to keep our regulators in our cabins overnight and to watch out for leaks after inhaling, an early warning that our second stage was freezing up.

 

The first few days, en route to Antarctica, were spent watching wildlife videos, attending lectures and briefings, and scanning the waves for orcas and leopard seals. We stopped in the Falklands for a shore dive off New Island, then it was back on board to continue our journey south. We learned that much of the sea bed consists of a smooth rock-shelf with multicoloured algae sprouting in various directions. There isn’t much in the way of fish life, but there are thousands of sea stars, and brittle-stars that dance in slow motion through the algae forests. More often than not, the sea bed is covered in tiny crustaceans, to the extent that there’s no place to settle, like some over-populated seaside resort. This is very typical of Antarctic marine life: not a lot of diversity, but massive numbers of the same species, topside and underwater.

The ship’s marine biologist, Dr Nick Gales, explained that the Antarctic Ocean is unique in having a very short and simple food chain, from phytoplankton to krill to penguins to seals to whales. Where there’s krill in the Antarctic, he told us, there’s action.


Divers take the plunge in the Gerlache Strait
‘Like the crew of the Endurance, we played football on the ice,
the difference being that we knew a speedy RIB journey would take us back to our warm cabins’

An important aspect of our voyage was to make sure we minimised our environmental impact on the region. There’s a constant danger that visitors can transfer disease from one isolated colony to another, so basic rules have to be followed. Boots must be carefully washed before and after landings; no litter or human waste is to be left; and absolutely no souvenirs can be taken. Close-up encounters with wildlife do happen in the Antarctic, but they must always be on the animal’s terms.

In the following days, we settled into our diving routines, gradually acclimatising to the wind and the cold. More important, we learned the key to survival in the Antarctic, which is always to expect the unexpected. One of the Zodiac excursions was treated to an avalanche, followed by the spectacular collapse of 50m ice towers into the sea. We even found ourselves expanding our ice vocabulary, with polynyas, growlers, bergy bits, hummocks and bummocks slipping off our tongues as easily as a seal off an ice floe. Not the sort of banter you get at Swanage Pier.

The Antarctic is an utterly bewitching experience, but all the more enjoyable when sampled from the vantage of a well-heated boat, crammed to the gunwales with luxuries and scientists all too eager to provide a commentary on the strange sights. Like the crew of the Endurance [British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship] some 80 years before us, we played football on the ice, the difference being that we knew a speedy RIB journey would take us back to glasses of mulled wine and warm cabins.



Breaking the ice: the MV Professor Molchanov, ‘a well-heated boat, crammed with luxuries and scientists’, stops off in the Antarctic Peninsula
There were a lot of tough guys on the boat, but I was always conscious of the danger, the cold and the swells. I’d love to say, as Shackleton did, that ‘by endurance we conquered’, but the reality is that Antarctica let us pass. A privilege.

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