DIVERS TO SHIP, divers to ship, do you have eyes on the wreck?” How difficult could it be to find a 60m wreck with its bow sticking out above the water?
“Captain to divers, it is at 2 o’clock from the ship”.
It is hard to believe that simply passing one particular iceberg on the wrong side can send you on a quest. But to be honest, a search between majestic icebergs feels more like a bonus than a penalty. It also shows that you must show full respect for this potentially hostile environment.
Just a few days before, we had still been in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. “Land of Fire” is the somewhat sinister-sounding name for this beautiful part of Argentina. Ushuaia has its charms, and the dramatic backdrop of the Andes is an amazing sight, but most people use it as the gateway to the ultimate travel dream – Antarctica.
We had ensured our spot on the mv Plancius well in advance, because the number of expedition ships that offer diving possibilities is not that great.
Plancius is a Dutch oceanographic research vessel decommissioned from the Royal Dutch Navy, and has an ice-hardened hull. The ship is manned by an international crew of about 40 – half to keep the ship running and half as hotel staff.
There are eight expedition staff, including our divemaster Kelvin and the two dive-guides, Peter and Frode.
But before arriving at the white wilderness of Antarctica, we have to overcome one more little hurdle by passing “the Drake”.
For centuries the name has struck fear into the hearts of sailors. There, the otherwise unobstructed waves of the Southern Ocean squeeze through the narrow and shallow Drake Passage and, in the process, generate unpredictable and sometimes very bad sea conditions.
The crew assures us that the Drake is unusually calm and we experience it as manageable, but the ship is still clearly rolling. Occasionally the surge is enough to knock over cups and chairs.
As a result, more than half of the passengers have the characteristic white dot of motion sickness medication behind their ears.
Had she wanted, the ship’s doctor could make a very decent living from sales of these patches.
In the morning the voice of Sebastian, our expedition trip leader, sounds intermittently over the intercom, accompanied by the usual crackling sound. “Good mor…gggggg…, good morning…gggggg…it is…gggggg….to wake up, breakfast is…ggggg…served at …ggggthirtggggg. The sun is…gggggg… and the…ggggggg… is -1 degrees. Today we will start…gggggg…at 9…gggggg…with a Zodiac…gggggg.” I am not convinced that there is any transfer of information, but we all woke up to get ready for breakfast.
Our first dive of the trip is used as a check-out to ensure that all equipment is functional and we are properly weighted. Luckily it is not on a boring stretch of coastline, but on the wreck of the Governøren, a large whaling factory ship.
On a 1915 whaling expedition the ship caught fire and the captain ran the ship aground when the fire grew out of control. The wreck still sits in the same location with its bow well above the waterline.
Because of the constantly floating ice, the upper parts are mainly devoid of life. However at several metres’ depth, encrusting life has colonised some areas of the ship. Sea-squirts and anemones can be found at the bottom surrounding it.
IN SEVERAL PLACES you can still find portholes in the hull. The middle of the wreck, which seems badly broken up, offers the possibility of viewing the hold – or what’s left of it.
While cold water does well in preserving most wrecks, the salinity of Antarctic waters tends to negate preservation. A large algae bloom has made the water relatively green, and visibility is quite poor.
We are very fortunate with our second dive because it means that the first real iceberg dive of the trip has come quickly.
Unfortunately, the algae bloom also present in Neko Harbour has coloured the water greenish and reduced the penetration of light in the usually clear waters.
The iceberg is relatively small, and we get to see a lot of it. Out of the blue, or should I say green, two curious crabeater seals come to visit us.
They seem to be trained in aerial dogfighting, because they constantly come diving in from behind us and out of the sun. They show their smiling faces briefly before they disappear again.
Relatively large ice-chunks are flowing towards the surface. Apparently the iceberg got stuck at the bottom and bits had broken off.
After the dive we are allowed to make a landing on the continent of Antarctica, greeted by (the smell of) hundreds of Gentoo penguins. It is a real treat to step in between all these members of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
The intercom comes back to life again: “Kelvin with a message for the divers, this is your usual 25-minute warning, we will leave in 15 minutes.” Is this typical British dive humour?
Anyhow, it’s another day of diving, and by now everybody has lost track of time. The clock is not important here – the schedule of events is driven by the weather.
As we kit up, we enjoy the majestic view of the scenic Lemaire Channel, also known as the “Kodak Gap”. Steep rocky cliffs covered in snow rise almost vertically out of the water.
Because it is about 10km long and between 500m and 1km wide, it creates a narrow channel. Perhaps the easiest way to visualise it is as the Antarctic version of the Grand Canyon. There are worse locations in which to kit up.
WE DIVE AT PLENEAU ISLAND, which sits at the southern entrance of Lemaire Channel. This area is known for leopard seals, but despite seeing an injured crabeater hauled out on ice, none of these large predators appear.
On the other hand, we do spot a giant Antarctic isopod. It is an alien-looking creature that resembles a huge woodlouse. Although “giant” might be considered an overstatement, they are easily the size of a small hand. They have four antennae, two pairs of jaws, plates on their back and several pairs of spiny legs. They are an intimidating sight, but giant Antarctic isopods are harmless animals.
Overall it’s a rocky bottom, with chunks of granite and boulders of basalt. If you look closely, these are covered with small critters such as limpets, amphipods and a large variety of seastars.
In the afternoon we try once again to find a leopard seal, this time at Petermann Island. This rocky shore is scoured by ice passing through the Penola Strait, and life takes shelter at depth or in cracks.
Once again, even though this is a regular haunt of leopard seals, none appears.
But the Antarctic sunstar is a real find. It is a weird sensation on Googling this animal to realise that the number of registered sightings falls somewhere between 99 and 1000. How bizarre!
This one is at arm’s length from us. It has 20-40 arms, depending on its age, and can easily reach 40cm in size.
Again we see plenty of Antarctic limpets. Some of them are moving and showing their rudimentary eyes, which detect the movement of nearby objects.
An instant later, three Gentoo penguins fly by. The moment is over in a split second. Wow, these black-and-white dudes are fast!
We also dive near the Ukrainian base of Vernadsky. A shallow shelf drops off to form a steep wall that is covered in life. Large bergs cannot drift into this area, so the steep walls are protected from the scouring effects of glacial ice.
We go ashore to visit the station and meet the personnel. The Ukrainians give us a warm welcome and Sacha, one of the staff, has a lot of Antarctic history, science and culture to share. For the token sum of one pound sterling, the UK sold the station to the Ukrainians, who gave it its current name. Most likely they conduct amazing science, but their real reputation comes from the home-made Vernadsky vodka and the bar that’s open 24/7.
DURING THE NIGHT, Plancius heads further south than usual, and in the early hours we cross the Polar Circle, going towards Detaille Island.
Not only do very few people dive this far south, but we also have fantastic weather. Can you imagine clear blue skies, sunshine and diving against the incredible scenery of the Antarctic Peninsula?
After a quick briefing on-site, we take to the water along the eastern shore of the island, which drops off quickly to form a steep wall. Again, the ever-dominant ice scours the landscape, and more sedentary life is found deeper along the wall. Some yellow sponges and big tunicates adorn the walls, with hydroids and anemones waving their tentacles in the current.
At Port Lockroy, an old British station, we dive at Jougla Point on Wiencke Island. This location was once a shore-based whaling station, and the carcasses were dumped on the spot.
The same holds for under water, and as soon as we reach the bottom we see a pile of whale-bones. The oil remaining in them makes them an excellent base for anemones to thrive. The scene makes for a ghostly dive in the green, gloomy waters.
Unfortunately the seabed consists of very soft sediment, some sort of volcanic ash. You only need to near the bottom to stir up the silt as fine as dust, and it hangs for a very long time. One fin-kick can reduce the photographic potential.
Paradise Harbour lives up to its name, and the astonishing weather that greets us is a gift from heaven. Ideal conditions for diving on an iceberg!
LOOKED AT FROM ABOVE, you might be impressed by an iceberg’s size. However, it is literally the “tip of the iceberg”. Once below you get a good impression of its real dimensions. The wall keeps dropping and dropping until it plummets into the dark abyss.
Where the sun illuminates the iceberg you see all shades of blue and at least 50 shades of white. It’s a dynamic play of light and shadow – sunlight mingled with the shapes and forms of the ice. It’s magic!
Close up, you see a shimmering and blurring glow caused by the mixing of seawater with freshwater from the iceberg, and notice the difference in buoyancy.
On the way back north, the ship anchors at Deception Island. Deception is unique in the world, in that it is the top of an active volcano. The caldera has a diameter of about 15km and a narrow 500m entrance on one side called Neptune’s Bellows, through which the ships can sail into the flooded crater.
So we find ourselves in the Antarctic diving an active volcano, not an everyday occurrence! The jagged cliffs of Whalers Bay tower above us and some snow falls as we prepare to dive.
In Whalers Bay the whalebones, timber barrels and other artefacts from 20th- century hunters are visible beside derelict buildings from a British scientific station evacuated after the 1969 eruption.
Again, reminders of the whaling abound, but the icing on the cake is the visit of a young leopard seal. Some of the divers are lucky enough to see it swimming acrobatically around them.
During dinner, the question of how to describe Antarctica back home sparks a lively discussion.
For example, how can you describe the effect of a chunk of iceberg breaking off while diving? The crack sounds like a dynamite explosion under water, and you can feel the pressure wave in your stomach.
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE the camaraderie and spirit that develops on such an expedition? We all come to the same conclusion, that words can’t describe Antarctica’s beauty, nor can pictures do it justice. There are too few superlatives to describe it and you can’t capture the essence of the experience.
You just have to live the dream yourself.
A phenomenal diving adventure comes to an end, but we head back with incredible experiences noted in our logbooks, and indelible memories.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Ushaia.
LIVEABOARD: The 89m ice-strengthened Plancius takes 116 passengers in 53 cabins, has 10 Zodiacs and 47 crew/staff. It is operated by Oceanwide Expeditions.
WHEN TO GO: Visibility is best in the Antarctic winter (our summer). Most tourism takes place November-March, when plankton blooms limit visibility. The group’s dive-computers indicated on all but one dive a consistent water temperature of -1°C. Above water, windy conditions and temperature drops are common, and wind-chill is a factor.
PRICES: The next 11-night Plancius trip to the Polar Circle is in March 2018 and costs 6150 euros pp, but another vessel Ortelius travels there in March 2017 for 5950 euros with Oceanwide, www.oceanwide-expeditions.com. Wildfoot Travel also offers 11-day trips on Plancius from £4426 with free spaces for groups of 10, www.wildfoottravel.com
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.bas.ac.uk