You might have seen footage of then-Prince Charles before and after his scuba dive in the Canadian Arctic in 1975, but what went on under the ice that day? In a new BBC World Service radio programme Canadian diver, physician-scientist and explorer Dr JOE MACINNIS recalls what it was like buddying the man who now, almost half a century later, is finally being crowned King
“My first thought was: Oh, my goodness, what an enormous responsibility!” It was 1975, and it had just been suggested to Dr Joe MacInnis that he accompany the Prince of Wales scuba diving under ice in Canada’s North-West Passage. “I was 38, he was 26, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found right away at our first meeting that he was full of questions.”
The previous year, MacInnis had become the first scientist to dive beneath the North Pole. He would go on to lead 10 research expeditions under the Arctic, was one of the first people to dive to the wreck of the Titanic, and has collaborated with the US Navy, Canada’s Special Forces and film-maker James Cameron. Today he studies and lectures on the psychology of leadership in high-risk environments.
Prince Charles was an experienced diver but not in the sort of conditions he would encounter in the Arctic. He had been very curious about the dive, recalls MacInnis in BBC World Service's new radio programme The Documentary: The Day I Met The King, broadcast to coincide with the 6 May coronation of Charles III.
The prospective ice-diver had fired question after question about the dive-gear and how the dive would be carried out.
“I think part of it was that he was testing me, because he knew he was going to put his life in my hands and he wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing,” says MacInnis.
Prince Charles told his buddy-to-be that history fascinated him, and that the dive would provide an opportunity for him to get a better sense of the world in which British sailors seeking the North-West Passage in the 19th century had found themselves.
“And it became clear that he really enjoyed doing dangerous things, pushing his limits, and that he would push himself physically and mentally to better understand himself,” says MacInnis.
Out in Resolute Bay in Nunavut he and the team prepared the dive-site, finding the task of cutting a hole through a “fathom of ice” difficult in air temperatures down to -33°. “It took most of an afternoon to take out the two tonnes of ice that would allow us to get into this chimney,” he says.
Prince Charles arrived, his every move tracked by a “very intense” group of men from Scotland Yard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, looking for threats and how to avoid them. They knew that the one place they would not be able to follow the prince would be beneath the ice.
“There was a hum of anxiety,” recalls MacInnis, who had a tense encounter with a senior member of the Scotland Yard protection group. “This was a man who bristled with energy, and whose eyes were looking in every direction, certainly at me.
“I remember there was a kind of undertone to the conversation we were having, and it was that if this man surfaces with a hair out of place, there’s going to be trouble fast – and you’ll be at the centre of it. So I was anxious, no question about it.”
The dive entry involved sliding down a 2m-thick chimney of ice into crystal-clear water. “So there we were, face to face, and his eyes are locked into mine,” says MacInnis. “And because there’s no way to talk to each other in this voiceless, airless world I’m hyper-vigilant, looking for three things: the eyes, the bubbles and the body language.
“I see that his bubbles are very smooth and very paced – sometimes, if you’re excited, you breathe too much. That was not the case here; this was a man who controls his breathing.”
But there was a problem – Prince Charles was having difficulties using the inflation button and exhaust to trim his Poseidon drysuit. “He would put in too much air and his head would go up and bump on the ice; take out too much air and he would drop too quickly.”
When McInnis remarks that the prince “wasn’t very excited about this” he appears to mean that he wasn’t worried, simply keen to sort out the problem. “It was just something he was wrestling with to get right. And so he just waited and he got it squared away.”
It was time for the divers to move away from the dive-hole. “We ran into this beautiful ice-crystal – it was an icicle, basically, about as long as an arm.” Suspended from the underside of the ice, the unusual-looking icicle was filled with brine containing a community of small creatures, including “wonderful-looking” amphipods that fascinated the prince.
“He looked at this, stopped and turned it around in his hand… and as we were doing this, some of the creatures of the water column were an arm’s length away, including a lion’s mane jellyfish as big as your hand.”
MacInnis had read that Prince Charles had been intrigued by the natural world from a very early age, “and that for him mountains and rivers each had a kind of sacred quality. So this is a man searching for answers to questions about the natural world that he’d never seen before.”
The divers came on a tangle of broken blocks of ice, jewel-like as their lights caught them, and spent time looking at and touching the ice before MacInnis decided that it was time to go back up. They had descended far enough that the ice-hole now resembled a ”postage stamp in the sky”.
“I thought, well, I’m gonna see if he likes mischief,” says MacInnis, explaining that on an earlier dive he had hidden two props on the seabed, and now proceeded to retrieve these. He came up behind the prince, who had been engrossed by the ice, and tapped him on the shoulder.
“He turned around and there I was wearing a black bowler hat, holding an unfurled umbrella. His eyes crinkled and I heard this sound in the water.” MacInnis gives a creditable impression of Prince Charles laughing through a regulator. “He loved it and he took the bowler hat, the umbrella and then just gracefully, a trail of bubbles behind him, headed up towards the dive-hole.
“And my impression was that this was his version of Mary Poppins in the ‘flying nanny‘ scene.”
Back at the surface, Prince Charles emerged from the water still wearing the bowler. “Everybody’s looking at him, totally shocked, I’m sure, but he’s got this great grin on his face,” says MacInnis. “He’s really, I think, pretty excited about the fact that he’s made the dive, things have gone well, he’s learned things, he’s met the challenge.”
Hauled from the water, the prince inflated his suit. “He looks like a Michelin Man and he’s wearing the bowler hat and he kind of stands on his toes with a victory sign. Everybody loves it, laughing.”
Asked about the dive, Prince Charles said: “It was great, it was cold, bloody cold!”, and responded to a query about the suit by saying: “There’s all kinds of things you can do.”
“And he presses the exhaust button and kind of deflates himself and his chin goes down and he finishes up in this glorious self-mocking caricature,” says MacInnis. “I learned a lot about him, I think he learned a lot about himself and this environment, and I was very privileged to have had this time with him.”
The Documentary: The Day I Met The King, presented by Orna Merchant, is on BBC Sounds.