AT 9PM WE BIVOUAC with 30 other guests in double sleeping-bags dug into grave-sized depressions in the snow.
I wake at 3am for biological reasons, but hesitate in my warm bag, listening to the explosive thunder-cracks of glaciers calving in the sound around our small island.
The Antarctic sun is low on the horizon behind a three-dimensional layer of mixed clouds. But the light is strong enough to bring out the muted colors of the mountains reflecting on the still water, so I grab a camera before I head to the Portapotty (we take everything with us back to the boat to keep the island pristine, even our waste).
On day three we arrive at 65° 07’ S, 064° 02’ W, the furthest south Ortelius will take us on this voyage. Between Pleneau and Petermann islands we plan to dive an iceberg. This is on all of our dives-to-do lists, but we learn that iceberg-diving in the Antarctic summer is not a simple task.
“The bergs are dynamic – in addition to constant motion on the winds and currents, they are melting,” Henrik tells us in the pre-dive briefing. “This mix can create a deadly combination of instability where the bergs can flip over or calve chunks onto a diver. So we’re looking for
a good, stable piece of ice that can give you a pleasurable dive.”
After kitting up, we spend the better part of an hour wending our way through an ice-field in deteriorating weather conditions looking for the “Goldilocks” (not too big, not too small but just right) berg. Only six of us are diving today, using two RIBs.
Henrik leads in the first boat and finally finds the right berg. As his divers roll into 200m of water on one side of the berg, we do final kit checks and Catherine motors our boat into position.
Then, as if from a page in Henrik’s safety briefing, the wind and current begin pushing our berg into another one nearby.
The conditions have become dangerous and the safety recall to the three divers in the water is initiated – the banging of a long metal pipe with a hammer from the side of the RIB.
The extraction is text-book, the divers quickly surface and are safely recovered before the ’bergs collide. But conditions remain too treacherous to continue, so we abort the dive (and the following dive later in the day) and move to the beach to photograph breeding Adelie penguins.
Sailing north up the Neumayer Channel overnight, we arrive at Wilhelmina Bay the following morning.
Kitted up, we finally find a Goldilocks berg where we experience Henrik’s third difficulty of diving around melting ice – buoyancy control.
Much like a plane navigating through turbulence, the freshwater lens around a berg creates a buoyancy “downdraft” that must be countered quickly.
Yet, once outside the freshwater boundary, the additional buoyancy must be jettisoned just as quickly.
Add a camera-kit to the mix under the frigid conditions and underwater workload can increase exponentially.
We do the dive and collectively agree, tongue-in-cheek, that the next time we go berg-diving, it will be during winter. After all, the water temperature is the same!