Produced, Shot & Edited By: Rick Morris, r.e.m films
For someone with more than forty years of diving experience, the underwater world should hold few surprises—but what I discovered under the ice is another realm entirely. I am not talking about lake ice, but “big ice”—like what you find in the Arctic or Antarctic; and while it is fairly common to see Antarctic imagery and recreational dive trips to the Southern Ocean are common, an Arctic experience is a whole new can of worms.
To begin with, getting to the Arctic is fairly difficult unless you are able to secure space on a military vessel designed to break ice (in the U.S., there are only three Coast Guard Ice Breakers—and one of those is currently out of commission); you’ll need to prove that you are working on some form of science or exploratory venture to get on board.
However you manage to get there, that’s only the beginning of your troubles—the Arctic offers some of the most difficult diving conditions in the world. This is not McMurdo in the Antarctic, which, while also incredibly difficult to reach, offers outstanding surface support and diving facilities. The heated sheds at the sites, zodiacs to the ice flows, half-tracks to transport you and your gear, and a minimum of two support personnel for each diver all make Antarctic dive trips seem like vacation travel by comparison.
Suppose you are a scientist destined for Arctic exploration: the journey takes you to Barrow, Alaska—a town reached only by air since there are no roads—the last stop before a chopper transfers you to an icebreaker that will steam north for a minimum of two days. If you are lucky enough to find ice thick enough to dive from, the real fun begins.
In the Arctic, it’s only you and your fellow divers; you tend to yourself and also act as support for the others. After the Coast Guard lowers you to the ice, you will pull your own gear by sled to the dive site, which could be as far as three-quarters of a mile away, over snow ridges and down through deep slush and more snow. It will likely be snowing, and the 20-mph winds will drive chills to well below zero, if the temperature wasn’t there already.
Of course, there is no such thing as a pre-set dive site in the Arctic, so you will need to cut through the ice with a hand-powered saw and an auger; this can take at least 45 minutes. The cold begins to affect you even before you submerge into the 28-degree water (29 degrees on a warm day). Since divers are totally exposed and required to work in teams of two, you may spend as much as three hours at the surface tending the safety line or just waiting to dive as the safety diver. Each team does two dives per day, so you are wet for a considerable amount of time—and the cold really penetrates to the bone. Oh, and in case you thought the only creatures you might encounter are below the surface, don’t forget you are playing in the polar bears’ backyard. They might be really cute from a distance, but a diver exiting a hole could easily be dinner—so standing “bear watch” with a high-powered rifle is another standard practice for divers in the Arctic.
Once under the ice, there is no bottom—it’s all blue-water diving here—so all dives are conducted with a dual tether. One main line attaches to the lead diver and a second line is clipped to diver number 2. This technique gives the buddy system a whole new meaning, and buoyancy control is paramount. That would be complicated enough if you weren’t wearing heavy weights to help you descend below the ice. (In my case, the usual 36 pounds was bumped to 50, which meant constantly adjusting the air in my dry suit and working with the deflate valve partially open at all times—you can’t really use the BCD inflator since it tends to freeze, and once that happens your dive is over!).
All this being said, however, diving the Arctic is an amazing, life-changing experience. If you are an advanced diver with previous ice experience, you really should try it. On my expedition, I was working with two science projects: one dealing with tagged polar bears and the other searching for life in and under the ice. Mostly, we found tiny plankton called amphipods or very small arctic cod. We never saw seals or other large animals, since we were diving in the winter and our range was far north of the usual playground for these animals. What was most disturbing, however, was the lack of good ice as far north as 78-73 degrees north latitude. At times, we would steam for several days and see no ice at all—a definite sign of global warming.
In this film, you will also see the results from our experience with local indigenous fisheries near Barrow and whaling from small motorboats. So enjoy the first installment of these film–and dive safely.
Bio: Rick Morris is a pro-environment documentary producer who focuses on marine science and the underwater world. His recent work will be seen in two new National Geographic miniseries—“One Ocean” and “News from an Unknown Universe”—as well as on wetpixel.com.