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Saturday, October 13, 2007: Incredible Ice Diving at Cape Evans Wall
I'm going to jump back a few days to cover my ice dives since this is one of the most amazing things I've ever done - and I've been around the world a few times and done some amazing things! I thank God and a bunch of others (credits towards the end) for this incredible opportunity and experience.

Me under the ice with a refrozen crack letting in some light. We were drilling on refrozen cracks just like this one the other day from above in sea ice school and now I know what they look like from the bottom!


Here I am very excited to dive and trying to show my smile. I wear two "wet hoods" over my head which means my head gets wet but the hoods trap the water which warms up and keeps my noggin from freezing.

Some background info:
I've only been SCUBA diving for 2 years but Stacy convinced me this was the opportunity of a lifetime and, since I would most likely never get another chance to dive in Antarctica ever again, I should go for it and get the rather intense training I needed so I could dive here. Since the water is so cold and covered with light-blocking ice, there is very little suspended in the water column and the water visibility is some of the best on the planet. I was on a National Geographic expedition exploring Cenotes in the Yucatan jungle with the VideoRay where the visibility was similar but the range of vision was limited by the cave walls. More Cenote pictures here. Under the ice here you can make out valleys and ridges that are hundreds of feet away - a truly incredible underwater vista like none I've ever seen either diving or using the VideoRay. This can cause some interesting problems I'll elaborate on later...

As excited as I was to dive, I was also nervous about my mask leaking. Normally my mask leaks a bit and I just clear the mask by blowing out my nose and tilting my head back. The air displaces the water in the mask and you soon have a mask without water in it. When the water is really cold things are a little different. When the nose gets submerged in really cold water your body goes into automatic "DON'T BREATH - YOU'RE UNDERWATER YOU FOOL" mode. Since I seem to have issues with my mask leaking, naturally I was concerned. If you look closely at the picture below you can see some water in my mask.

After messing around with my mask I didn't seem to have any particular problem with clearing it and even had it 1/2 full of water at one point. Maybe it's because the water is below freezing and my nose is just numb or maybe the water in the mask is warmed up by my face or maybe I just really want to breath...

Here I am descending through the slush layer. Here the ice is only 5' thick so I don't have too far to go down until I'm out of the bottom of the hole. This part is scary since you can't see much and your body is shocked by the sudden impact of this 28.5 degree water seeping all around my 2 layers of "wet hood" covering my head.

On the first dive we saw lots of Weddell sealsunderwater and they were amazing to watch as they watched us. We drove about 10 minutes to another hole at Cape Evans and Stacy and Rob had just dove in and Bob was ready to go when we heard something that sounded like opening a 2 liter soda bottle that had been shook up. Dive god Rob said "Weddell seal" nonchalantly and she came up again just poking out her nose through the slush and blew again - this time sending lots of snot all over some of the guys standing around the hole. She kept coming up and breathing deeply, each time sticking out her head a bit more until eventually...

She stuck out her head and looked right at us! What a sight!

Bob waiting for the seal to blow snot on him. By the way - they have big nasty teeth but only bite if aggravated - so I'm told.

After a while she cleared the hole and Bob, Nick and I descend through the hole and into darker water. This time the bottom is at 117 feet and we are much further away from the shore, which is, in this case, a very steep wall. Recall that I said the incredible visibility can cause problems? It caused two at this location - one for Nick and another for us both. When I got through the hole I saw Nick going up and down rapidly and seeming to have some problem. I swam over to him and he gave me the signal for equalization problems with his ears. I immediately realized he couldn't tell he was going up and down 20' since there was nothing to reference against. Probably the only reason I could tell was that I was on the other side of the down line (a rope with flags and strobes hanging down the hole). I swam him over to the down line and made him grab on and descend very slowly. He kinda did a "Doh" underwater and was fine after that. This whole thing was no big deal but it can lead to panic and panic can lead to stupid decisions.
The dive was incredible and I seemed to swim and swim until all of the sudden I was almost bumping into the huge boulders of the wall. It's REALLY difficult to judge distances with this phenomenally clear water. We swam around observing the abundant life all over the rocks as we moved across the wall. Nick and I were exploring the wall together and we were drifting down the wall as we went. I don't have any pictures but I also saw some sea butterflies swimming mid water - really fascinating! We were watching some fish or something around 80' when Nick starts to descend towards a giant sponge. It looked close but about 1/2 way there I looked at my depth gauge and I was at 90'. I inspect the 4' high, amazing sponge which looked like a Volcano Sponge then signal to Nick to go up. He keeps looking at the sponge then looks at his gauge and nods. After we get out we figure out neither one of us could tell the sponge was 20' away - it appeared more like 5'.

One of the strange physiological issues of diving with air is that when you increase depth to around 90' and beyond you start to experience nitrogen narcosis or in diver slang: being "Narced". Stacy knows she gets Narced around 85'. Nick also thought he might have been a bit "Narced" or under the debilitating effects of nitrogen narcosis since he recalls being "really into" that sponge. My dive computer showed my max depth at 103' and Nicks showed 105' - well within nitrogen narcosis range. The sponge was huge and really fascinating though. Again this wasn't a big deal but another reminder we are diving in a very strange environment which requires some new techniques and awareness.
Something else disconcerting was how much ice accumulates on my primary regulator as you can see in the picture below.

The primary regulator is cooled a bit below the surrounding water temperature as high pressure air exits the tank and expands and cools. This causes ice to form all over it even though I'm moving through the water. This would also happen with a normal second stage regulator (the one in my mouth) except that the ones we use have a heat exchanger in them which extracts the heat from my exhaled breath and transfers it to the valve to keep ice from forming inside the regulator. This can still happen and the regulator is designed to "free flow" if it freezes. Normally when you suck in air, a valve opens and when you stop sucking the valve closes. A free flow means the valve stays open and air - precious air is dumping out of your regulator. You can still breath just fine but you are losing air quickly. This is the reason we have two regulators - each on their own valve and the reason Rob makes us switch them under the ice on our first dive. This is standard SCUBA stuff but complicated by the really cold water. It's strange to have to find your mouth - it's all numb so I had to use my other hand to pull my mouth open and get the regulator in there. Once you swap to the other regulator you have to shut off the valve to the free flowing regulator which is extremely difficult with the drysuit and everything on. You either have to remove the tank so you can get to the valve or get your dive buddy to shut off the correct valve.

And if the day weren't odd and interesting enough - I actually went bowling that night! The alley was built in 1961 and I think it had 4 lanes but it's down to 2 now. We had two people as pinsetters sitting just above the pins to set them up and return the balls for us!

I want to thank everyone who made this amazing experience possible.
I huge thanks to Stacy for making this all happen and allowing me to be part of the team AND getting me to dive here!
THANKS to my amazing wife Carol, who is now mom and dad to our 4 kids ages 6, 4 and 2 years old and 6 months. She says I'm just another kid to take care of anyway - I don't know what she's talking about...
Thanks to my partners in VideoRay - Scott Bentley, Tom Glebas and Chris Gibson.
To Steve VanMeter for lending my his drysuit and advice.
Also to my Science Dive Instructor Mike Zinszer at Florida State University for teaching me how to do underwater forensics while being followed by an 8' alligator. Also thanks to his wife Amy and their daughters Elizabeth and Caroline for letting me be part of their family for 2 weeks as I trained and lived with them.
Also thanks to Joe Porter for inviting VideoRay to the Dominican Republic so I could get a bunch of dives in and to John Chatterton for making fun of me doing drysuit training for the Antarctic in 83 degree water!
Also thanks to the NSF for funding Stacy and the SCINI project. I hope they understand what a great effort and contribution this team is making.
And thank you all for your tax dollars - they are well spent with this bunch I can assure you!
And one more picture so you actually read the credits...
This is what happens when you don't cover your face - moisture from your breath freezes on everything around you. Did I mention it's cold?

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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. ANT-0619622 ( Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.