Diving in the Antarctic, with Kelvin Murray

With the release of PADI’s updated Ice Diver course we thought we’d revisit Kelvin Murray’s report on diving in the Antarctic to inspire you all.

How would you describe your role in the British Antarctic Survey [BAS]?

My primary role was to manage all diving operations in support the British Antarctic Survey’s marine science programme.  This involved planning, leading and supervising dives, training the dive team and base personnel, procuring and maintaining equipment including the on-site recompression chamber, updating and developing manuals and operating procedures, plus mopping the floor!  My other role was to support base operations and the work of other staff – it was all very much a team effort.

What are the diving conditions really like in the Antarctic?

We are very used to seeing footage of divers under Antarctic ice with stunning visibility in crystal-clear water – and this can be the case, especially during the winter months when planktonic life has died off and there is very little organic material in the water column.  However, the opposite can be said during the summer months of massive productivity in the marine ecosystem when visibility can be a few feet!  We had very little current to contend with and certainly avoided windy conditions, especially when there was ice around.  The water temperature ranges between about 2oC/35oF to minus 2oC/28oF, however despite being only a few degrees difference you can really feel the change between plus zero and sub-zero.  In saying that, when the air temperature is -25oC jumping into sub-zero seawater is like getting into a warm bath – for a while anyway!  When we climbed back out onto the ice after such a dive our drysuits would freeze solid…

How would you organise and lead a dive under these conditions, and what sort of things to you have to take into consideration?

Despite operating 8,000 miles from the UK, we carried out our diving operations under British Diving at Work Regulations, which gave us an acceptable standard to adhere to.  This meant we had a process of risk management, standard operating procedures and equipment requirements that all helped to actually make things easier when planning dives.  BAS has its own systems and procedures based on decades of diving experience ‘down south’ however each Diving Officer will bring their own experience to the role.  As a PADI Instructor I am very familiar with having well-established standards and procedures to follow when leading divers, and I brought this to the dive locker.  We had divers of all level of qualification and experience working at the base throughout the seasons, and assessment, encouragement and management of the team was a daily routine.

My two main considerations were always the weather, including the ice and how it moved, and who was the best person for the job in hand.  Although we had a Dive Supervisor with assistant on the surface able to talk to the divers via through-water comms, I always had to consider how any buddy team would respond to a situation as if they were on their own.  Pack and brash ice [floes and chunks of ice] could be extremely dynamic and almost seem to have a mind of their own.  We were very wary of how it could suddenly move and how the weather could change.  When we first started diving through fast ice [solid, unbroken ice attached to shore] none of my dive team had done so before, and were naturally apprehensive.  I trained them with the PADI Ice Diving Specialty and gradually built up their experience and confidence, escorting them on additional dives until they had mastered the required skills and were completely confident.  The safety of the team was always my highest priority in this harsh and unforgiving environment.

What sort of marine life might you encounter under the ice?

The majority of our work focussed on benthic marine life – the creatures that live on or near the seabed.  Our dive sites had a variety of topographies, from silty shallow bays to vertical rock walls.  Deep, steep slopes were rarely impacted by icebergs or fast ice, which allowed colourful colonies of corals, sponges, bryozoans, sea squirts and brachiopods to establish and grow.  Some of the barrel sponges we saw were two metres in height, rivalling those of the Caribbean.  Amongst this animal turf we would find a few fish species including polar cod, amphipods, isopods, urchins, sea-cucumbers, starfish, sea-spiders and brittlestars.  Some of the starfish could be nearly a metre across!  Soft seabeds would provide a home for burrowing clams and predatory metre-long worms and large snails.  There is an incredible amount of biodiversity in Antarctic waters – much more than vaunted destinations such as the Galapagos.

Although we had various penguin species around the base I never saw these endearing birds in the water at Rothera – I had to wait until I moved on to expedition diving in order to enjoy that.  And yes, penguins are endearing.  You can be the biggest, baddest polar diving hero out there but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to smile at the antics of these hardy polar birds.

We also had encounters with various seals.  On one unforgettable dive under the ice we were ‘boomed’ by the vocalisations of a Weddell seal.  These deep-diving seals produce an eerie, almost electronic-sounding series of calls and we could feel the sound waves in our chests as the seal swam up to us for a closer look.  We were concerned about having a negative encounter with a Leopard seal.  There are understandable concerns about these massive predatory mammals as Rothera was the scene of the only recorded fatality due to Leopard seal attack.  Our policy involved maintaining a watch before and during the dive for the seals, and to abort any dive if one appeared.  In my current work with Silvertip I take tourists and filmmakers diving with Leopards, and it is always with a healthy dose of respect for this poorly known, enigmatic and beautiful animal.

What would a typical day’s diving in the Antarctic comprise for you?

After breakfast the team would meet in the dive locker.  We would assess the weather conditions and what the scientists needed to achieve that day.  This could involve collecting specimens for the aquarium, installing monitoring equipment, photographing settlement plates or surveying iceberg impact zones.  We also dived to survey visiting ships or to assess the condition of the wharf and runway structures.  There was always some sort of work required and I had to be present whenever diving took place.  We would aim for four dives per day and split up various roles as required; dive supervisor, boat coxswain, working diver and safety diver.  Divers would assemble and test all their equipment at the dive locker and the dive supervisor would oversee and double-check.  We would load our equipment onto sledges and snowmobiles when ice diving, or more commonly into our dive boat on a trailer, which would then be towed to the wharf for launch.

All of our dives were working dives.  One diver would do the required job, while another was purely a safety diver who would monitor the situation, control safety lines and lookout for seals.  The divers were connected by a buddy-line and a lifeline to the surface – either to a hard plastic buoy or a tender while ice diving.  This ensured we had a means of locating and retrieving divers, or communicating with them if radio comms failed.  Although we were always working, we did have some fun under the ice.  It is quite a weird sensation standing upright but upside-down under metres-thick sea ice, watching your bubbles go the ‘floor!’

Upon returning from a dive, I would ensure the divers got back indoors and warmed up as soon as possible.  After a hot brew at ‘smoko’ – the BAS term for tea break – I would clean and maintain the gear, fill cylinders, complete paperwork and get ready for the next dive.  If diving was cancelled for some reason, usually weather-related or occasionally due to a Leopard seal or Orca sighting, I still had plenty to do.  Diving would only take place if the recompression chamber were in a state of full readiness; therefore it had to be maintained, inspected and other base personnel trained.  We didn’t allow recreational diving however many base personnel had diving certifications.  They were more than willing to get involved and learn more about chamber operations.  We ran mock scenarios each month and I trained several divers using the PADI Recompression Chamber Distinctive Specialty.  As a result, we had many staff trained in advanced first aid and chamber operations that could back up the regular dive team.

Has leading dives in the Antarctic influenced your diving habits in general, and if so, how?

Absolutely, in so much that it has reinforced certain ideals. The British Antarctic Survey conducts the only scientific diving programme that consistently dives throughout the Antarctic winter, during which time the 22 base staff at Rothera are cut off from the outside world for 6 months by 14 million square miles of ice.  Since then I have dived some of the most isolated locations on the planet, in the Arctic, the Pacific and Atlantic.  These extreme situations throw into sharp relief just how absolutely paramount safety is.  I double and triple-check my plan and my equipment.  I have back-up kit and procedures.  I ensure good safety support.  I have streamlined my equipment and keep it in good condition.  I continue to dive to the core principles I learned on my PADI Open Water course – knowing my limits, being comfortable with my equipment, safety checks.  I get frustrated when I see divers getting complacent about their diving and taking all this for granted.  I apply the same principles whether I’m guiding on a tropical reef or leading divers under polar ice.  Diving in remote and harsh environments is a regular occurrence for me, however that doesn’t mean I take any of my diving as a matter of routine.  Besides…I told my Mum I’d always come back safe!

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