Today we visited the base hut of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. It’s not far from where we’ve been diving at Cape Evans. One of the girls from Carey came out with us and brought the key. We drove the Piston-bully there between dives. It was a beautiful, quiet, touching experience I think for all of us. Everything is perfect and untouched. The stores are still on the shelves. The sheets are on the beds. The papers lay on desks as if just put down. Everything is one hundred years old. And all of it is as Scott would have seen it before leaving for the pole. He died, exhausted in a tent not 60 miles from here. I felt sad to think he never had the peaceful feeling of relief coming home to this place.
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Lots of this job I do requires trust. Trusting the skills of the people I work with to keep me safe. And they must trust me too. Today was all about trust. Today we went diving in a Helicopter. There were four of us – me, Hugh my assistant, Steve a diver from the base and Kathryn our producer. We packed the Bell 212 early and flew 105 miles to Granite harbour. Once we got there we had three minutes to fly around and find a crack or a hole to dive through – the helicopter just didn’t have the fuel for more time. We touched down and the crew dumped us and the gear on the ice. The helicopter took off and left us. We found a seal hole just big enough to get through with the filming equipment. My assistant Hugh and I got our gear on and dived in. We spend over 3 hours in the water. Nine hours after it had dropped us off the helicopter came back. We packed our gear and flew back to Macmurdo. Days like today don’t happen without everyone involved having the absolute highest skill-sets. But thats not enough. There was no way to make today risk free. No amount of paper work could make it totally safe. We had to trust each other. We did and together pulled off the single most exhilarating days diving of my life.
Tonight Hugh Miller is the happiest little cameraman in Antarctica. Hugh has been moonlighting – if such a thing is possible in 24 hour daylight. By day he has been doing the underwater lighting for me and by night he has been finishing the build on his latest underwater time-lapse rig. Simply, it’s a couple of digital cameras, in underwater housings, that take pictures every few seconds – when you play back the pictures the whole scene is sped up hundreds of times. He finished it 3 days ago and today he captured in time-lapse a “Brinicle” growing.
6 weeks ago I’d never heard of a Brinicle either. So here is the science bit. They look like giant underwater icicles and hang from underneath the sea-ice. They can be as big as a foot wide and 30 feet long. They grow because when the sea-ice gets cold and freezes a very salty brine is also formed which does not freeze – don’t ask why, I did and regretted it. The Brine is heavier than sea water so starts to flow down through the pores and cracks in the sea-ice. In places it flows out so thick you can see it like a sort of underwater haze. Because the Brine is colder than the water it starts to freeze it. When conditions are right this freezing starts forming a tube. The Brine flows through the centre of the tube and freezes water as it flows out the end. And that is how a brinicle forms.
There are lots of little ones growing all over the place, and a few big dead ones, but we didn’t find a large one in the process of growing until a week ago. It was 8 feet long with brine pouring out of it. Hugh and I filmed it with my camera and then came back to the hut to warm up. We went back in about 2 hours later. It had grown by 2 foot, hit the seabed and then formed a river of ice about a foot wide running 25feet down the slope. It was carnage. Urchins and starfish had been frozen into the ice river. Some were still alive but most had already snuffed it. It was amazing and we got good coverage. That evening we dared to talk of another that we could cover with the Time-lapse gear – not yet, at that time, completely built yet.
This morning, in almost exactly the same spot, we found another. It was the first time that Hugh’s time-lapse rig had ever been in sea water. The Brinicle we found was about 3 feet from the seabed and flowing really well. Hugh and I swam the cameras and lights across. Hugh pressed go. We came back 3 hours later. It had done the same as the first – hit the sea bed and made an Ice river down the slope. Hugh reset the cameras and pressed go again. We went in late and dragged the cameras out. Hugh has just rendered the image sequence into short films. They are rough but the results are amazing. It looks like a witches spell. A dangerous finger of growing ice extends down and captures the poor little urchins and starfish in an icy web. Some make it away just in time but most are frozen in. It is one of the wildest weirdest things I have ever seen in wildlife. This is going to be a sweeeeeet little sequence!
Well here it is! It’s not pretty but it’s home.
I’m 4 weeks in to this 10 week trip and right now my life revolves around diving down through a 3 foot wide hole in the 8 foot thick sea-ice to inhabit a super cold, super clear underwater playground for as long as my body can take it. The water in Macmurdo sound is the coldest and clearest surface water on the planet. 500 foot visibility and -1.86 degrees Celsius. It is so cold ice forms on the seabed between a depth of 30 feet and the surface. This “Anchor” ice coats the seabed like a carpet. Everything looks like it’s from the abyss and most of the species here are.
When Antarctica got cold all the coastal marine animals died out and creatures from the deep ocean colonised the shallow water. Huge Sponges tattoo the slopes, some of the biggest may be over a thousand years old. Massive Spider crabs and other weird creatures pick their way across the seabed. Urchins and beautiful Red star fish live out their lives in slow motion. The alien sound of Weddel seals add a soundtrack to everything I see. I feel like a child in this landscape. Every moment underwater here is new, ephemeral and profoundly beautiful in a way I did not think possible on this planet.