“You are crazy!”
“Is it really worth it?”
“What do you see under the ice?”
These are the most frequent comments I have received since I started polar diving in 2014. The answer is “Yes, it is totally worth it to brave the cold and immerse yourself in -1.7° Celsius water to explore what is under the ice.” I am convinced that most of my explorer friends who have shared this experience with me will answer the same way without hesitation.
Even after the pain I experience when my face and hands thaw, what is under the ice that I love so much that keeps me going back? The ice itself! That’s right – the ice underwater is probably the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen in my life. Not that it is the only thing to see down there, but it is certainly to me the most powerful experience. It is something that will change you forever.
To be able to explore this underwater frozen world, open water is required, which can be a real challenge to find in June, when diving operations usually occur. The floe edge is a good option but sometimes, when the sea ice is too thin, it is too dangerous to set up a diving base camp for the day. Also, polar bears and walruses are often seen at the floe edge, which can present another danger. We then need to find a lead (a large fracture within an expanse of sea ice), an iceberg, a seal hole or cut the ice.
Once the dive site is found, the long process of getting geared up starts. To handle the freezing water, we wear dry suits that protect the whole body, except our head, by preventing water from entering. The disadvantage of dry suits is all the extra weight you must wear to achieve neutral buoyancy. Some divers will wear up to 35 lbs just in dive weight! The process of getting suited is sometimes so difficult that, surprisingly, at this point, the divers are often overheating. That means it is time to go under the ice to begin the discovery! One last safety check; we must put a hydrophone in the water to listen for the possibility of walruses nearby.
I remember so vividly the first time I dove by an iceberg. What crossed my mind was the feeling I was looking at the most sophisticatedly designed and engineered cathedral that has ever been built, except it was underwater and it was not man-made. It reminded me of something I read once, “All art is but an imitation of nature”. You can hear the fizzing sound coming from the iceberg, which is a remarkably relaxing sound. As it melts, the air bubbles pop as they are released into the water. The freshwater released by the iceberg seems to enrich the pelagic ecosystem. All kinds of fascinating pelagic species can be found, like the beautiful sea angel (Clione limacine), a kind of swimming sea slug. I have also once even seen the majestic king eider (Somateria spectabilis) feeding on molluscs on the bottom of the ocean, a bird you don’t really expect to see while diving along an iceberg!
The same feeling of astonishment was experienced by one of my dive partners when we dove under pack ice. When we came up to the surface, he said: “This is unreal, I feel as if I am swimming through an exhibition where each block of ice is a masterpiece!” Diving in this frozen landscape gives you moments of awe with its beauty but also gives you a better understanding of the Arctic ecosystem – the fragile balance between the species, like narwhal, and the ice. I was fortunate enough to see, while snorkeling this time at the floe edge, the mythical narwhal. I saw this very skilled deep diver going in the darkness underneath the sea ice, a sight I will never forget. They seem so peaceful; they certainly belong there. The same feeling of peacefulness came when I could hear, underwater, the bearded seals chatting, a magical and mysterious sound that makes you forget all about being cold.
What also makes Arctic diving so extraordinary is there is no way of knowing what we are going to see each dive. Throwing ourselves in the unknown underwater frozen world is scary but also so very rewarding. This was the case when we decided to dive in a lead. We had no idea what we would see since the bottom was too deep to be reached but something incredible was discovered. We saw where life begins in the Arctic ocean. The bottom of the sea ice was covered with ice algae, part of the base of the polar food web! This is where I truly understood the crucial role the sea ice plays in the Arctic. It is, in a way, what soil is for plants in the southern region!
I have had the chance to share all these amazing Arctic diving experiences with people from around the world but some of the most special times were with Inuit friends. They have been looking for endless hours at the surface of the water or the sea ice since a young age while going hunting and fishing with their parents. They have never really had the chance to explore this underwater world since it is too cold. When we gave them the chance to go with dry suits, they didn’t hesitate very long before they jumped in too! After only a couple of minutes of diving with my friend, I saw him digging on the bottom of the sea and realized he was looking for food. I couldn’t stop laughing, thinking of how much Inuit appreciate food from the wild. There was no time for leisure; my friend needed to bring back some food for the community.
I feel so fortunate that I’m living at a time when summer sea ice and icebergs in the Arctic are not yet a thing of the past. These underwater monuments could be, in my opinion, named as part of our World Heritage Sites. To be selected, a World Heritage Site must be an already classified landmark, unique in some respect as a geographically and historically identifiable place having special cultural or physical significance. This idea is not applicable with a landscape. It cannot be restored or maintained like a cathedral, a mural or an abbey can. It is an impermanent exhibit. But like life, it has value precisely because it is transient and impermanent.
Françoise Gervais is an Expedition Leader with Arctic Kingdom.