Deep diving exploration under Antarctica: a shocking world

Deep diving exploration under Antarctica: a shocking world

The ice-covered Antarctica is incredible, but also exceedingly cold, but it is a shocking world for deep-diving enthusiasts.

Director Luc Jacquet invited photographer and marine biologist Laurent Ballesta to travel to Antarctica for the deepest human diving exploration in history. It is not as lifeless as the desert, but an amazing world full of vitality.

This is an exploration unlike any other, National Geographic photographer Laurent Ballesta, Vincent Munier, and his team took a cold, unforgiving dive beneath the sea ice in the deep diving exploration ever under Antarctica.

This is based on a National Geographic magazine issued in July 2017.  A magazine highlighting the experience of ice water and the magical passion that led them to have this place so remarkable.

It is still relevant today, and I write this based on articles by researchers and photographers based on this remarkable deep-diving exploration under Antarctica.

Sea ice leaks near the Dumont Deerville Scientific Research Station in eastern Antarctica, and a large amount of ice water forms a scene similar to tentacles, which is very short and rare in this exploration.
A large amount of ice water forms a scene similar to tentacles, which is very short and rare
(Image credit: Laurent Ballesta)

Initiating deep diving exploration in Antarctica

In the morning, when Laurent Ballesta and Vincent Munier reached on foot the French research station of the Adélie Coast in eastern Antarctica-Dumont d’Urville (Dumont d’Urville), they had to break the thin ice formed on the borehole the day before.

This hole penetrates more than 3 meters of ice floes, it is enough to accommodate man inside and outside, below is a vast ocean. They have never tried to dive into such a small opening, but Ballesta always stayed in the lead.

In order of hands, knees, heels, and fins, he swayed through the holes. When he finally entered the icy water, he couldn’t help but look back. This scene frightened the most because the hole had started to close behind him.

During nearly five hours of diving, divers recorded plant and animal life at a depth of more than 70 meters.
During nearly five hours of diving, divers recorded plant and animal life at a depth of more than 70 meters

The bottom of the sea ice is thick mud formed by floating ice crystals, and his descent causes them to move. The dive team shrinks near the hole and looks like an upside-down drain.

When Ballesta put an arm into the icy mud, he found that its thickness was close to a meter. Grabbing the safety rope, he was slowly pulled up, but his shoulder got stuck.

Suddenly, he was stunned by the blow to the head. His diving partner Cédric Gentil was trying to dig him out, and his shovel hit him on the head.

In the end, a hand grabbed him and dragged him into the air. Today’s diving is over, but only a 32nd completed, he said.

Emperor Penguins head to the high seas to find food.
Emperor Penguins head to the high seas to find food. The brown patches above are microalgae, which cling to the sea ice and begin to photosynthesize in the spring.

Under the ice floe in Antarctica

Another photographer, Vincent Munier (Vincent Munier), was invited by director Luc Jacquet to come there, and Jacquet was shooting his work called “March of the Emperor Penguin” (March of the Penguins) sequel.

When Jacques photographed emperor penguins, Mounier photographed them, and their team was responsible for recording life under the ice floe.

In winter, the sea ice here can exceed 96 kilometers above the sea surface, but they arrived in the spring of early October 2015.

In 36 days, when the ice broke and retreated a few kilometers from the coast, they plunged into the sea ice and dive to more than 70 meters.

This little Weddell seal sits on a seam in the ice in Antarctica.
This little Weddell seal sits on a seam in the ice


Vincent Munier has been engaged in scuba diving photography for decades, first in the Mediterranean, where he learned to dive 30 years ago.

Later, the desire for novelty attracted him elsewhere. He once dived 122 meters in South Africa and took photos of rare coelacanths.

He has been diving for 24 hours in the waters of Fakarava in Spell Polynesia and has witnessed the magnificent mating scene of 17,000 groupers.

But this deep diving exploration under Antarctica is different from the past. This time we will dive under the Antarctic ice that no one has ever reached. Conditions there are extremely harsh.

Figure 4: The luminous crown jellyfish found in  deep dive exploration under Antarctica.
luminous crown jellyfish, which is about 35 cm wide, floats in the sea nearly 40 meters deep, glows with its body and 12 tentacles behind it


At home in France, they spent two years preparing. They marked the location of Adélie Coast on the map on the wall, which is the dive site they chose.

They work with manufacturers to find weaknesses in classic diving suits. The water temperature here is below minus 1.6 degrees Celsius, and the saltwater remains liquid below the freezing point of freshwater.

Without dry clothes, you will die in 10 minutes. With your upgraded gear, you can stay for five hours.

Preparation time for deep diving exploration

The preparation time for diving is the same every day. The dive team cannot slide into the ice along the holes that the Weddell seals chewed with their teeth. They have to use an ice drill to make the holes themselves.

When seals need air, they can magically find the holes they’ve made, and our greatest fear is to get lost under the ice. So they put a bright yellow rope into the hole and tied it while diving. Finally, follow this rope to find the hole again.

This Weddell seal, only a few weeks old, looked very curious and was photographed in close-up shots. Marine biologist Pierre Chevaldonné believes that this may be its first swim. Weddell seals are the most southern mammals in the world.
This Weddell seal, only a few weeks old, looked very curious and was photographed in close-up shots. Marine biologist Pierre Chevaldonné believes that this may be its first swim

Usually, their wetsuit has four layers, the innermost being thermal underwear, followed by electrically heated wetsuits, chunky sweaters, and a half-inch layer of waterproof neoprene.

Also, there are waterproof gloves, heating pads, and fins. The total weight is close to 16 kg. Two batteries can be used to heat the tights, a ventilator to eliminate their exhaled carbon dioxide (allowing us to dive longer), spare cylinders, and finally some photography equipment.

They look like astronauts without bubble helmets. Even with the help of Emmanuel Blanche, the emergency doctor, it takes an hour to put on these clothes.

Exploration stoned in the cold

By the time the diving team was finally ready to dive into the cold water in Antarctica, they had put on and carried nearly a hundred kilograms of weight.

It feels as if they are learning to dive again. Struggling to move in the water, swimming is almost impossible. The cold quickly paralyzed the skin of the exposed cheek, then penetrated our clothes and gloves.

It is unbearable, but they have to endure it. Ultimately, when they interrupt their ascent, they will be looking for anything that can distract their pain.

When this emperor penguin was swimming nearby, the diver noticed it. The brown patches above are microalgae, which are attached to sea ice for photosynthesis.
Emperor penguin was swimming nearby, the diver noticed it. The brown patches above are microalgae, which are attached to sea ice for photosynthesis

When they finally got out of the cold water, Ballesta was lying on the ice, he became so dull that he forgot to take off his gear, his skin got hard and wrinkled, his lips, hands, and feet were swollen and numb.

After that, all the divers warmed up their bodies, and the blood started to flow again, but it was also painful at that time.

The pain is so intense that they always want their limbs to be frozen. After 4 weeks, they can no longer feel their toes, even in hot weather. The damaged nerves did not recover until they return to Europe for seven months.

So what motivates them to do this exploration?

The first is light, which every photographer dreams of. After the arrival of spring, after a long polar night, the tiny plankton has not yet begun to enter the most prosperous stage.

Under the ice cubes look very clear, because there are almost no scattered light particles. The pipeline will enter it directly through cracks or holes, illuminating the subtle underwater landscape.

Only a few species of seals, penguins, and other birds live in eastern Antarctica, where there are no land mammals.

More than 60 meters of underwater in Antarctica, light is dim, and the temperature is about minus 1.6 degrees Celsius.
More than 60 meters of underwater light is dim, and the temperature is about minus 1.6 degrees Celsius
(Image source: nationalgeographic.com)

You might think that the ocean floor is as lifeless as the desert. In fact, it is like a lush garden.

Since Antarctica was separated from other continents and frozen over, Antarctic marine life has been largely isolated from the rest of the earth for tens of millions of years.

Since then, the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current has created drastic changes in the west to east temperature gradients around Antarctica, separating marine animals. Long-term isolation has resulted in many unique species here on earth.

Unique flora and fauna under Antarctica

At a depth of more than 70 meters, orange sea squirts are using siphons to forage. They look very simple, just like sponges. But they have evolved very well and belong to invertebrates, but the larvae have spinal cords.
Orange sea squirts are using siphons to forage. They look very simple, just like sponges.

Kelp forest

At a depth of 9 to 15 meters, you can see the kelp forest. Their leaves are moreover three meters long, creating a very spectacular scene. 

This cautious whitebait hides in the kelp forest. The blood of these seabed residents contains antifreeze protein, which can help them withstand low temperatures, In the cold waters of Antarctica.
This cautious whitebait hides in the kelp forest. The blood of these seabed residents contains antifreeze protein, which can help them withstand low temperatures.

Giant starfish

Further down, they encountered giant starfish, 38 cm in diameter, which are much larger than their counterparts living in warm oceans. 

An Antarctica starfish nestled in a tree-like sponge, its diameter is more than 20 cm.
A starfish nestled in a tree-like sponge, its diameter is more than 20 cm

Antarctic sea spiders

Then there are the giant sea spiders. They are arthropods, just like insects and ground spiders.

They can be found in all of the world’s oceans, but they are rare in warm oceans, and they are smaller and almost invisible to the naked eye.

Just like in the Arctic, Antarctic sea spider can grow to over eight inches in size. However, their bodies are so small that their internal organs extend to their legs.

Sea spiders are another example of the mysterious "limit gigantism": they are small elsewhere, but Antarctica can grow into giants
Sea spiders are another example of the mysterious “limit gigantism”

Scallops

In the sea below 50 meters, the light dimmed and they did not see seaweed or other plants.

On the contrary, the seabed is covered with a thick “carpet”, which consists of plumes (colonial animals related to corals) and countless scallops.

Scallops are more than 10 cm in diameter, but they may have grown for over 40 years because animals in Antarctica grow very slowly. 

Extreme animals can be bred under extreme conditions. This seven- to eight-centimeter-long Antarctic scallop may have grown for decades, but it grows very slowly in extreme cold environments.
Antarctic scallop may have grown for decades, but it grows very slowly in extreme cold environments.

Star crinoids

At this depth, they also noticed star feather crinoids, which are close relatives of starfish, and this starfish can hunt floating food with up to 20 wavy arms. Giant isopods resembling beetles crawl and swim among them.

At a depth of more than 30 meters under the sea ice, this feathery star is waving his leaf-like arms, groping for food particles. This is an animal, not a plant. It is a close relative of sea stars and can swim.
Crinoids at a depth of more than 30 meters under the sea ice, this feathery star is waving his leaf-like arms, groping for food particles. (Image credit: Laurent Ballesta)

What this exploration brought us?

60 meters is the limit of their diving, but the diversity here is also the most abundant. They see gorgonian sea scallops, shellfish, soft corals, sponges, small fish, etc.

The color and richness cannot help but remind us of tropical coral reefs. In particular, some invertebrates are very large.

Seals are swimming under the sea ice near Dumont Deerville Scientific Research Station in eastern Antarctica during deep diving exploration under Antarctica
Seals are swimming under the sea ice near Dumont Deerville Scientific Research Station

Because they live in a stable environment, these animals and plants grow slowly, but they seem to have no restrictions unless something is disturbing them. They can’t help but wonder, as climate change warms their world, will they respond?

When the diving team came back to the surface, biodiversity declined. There is no stable environment in shallower waters: drifting icebergs and sea ice wash the seabed, and the ocean surface will experience seasonal freezing and melting.

Freshwater will evaporate into the ocean, which is then supplemented by precipitation, causing drastic fluctuations in salinity.

But there are still a lot of things that will grab your attention. The microalgae will stick to the bottom of the ice floes, turning them into a dazzling rainbow of orange, yellow and green.

The body is attached to the ice floe, and the tentacles of the sea anemone reach into the dark water. Marine biologist Marymegan Daly said this is the only sea anemone species known to live in ice, and it is unclear how they penetrated the ice or survived there.
Sea anemone species are known to live in ice, and it is unclear how they penetrated the ice or survived there.


The bottom of the floating ice is more like a chaotic maze, with different layers of ice, and they walk through them slowly and carefully. One day, as they approached the hole, they saw a pair of mother and child seals coming out.

They have watched them for a long time, and move freely around the beautiful landscape, making people jealous.

On the other day, as they tried to distract themselves from the cold, they were paying attention to the translucent sea anemone clinging on the ice floe.

Sea anemones are firmly attached to the floating ice, and their tentacles are waving in the water, appearing sharp and bright.

In all of the research that the researchers participated in, they have never heard of or seen this animal.

Species are so charming!

The scientists returned to the French scientific research station, looked at the photos they took, and said that they had never seen the anemone we found.

At first, they were very excited, they thought “we had discovered a new species”.

Later, the team learned that American scientists described this animal two years ago when they used remote-controlled detectors to take pictures and even extract samples.

Although team members are a little disappointed, they are still proud because they have seen with their own eyes the subtle life of these amazing creatures.

This Weddell seal accompanies her cub swimming under the ice was found during deep diving exploration under Antarctica
This Weddell seal accompanies her cub swimming under the ice.These calm seals are close to the coast, breathing the air on the ice through holes in the floe.

The deep-diving exploration under Antarctica ice is as charming as Mount Everest but full of hostility. You should confirm your wishes before leaving.

You can’t superficially, can’t pretend you are passionate and don’t set too big for yourself.

But that’s why the photos you see here are unprecedented, and the experience of taking them and seeing this place with your own eyes is so unforgettable that they mentioned.

Conclusion

After 36 days of deep diving exploration under Antarctica, the diving team felt they just beginning to understand that the trip was so stressful, the work was so hard and exhausting, and the sleep was so deep each night that the memories seemed to be completely integrated, leaving only the diving memories.

Their hands and feet are frozen, but their feelings are constantly seething. This deep diving exploration under Antarctica completely occupied their heart, not for the animals they saw, but for this special place. It was really a shocking world.

This is one of 16 species of octopus that live on the seabed of Antarctica found during deep diving exploration under Antarctica
This is one of 16 species of octopus that live on the seabed of Antarctica. The blood of all Antarctic octopuses is blue, which can help them survive in temperatures below freezing.

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Photo credit

All the pictures in this article are taken by nationalgeographic.com and allwaysdive.com

Rajitha Dissanayake

Researcher in the field of Marine Mammals and Bio-acoustic

I'm a Master’s student in marine mammals and bio-acoustic laboratory, Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and focusing on the sustainable environmental application, conservation, and exploring all aspects of the ecology and behavior of marine mammals.

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