Working Under the Antarctic Ice Is Actually Pretty Great
Since 2006, Art Woods, a marine biologist at the University of Montana, has made annual two-month trips to Antarctica to dive under the ice and study curiously large sea spiders. We asked him what it's like to do science when the ocean is freezing, the dives are deep, and there's only one hole to come up for air.
I first went down to Antarctica in 2006 to study why marine invertebrates at the poles get really big. I fell in love with the sea spiders, which are weirdly big and weirdly all over the place. In Antarctica, they’re bigger than a dinner plate. In the rest of the world, they’re the size of a quarter.
We go in October, early in the austral spring. The sea ice is solid then, which helps us get to our dive sites. Normally, it’s between minus 5 and minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The winds get up to 60 miles per hour.
The biggest danger is frostbite. I won’t brag about being tough. I have fairly poor peripheral circulation. A couple times, I got frostnip on my nose. You don’t feel it. That’s the danger—you don’t feel anything. Usually someone else notices it: a waxy, whitish patch on your skin. It feels really stiff, as if it’s frozen, which it is.
The U.S. Antarctic Program gives us two giant duffels of gear, including super-warm pants, boots, and a giant jacket we call Big Red. It has a padded hood with fur that zips up to a tiny hole around your face. It’s the warmest jacket I’ve ever worn.
On a diving day, we drive PistenBullies—they’re like little tanks—out to the dive site. We drill a hole through the ice, which is about six feet thick. We put a hut over it so we’re out of the wind, and we have a propane heater. It’s pretty cushy.
Once you’re in the water, it’s a race against the cold. Our typical dive is 35 minutes. For the first 20 minutes, you feel pretty good, and then your hands become harder and harder to use. It takes some serious stoicism and concentration. It gets easier with time. You come to expect the pain of the cold, and it bothers you less.
We dive with these burly regulators that don’t freeze, and we wear drysuits, so we’re totally dry on the inside if everything goes well. Under that, we wear two sets of heavy-duty long underwear and a high-loft Polartec suit. We have a 12-millimeter hood for our head. Your face is exposed around your mouth, but that skin goes numb really fast.
The water is 28 degrees, the freezing temperature of seawater. In shallow water, there’s a lot of anchor ice—big ice crystals that form on the bottom. We’re almost always diving deeper than 50 feet, sometimes down to 130. Light does come through the ice. It’s sort of gloomy down there, but the visibility is usually 600 feet.
We did a couple dives 80 miles away from McMurdo Station. A helicopter flew us out. We were about as far from civilization as you can get, diving in ice cracks that Weddell seals use. We had no warming hut. We were at the mercy of the weather and the wind. It was exhilarating.
We’re always eating when we’re on the surface, usually leftovers from the station galley—pizza, burritos, and sweet desserts. The snacks aren’t healthy, but they pack a lot of calories, and that’s what you need.
It’s one of the best scientific experiences I’ve ever had. It’s like you turned back the clock a hundred years and you’re doing discovery science. By going to an extreme place and doing stuff no one has ever done, you’re almost guaranteed to find something interesting.
Interviewed by Jacob Baynham.