Franco Banfi is a professional underwater photographer, renowned for his spectacular images of marine wildlife, captured across every ocean on the planet. In 2010, Banfi, a Swiss national, dived into the Lago di Sassolo (Lake Sassolo) to reveal the hidden wonders of the ice mazes which form in the glacial lake at 6,560 feet (2,000 m) above sea level, in the European Alps.
Ice diving is highly technical, and is complicated when undertaken at altitude. Banfi has been diving for 35 years, and has “around 100 dives under the ice,” experience gained through his pursuit of the perfect image of rarely seen species. In 2005, Banfi chased Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) in the Arctic Circle, and leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in the Antarctic Ocean.
Banfi wound his way through the sub- and englacial pathways of the ice, in temperatures around 35.6-37.4°F (2-3°C). He remarked, “It can be dangerous if you don’t know the place and if you don’t have experience in an ice environment.” However, Banfi was raised in Cadro, Switzerland, and grew up diving Lago di Lugano (Lugano Lake).
Reflecting on the dangers of his dive at Sassolo, Banfi said “It gets quite dark depending on how much ice there is above your head at the surface – so in some places with thicker ice it gets dangerously dark.” He added, “Ice like this can collapse anytime,” as the exhaled bubbles alter the buoyancy of the overlaying ice.
According to the seasoned diver, his underwater model and dive partner Sabrina Belloni joined him on the journey through the icey labyrinth, but was hesitant, awaiting terrifying signs of an imminent failure of the thick ice. “You can usually hear the crack, but not always,” said Banfi. “If you hear this, it’s already too late.”
The Antarctic Dive Guide by Lisa Eareckson Kelley tells you everything you need to know about visiting the 7th continent from an underwater perspective.
According to the book, diving under ice first started over 100 years ago when divers still used heavy suits and brass helmets to stay dry, while getting their oxygen from ships on the surface. Today, divers use lightweight flexible suits and SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) gear that allows them to do much more under the water, all while deployinh modern technology to stay in communication with the surface and document what they find via underwater cameras and hydrophones.
Though Antarctica may seem like a barren place, cold water upwelling under the icecreates some of the most nutrient-rich waters in the world’s oceans. These conditions breed beautiful creatures of all shapes and sizes that an adventurous diver can get up close and personal with. Though nutrient-rich, the water is very cold, and most animals that have adapted to survive in the harsh conditions are smaller than their lower-latitude cousins. Nonetheless, close encounters between Antarctic divers, surface tourists and seals, penguins and whales are not uncommon.
Kelley’ s dive guide lays out all your options for getting to the 7th continent, whether by cruise ship or private charter, and all the safety and regulatory guidelines to keep in mind if you are planing on going under the surface. The book goes over the best places to dive off the coasts of Antarctica.
Tourists and experienced adventurous alike can get to Antarctica for anywhere from $8,000-$30,000 or more depending on the type of trip. According to Kelly, approximately 35,000 people visit the island each year. The cost is mostly determined by the size of the ship one takes. Larger cruise ships where you would spend all your time on the boat cost the least, while smaller expedition ships with only a couple hundred people, where you would spend much more time on small inflatable boats commonly referred by the proprietary eponym “Zodiacs,” exploring the actual Antarctic landmass, cost more. Privately chartered ships that are often partially wind driven will offer the most flexibility and time ashore, these types of ships will run the most expensive.
Diving under the water requires more experience than your average tourist on holiday. Kelly recommends that only very competent and experienced SCUBA divers attempt the cold waters and high-stakes environment. Everything is more difficult in the cold, you risk frost bite on exposed skin, you grind your teeth on your respirator, batteries for dive computers die faster, and valves and regulators are more prone to failure from the below-freezing temperatures.
Knowledge on self rescue is a must, as is the ability to breath through a freely flowing regulator, which is apparently one of the most common problems faced in the frigid water. A freely flowing regulator is a condition where the compressed air you breath is no longer decompressed to surface pressure, making it harder to breath easily.
Skills like these are essential to a safe trip, as is bringing extra gear, including a dry suit, warm layers, and doubles of all your valves, gaskets etc… Unlike diving on the mainland or tourist islands, there are no dive shops to run into if you need a replacement part in the Antarctic seas.
Lastly, Kelly recommends making sure you have medical or trip insurance that specifically covers medevac from anywhere in the world, and covers high risk activities like SCUBA diving, which many polices explicitly exclude. If you need rescuing, medevac could cost more than six figures, and take over 48 hours, so it’s best to be prepared before embarking on the trip.
Also important to keep in mind are leopard seal attacks, which though highly uncommon, have become more of a concern in recent years, with one reported death in 2004. Kelly recommends at least one diver carry a Leopard stick while in the water. These PVC or aluminum poles are used to ward off any potentially aggressive Leopard Seals.
In spite of the risks, the waters under the Antarctic seas offer incredibly novel and beautiful experiences that most people could never imagine. In many cases, the waters near Antarctic outflow glaciers, especially off the Antarctic Peninsula, and South Georgia Island, provide the best environments for Antarctic SCUBA diving. Besides whales, seals and penguins, lucky divers will get to see a great variety of underwater flora and fauna, including beautiful worms, sponges, corals, jellies and kelp.
Surprisingly, while the world above the water in Antarctica is often shades of white and gray, and everything seems still, under the surface there is an amazingly colorful and dynamic ecosystem.
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