Divers from the British Antarctic Survey prepare to take the plunge.
The coolest job on the planet?
5 August 2011
When people ask Jonathan James what he does for a living the response is often: 'what on Earth for?' But he thinks working on the largest, highest, coldest and windiest continent on the planet is incredible. The British Antarctic Survey diver shares his first winter under the ice.
It's difficult to describe what it's like working here. Just being in this environment is amazing and my job as a diving officer for BAS enhances that experience tenfold.
I work at Rothera Research Station, which is home to up to 120 people in the Antarctic summer, between October and March, and a team of 22 over the winter. Rothera lies just west of the Antarctic Peninsula, on the coast of Adelaide Island, and provides a year-round base for scientists studying atmospheric, terrestrial and marine science. Maybe I'm biased, but the marine science can be the coolest - quite literally. There's a year-round team of four divers plus visiting scientists over the summer, and our diving projects mainly focus on long-term monitoring. This means things like monthly photography of deep and shallow settlement plates at different dive sites. These small plastic plates mimic a newly iceberg-scoured part of the seabed and they're used to see what types of organisms colonise the plate over several years. Tiny spirorbid worms are the first occupants (these generally cover everything!), then coral-like bryozoans which like rocky surfaces, then anything that feeds on the above such as limpets, starfish and larger worms. It's a succession of colonisation, but plates at different depths are inhabited by different types of organisms at different speeds.
Jonathan James, BAS diver.
We also monitor data loggers at two dive sites around 20m deep, to record detailed monthly temperature changes and collect specimens for experiments on base and back in the UK. Some of these samples are used for thermal-limit studies - to see how organisms react to changes in water temperature in an aquarium and predict how they might cope as global warming increases. Another experiment looks at how organisms cope with changes in oxygen levels.
I've spent two summer seasons here but this is my first winter. Some of the summer dive conditions compare with the murky waters of the UK's Plymouth Sound, but others have been extraordinary. In the peak of summer the plankton blooms reduce underwater visibility, sometimes to barely a metre. This makes photography problematic to say the least, and collecting small creatures even more of a frustrating task, as if it wasn't hard enough with thick neoprene mitts on. There are big advantages to these summer dives, though; whether it's been luck or coincidence, the weather has been pretty outstanding. Clear blue skies and 24-hour sunlight make for some of the best landscapes imaginable, and the dive boat seems very insignificant against the backdrop of Adelaide Island's towering ice cliffs and the distant mountain ranges of the Antarctic Peninsula. When you're acting as surface support for the divers you get the chance to appreciate not just the scenery but also the abundance of wildlife. One minute there's a pair of snow petrels flying around the boat, the next you spot the arched backs of a group of humpback whales slowly cruising past just a few hundred metres away. At these moments everyone on the boat is thinking one thing...who has a camera?
I've discovered a few key points about winter diving so far. When you can hear wind whistling past the dining room window and it's pushing 50 knots on the weather report, you reconsider walking to the next building let alone launching a boat. Then there's the light: at the moment it's near the end of May and we're getting around four to five hours of dusky sunlight. But soon the sun will dip below the mountains for the last time and for a couple of months we'll have a mere two or three hours, significantly reducing our dive window. Next, if you forget your beanie or balaclava you're in trouble, as the ice-cream headaches you get on the boat ride back can be pretty painful! These things make it tricky to plan a day's diving, but when you get out there it's not just good: it's amazing. Once you've warmed tractor, crane and boat engines, bulldozed snow out of the way, rushed out with all your dive kit hoping that the engines haven't frozen up again, checked that there are no leopard seals or orcas nearby, and put all the dive kit on...you roll backwards into gin-clear waters and escape. For half an hour you're beneath the surface, diving down 20 metres into a different world.
At these moments everyone on the boat is thinking one thing...who has a camera?
A lot of people ask me if I get cold when I'm diving. To be honest when I'm under water, the only things that get cold are my hands and feet. But if the dive involves a lot of swimming around, in the summer I can manage an hour under water without getting too cold, provided I have the air.
One thing that I've yet to encounter this winter is sea ice and the trials and tribulations it throws up. We've had the risk assessments and sea-ice travel training, and learned about ice-depth measurements and weather restrictions, and, I do know we'll be cutting holes through ice with a chainsaw before we can make our dive. This sounds pretty entertaining, but the best bit is we get to take the novelty picture of walking upside down under the ice! There are times when it is possible to dive through much smaller, football-sized chunks of brash ice - the broken-up ice that's present most of the year round. Brash ice can make it difficult to manoeuvre the boat, but the view up through it while you're on your safety stop can be pretty amazing, especially on a bright day.
It's not all work and no play here at Rothera. In the evenings I can relax in warm, comfortable buildings and even visit the sauna - next to the mechanic's garage - to warm up after a cold day out. When the weather's bad some people (occasionally even me) get some exercise in the gym where there are regular circuit training and yoga sessions, before enjoying a hot meal and maybe a film in the TV room. And on fair-weather days, we get the chance to venture off base to safe areas nearby for skiing and snowboarding; if you speak nicely to the mountaineers you might even get a climb up the nearby ridges and hills.
The highlight for those of us here over the winter, though, is the midwinter's day present. This is a great tradition here at Rothera where people are away from home for such a long stretch. We pick names out of a hat and everyone goes to great efforts to hand-make a present for the person they've picked. My gift project so far has involved chiselling my finger and making a number of 'slightly' misplaced wood cuts, but I'm hoping they can all be disguised once it's finished!
I feel very lucky to be doing this job. Being away from friends and family can be difficult for a year and a half, but it's an opportunity not to be missed. Everyone remembers where they were when they were accepted for this job and, believe me, it leads to a lot more moments you will never forget.
Jon James is a field diving officer with the British Antarctic Survey. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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