Ice Diving – The bare facts

Diver in Deco

NOTE: While the events portrayed in this article are true, the names have been withheld to protect the semi-guilty!

by Jeffrey Bozanic, TDI 33

I had been down on the Ice for 3 months. That already seemed like a long time, and a few of my already loose screws were getting even looser. But I was in good company. After a couple of months, everyone starts going a little stir crazy.

Oh… “the Ice” means Antarctica. I was there serving as the Dive Locker Technician, and about halfway through my second season there. My duties were to keep equipment operational for the scientists diving there, check out the new incoming scientific divers and orient them to dive operations in the U.S. Antarctic Program, and participate in scientific dives as needed. I also was allowed to conduct some of my own [legitimate] research. This experience did not qualify…ouch!

At the time a good friend of mine had been a long time diving instructor in the Caribbean. He had also done several saturation dives in the Hydrolab, the NOAA owned underwater habitat managed by The West Indies Laboratory of Fairleigh Dickenson University stationed in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was an underwater habitat, where scientists would saturate for week-long periods, spending hours conducting research in the 82oF (28C) water surrounding the habitat. A somewhat more hospitable environment to oversee dive operations than the 28.6oF (-2C) water and average -20oF (-29C) air temperatures in which I was working. I had previously asked my friend to join me on a planned Antarctic saturation mission. He had replied something to the effect of, “Are you #^$&ing crazy? It’s too damn cold there!”

Knowing how isolated it was down on the Ice (these were the days before the station had ample data bandwidth for telephone calls, Internet access, or other communication) he decided to help out by sending me a cheerful photograph of him diving the warm waters of the Caribbean. Naked. With two gorgeous women equally attired, one in each arm. On the back he had inscribed one piece of advice for me… “Eat your heart out, Bozanic!” (I’d send the photograph, but this is not that kind of website!).

Oh, what are friends for??

I could not let him get away unscathed. So I decided I would one-up him, sending him a picture of me under the ice… also naked.

My friend “Diver X” and I planned the dive carefully. We would conduct the scientific dive and complete the objectives we needed to for the day. Then I would climb out and get out of my dry suit, while he waited for me on the surface. When I was ready, he would descend down the hole, below the seven foot thick sea ice, and get ready for me to make a brief (and very short) appearance. Finally, all was set.

Diver X dropped through the hole with the Nikonos camera, and prepared to take the picture. I stripped down to my birthday suit, donned a pair of fins, a mask, and a scuba tank. I then sat there staring at the water, bits of ice bobbing on the surface, thinking, “I have a perfectly good dry suit right there, and I’m about to do WHAT?!” Too much thinking… so I jumped.

It was “take your breath away” cold. No. Colder! I have never breathed so fast in my life. I’m guessing my surface air consumption (SAC) rate must have been at least 10 or 12 cfm (compared to my typical 0.5 cfm). All I was thinking was, “I want OUT!” So I sank down about 10 feet, and waited for X to snap my picture. I had to fend myself off the ice ceiling, because with my rapid breathing I kept floating up. The ice hole was positioned behind me, exactly where we wanted it. He brought the camera up to his mask to take the shot… and then lowered it again to set the focus!

“What the f*&^%k are you doing??” was all I could think. I stayed there, my body burning with the cold. After what seemed like eons, but was probably only 30 seconds or so, X raised the camera to his mask again… only to bring it back down to change the F-stop.

“I’m going to kill him!” Did I mention it was cold? I was shivering like crazy, one arm held above my head, the other violently signaling him to take the picture. He must have been reading my mind. Yet again, he raised the camera to his mask… only to lower it yet again to set the shutter speed.

By this time I was getting cold. Not cold, COLD! I thought about the dive from the week before, when I flooded my dry gloves. 20 minutes in the water was painful. That was nothing compared to today. I also thought about the statistics I had read about survival times of unprotected humans in 32oF water. Five minutes. I had to be nearing that now. “It’s time, X!”

He brought his camera up one more time. Nothing. No strobe. No flash of the shutter. Nothing, He began to lower the camera to adjust it again, but I had had enough. I turned and began to make my way back to the surface.

I moved s-l-o-w-l-y. I could barely manipulate my limbs. I went hand over hand up the down line, reached the ladder, and climbed out. Crawling out of the water, my surface support staff snapped pictures proving I had jumped in the water. (Even though I was too shrunken for the photographs to be considered pornographic, I will still spare your sensibilities by having to view them.) Once I managed to stand up, they had one question for me. “What did you do to your leg?”

Hunh?? My leg? I looked down, to see blood oozing from a deep gash in my calf. I had sliced it open on the razor sharp ice crystals lining the underside of the ice ceiling, but never felt a thing. The cold water had completely anesthetized my leg, and most likely my other limbs as well. “That’s going to hurt later,” I thought. And it did.

While I was drying off and getting wrapped in blankets, Diver X reached the surface. “Man, you were down a LONG time!” he exclaimed. “And you weren’t even in a hurry to get out!” I did not bother to tell him that I was incapable of moving any faster than I did.

He explained that while he had been ready to shoot the photos, his hands were too cold to find the shutter release. He kept bringing his hands down to reposition a finger on the release, but by the time he brought the camera up to shoot again, his finger had slid off the trigger. Even with dry gloves on, he needed to use the hand not holding the camera to move his recalcitrant finger back onto the release. He never did get a shot.

My dive lasted 4½ minutes. Some of the longest minutes of my life. Everybody expects ice diving to be cold. It does not have to be if you are properly dressed for the experience. Exposure and hypothermia come quickly when under dressed. It is important to have adequate protective gear on during an ice dive. True, this was an extreme case, but divers can become unknowingly impaired even during a “normal” ice dive. I thought I had reasonable control of myself while I was in the water, but when I went to exit I found that I was severely impaired. I had broken a cardinal rule of diving, by allowing the dive objective (in this case, a photograph) to supercede safety procedures (getting out when I felt cold).

In the end, my Caribbean friend had the last laugh. Not only did he have fun taking his picture, he ROARED when he heard the story of me trying to take mine. I have never considered trying again. “Eat your heart out, Bozanic!” indeed!

Disclaimer: DO NOT try this at home! This antic was performed by a professional diver on a closed course. Although I had a diver in the water with me and support staff on the surface, this is not a recommended dive. (Just in case you had any doubts at all….)

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