University of Southern California

A First Dive

Judith Connor, January 19, early morning — The International Antarctic Biology Course has kicked into high gear now. At any hour of the day (there is no night this time of year), one finds Tara or Idan or some other young scientist at work in the Crary Science Center. They scurry from the upper level library to our labs, then down the ramp to the lower level aquarium and back again. There’s plenty to see and do, with sea urchins, sea stars, antifreeze fish and other creatures downstairs in tanks of frigid, flowing water. Just poking at the seaweeds in a tank chills me to the bone. I wondered how researchers survive the penetrating cold while diving under the ice; now the time had come to find out.

The group studying anchor ice wanted rocks and mud for an experiment, so instructor Jim Leichter (from Scripps) suggested that we plan a collection dive.

judith diving suit.JPGI lugged my dive gear downhill to the dive locker, where professional divers Shawn Harper and Addie Coyac waited. We each set up our own heavy equipment, attaching two regulators a single tank and 40 pounds of lead weight in the pockets of a harness. I pulled on thick insulating jumpsuit over polypropylene underwear and two pairs of polypropylene socks. I slipped my feet into my dry suit, pulled on boots, then added ankle weights. Feeling like a 10-ton elephant, I carried tanks, weights, gloves, masks and fins out to the Pisten Bully utility vehicle, and Addie drove us down the hill and out over the ice to the ice hole.

What a trip it was to peer into the narrow hole in the ice as we finished dressing for the dive. David Ginsburg and Sam Rastrick were there as tenders, helping me get zipped into the drysuit, tucking my hood inside, and cinching my wrist guards so that my gloves would not fill up with air. It was time to slide into the hole — a virtual Alice in Wonderland. I wondered if I would feel claustrophobic or have to fight panic, but not at all! I was surprised how warm and comfortable I felt sinking though the 19-foot tube of ice. And then I was really surprised to find the water below the ice as dark as the midnight sky at home. Thank goodness for the flashlight Addie had lent me — without it I never would have seen a thing. With my face down close to the sea floor, I discovered fish, beautiful glass sponges, sea spiders and other invertebrates, and plenty of the rocks and mud we needed. After a half-hour at 80 feet deep, my fingers started to get cold, and I signaled to Shawn to head for the surface. I was glad to see the tenders on the surface ready to help me back to solid ground, and so glad I did that first ice dive. I look forward to the next one.

Judith Connor, Ph.D., is one of the instructors for the NSF Antarctic Marine Biology program and serves on the staff of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

judith dive.JPG


What a way to "break the ice" for the new year! Must have been an amazing adventure! Love Ed & Bannie
WOW Judy... that's amazing! Now excuse me while I turn up the thermostat... you're making me cold. ;-> Pat & Renee
How fantastic Judith!! And how wonderful is it that we get to follow along with your extreme adventure and even see pictures of you down there! We're loving the blog! Stay safe! Susan and Frank
Our 2010 "ice queen" you're an inspirational adventurer! Connor, you rock!
You amaze me Judy... I want to be u when I grow up. Just one thing... more pictures!! How many calories do you have to consume daily to maintain in those temps... and what is the average outside temp?'s just so cool!
I'm not counting calories, but it seems that we are eating all the time. The pace of the course is fast: breakfast, lecture, discussion, lunch, field work and/or lab work, dinner, lecture, lab work, sleep. I've probably lost an eighth of a pound in weight.
How fabulous! Awesome. . .