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Arctic Summer In The Barents Sea

An expedition to the Barents Sea gave Andrey Nekrasov a chance to dive in cool waters oddly reminiscent of the UK – but supercharged with king crabs and diving guillemots

This was not a destination that you’d describe as easy to get to. We had just spent 60 hours travelling on trains from Odessa in Ukraine to Moscow in Russia, and then Moscow to Murmansk, followed by a four-hour bus journey, before we finally reached Teriberka on the coast of the Barents Sea at midnight, some 3,500km from our starting point. For a UK-based diver, the journey is even further, but we were to find that the diving in the Barents Sea holds plenty of similarities with that found in the UK – it’s like a supercharged Britain. Known as the Murmansk Sea until 1853, the Barents Sea is at the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean, but is like no other Arctic sea – it’s the only one in the region that doesn’t freeze in the winter, a result of the warming North Atlantic current.

On arrival in Teriberka, we boarded the dive boat Kartesh, which put to sea as we slept and headed for Podpacht Bay, where we planned to do our first dive. 

After breakfast and a briefing, my guide Pasha Rudenko and I took the small tender and set out for a check dive. We jumped into the clear waters and headed for the bottom at 15m. The sea bed was covered with bushes of kelp in which a lumpsucker was hiding. Nearby, a red king crab wandered past, and we saw a spider crab hanging on some vegetation, slowly swaying in the current. The bottom was covered with sea urchins and sea stars in a dazzling array of bright colours. For a first dive, it was perfect – kit all in order and plenty to see to whet the appetite for more.

Our second dive took place in the same bay but further out on Cape Krutik. The weather here is changeable to say the least – when we dived in, it was sunny; by the end of the dive, it was raining; and then the wind got up and we had mixed weather for the rest of the day. It’s like this in the Arctic in summer – sounds a bit like the UK! 

Another overnight crossing took us to Tryashina Bay. The underwater scenery in this secluded inlet was impressive. We drifted in the current and took in the view of sheer rocks covered with sea urchins. Strands of Laminaria kelp that were growing from stones stood like exotic palms swaying their crowns in the current. 

After a short rest and some post-dive chat, we headed for land where an uphill walk alongside a river led us to a spectacular view of tundra, lakes and a river falling into the sea where green islands broke the turquoise water – the wild landscape of the far north revealed. 

Good diving and an invigorating walk put paid to most of us, so we had an early night in preparation for a visit to the reserve at Semiostroviye, known as one of the most beautiful places on the Barents Sea, with breathtaking views and abundant marine life.

The morning greeted us with bright polar sun, no wind and temperatures of 15°C-plus. The sea was calm and our boat was anchored amid green islands that seemed to grow from the water and contrasted with the deep blue sky above us. The dive tender headed for one of the islands near which we had our first experience of Semiostroviye diving.

We entered the water and finned down. Above us kelp hung from cracks between the rocks, forming a green arch. It was like being inside an endless green tunnel, with the kelp above us and the sea bed covered with a carpet of sea stars. 

Seals can be sometimes be seen in this area, but we weren’t in luck. With contents gauges hitting 50 bar, we returned to the boat. So, no encounters with seals, but a trip to Harlov, the biggest island in Semiostroviye, provided an opportunity to see a vast bird colony on the seashore. Seagulls and guillemots occupied every sheer rock available and the incredible noise and spectacle of swooping birds made for a breathtaking show. 

At night, we tended to move to other islands in the same group. I say ‘night’, but in the Arctic summer, this is a loose concept – the sun shines 24 hours a day; it goes down but never below the horizon, merely touching the islands before rising again. If you don’t close your porthole, it’s impossible to sleep.

One morning, we turned around Harlov and approached a rocky shore that had been colonised by sea birds long ago. Curious guillemots stared at us from the cliffs. We dived to 15m and swam along the shore, looking up from time to time. 

At the surface, a flock of birds looked down on us with interest. One guillemot seemed intrigued by the bubbles appearing on the water. It put its head in and dived, circling past us before returning to the surface. Where this bird led, others followed – suddenly there were birds diving into the water column all around us. It all happened so quickly that it was almost impossible to concentrate on any single bird. Within 15 minutes, the flock was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. A second dive at the same site gave me the opportunity to take some unusual photographs of the guillemots that once again appeared, and as we started our ascent a puffin passed by. 

We were treated to warm sun and calm sea for the next couple of days before the weather turned for the worse and a storm approached. The boat took refuge in Dalnezelenetskaya Bay, where we spent the last two days of our expedition. 

Dalniye Zelents was once a prospering scientific village founded in the 1930s as the biological station of a zoological institute, and at that time had 100 houses. It has now fallen into decay and no more than 30 people live in the village, but the biological station is still functioning. 

In the 1950s, the red king crab was resettled into the Barents Sea from the Kamchatka Peninsula, in far eastern Russia, to provide a catch for the local fishermen. By the end of the 1970s, the species had populated the whole sea, right up to the Norwegian coast. Today, the population of the red king crab is more than 15 million and several times bigger than the original population off Kamchatka. 

We encountered some of these giants while diving in Dalnezelenetskaya Bay, where we spotted younger crabs comically riding on their bigger brothers – a rare sight, as this species tends to live in deep water and you are usually only likely to see individuals rather than groups of crabs at the 10–15m depth that we were diving to.

The week-long expedition to the north had flown by and it was time to say goodbye to the Arctic, but I was left with some fantastic memories of the Barents Sea. The underwater flight of guillemots will stay with me forever. 

Need to know

BarentsSea Map

Average topside temperatures for the Barents Sea in summer are 6–20°C and the weather is highly changeable. Water temperatures average 4–10°C, so a drysuit is required. The best time to visit is in June and July, when the Arctic summer is at its height and the visibility is good.

Those taking on the challenge of visiting the area will need two regulators and a certificate stating that you can use a drysuit. For more information, go to www.kartesh.ru/index/ru.htm.

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