The British Antarctic Survey has recently been advertising for new recruits to join their Rothera Research Station, located on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Scientific diving plays a crucial role in their world-leading environmental research – but what does diving in Antarctica actually involve? The BAS team took some time out of their busy schedule to tell us about one of the coolest jobs in the world…
British Antarctic Survey divers at Rothera collect marine invertebrates and sediment samples, deploy data-loggers and survey iceberg scours. Data from these dives are critical to long-term monitoring projects investigating the effects of climate change on one of the most rapidly changing – but least explored – regions on the planet.
Collecting information about the marine biodiversity of the Antarctic involves using measuring tools such as transects (lines) and quadrats (grids) to analyse the distribution and population of a variety of marine invertebrates, some of which collected and returned to the surface for further study.
Suction devices are used to take samples of sediment from the seabed, and the iceberg scours (gouges in the seafloor made by the underside of drifting icebergs) are diligently surveyed to see what might have been left behind by the passing ice.
Annual variations in the biodiversity collected through these samples are recorded and examined alongside physical parameters such as temperature and pressure, measured by the data-loggers which are deployed by the divers and weighted to the seafloor. Photographic and video evidence is also taken to support the collected data.
Rothera is the only Antarctic research station to conduct dives all year round in both summer and winter. In summer up to four dives can occur in a day, if the weather is good and there are no leopard seals orcas in the area.
Encounters with such animals are rare, but safety is of paramount importance. 30-minute watches are undertaken prior to any dive to check for their presence, and no diving takes place for 4 hours if they are spotted close by.
During the summer, large phytoplankton blooms reduce the underwater visibility to less than 1 metre, which can be like diving in a green pea soup. However, the combination of good weather and 24-hour sunlight often highlights the beautiful landscape of the towering ice cliffs of Adelaide Island, and the distant mountain ranges of the Antarctic peninsula.
Throughout the winter, a maximum of two dives is conducted each day because holes need to be cut through the frozen sea ice, weather restrictions are tighter, and limited sunlight means that dive time windows are greatly reduced
At any given point, the 2-person dive team will have one diver operating and the other acting as in-water standby, with the dive supervisor present at all times, and tender or dive cox’n (boat handler) as required. Close observation, together with local knowledge and experience, are all part of the dive safety decision-making process.
A typical day begins at 8:30 am with a dive meeting to discuss the marine research that needs to be carried out that day, and where it will take place. Divers will then set up their dive gear inside the dive store and check it is all working correctly before loading it up for transportation. The gear is checked again by the dive supervisor at the location of the dive, and is usually covered with a blanket to keep the sets warm and incident free.
The diving set-up is similar to that commonly used around the UK – a compressed Neoprene drysuit, hood and mitts, with thick fleece thermals, a coldwater first stage, a 12-litre main tank and 3-litre bailout. The main differences to the standard UK set-up are that British Antarctic Survey divers use full-face masks with built-in comms to allow communication between the divers and their boat, and a glycol seal is put over the first stage, to prevent the build-up of ice which could lead to a free-flow.
The bulk of the diving takes place in less than 30 metres of depth, much of it even shallower. The risk of decompression sickness is therefore small, but Rothera is equipped with a two-compartment, multi-place recompression chamber, and the station doctor is always available during dive operations.
The Antarctic sea floor is filled with diverse marine life and no day of diving in Antarctica is the same. Apart from the incredible scenery of the world’s last true wilderness, and the opportunity to dive in one of the most exhilarating locations on the planet, British Antarctic Survey divers are world-leading pioneers of scientific research.
If you’re interested in becoming a diver for the British Antarctic Survey, you can the find the latest vacancies on their website at www.bas.ac.uk/jobs/vacancies. Please note: the minimum requirements in order to become a diver for the British Antarctic Survey are:
- UK HSE Scuba or CMAS 3* equivalent
- 100 logged dives
- 50 cold water dives (less than 12°C
- 25 drysuit dives
- HSE First Aid at Work
- In-date dive medical
Full-face mask and small boating experience are desirable and extra qualifications may be required for some of the different diving roles that are available.