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The Truth About Diving in Antarctica

Let’s be honest, Antarctica doesn’t have a reef, tons of fish, plants or even cool topography like the majority of dream dive destinations. It’s a complete pain in the ass to get to, especially given how much cold water gear you have to lug around. So why did it top my bucket list? Simple. Beyond the novelty of it, it’s very low chartered territory, making it a unique wildlife experience.

When I first got it in my head that I was going to scuba dive in Antarctica, I started researching. But the information available was primarily found in message boards and comment sections, where past divers shared brief tips and experiences. As hard as I tried, I really couldn’t piece together an accurate picture of what it’s really like to dive down there. This is why I’m sharing my experience so if you’re at all considering it, you’ll know what you’re really getting into.

Let’s start with logistics…

 What to bring

Short answer: everything (link to packing list). Because diving is not the most popular sport down there (read: there were only four divers on my boat of nearly 60 passengers), the expedition companies outsource to other companies to offer diving on a few specific trips only, and typically late in the season (Feb/March). For example, although Aurora Expeditions (the company I went with) makes multiple Antarctic expeditions during the November to March season, they only offer scuba diving on one or two of the trips. To do this, they outsource to Waterproof Expeditions, who is expected to fill the dive spots on the boat. Waterproof also provides the dive professional(s) who are responsible for overseeing the divers and all dives. Therefore, without spare gear on board, you are expected to bring every piece of equipment you may need, plus spares. The last thing you want to do is get down there, lose a mask or blow an o-ring and have it leave you useless for the remainder of the trip. (For reference, on my trip between four divers we lost at least one fin + one GoPro).

You’ll also want to bring all your warmest gear. You are diving around icebergs; that should tell you everything you need to know. To be more specific, the temperature was -1 degrees C, or 29 degrees F. Check out my packing list (link) for a full recommendation.

Speaking of the cold water, everyone in my group free-flowed at least once. This typically happened at or near the surface, but take it as a quick reminder to practice your free-flow surfacing technique just in case. While technically you are set-up to reach back, shut off your free-flowing valve and use your spare reg, very few people are nimble enough to do this. Therefore, it’s more likely you’ll signal your buddy and end the dive. Realistically you will get cold way before you get low on air, so you will have plenty of air to safely get up to the surface.

 Number of dives

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have the bladder of a child and can barely make it two dives in a row without peeing. So, if I have a four or five-dive day, I’m not above an adult diaper. But in Antarctica? Here’s the deal. You’re only doing a max of two dives per day, with a lunch break on the boat in between. It’s disappointing for hard core divers who want to get more dives in, but it’s the reality. So, you have all the time in the world to undress, warm up, pee, eat, take a nap, read a book, and catch up with those who did a hike before your second dive. Because our trip was cut short, we only did three or four dives. At most, we could have eked out five, but given the clarity, I preferred to hang out on the surface and stay warm rather than hop in water where I couldn’t even make out the iceberg two feet in front of me. When chatting with the crew, they said the most dives anyone had done so far this season was 7 or 8.

 Clarity of water

So that takes us to water clarity, which can be described in one word: shit. Due to some combination of global warming and it being “summer” in Antarctica, the glaciers were melting, pulling silt into the water with it. Once under, I was very happy to have my torch (and a back-up) so that I could always signal my buddy, even when he was literally right next to me.When he could see my face, he could barely see my fins.

Now for the fun part…

What you’ll see

Most importantly, what you’ll see. If you sit long enough, you could potentially get a quick minke or humpback whale sighting. We saw both from our Zodiac and I absolutely would have hopped back in had they come closer. But honestly, I was getting a better view from the raft, especially in Paradise Bay. Of course you’ll see icebergs, they’re everywhere and reflect a stunning turquoise color into the water around them. And in some areas if you make it to the bottom (about 20m deep), then you can see the large whale bones left behind from when the Russians used the island as a whaling station. If you dive close to shore, you could even watch penguins zip by.

Or you could get lucky and chill with this guy, like we did our first time in the water. This leopard seal played with us for about ten minutes but my GoPro, with full battery, drained in just two minutes in cold water. This not-so-little guy was the highlight of my trip because he epitomizes Antarctica in one ten-minute experience. The underwater wildlife are still curious. They’re not yet accustomed to divers and trained to either play for food or swim in the other direction. And his curiosity is what made this one of the best dives of my life.