i.e. what happens when you decide to go scuba diving in Antarctica on five weeks’ notice
It all started when I woke up one Monday morning in January to a cold email from a company I didn’t recognize, offering a huge discount off of a last minute trip to go scuba diving in Antarctica. Wait, let me back up; that’s not entirely true. I had signed-up to get information on expeditions to Antarctica months ago. Like four months ago. In October 2017 I reached out to every single expedition company I could find headed to Antarctica with even the smallest chance of including scuba diving. But after receiving pricing back from most of the companies, ranging from $12k – $20k depending on the options (scuba vs. snorkeling vs. no activities at all, flying vs. sailing the Drake passage), I decided it just wasn’t fiscally responsible to go.
Fast forward to this early morning email from an Australian company I didn’t remember reaching out to asking if I was still interested. Hmm, was I? Absolutely. Can I swing it? No way. Wait. Maybe? I rolled over in bed and, semi-irresponsibly, replied. “I might be interested. What’s the timing and cost?”
When I got the reply a day later (it’s an Australia-based company), it was hard to refuse. The total trip would cost less than half the lowest price I had been quoted just months earlier. They were trying to fill the last bunk in a 3-bed female dorm, and round out buddies for scuba diving since they currently only had three divers booked and you dive in pairs. Procrastinating really did have its perks, as did being a single female traveler certified to dive. But there was one catch. Ok two. While I am an instructor level diver, I had never been in a dry suit, which was definitely required for Antarctica. Not only had I never been in a dry suit, but their pre-requisite was 20 dry suit dives. I guess experience helps if you’re going to dive in one of the coldest places on Earth, but how in the world would I get my hands on a dry suit and get in 20 dives on such short notice? Even worse, the timing happened to fall during my annual company Client Summit, which I was supposed to speak at. I wasn’t sure which challenge to tackle first.
I headed into work and decided to start with the dry suit to see if this trip was even logistically possible. I dropped a text to my dive buddy Ben, who recommended I reach out to our more experienced friend Pete, who we dove with in Bonaire (tough life, I know). Pete has been a tech diver since before I knew what scuba diving was, and as such happens to be the ultimate wealth of dry suit knowledge. I reached out to see if it would even be possible to get a dry suit and learn how to dive in it in the next five weeks. He replied in mere hours with enough information to become my dry suit bible, including a shop recommendation to make it all happen. Armed with this info, I decided to tackle the next obstacle, timing.
My new boss had just started a couple weeks earlier, so we’d only chatted a couple of times on the phone, making it super awkward when I had to drop this bomb on him. He called me back from a car en route to CES with the best news ever, meaning, that after I said that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I’d been dreaming about for years (true story), he said that if it was between me going or leaving the company, that I should definitely go. I’ll take that as a resounding “yes.” I think we’re going to get along just fine.
On Saturday, just two days after getting permission to take the days and go, I drove the hour down to San Jose with butterflies in my stomach, hoping that Any Water Sports, the shop Pete had recommended, was as good as he said it was. Long story short, they are. Within a few hours on a Saturday I walked in, got fitted, had a custom DUI dry suit on order, and was signed up for a dry suit class the following weekend. And just like that the pit in my stomach lifted as things started to fall into place.
With my dry suit class and test dives scheduled, I went home to calendar the next five weeks to make sure I got my training and all 20 dives in before the big day. But first, travel. With only five weeks to go, I had to book all my flights to and from Antarctica. Did I mention that I was coming back straight to Virginia to throw a bridal shower for one of my college besties? Oh right, that. I also had to plan and coordinate travel to a bridal shower in the next five weeks.
I started with flights. So many flights. Turns out this was a fly/sail trip, meaning you fly down from Punta Arenas, Chile to Antarctica, and then sail back over the Drake Passage to Ushuaia, Argentina. So, I had to book flights from San Francisco to Punta Arenas (with stops in Atlanta and Santiago along the way), then back to D.C. where I was throwing Kim’s bridal shower (via Buenos Aires and Atlanta) until ultimately returning to SF. After about five hours of research and comparison shopping, plus a few Spanglish conversations over Google Voice with local airlines in South America, I was booked (thank you college Spanish minor). Now to figure out how to get in 20 dives in five weeks.
It all started the following Saturday with a private pool session with Bruce, one of the seasoned Any Water instructors. Given I had taught Open Water students before, I felt pretty silly circling the local college pool with someone watching my every move, but I was grateful he was willing to do a training, party of one, on such short notice.
The next day we headed two hours south to Monterrey where Bruce had offered to attempt five training dives in a day. What a saint. This meant arriving just before sunrise to set-up our gear so we could hop in the freezing cold water to start dive #1 just after sunrise. We took some amazing sunrise photos in our warmest clothes, then started climbing into our (many) dive layers just in time for the local police to stop by and let us know the beach was closed. Shit. No, literally. There had been a massive sewage spill farther north the day before and the water was now contaminated. We headed a few miles farther south to Point Lobos and had the same sad result; closed for contamination. Feeling defeated by the fact that I wouldn’t get my first five dives in, I thanked Bruce profusely for driving so far without getting to dive (i.e. get paid for his trek) and took a lap of the 17 mile drive. I’d missed it on previous PCH drives, so figured why waste a perfectly good Sunday after I’d come this far?
Fortunately, shit went south (or west, or ‘out to sea’) and Monterrey was fit for diving the following weekend. And boy did we take advantage. Bruce was an amazing sport and headed back down at sunrise yet again, getting in five dives between sunrise and sunset, dealing with some of the worst seasickness I’ve ever had (and that’s saying a lot given my history with boats). Turns out that if the neck seal is too tight, it cuts off circulation around your neck. This leads to being lightheaded, which I can now highly recommend avoiding, especially underwater. I spent the first three dives seeing the white light of being on the verge of passing out at all times, trying to focus on Bruce’s fins while testing out the theory that you can do anything into your regulator that you can do above water. On the surface I continued to throw up my breakfast and all the water I was trying to stay hydrated with until he finally called the shop for advice. Only then did we get the okay to cut a ring off the neck seal so I could stop fighting the urge to let water in my suit through the neck to loosen the seal (like you do in a wetsuit but doesn’t end well in a dry suit) and finally breathe again. Diving is way more fun when conscious.
That night we stayed at one of Monterrey’s finest $50 motels and met up again in Point Lobos the next morning, getting in three more dives. Eight dives in, I liked my dry suit, but liked diving with Bruce even more. Good people know good people and Any Water sure knows good people.
Eight dives down, 12 to go. So back to my friends Ben and Pete. As typical Bay Area residents, Ben and Pete don’t watch sports, as confirmed by their dive trip to the Channel Islands planned over Super Bowl weekend. I grew up on the East Coast so football is a thing where I come from. But with 12 dives to go and just three weeks remaining, I didn’t have much choice but to drive five hours south, basically to LA, to hop a midnight boat headed on an overnight trip to Channel Islands to join them for a weekend of diving. Fortunately, Ben and Pete are amazing dive buddies, and we ended up playing high speed chicken with a group of awesome sea lions so getting in eight more dives then driving back Super Bowl Sunday while listening to the game on the radio wasn’t that much of a sacrifice. Little did I know that this trip would be prep for the real thing (my first and most unforgettable dive in Antarctica).
My custom DUI gear finally arrived with less than ten days to spare. So clearly I had to test it out. Ok, not just because it was the new shiny object, but also because really, if I’m going to trust this suit to keep me warm and safe on the 7th continent, I darn well better test it out. And this is where my awesome roommate comes in and saves the day. Kristen decided to get Open Water certified just a couple months earlier. And fortunately, she learned to do it in the Bay Area, which means she was already a “pro” in a dry suit, if you consider four open water dives a pro. And she happens to have a slightly ‘flexible’ job where, as a female developer, she is in such high demand that no one will call her out for going missing on a Wednesday. So, diving on a Wednesday we went, mere days before I was scheduled to fly out.
We headed back down to Monterrey since I had now done five dives there during my dry suit training and she had done four dives during open water. Clearly, we were both now experts on Monterrey dive sites. Meaning, it was a total clusterfuck. Dive one we kicked up a ton of sand and could barely see the wall in front of us. Dive two resulted in a minor panic attack. On dive three I lost my brand new underwater camera when Kristen added too much air to her BCD, and started to shoot up at a dangerous rate, kicking me in the process of grabbing her ankle and pulling her back down to safety. And dive four ended with me tangled in so much kelp I couldn’t help but laugh (another thing you can do into your regulator). But, I got my four dives in, got to spend them with one of my favorite people, and will never forget it. (Thanks for being such a good sport, Kristen!)
And I learned one other key skill during this trip. If you don’t dive, then you may not know this, but you get really dehydrated scuba diving. You’re surrounded by saltwater, sweating, and breathing compressed air for 45 minutes+ at a time. So on the surface, you chug water. Now as a chick, I already have a small bladder. In a wetsuit, this isn’t a problem (use your imagination). But in a dry suit? Now it’s an issue. So during my first trip to Monterrey and in the Channel Island I learned that I need to pee every other dive, and that’s just because I held it in between and it’s not comfortable. Peeing in a dry suit as a female means you have to be on the surface, unzip, pull the neck seal over your head, pull down the dry suit, unzip and pull down your polar fleece undergarments, then any other layers on your legs. It’s a really long process and a lot of work, and by the time you finish getting the gear back on you already have to pee again. It sucks, bad. So I did it. I tested adult diapers during my dives with Kristen. And let me tell you, it took a few tries before I learned how tight your have to pull the tabs on them. No spillage resulted, but it definitely feels like you’re wearing, well, a wet diaper.
Ok, so the past month was stressful. At least, as stressful as booking a trip to Antarctica, buying a custom dry suit, learning to dive in it, and getting in 20 dives can be. I think I just described every day of my life. And my mother wonders why I never ‘rest.’ But five weeks and two 50 lb. bags of gear later, I’m ready to roll. Antarctica, here I come!
Read on to meet Fran, my favorite seatmate, polar plunger and Uno player, Scott, my favorite international dive buddy, and hear about all the best stories from the 7th continent. A HUGE thanks to Pete for the quick replies and thorough responses on his favorite subject, and the Any Water Sports family; without you guys this trip would have remained just a pipe dream instead of a once in a lifetime reality.