Late in November I got to be a dive tender for one of the grantees and three staff divers.
Dive tender = someone who assists with small tasks during a dive
Diving is a world I know nothing about. I live 800 miles from the nearest ocean, I’ve never been a strong swimmer, and I’ve never even gone snorkeling because the thought of inhaling too much water and drowning has kept me far, far away from any activity that involves breathing one or 50 feet underwater with only a few pieces of equipment keeping me alive. I think the closest I’ve ever come to diving was using flippers and goggles in swim class at the YMCA when I was maybe six.
But that did not dampen my enthusiasm for dive tending one bit. My friend Michelle, one of the grantees in the USAP’s Artists and Writers program, asked me if I wanted to be a dive tender for one of her dives, and I was all over it.
Help someone do an ICE DIVE IN ANTARCTICA?!? Yes please.
So I went down to the dive hut near the edge of the sea ice and helped Michelle don about five layers of gear, and hauled several duffel bags and metal tanks into the pisten bully we would drive out to the dive hut, which was about 100 feet onto the ice.
Pisten bully = Small, boxy tracked vehicle often used in polar regions for transportation. They are truly adorable.
We rode in the pisten bully out to the orange and blue dive hut (sometimes called a fish hut), and hauled the gear into the hut. I helped Michelle with the last of her gear, which involved making sure there was no hair between her skin and the seal of her drysuit hood. Otherwise, water can get in, and that is really bad. As I was pushing her hair under the hood I kept thinking, what if I do this wrong? What if I drown Michelle!?
But Michelle, and everyone else, was fine. Once they were ready, the four divers slipped through the four-foot-wide hole into the icy water, and I lowered a metal-and-cloth ladder into the hole for them to climb up.
Then I sat and stared into the dark blue water. All I could see was the occasional flash from an underwater camera and the faint outline of equipment at the bottom.
I also had one of the firefighters at the ob tube take photos of me lowering the ladder into the water (Thanks Josh!)
The divers were in the water for 30 minutes, but it felt like ten. Before I knew it, I was hauling tanks and cameras out of the water as they were handed to me, and helping Michelle out of her gear back at the dive shack. Time goes by when you’re trying to take in everything and marveling at the experience. Before coming to the ice a friend had shared a video of an ice dive at McMurdo station, filmed by videographers from The New York Times. I watched that video several times. And now here I was, possibly sitting inside the same hut that the Times journalists had visited.