An extreme dive in extreme conditionsMay 18, 2008
You’ll be surprised to know that I read the Wall Street Journal……yes its true, a great rag if you’re into that kind of thing but if I’m honest, with the technology available today, you don’t actually have to read every rag to find the stories that will interest visitors to these pages. And although the former is true it was the latter which uncovered this absolutely brilliant story of scuba diving in Russia’s White Sea.
I am indebted to Mark Schoofs of the WSJ – lucky man – who brings us this truly incredible extreme scuba dive having had the good fortune to go there and experience the dive in reality – this is awesome and extreme.
‘Every winter, hordes of divers head to the congested, overdeveloped scuba-diving destinations of the Caribbean and the Red Sea. But there’s a less-traversed option: Fly to Moscow, take the railroad 27 hours north, and drive two hours along snow-covered dirt roads to a village almost on the Arctic Circle, along an inlet of the White Sea. Then, take a snowmobile to a small black triangle cut into the ice.
Ice diving is one of the last great scuba adventures. WSJ’s Mark Schoofs ice dives in the White Sea in Northern Russia and gives a peek into an underwater world full of sea creatures.
Ice diving is one of the last grand scuba adventures. Popular destinations include Antarctica, Newfoundland and certain lakes in the Austrian Alps. One of the best — and least known — is Russia’s White Sea.
There, diaphanous, rainbow-tinged comb jellies (like jellyfish without the tentacles) float by. On rocks lie starfish and related brittle stars of every description. There are ophiuras, whose thin, spidery legs are striped wine-red and cream-white, and there are glittering, ruby-red crossasters with stubby legs, each tipped with delicate, filament tentacles. Luxuriant forests of large round anemones, each one ivory or pink-orange, look like some 1960s hallucinogenic art installation. Among them live multicolored sponges and algae, colonies of barnacles and tiny neon-lavender skeleton crabs. Wolf fish hide in crevasses. On the sea bed billow acres of low-growing kelp, whose undulation is as mesmerizing as a Bach fugue.
(Mark posted an excellent video which I have not been able to link here – however I will keep trying and include it later if possible)
Above it all is the ice, almost alive, filtering sunlight into varying shades of emerald and gold. When one finally ascends back up through the ice hole, or maina, one literally ascends into light.
Marine life in the White Sea is so rich partly because cold water holds more oxygen than warm water, and in winter, the water is below freezing, about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. That means divers need gear — lots of it. A dry suit, unlike the more common wet suit, is mandatory. With a zipper derived from a NASA design, and a seal on the neck, it keeps the body perfectly dry.
On my recent seven-day diving trip here with a Russian company, I wore three layers under a dry suit: a union suit made of polypropylene to wick away sweat, thick fleece long johns, and an even thicker Thinsulate-insulated undergarment that looks like a snowsuit. I wore two pairs of socks and Thinsulate booties, plus chemical toe warmers that react with air to generate heat. I used them on my hands, too, where I wore three layers of gloves under rubber outer gloves.
My head was in two neoprene hoods, a thin one underneath a thick one that tucked into a collar to protect my neck. A mask covered the skin around my nose and eyes. Only my lips, which held the mouthpiece connecting me to the air supply, were exposed directly to the cold water. Lips have such good blood flow that they don’t go numb but merely tingle upon entry.
Donning all this gear, plus fins, tank, and the lead weights that help a diver sink, takes about half an hour. We suited up in mobile huts on skis, where gas heaters made me feel like a mummy working out in a sauna. Slipping into the cold water was a relief.
But the cold harbors danger. Valves can freeze, either blasting a diver with free-flowing air or shutting off the air supply altogether. Every air tank for ice diving has two valves, not the standard one for warm-water diving, and the mouthpiece valve has a freeze-resistant design. Even so, I encountered an emergency. I wore a vest that inflated and deflated to control buoyancy, and a valve on it froze open, ballooning the vest and sending me straight up. I was pinned against the ice, unable to swim freely, with the air in my tank rapidly flowing out. The safety of the terrestrial world was less than a foot away but walled off by impenetrable ice.
This is the second danger of ice diving: To ascend to the surface, one must return to the ice hole. Out of air and wearing close to 100 pounds of gear, even 25 yards underwater can be a long, even lethal distance. Each diver is secured to a rope connected to two other people: a buddy in the water and a tender on the surface. My buddy saw my trouble and gave the emergency signal: Four yanks of the rope, and our tender hauled us in. We skated along the ice’s underside, a sensation so fun and beautiful that I forgot the danger. Up on top, our tender doused the valve with hot water from a thermos, and we resumed our dive.
Living so intimately with ice, one realizes it is anything but static. A brilliant sun shone during the first two days. But then a heavy snow fell, and when we went to the maina, (the triangular hole in the ice), the water seemed to have risen, forming a puddle on the ice. The weight of the snow had pushed the ice down, forcing water up through the hole. On another day, we were diving when a storm roared in. Our guides, concerned that large waves on the open sea would create surges capable of cracking the ice, decided we would leave.
Even without storms, the tides rise and fall more than six feet, so the ice at the shore continually cracks, refreezes and cracks again. Underneath, the constant friction sculpts the ice into breathtaking forms through which light streams as if through a kaleidoscope.
Topside, the muted light of a snowstorm or a sunset brings forth the full range of color in arctic ice: every conceivable variation of white and grey and a softly iridescent blue that seems to emanate from deep within. At night, the wind sweeps stretches of ice clean of snow, and they gleam obsidian black. The underside of the ice is bubbled like a sponge, and in many of the holes live tiny crustaceans. Blow scuba bubbles, and they fall out like living rain.
Two former marine biologists, Dmitri Orlov and Mikhail Safonov, founded the outfit that organized this expedition, the RuDive Group, which offers world-wide scuba tours. In 1996, after the Soviet Union crumbled and science funding dried up, Mr. Safonov and Mr. Orlov began offering diving lessons, and in 1998 they began taking customers to the White Sea.
Five years ago, they opened their own diving center there, with comfortable wooden chalets offering accommodations from hostel-style dorms with shared baths to private rooms. Meals are hearty, often featuring local smoked fish, fresh vegetables and fruit and preserves made from local berries.
About seven years ago, Mr. Safonov recalls, a woman ice-diving with a predecessor company he and his partner founded and ran died in a Moscow lake at a depth of about 10 feet. The exact circumstances weren’t clear, but spurred largely by the event, RuDive now requires all customers to have ice-diving certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Customers can get ice-diving certification at the start of their trip. RuDive has added to the standard training to enhance safety.
In 1999, Mr. Safonov participated in what is believed to be the first successful scuba expedition to the North Pole. The ice there forms underwater “castles,” he says, and the water is as clear as air. Last month, he returned from RuDive’s fifth successful polar diving trip. The cost: $40,000 per person.
RuDive’s White Sea center has two captive beluga whales, owned by a Russian aquarium and held in a netted sea pen. The one-ton males circled in swift arabesques, then came straight at me, playfully biting my leg and fins the way a dog would. It was amazing fun, but the experience had traces of the amusement park. It was an escape from reality, not an immersion in it
By contrast, the maina, its black water a portal between worlds, feels exhilaratingly real. When a snowstorm transforms the topside into a swirl of white, it’s the perfect moment to slip into a winter of anemones and comb jellies and luminous green-gold ice.’
How to Get There Aeroflot flies to Moscow nonstop from Los Angeles for around $900. Delta flies nonstop from New York for around $1,000.Then it’s a flight to Murmansk, or a train ride to Chupa.
Book a Trip: Peak ice-diving season is February to April. In summer, there’s no ice, but the scenery and 24-hour daylight are draws. RuDive starts taking reservations a year in advance (www.dive.ru/pages/page/show_lang/25.en.htm). Early booking is advised, especially for groups. Standard tours go from Sunday to Friday. Custom trips can last longer or, as some Russians and Finns prefer, for a weekend.
Price: A week of ice-diving at the White Sea with RuDive — including lessons, a room with private bath and train travel to and from Moscow — is about $1,750 per person.
Helpful Web site: http://www.peterbrueggeman.com/nsf/diving/index3.html offers invaluable advice on gear and other practical aspects of ice diving.
Perhaps this should have been added to my story about extreme vacations, it certainly qualifies!