down under

The Environment

I’m sitting on the edge of a hole drilled through 15 feet of Antarctic sea ice, about to descend into the frigid ocean of the southernmost dive site in the world. I wear nearly 100 pounds of gear – a drysuit and gloves, multiple layers of insulation, scuba tank and regulators, lights, equipment, fins and over 40 pounds of lead to counteract all that added buoyancy.

I do a final check with my dive buddies: Air? Hoses? Weights? Then, one by one, we put in our mouthpieces, plop into the hole and sink out of sight into the dark.

As we frog-kick along, following our lights toward the work site, a Weddell seal glides by with a few effortless undulations. It glances sideways at us a couple of times, as if doing a double-take.

In contrast to us awkward, gear-laden human divers, Weddell seals are completely at home under the ice. They can hold their breath for over 80 minutes and dive to a depth of nearly 2,000 feet. Somehow they explore, find food and return to their isolated breathing holes even when it’s completely dark. Read on.