National Geographic : 2017 Jul
72 national geographic • July 2017 Our suits have four layers: thermal underwear on the inside, followed by an electrically heated bodysuit, a thick fleece, and a half-inch-thick lay- er of waterproof neoprene. There’s a hood as well as an underhood, waterproof gloves and heated liners, fins, and 35 pounds of weights. There are two batteries for the heated bodysuit, a rebreath- er to remove carbon dioxide from our exhalations (allowing us to dive longer), backup gas cylinders, and finally, my photography equipment. We look like astronauts minus the bubble helmets. Just getting into our suits takes an hour and the help of Emmanuel Blanche, our emergency doctor. When at last we’re ready to topple into the freezing water, we’re wearing and carrying 200 pounds each. It feels like we’re learning to dive all over again. Moving is a struggle, swimming almost impossible. The cold quickly anesthetizes the few square inches of exposed skin on our cheeks, and as the dive wears on, it intrudes into our suits and gloves, biting harder and harder. It’s unbearable, but we must bear it. Toward the end, as we’re pausing on our ascent to decompress, we search for anything to distract us from the pain. When we finally crawl or haul ourselves out of the freezing ocean, I lie prostrate on the ice, my brain too dulled to think about removing my gear, my skin hard and wrinkled, my lips, hands, and feet swollen and numb—then, as my body warms and the blood starts to flow again, the pain is at its worst. It’s so intense I find myself wishing my extremities were still frozen. After four weeks, I can’t feel my toes anymore, even in the warmth. It will take seven months after our return to Eu- rope for my damaged nerves to recover. what coulD poSSibly make this worthwhile? The light, first of all—it’s a sight to elate any pho- tographer. At the very beginning of spring, after the long polar night, microscopic plankton have not yet begun to bloom and cloud the water. Un- der the floe it’s exceptionally clear, because there are so few particles to scatter the light. What little light there is wells down through the cracks or seal holes as if from streetlamps, casting a subtle glow over the underwater landscape. And what a landscape! Only a few species of seals, penguins, and other birds live in East Ant- arctica, and no land mammals at all. You might think the seafloor too would be a desert. In fact, it’s a luxuriant garden, with roots in deep time. Antarctic marine life has been largely isolated from the rest of the planet for tens of millions of years, ever since the continent separated from the other continents and froze over. Since then the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current has swirled from west to east around Antarctica, cre- ating a sharp temperature gradient that inhibits the spread of marine animals. The long isolation has allowed a tremendous diversity of species, unique to the region, to evolve on the seafloor. At depths of 30 to 50 feet, forests of kelp, with blades more than 10 feet long, create a sober, imposing scene. Farther down, we meet giant sea stars: At 15 inches in diameter, they’re much bigger than those in warmer seas. Then come the giant sea spiders. They’re arthropods, like insects and spiders on land, and they’re found in all the world’s oceans, but in warmer waters they’re rare and tiny, nearly invisible to the naked eye. Here, as in the Arctic, the sea spiders can span a foot or more. Yet their bodies are so small that their internal organs extend into their legs. Below 165 feet, the light dims and we see no kelp or other plants. Instead, the seafloor is cov- ered with thick carpets of feather hydroids (colo- nial animals related to corals) and with thousands of scallops. The scallops are four inches across but The cold anesthetizes our exposed skin and intrudes into our suits and gloves. It will take seven months for my damaged nerves to recover.