Two divers enter the icy water.


EVER THOUGHT OF GOING DIVING IN ANTARCTICA
It is possible and, last summer, I decided to do it. So, digging deep into my childrens inheritance (aka pension lump sum), I booked and started reading up. This March, I was there.
To reach Antarctica, you first go to El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World) or, more precisely, to Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of South America. There, the 30 or so cruise ships that go back and forth to Antarctica change over daily - and some of them take divers.
For divers its best to go on the sort of extremely well-supported expedition that I joined. The mv Grigoriy Mikheev is a 65m former Russian research vessel, built in Finland in 1990 and on long-term charter to Oceanwide Expeditions.
The ice-strengthened Mikheev would be dwarfed by most cruise ships, but was an ideal size to carry 48 passengers, 32 of us divers. It has a Russian crew of 19, plus three catering staff, five expedition guides and polar experts and a doctor.
We had all left our lounge suits, DJs and cocktail dresses at home - this was, after all, an expedition, not a cruise.
The diving was organised by Waterproof Expeditions, and we were welcomed aboard by one of its founders, Göran Ehlmé, a top polar underwater photographer and film-maker.
The ship was well-equipped (for its size) and everything very clean. Food was good and plentiful. We were made welcome on the bridge, where we could try to get the best picture of the biggest wave breaking over the bow.
The trip to the Antarctic Peninsula was, however, a long one, 11 knots being an exceptional speed, so there was plenty of time to photograph albatrosses and other birds and look out for whales.
We were entertained and educated by the presentations during the trip across Drake Passage. The Waterproof Expeditions crew, led by Rolf Stange, were highly experienced and knew their stuff. But we had all had enough of three days of westerly swell and rough seas in the Drake Passage when we were treated to our first marvellous views of the White Continent. Antarctica does live up to the superlatives about scenery - and also to all the warnings about rapid changes in the weather.
We just wanted to get into the water, which we did at Culverville Island.
A thorough dive briefing readied us for the first dip, once the crew had hosed the snow off the outside equipment. This check-out dive was the only shore dive, and after that we were taken to sites by the Zodiacs.
I was interested in the marine biology of the Antarctic and had done some homework, but I was still surprised. The work of the winter ice was evident, in that shallow areas had only ephemeral seaweeds by the end of the summer, but also lots of highly mobile limpets grazing over the pink encrusting algae.
Then, below about 5m, the rocks become dominated by leafy seaweeds, including large kelps. You need to find vertical and overhanging surfaces to see most animals. Some were familiar, such as cushion starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers, but there were very few fish.
The specialities were there, if not abundant: giant (well, 10cm) isopod crustaceans, nemertean worms (a primitive group rarely seen in temperate waters) and the 35-armed starfish.
There were nudibranchs, sea squirts, sea whips and sponges, the species richness in the sea contrasting with the sparseness of life on land. Occasionally, a swarm of curious penguins would check us out under water, though usually too quickly for the camera.
And, especially as you surface, expect to be visited by another curious local - the leopard seal.
Leopard seals were the highlight for many divers, and snorkelling trips were dedicated to swimming with them, often as they dealt with their latest penguin.
Leopard seals play with their prey, and the hapless penguin is eventually despatched, shaken to loosen the skin, peeled and the breast meat eaten. All of this you can witness at close quarters.
The seabed off penguin colonies is sparsely littered with their corpses being consumed by scavengers, including starfish, amphipod crustaceans and nemertean worms.
Leopard seals are potentially dangerous to swimmers and may also sink their teeth into inflatable boats, so be alert and ready to get out.
Another must for most of us was to dive next to an iceberg. It provides a good photo opportunity and the patterns are delightful, though its a bit tedious for a marine biologist.
Awaiting some delayed luggage, gales and a short-lived engine breakdown did slow our journey south but, once there, we had lots of bright weather, with air temperatures around zero.
We also had some classic Antarctic changes of weather. A Zodiac trip that started in balmy conditions could end in a full gale with driving snow.
But although the Mikheev moved around we were always sheltered, even from occasional gales, by land or by the many grounded icebergs, which reduced wave size.
The seawater temperature was as low as 0.5C, but reached 2C at times.
I couldnt fit dry gloves to my suit, but my 5mm five-fingered neoprene gloves were adequate and allowed me to manipulate camera buttons and dials, although I would be a bit ham-fisted after 45 minutes.
Otherwise, I had increased my layers and brought the thickest undersuit possible. Unfortunately, it over-filled my suit and opened the neck seal a bit, so I was frequently damp after a dive.
However, helped further by a hood with a face seal, I stayed toasty-warm throughout each dive. A half-mask is adequate, but you must have regulators that will take the cold without freezing.
Forty-five minutes in the water (our time limit) was about right, but it was frustrating being restricted to 20m depth, because I could frequently see interesting stuff deeper down. Another couple of days on the peninsula would have made the diving part of the trip about the right length of time.
Everyone is conscious of protecting Antarcticas pristine environment, and you follow a code of conduct, especially when ashore.
Of course, the penguins havent read the code, and you may find that, having settled on a rock to photograph them at the advised 5m distance, you end up being inspected at close quarters.
When I say close quarters, I mean pecked and stood upon.
Some environmentalists express concern about tourism in Antarctica. The risk of ships sinking and oil being spilt are certainly relevant, but the consensus seems to be that tourism will increase our understanding of just how important it is to keep Antarctica pristine, and will do far less damage than the scientific bases and their infrastructure, vital as they are.
Its a long way to go and youll need to save your pennies, but Antarctica is well worth the effort for experienced divers prepared for, and not afraid of, cold water (and leopard seals).
Do consider getting to Ushuaia a couple of days in advance in case of lost luggage and other delays. You can (as I did) enjoy your extra time diving in the Beagle Channel.

Extravagantly
Extravagantly 35-armed starfish.
The
The iceberg experience - but its not enough to keep a marine biologist happy.
Sterechinus
Sterechinus neumayeri sea urchins.
Time
Time out for a leopard seal.
Penguins
Penguins turn their backs to the Grigoriy Mikheev in Paradise Bay .
A
A wall in Paradise Bay.
A
A cluster of Nemertean worms.
Glyptonotus
Glyptonotus antarcticus, a giant marine isopod.
Divernet
Keith
Keith Hiscock
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from London via Buenos Aires to Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The Grigoriy Mikheev can take up to 48 passengers, Oceanwide Expeditions, www.quarkexpeditions.com. Diving was with Waterproof Expeditions, www.waterproof-expeditions.com. To arrange diving in the Beagle Channel, Argentina, contact Carlos Giuggia through www.tierradelfuego.org.ar/divers.
WHEN TO GO: The cruise season runs from November to March, the austral summer, and thats the only time its possible to visit Antarctica. Diving conditions vary, but the best visibility occurs early in the season, before the plankton blooms of late summer. Summer air temperatures are 0-4°C, with water temperatures down to -1.8°C!
QUALIFICATIONS: Advanced diving qualifications and drysuit experience. Youll need two sets of regulators with freeze-protected first and second stages.
PRICES: Return flights to Ushuaia from around £1200.
In the UK Aqua-Firma offers an 11-day Antarctic Peninsula Photography & Diving Voyage from £3290, www.aqua-firma.co.uk.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Below Freezing, by Lisa Eareckson Trotter (Wild Guides). British Antarctic Survey website, www.antarctica.ac.uk