PLUNGING INTO THE ICY WATERS, stolidly ignoring the initial ice-cream headache, I made my way down the giant kelp to 20m. Light was still plentiful; I hardly needed my torch.
Marine life splattered the rock, a palette of neon-yellow sponges, rose-pink and yellow cushion starfish, sturdily tentacled red anemones, and rusty orange sea squirts.
Strange pink sunstars with more than 30 arms draped themselves languidly over the thick trunks of tree kelp. The steep-sided rock faces were ridged with mauve calcareous algae. Painted shrimp with electric-blue claws darted in and out of crevices. On the sand, flattened alien-formed isopods scuttled.
The kelp filtered the sunlight, creating cathedral-like rays of light. I started ascending, unwillingly but forced by the pain in my freezing fingers. I waited impatiently to complete the safety stop, eager to discuss this amazing marine life.

STRUGGLING UP THE LADDER, I tried to describe what I had seen but was stuck. I couldnt name any of it, and my descriptions of a blobby pink squirt were met with a bemused expression by my buddy Jen.
So why had I not reached for my marine-life ID guide, to identify all this bizarre underwater wildlife Simple: if I wanted one, Id have to write it myself, because I was exploring the Falkland Islands, an area so remote that many of the creatures I spotted were likely to be entirely new species!
The Falkland Islands are in the south Atlantic, some 400 miles from Argentina and 850 miles north of the Antarctic Circle. There are two main islands, East and West Falkland, and 778 smaller ones in the group, providing a wide variety of potential dive sites.
Working with the Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG), my mission was to survey the uncatalogued marine life of this isolated location. We were on an expedition to the Jason Islands, a remote archipelago at the north-west corner of the Falklands.
My day job is in the Ulster Museum, where I study Porifera (sponges to the uninitiated) and work on marine-life surveys. I had been invited along to check out the Falkland Island sponges, as the first of a series of guest experts the SMSG hopes to attract, sponsored by the Shackleton Scholarship Fund.
I had jumped at the chance to leave the gloom of an Irish autumn behind. The survey team had upgraded to a larger yacht, the Golden Fleece, which at 24m could comfortably sleep the 11 of us and had ample room for dive kit, camera gear and beastie-sampling paraphernalia.
Apart from skipper Dion Poncet and first mate Steve, there were five SMSG marine biologists, plus Sarah and Vernon from Falklands Conservation, along for a spot of opportunistic bird-counting. This seemed to involve Sarah spending much of her time freezing on top of the wheelhouse, clutching a notebook and binoculars.
The other half of my sponge dive team was Jen Jones, a sponge taxonomist who had participated in previous UK sponge surveys with me (DIVER, November 2007) and threatened to stow away in my dive kit if she wasnt allowed to come along.
We had spent a frantic day loading the boat: two compressors, 20 cylinders, personal dive kit, lab chemicals, food and, to vegetarian Jens horror, two sheep carcasses, slung on the end of the mizzen mast.
She was lucky to have escaped the last trip, on the much smaller Damien II where, due to limited deck space, the mutton had been stored in the forward, unheated compartment of the vessel.
Being knocked out by the swinging carcass while paying a visit to the loo had been a serious hazard. This mutton is standard Falkland trip victuals - lamb curry a regular mealtime feature.

WE LEFT STANLEY INTO A DARK and bumpy night, arguing over which constellation the Southern Cross was, and sighting a space station.
The following morning we arrived at Tamar Passage, between Pebble Island and West Falkland. Jen soon saw her first black-browed albatross, which bore an uncanny resemblance to Bert and Ernie of the Muppets.
Rock cormorants were abundant, flapping in ungainly fashion alongside the boat. Penguins porpoised in the tidal chop on the channel surface.
We anchored at Port Purvis (West Falkland). The idea had been to survey scallop trawl tracks; unlike much of the UK, the Falklands marine life has yet to be blighted by this destructive practice.
However, a scallop trawler, the Holberg, had recently fished this bay, shortly before going aground and capsizing, without loss of life.
With no side-scan sonar it was hard to retrace the tracks. Deciding to treat the dive as a warm-up. Jen and I kitted up, excited about our first expedition dive.
The water, coming into spring, was 5°C and I was wearing extra thermals under my Weezle Extreme undersuit. Jen, who suffers from freezing fingers, had latex gloves under her normal ones.
We cursed ourselves for not coming in midsummer, when the water would have been a relatively toasty 8-10°C.
After a stride entry from the side of the boat, I paused at the surface as usual to check my camera for leaks. As I did so something floated down past me through the water.
It took a few seconds to register that this was my lens port, dislodged from the camera body by the force of the entry. Completely flooded.
Desperate to salvage anything possible, I hastily threw my camera back up into Dions hands, with frantic instructions to dunk it in fresh water. Jen and I went to find the missing port.

IT WAS NOT AN AUSPICIOUS START to the survey, but by the afternoon, sitting on the foredeck in the sunshine, muffled in hats and coats against the cold breeze and with a large gin and tonic, it was hard to feel too down on the world.
Next day we headed out to the Jasons, steaming past Mount Disappointment and Cape Terrible, names that seemed unkind given the calm, sunny conditions we were experiencing, but reflect the sort of weather that can take hold here.
Most of the survey would take place on Grand Jason and Steeple Jason, the largest islands. Most of the 2500 permanent inhabitants of the Falklands live in Stanley, with only 400 scattered through camp, as anything outside the capital is known. There are some 1700 more temporary residents on the Mount Pleasant military base.
If the outlying islands are inhabited, it is often by a single family, eking a living out of tourism and sheep-farming.
Steeple Jason protrudes from the sea like the spine of a sleeping monster. The air around it is filled with wheeling albatrosses. It is home to the worlds largest black-browed albatross colony, some 113,000 pairs.
Much of the islands is covered with tussock grass; clumps of giant tufty grass more than 2m tall. This creates an almost-impenetrable maze for those who venture ashore. The kelp here is also on steroids. I will never curse its weedy British counterpart again, however dense the forest.
The giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, forms long-leaved stands up to several metres long, trailing on the surface and trapping unwary divers legs and boat props. It does, however, make a useful impromptu shotline and tender anchor.
Tree kelp (Lessonia trabeculata) is found in deeper water. Its holdfasts are thick and tree-like: ideal for grabbing onto in a swell, but tricky to manoeuvre around when collecting.
Much of the coastline is rocky. Under water it swoops into pinnacles, gullies and ledges. Diving in for our first Jasons dive (with a borrowed Sea & Sea camera) I could immediately see the bottom. Visibility in these oceanic Atlantic waters could reach 15m.

I SPENT MOST OF MY TIME with my face pressed into the rock, hunting out and scraping off sponge specimens. Like much of the other marine life, sponges here are not catalogued, so we needed samples of all that we saw.
Such concentration had its disadvantages. Having persuaded expedition photographer Wetjens Dimmlich and his Ikelite-housed Nikon D80 camera to come in for a dive, I was happily pointing out sponges for him to sample when I became aware that he was gesticulating at something behind us.
Looking up, I saw a pair of enormous bulbous eyes peering at me from behind a kelp frond, quickly followed by a flip of a sinuous body as the sea-lion glided off.
It was a young male, happy just to observe us. It hovered below us on our safety stop, and nipped my fins only as I attempted to swim back to the boat.

I STUCK CLOSE TO ME KELP shotline on ascent, however, wary after lurid stories of sea-lion attacks told by the rest of the group. Theyre delightful to watch under water until they come too close, and suddenly their size - southern sea-lion (Otaria flavescens) males can reach 2.6m long - becomes all too apparent.
Wetjens seemed to be a favourite with them, frequently surfacing after being belted round the head by a heavy flipper. We joked that marine biologist Jude Brown was smearing fish on his drysuit to distract them from the rest of us.
While we were sponge-surveying, the rest of the dive team was attempting to get a quantitative impression of the Falklands marine life.
Laying transects along the seabed, the divers would count a selection of species, and use quadrants to get some idea of density. This would build up an idea of abundances of different species around the islands.
The eventual aim is to survey all marine life and habitats around the Falklands down to 20m. There is no operational chamber on the islands, so it is felt safest to avoid diving any deeper.
While doing the baseline survey, the team is creating a photographic record of species present, with images to be used for the ID book it is writing.
Crawling and climbing through the tree kelp, we frequently came across squid egg capsules. These bunches of glistening sacs dangled gelatinously from the branches, like frog-spawn-filled condoms. You can occasionally see these in the UK, but here we spotted them on almost every dive.
Dr Vlad Laptikhovsky, our cephalopod expert, said these were the spawn of Loligo gahi, the Patagonian squid. This is one of the Falklands most important commercial species. Much of the catch makes its way to Europe, so if youve munched on calamari and chips, it could have been one of these guys.
Perhaps in awe of Vlads credentials, a female chose to honour him, Jude and Wetjens with a rare sighting on a dive.

JUDE SPOTTED IT FIRST (cue much excited regulator-muffled squeaking), its iridescent red-spotted body gliding through the kelp, large eyes gleaming in the sunlight. Approaching an egg cluster entwined around a kelp frond, and seemingly oblivious to the enthralled observers, it gently attached its own egg sac onto the bundle.
This was the first time the species had been seen spawning, and what intrigued the researchers was not the lack of a male presence (females can store sperm in a special receptacle in their mouth for several weeks or months after mating), but the lack of other females.
Squid, it seems, normally spawn in large aggregations. However, doing this in these predator-rich shallow waters would be issuing an open all-you-can-eat calamari buffet invitation to passing albatrosses and sea-lions.
This is also the only Loligo species to lay its eggs on kelp (out of reach of the numerous benthic beasties that might have the munchies) and each female will lay egg-strings in several clusters - so as not to put all her eggs in one basket.
There were plenty of species to identify back in the lab, including several possible new nudibranchs.
The Falklands does share some species with South America (Chile and Argentina) and others with Antarctic waters, but because of its remote location, the fauna and flora is unique, and several species have turned out to be previously unknown to science.
Our 10 days in the Jasons went too quickly. Soon, loaded with specimens and hard drives full of photos, we were racing along under sail in 35 knots of breeze, back towards Stanley.
If you can take the cold and the three days it takes to travel here, diving in these isles has much to recommend it: clear waters, colourful creatures, penguins and sea-lions, plus a chance to get a second summer.
And, coming soon, courtesy of SMSG, there will be a photo marine-life ID guide to help you make sense of it all.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly via Chile with LAN Chile, or via the Ascension Islands with the RAF. The latter option is more expensive but made worthwhile for divers by being more direct and the much larger baggage allowance of 50kg.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The only commercial operator is South Atlantic Marine Services (www.falklands-underwater.com) but the SMSG will advise on any diving or marine biology-related activities. The Golden Fleece is available for charter (www.horizon.co.fk/ goldenfleecex). For accommodation in Stanley, go to www.visitorfalklands.com
when to go October-March.
MONEY: Falkland Island Pounds (FKP) are equivalent to and interchangeable with sterling.
PRICES: Stanley-based International Tours & Travel arranges wildlife itineraries on a tailor-made basis. A one-week itinerary in the Falklands with domestic flights, transfers and accommodation costs £1100-1400 per person. Divers are advised to bring their own kit, www.falklandislands.travel
FURTHER INFORMATION: Shallow Marine Surveys Group Project, smsg-falklands.org, Shackleton Scholarship Fund, www.shackletonfund.com.