Cooling-off time in Russia
You can see Miranda Krestovnikoff presenting Wreck Detectives on TV this month, but we thought she deserved a spring break after all that hard recording in the cold and gloom. So we asked her to go ice-diving in Russias White Sea, realm of gorgons heads, upside-down water-skiing and birch-twig beatings in the sauna!

Russians have only two words for cold or, at least, thats what I was told. I dont think thats enough.
     If youre diving beneath the ice for any length of time, you start to distinguish between the different sensations produced by the low temperatures. Theres the painful cold you feel when you first put your face in the icy water, like pin-pricks all over your bare, exposed skin; theres the numbness when youve been immersed for 40 minutes and cant feel your hands and feet; theres the bitter chill from the wind when youre outside in 10ÂC in the wind and snow tending a rope that disappears into the ice; and theres the deep-down cold in your bones when you cant get dry or warm after a dive, your body starts to shut down and all you want to do is sleep. Am I painting an attractive picture
     Sometimes I think humans are mad. Divers are even madder. Who would want to cut a hole in the ice and dive beneath it, when you can go to the tropics and do it without a drysuit
     Yet, it was a challenge, so why not If the Russians could do it, so could I. (I have since discovered that 90% of Russian divers head straight for the Red Sea, and who could blame them)
     Non-diving friends thought I was mad. They made the obvious comments. Well, obviously it would be colder than in the UK, but the water should feel warm compared to the outside temperatures.
     Anyway it couldnt get much colder than 0ÂC and that should be bearable. Shouldnt it I also just had to meet my Russian contact, name of Boris Smirnov, and share a few vodkas with him.
     The only place you can ice-dive in the sea in Russia is the White Sea, just above and below the Arctic Circle. Its waters freeze from December until April/May, but apparently the best time to go is in mid-March. Any earlier and the weather is terrible - snowstorms and minus 37ÂC. Any later and the ice retreats and you cant get to the best dive sites.
     The White Sea is a northern extension of the Barents Sea, so the fauna is basically the same, but reduced in number of species because of the salinity and lower temperatures. Still, I was told it held plenty of life - the occasional killer whales and Greenland sharks and around 80 species of fish, seals, beluga whales, crabs, shrimp, starfish, sea anemones, nudibranchs, polychaete worms and much more.
     In the top left-hand corner of Russia is a bit of land bordering Finland that sticks out like a hippos head. This is the Kola Peninsula and our base would be around 60 miles south of Kandalaksha on the east coast of the White Sea, just four miles south of the Arctic circle, 220 miles south of Murmansk and 1250 miles north of Moscow.
     I had been given a long list of things to bring. Most importantly, I needed special non-freezing regs (thank you, Scubapro!) with separate first stages to ensure redundancy should one freeze. I also had lots of Xerotherm and Thinsulate under layers (time to put my Weezle and OThree stuff to the ultimate test) and not gloves but mittens.
     I took along the OThree drysuit I had last used on Wreck Detectives 2 and asked Kevin at OThree about getting a warm hood. He told me there was one that covered almost all the face, leaving gaps only for the reg and mask, but that it looked like a gimp mask!
     Yes, Ill take one, thanks. Diving is such a glamorous sport. So, armed with mittens, a suitcase full of thermal underwear and a gimp mask, I headed off on my trip to Russia.
     I left in warm spring sunshine and, 36 hours later, arrived in the middle of nowhere. All I knew was that I was in Russia and that it was cold.
     It had been a long haul - a flight to Moscow, an unfortunate mix-up with arrival times resulting in an overnight with little sleep, a long wait at Moscow airport and then, taking a big chance, an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk.
     Finally, there was a very long drive south, through a wilderness of pines, birches and a lot of snow. I could barely open my eyes enough to register where I was. Straight to bed - I would case the joint in the morning.
     As it turned out, the accommodation was in fairytale log cabins and very warm. You needed only a T-shirt inside and it was quiet at night except for the wolves howling in the forests. There were no bears, thank goodness.

Day 1: First, cut your maina
A huge breakfast is essential to provide enough energy to get you through the day. Kasha (porridge) and a full English cooked breakfast later, I was introduced to Boris, Micha, Dimitri, Alexander, Sacha, Ivan, Olga, Natascha, Anya, Yelena and Ludmilla. All we were missing was a Vladimir!
     I was to do my PADI Ice Diver course in the first two days, before starting to exploring the chilly waters. A lot of emphasis was put on the importance of keeping warm and dry and eating enough energy-rich food. Try to stop me!
     Outside it looked very Dr Zhivago, all snow, fir trees and bobsleighs, white on white as far as the eye could see. I had a short, but thorough, one-to-one classroom course, learning to tie knots, running through basic safety, finding out how to dig an ice hole and communicate using rope signals - stuff you dont need much in the south-west of England.
     Ice-diving is like diving on an umbilical with your buddy on a line. One line and two divers is safest if anything goes wrong and you need to reach your buddy. Its a bit restrictive, but if anything were to happen, Id as soon be tied to someone.

Teaching over, it was time for the practical. We went out onto the ice on the back of a snow buggy, with my gear pulled on a sledge behind and my instructor, Dima, on skis, being pulled along behind that. Thirty exhilarating minutes later, we were at the ice camp. When it snows, you just gotta have fun.
     To take a peep at what lies beneath that large, flat expanse of ice, you must first make your ice hole, or maina. You find a marker post, which is a feature there not only to help relocate previous holes, but to warn people that the ice may be weakened there.
     You clear away the surface layer of snow with a shovel. This melts to slush and doing this allows more sunlight to penetrate the ice. Now you make six or eight holes in a rectangle using a large ice-screw, and join them up using an ice-saw. The ice needs to be sawn at an angle so that the resulting block doesnt get pushed under and is easy to remove.
     You insert smaller ice-screws into the blocks and pull them out with ropes to complete your very own maina.
     The Russians have five or more names for ice hole, which shows where their priorities lie.

Kitting-up was the bit I had been dreading. I could just about handle the cold when I was wrapped up warm and sawing ice, but there was no way I was taking any of my layers off out in the open. Luckily, I didnt have to - Russian ice-divers do it in the warm.
     The ice camp from which we dived each day was a brilliantly designed collection of heated sheds on sleds, one for each buddy pair, with a double-sized one for the dining room and a small and very warm one for the toilet (the best place to go after a dive for more than one reason - the toilet paper is even heated on top of the stove).
     So, not only was the dining room heated and cosy, but you changed into your drysuit in your own shed, able to warm your hands and feet ready for the cold to come.
     They will even erect one of these sheds over an ice hole if the weather gets extreme, to keep the wind off when the divers are getting in and out, and sheltering the line-tenders.
     Time was ticking on, and the Russians are hot on their timing. Snowmobiles leave promptly for the ice camp at 9am, and everything runs like clockwork (if they say lunch is at 2, at a few minutes to you will hear the snowmobiles arriving).
     I got my kit together. The water was at zero but the air temperature outside was minus 10ÂC during the day (and I wasnt there during the coldest months), so its important to check your kit in the shed rather than on the ice before getting in, as your regs would invariably freeze and then free-flow in the water.

Should any part of you or your kit freeze up, Thermos flasks of boiling water are always close to hand to warm your gloves or unfreeze your reg or camera. No amount of preparation (and initially money) spent on your kit is too much, as long as you can spend another minute or two without feeling the cold.
     I watched with envy as 7mm gloves with double cuffs and dry gloves were donned by the more experienced divers, and resigned myself to living with cold hands. Suit on and kit ready, I felt pretty warm. I grabbed my gear and waddled like a colourful penguin across the ice to my maina. If the ice hole from which you want to dive is more than an easy stagger from the front door of your shed, you can sit inside with your kit and a skidoo driver will tug you and your buddy there. It all conserves energy.
     Getting in is easy, too. You can just sit on the side of the ice, legs dangling in the water, kit on and ease yourself in.
     As I bobbed around on the surface, I was recommended to keep my first stage and reg submerged to get them to the temperature of the water, again to minimise free-flowing. Only once under water should you put the second stage into your mouth.
     Another safety measure is to wait for a minute close to the ice hole to ensure that everything is working perfectly before proceeding. Freezing regs are common, especially in the first minute or two, so the PADI ice-diving course demands that you should be able to swap regs effortlessly at a moments notice should one free-flow.
     Independent first stages help avoid wasting air if this happens - just turn off one and breathe off your spare.
     I put my face under the water and forced my reg through the small hole in my hood and into my mouth. I sucked the cold air and a pellet of ice rattled. Under the ice, it looked pretty much as it might in the UK, with lots of kelp and spider crabs, but the visibility was stunning .

I was happy to sit and look at the stuff floating around me; the minute translucent jellyfish, ctenophores and arrowfish. The ones that demanded attention were the comb-jellies with their red centres, and eight lines of flickering cilia all beating in a synchronised manner, catching the light and creating a million tiny rainbows. They would twist and turn in the water column in a mesmerising dance.
     Dive time here is limited not by your air consumption but by how quickly you lose sensation in your fingers and feet. But the Russians have some excellent methods of warming up after ice-diving, and were not talking only about vodka.
     When the cold has got through to your bones, theres nothing better than an hour or more in the banya, or what we would call a sauna.
     There are four rooms in the banya log cabin, each hotter than the last, before you reach the sauna itself. Theres the option of mixed naked sauna or single sex if youre more prudish, and Ivan will even give you a traditional Russian birch twig beating if you ask him nicely - its supposed to stimulate your circulation.

Day 2: Water-skiing on the moon
A couple of people left and a Vladimir arrived. My Russian line-up was complete, and I tried to explain my little English joke to him. I hope he understood.
     The diving became more interesting. We dived beside my namesake, Krestovyj Rock, did a few more exercises and then tried some upside-down water-skiing.
     One of the coolest things about having a lid on the water in which youre diving is that you can flip over and stand with your fins on the underside of the ice, your head pointing down to the seabed.
     Over-inflate your drysuit and, because your feet are incredibly buoyant, you can jump up and down on the ice like a Tellytubby. Its mad!
     Still inverted, signal for your rope to be pulled in by your tender and you can ski back to the maina. Its a strange sensation to see the underside of the ice passing before your eyes. Its almost featureless, with gently undulating humps and bumps, and with your weightlessness its a bit like being on the moon.
     Your eyes tell you that your feet are on something solid and you feel as if youre the right way up. Then you breathe out and your bubbles seem to go down instead of up, imparting a sense of vertigo that does your head in. Your body cant work out which way up youre supposed to be. Its so much fun that you almost forget the cold.
     I also had a go at rope-tending. For every dive there are two divers in the water, two people tending and often an extra couple of people around in case of emergency, or to bring you a cup of tea if youre cold.
     Tending is a peaceful job: looking at the line, tugging every minute or two to check that the diver is OK, and watching the millions of formations of snowflake falling. It had never occurred to me that snowflakes differ so much until I had the chance to study them for hours on end!

Day 3: Out cold
With ice-diving they say that there will often be days on which your body really struggles. Today was that day for me. I had a leak in my neck seal on the first dive and I was just too exhausted and cold to go back, take off my damp undersuit and change it for a warm, dry one.
     Result: I got cold. Very cold. And my body started to shut down. I was miserable and lacking in energy.
     I did only one dive. The guys realised that I wasnt my normal bouncy self and ordered me to go back to the lodge to sit in the banya for a couple of hours. This I did with no hesitation. Even afterwards, all I wanted to do was to sleep. Its amazing how your body tells you what it needs and when youre pushing it too far, but ice-diving does push your body to the limits.
     Had I tried to fit in another dive I think I would have been miserable and worse for wear the next morning. I didnt need to prove anything - sometimes its good being a girl.

Day 4: Burning socks
I felt like a new woman after a long sleep and another huge Russian breakfast. I was ready to face the ice once again. Every two or three days, Boris and the team move the base camp to another location on the ice, and today was moving day.
     The process looked effortless. The dining room came apart in the middle, being two sheds fastened together, then each changing shed was attached to a snow buggy and carted away.
     It was also time to concentrate on taking a few photographs, but my digital camera was complaining about the cold. Even above water it would pretty much shut down unless I kept it under my armpit until just before use.
     On the early dives, we had concentrated on our ice-diving skills and training, so had only limited time to look around. But one of the first things that had caught my eye had been a crossaster, basically a fat lump of a starfish and in my favourite colour - purple. This one had definitely eaten all the pies.
     My camera had reluctantly ground into action, but the shutter worked so slowly in the cold that all I had ended up with were two rather blurred shots of a purple blob. I decided to leave the photography to the experts after that.
     We had a couple of long dives and my feet were freezing. Apparently, the main form of injury to ice-divers is through burning (or so Boris said, with a smile on his face). After a dive you hold your feet or slightly wet undersuit close to the heaters to warm up, and before you know it you have a hole in your sock or a gap in your suit.
     I had a few melting moments with gloves and a second pair of socks, and Boris managed to singe his new undersuit, and was most upset.

.Day 5: Photo ops
More photo opportunities: because of the water clarity, its easy to find little gems floating in the water and the ice formations cry out to be photographed. You never tire of seeing the various shapes and imagining what they resemble.
     We concentrated on shots at only a few metres deep, where most of the ice formations are, and where the sunlight filters through it enhances all the true colours of the marine life. Another bonus was that the air bubbles gathered under the ice to form a mirror (see cover).

Day 6: Ride the wild ice
Possibly the most fun aspect of the trip was the ice-snorkelling. There was an unfrozen area of sea close to the base camp where the current really ripped past. With drysuits on and nothing else other than a mask, we lined up on the edge of the ice and jumped. I have seen the video and we look demented.
     As the chunks of ice break off, you try to stand up on one (a bit like riding an ice surfboard) and let the current take you downstream until you hit more ice and eventually stop.
     Its fantastic fun and safe, as youre so buoyant in your drysuit. Its also pretty mad when you walk back over the thin ice to have another go, and keep breaking through the surface and falling in.
     Exhausted, red-cheeked and happy, I took one last banya. All week I had gone for the girls only option, but I thought: What the hell, its my last night!
     So I was in there with the boys and Ivan did his thing with the birch twigs. It was the real Russian experience!

Day 7: The life and the leaving
The marine life in the White Sea is stunning. Not perhaps in quantity, but certainly in the quality of what you see. Maybe its because the water is so clear, but the colours seemed incredibly bright and the animals were readily spotted.
     It was almost as if, instead of hiding from the prying eyes of photographers, they wanted to show off their beauty - and most of them had something special to show off.
     A lot of the interesting stuff was not that deep. The deepest dive I did all week was only 20m, and that was on Krestovji Rock, a little haven for marine life. It was covered in fucoid algae and delicate yellow and orange plumose anemones that drew us in closer, as there were often a few gems nestling in them.
     We found a bigger gem in the fronds of seaweed; a Gorgoncephalus - or, more dramatically, gorgons head - a bizarre form of basketstar. I found out later that these are only usually found in Norway in waters deeper than 50 or even 75m. They have five legs but look to have considerably more, as each one is divided and subdivided until the creature appears to be a mass of intertwined appendages. Each arm ends in the thinnest threads which curl over on themselves, rather like the tail of a seahorse, looking so delicate that they might break off at any moment. If you can remember pushing dough through a sieve at primary school, youll get some idea of the end result. The underwater photographers jostled for the best angle to snap the gorgon as we sat and watched it for what felt like hours.
     Other dives were packed with sightings of species I had seen only in books, and a few old favourites. There were small cod, a foxfish (which I believe is a pogge), a variety of hermit crabs, chitons, shrimps, soft coral that I could have mistaken for tubeworms as they retracted into the mud - and some interesting-looking nudibranchs.
     I remember Coryphella, like dainty white ballet dancers with flowing orange manes on their backs, and other species that were sadly lost in translation.
     But the life was all around, not on the rocks and seaweed where you would normally look, but hanging before your eyes - all those jelly-filled creatures.
     The comb-jellies were fairly common, but we also saw the rarer Bolinopsis, or angel comb jelly. This is almost totally transparent, the only pigmentation being the rows of dark spots on the two lobes it holds out to gather up passing food.
     The food is transported to the mouth slit by cilia, and, like other comb jellies, this one has eight rows of cilia with which to propel itself.
     Endless jellyfish wont excite everyone, but they and the gorgon were the life-forms for which I would remember the White Sea as I prepared to leave this idyllic landscape for damp, grey Bristol.
     Between dives and tending duties there hadnt been a lot to do in the middle of nowhere but keep warm and dry, and there was always plenty to eat and drink, and an endless supply of hot tea and biscuits. Polar Circle will arrange a non-diving day and take you round the local villages, teach you to ice-fish, take you skiing or on snowmobile trips.
     It can also arrange visits to places of interest such as Star City, the cosmonaut training facility, and the chance to dive in the hydrospace laboratory at MIR Space Centre.
     There is no TV signal there but the centre has a wealth of DVDs of diving expeditions it has organised and many of the divers are happy to give informal talks on wildlife, local history and geography and lessons in basic Russian - not an easy language to learn.
     Ice-diving isnt for everyone, no matter how hardy you are. The girls were, as I expected, well outnumbered by the men, but there was a healthy bonding (probably due to the mixed saunas!).
     But it does offer some rare treats, like the mad upside-down water-skiing, the beauty of the ice formations and the crystal visibility, and these make all the pain worthwhile. I guess if it was warm, more people would be doing it!

  • Miranda Krestovnikoff went diving in Russia courtesy of Polar Circle Dive Centre, 007095 1057799, You can book the diving, accommodation and training directly, but Overseas Business Travel in the UK (020 7702 2468) can arrange Russian visas and air tickets. Total cost for a one-week ice-diving adventure programme including flights and visas is £1000-1200. The daily rate for diving, accommodation and board is around £110.

  • The
    The accommodation was warm and comfortable
    The divers view of the line-tenders above
    care must be taken on descent to avoid free-flows
    The unusual gorgons head was a big attraction for the divers
    Comb-jellies are characteristic in the White Sea
    a foxfish (otherwise known as a pogge or bullhead)
    a Coryphella nudibranch
    upside-down water-skiing under the ice sheet
    Miranda enjoys the outdoor life
    Plumose anemones at Kresovji Rock

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