“I thought I was going to die,” whispered a diver after being brought back in a motorboat from the freezing waters of Bourgeois Fjord off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
I remember wondering if it was a good idea to leave the MV Betanzos, or the “mother ship”, with a team of divers on the motor boat as high winds intensified in the glacial valleys , which were already peeling off the spray from the icy water. surface and throw it in our faces.
The plan was to collect samples of marine invertebrates, as well as brown and red algae from shallow waters, as part of the Antarctic Biodiversity (ABG) Genomics Project along the coastline of one of the few ice-free islands – where the perpetual scouring of Antarctic winds have made ice accumulation impossible – to complement samples obtained from the front of the glaciers.
The objective of the study was to understand the effect of deglaciation and ice sheet retreat on marine biodiversity and to determine which species might suffer or benefit and why.
The divers – there were three of them – dived backwards from the boat under the watchful eye of two logistics experts from MV Betanzos, disappearing below the surface. Unbeknownst to one of the divers, his main and backup scuba regulators were about to freeze at a depth of approximately 26 feet.
She surfaced, breathing buddy with another diver, gasping for air as he stabilized his upper body above the water as the wind swept over them. “I felt like I was breathing through a straw,” she later recalled.
The logistics team and I struggled to get her out of the water. It took three of us to get her into the boat due to the weight of her snorkel gear. For what felt like minutes, she sat with her head in her hands, taking deep breaths as the gusts of wind continued to intensify.
The logistics team radioed the mothership to close in, instead of risking sailing through a crosswind to the ship several hundred yards away.
Logistics had chosen to use a hardened plastic motorboat on this outing because at roughly the same location a few days earlier, teams of scientists traveled in inflatable zodiac boats to Lagotellerie Island to collect plant and water samples, and they did not perform as well in gusty conditions. .
This is how the divers took refuge from the fury of nature, helpless for anything other than waiting for the mothership to come and get us.
That’s the nature of scientific research in these regions, where Antarctica sets the rules and humans have to bend them.
More often than not, generously funded projects steal the media spotlight. The first ones in Antarctica get good press, as do the drillings reaching hundreds of thousands of years of ice or the studies on charismatic animals such as whales or penguins.
Antarctica jealously hides its secrets, and often these secrets are written at the microbial level or in the migrations of marine invertebrates.
Chile is closer to Antarctica than any other country – only 404 miles separate Chile’s Cape Horn from Antarctica.
I joined several teams of scientists, from various Chilean universities, as part of the 58th Antarctic Scientific Expedition of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH).
While the US Antarctic Program operates with an annual budget (2021) of $292 million and the British Antarctic Survey receives approximately $68 million in annual funding, Chile has carved out a significant presence in Antarctica. with an annual budget in 2020 of $1.8 million. . INACH-funded scientists are quietly documenting, using DNA analysis, how native organisms are adapting to the climate crisis.
While INACH punches way above its weight in Antarctic science, making outsized contributions on a shoestring budget, it often means scientists have to thread the proverbial needle on a continent where windows of good weather can be close in minutes and stay closed for days or even weeks.
Where scientists with huge budgets can wait weeks for bad weather, these scientists often wait years for the opportunity to spend days or even hours in the field collecting specimens.
A plant breeder from the MV Betanzos spent two weeks on the ship for the only opportunity to harvest the Antarctic pearl (Colobanthus quitensis), one of only two angiosperms (seed-producing plants) that can survive in Antarctica, from a only place.
At midnight dusk, a helicopter took off from MV Betanzos in the third and final attempt to transport a team of glaciologists to the Müller Ice Shelf on the Arrowhead Peninsula.
The team of glaciologists, led by Francisco Fernandoy of Andrés Bello University and Edgardo Casanova Pino of the University of Magallanes, planned to retrieve their data on sea ice retreat in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Like me, the team was on board the Chilean navy supply ship, the Aquiles, when the Chilean government declared a state of emergency at the start of the pandemic. A day after boarding, all civilians were ordered to leave the ship, ending their plans.
Now, two years later, the team was on the verge of accomplishing its mission. The easiest access to the pack ice would have been from the north, but Lallemand Fjord and the Grandidier Channel were both ice bound and the MV Betanzos is not an icebreaker.
This meant that the only access had to be from the south. The helicopter flew to where Bigourdan Fjord met Helm Glacier, climbed it over a divide, then descended on the north side along Antevs Glacier and landed on the Müller Ice Shelf, which is long enough for two team members to disembark, before the helicopter returned to the ship for the other half of the team and their gear.
On two previous attempts, wind-blown snow mixed with low cloud created an impenetrable barrier above the glaciers through which the helicopter could not pass. With each delay, the planned five-day expedition was eventually reduced to an overnight stay, just long enough to recover the data and instruments set up in 2019.
Around midnight, calm settled over the ship and the skies above the glaciers opened up enough for a final test. The sun went down, but it never got dark.
The helicopter rounded a corner behind a ridge and ascended the Helm Glacier, in radio silence. For half an hour, until the helicopter could drop off the glaciologist and return to this corner, they had essentially gone to the dark side of the moon. There was nothing else to do but wait.
When the helicopter emerged, pilot Jose Luis Pincheira Gutierrez reported that the two glaciologists and their equipment had been successfully dropped onto the ice.
Hopes were high as the helicopter lifted off for the second round trip of three, even though clouds appeared to be building up over Helm Glacier. By the time they arrived at the pack ice for the second time, overcast skies made landing too dangerous because spatial disorientation made it difficult for the pilot to judge distance. Many lives have been lost in aviation accidents in the polar regions under such conditions. The weather window had once again closed.
There were now two glaciologists on the ice without adequate survival gear, but none of this was known on the deck of the MV Betanzos. All they knew was that the helicopter, which was to return, was nowhere to be found and out of radio contact.
If the plane had crashed, the only viable rescue would have had to have come from the nearest airstrip to the British research station Rothera, which was farther from the Müller Ice Shelf than MV Betanzos.
After 45 tense minutes, the helicopter came out of radio silence, glaciologists and equipment still on board.
After being turned down by the pandemic in 2020 and waiting two more years for another chance to return, this time the weather would prevent the glaciologists from completing their project. But first there were two glaciologists, without adequate survival equipment, to rescue.
“It’s an environment where people shouldn’t be,” marine mammal researcher Ari Friedlaender once said of Antarctica.
Working in Antarctica creates deep bonds between travelers. It is no exaggeration to say that researchers depend on each other for their very survival. There is a heightened sense of being alive while being immersed in a world in which humans are simply not suited to survive. The only other place where I have felt this immediate and lasting connection is in conflict zones.
Sitting in a small plastic boat, buffeted by icy gusts, inches from seawater that would surely induce hypothermia within minutes, one senses their own insignificance and mortality.
Researchers risk everything for science and often come back empty-handed. And yet they return willingly, eagerly, because Antarctica catches you, lodges its hook deep.