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A Tale of Diving under the Arctic Circle

This incredible story is from Kevin Lee, 49, Fullerton resident, director with Kint and Associates and, adventurer. Here’s Lee’s report:

I thrive on adventure. For three years, I backpacked around the world, visiting over 30 countries, including multiple treks to Mt. Everest Base Camp and to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Among my memorable experiences, I fondly recall a warm hug from Mother Teresa and meeting the Dalai Lama.

A few years ago, I started scuba diving and, to share the wonders of the ocean with friends, took up underwater photography. Recently, I traveled to my seventh continent, going below the Antarctic Circle and scuba diving in 30-degree waters.

Just getting to Antarctica is a challenge – like crossing Drake Passage, between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. One lady lost her balance because of 20-foot swells and fell, suffering a black eye and requiring seven stitches on her forehead.

We had about 49 passengers from 17 countries aboard the 230-foot Russian polar research ship. There were 19 scuba divers and one diver, Evan Bozanic, who at 11 became the youngest to dive in the Antarctic. Equally impressive, his 67 year-young grandmother, Lois, who also did a dive!

Deception Island was the site of our first practice dive. Three of us back-rolled off our Zodiac into frosty waters. Our lips stung from the icy water, but within a minute all feeling was lost.

One woman, a fairly experienced diver, but new to dry-suit diving, plummeted like a rock. At 20 feet, she took off a glove – in 34-degree waters – and attempted to release her weight belt. I thought she wanted to tighten her belt so it wouldn’t slip off, so I approached and released her buckle. Much to my astonishment, she pulled the belt off.

We were at 40 feet and drifting down a precariously steep slope. I grabbed her belt with one hand and clutched her D-ring with the other so she wouldn’t pop up like a cork. A rapid ascent is very dangerous and can cause severe injury or death. Visibility dropped to zero from her frantic finning, which created a huge, thick cloud from the eons of volcanic fine black ash.

Eventually, I arrested our descent at 50 feet. She indicated her dry-suit inflator was not operating. I confirmed her hose connector was secure. Then I tried her inflator valve and found air was not entering her drysuit, which would have provided warmth, buoyancy and relieved the tremendous squeeze on her body. Slowly, I pulled her up to 30 feet.

I motioned for another diver to hold the woman. I took her inflator and waved it in front of her eyes. I was unfamiliar with the brand and did not want to risk a problem.

Fortunately, she got the idea and began controlling her own buoyancy. I signed for everyone to level off at 15 feet for three minutes, never letting go until we surfaced and got her on board. She had a hint of blood around her mouth.

I learned she had forgotten to equalize, causing some blood vessels on the surface of her left eye to rupture, allowing blood to flow through her sinuses and into her mouth. Her ears were sore, but, thankfully, her eardrums had not burst.

Our dives were limited by the amount of cold-induced pain we could tolerate. Water temperatures ranged between 30 and 36 degrees, nearly identical to air temperatures. Only two of us, another diver and I, did all eight dives over six days. After 30 minutes, hands would start to numb and pain set in. Oddly, my body never felt cold, and I never experienced the shivers, as in a wetsuit diving in 55-degree waters of Southern California. My longest dive was 57 minutes, and deepest was 70 feet.

Encounters with the carnivorous leopard seal were quite memorable. Leopard seals look rather sinister, with massive jaws, menacing teeth and a reptilian shaped head. They grow up to 12 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. But the ones I encountered were curious, non-threatening and even seemed playful. One came within two feet of my face, attracted to my light, swam away and returned to check out my light again.

Each dive was a new encounter with strange flora, unique fauna and foreign landscapes. Huge amphipods and copepods scurried along the sea floor. Numerous starfish species roamed in search of food. One large sun-star had 42 arms. Fish were not so common, and the ones I did find were rather small and sedentary. Many types of worms abounded, some more than 10 feet long. Large limpets were also common. Kelp and algae were widespread. Penguins, mainly Gentoo and Chinstrap, whales and fur seals were common sights.

Compared to my other adventures, the Antarctic experience ranks as one of the best. I will return.

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