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My Close Call While Ice Diving, Part 2

Paul Nicklen
 

The icebreaker is 400 feet long, weighs 15,000 tons, and its bow thruster is blasting foamy, iceberg-sized air pockets under the sea ice. I am being pushed further and further under the ice. My line has gone slack, and I don’t know why. I am about 150 feet out on my line, my air is down to just over a third and my time is literally running out.

This was always going to be a tricky assignment, but that comes with the territory. It was my third assignment for National Geographic, and I wanted to take readers below the ice to see the crystal clear waters of the Beaufort Sea and — just as importantly — witness the efforts scientists were willing to go through to collect data from the sea ice and explore the world of teeming life below.

From above, sea ice reveals little of the foundational ecosystems below.

From a visual point of view, I knew the contrast of seeing an icy, windswept seascape of frozen whiteness and then suddenly seeing this world of living activity below four- to 12-foot-thick ice would grab even the most jaded reader.

In those conditions — the freezing cold, the constantly shifting currents beneath the ice, diving in pack ice right next to a Heavy Arctic Icebreaker — nothing was going to come easily.

As I started to turn back, I could see an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) approach under the ice. At first, I was confused. How can there be an ROV here in the middle of nowhere? I realized the crew had launched it so they could watch us diving under the ice. Someone mentioned they might do this before the dive, which seemed fine at the time, but I never factored in that this ROV was attached to a 15,000-ton ship.

The ROV is designed to go down to 10,000 feet below to the seafloor in the Beaufort Sea. This is the ROV that came over to inspect me.

I had done a lot of ice-diving before but not enough to consider myself an ice-diving expert. And when the current suddenly changed, I got that feeling you sometimes get when you weigh outcomes and suddenly realize: The odds are not in my favor.

With the Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St-Laurent practically on top of me, I knew I had to adjust my thinking — and quickly.

The ship’s captain was blasting air under the ice through its bow thruster, moving the icebreaker away from the ice’s edge so I could climb out where I had entered. Otherwise, the ship could block my only way out from under the ice.

I started kicking harder and harder and expelling more air when another white wall of foaming seawater suddenly surged toward me — the icebreaker’s bow thruster at work. I pulled the line hard: four tugs, the signal for, Emergency!…

Diver Jeremy on Louis St Laurent Ice Screws.

It didn’t work. I was being fed more rope, not less. I kicked and kicked, and then I spotted this large loop of cord forming under me where the line should have been taut. The line handlers thought I wanted more line and they weren’t waiting for my line command.

I rechecked my air and saw I was starting to run out. I use a small, 13-cubic-foot pony tank as a backup, but that’s only good for a few breaths of air. I switched my regulator as quickly as possible from the fast-emptying main tank to my pony tank. Another wall of white foam surged through the water and pushed me back aggressively. If I didn’t know it before, I knew now: I’m in a race against time. That sickening feeling of This could be it crept over me.

I pulled in the slack line as quickly as I could. I was still about 100 feet out from the edge. I could barely feel the dive line through my numbing hands in near-freezing 29°F water. I was at the end of my rope — literally.

There was no more line left for my handlers to give. It was then that they saw the line shackle attached to the ice screw start to jerk violently, and now they knew.

They started to pull me in rapidly.

As I was coming up, I cracked my face hard against the ice edge, hard enough to cut my forehead just above my mask, but I didn’t care.

The line-pullers grabbed me by the harness and pulled me up onto the ice. Close … but safe.

As I mentioned at the beginning, every picture tells a story, the one in front of the camera and the one behind the lens.

This time, the story in front of the camera spoke for itself. It was published in National Geographic, and it did very well. It was a success. It did everything I wanted it to.

The story behind the lens was a different matter. I kept the harrowing experience to myself for a long time. Until now, in fact, save for a few close friends in the diving community, on the off-chance they were ever to find themselves in a similar situation.

Later that afternoon, the captain turned to me and said, “So how did the dive go?”

“Oh, it was beautiful,” I said, which was the truth, if not exactly the whole truth.

“It was so beautiful down there. Thanks so much for the opportunity … but let’s coordinate a visit by the ROV in future, so I can be ready.”

Deep down, to this day, I am grateful to the Canadian Coast Guard for giving me the opportunity.

The truth is it was one of those situations where you don’t always know what the risks and challenges will be, and the only way you find out is by trying it yourself.

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