Paradise Bay: It was not your regular idea of paradise, no sandy beaches or swaying palms. The blue lagoon we were exploring belonged to a particularly beautiful iceberg grounded at 50m in the heart of the Antarctic Peninsula. Levelling off at 16m we looked up to see glorious pipe organ sculptures shaped from turquoise ice, sleek and smooth. Its surface, still below the water was barren except for the continuous stream of tiny bubbles, escaping thousands of years after they were trapped in snow on a nearby glacier. My computer read -1 deg c, but I felt warm, comfortable and incredibly privileged to be here.
Above was our dive guide, Göran Ehlmé, enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery whilst anchored to an iceberg. Göran, former BBC wildlife photographer of the year is passionate about Antarctica and its wildlife - and has an innate ability to share this love in a very knowledgeable but very natural way. It was decided that for the afternoon we would swap regulator for snorkel in search of close encounters with the ultimate polar predator- the leopard seal.
Cruising alongside the penguin rookeries, we stopped the zodiac to witness natural history in the making. Before us what we had taken for a rock was a large leopard seal, haunched in ambush for a penguin snack to approach. We entered the water, high on anticipation …..as well as a little trepidation. Many had fresh in our minds the fate of Kirsty Brown, the British Antarctic Survey scientist horrifically taken by the head down to 70m by a leopard seal, not that far from this area and not that long ago.
What was to follow in the next few hours came straight out of the Blue Planet and exceeded even the most optimistic wildlife observer amongst us. The leopard seal went in for the kill- a penguin that is. We all entered the water at which point the seal left the penguin and came instead towards us. Hmm this was not in the plan. Happily he returned to the bird and at first its powerful jaws allowed the flailing gentoo penguin momentary freedom, allowing it to 'fly' away and assume escape. It was brutal but beautiful to watch. The seal toyed and teased its prey before thrashing it to its ultimate death. The penguin was neatly skinned and nimbly devoured only a few metres from us. The drama was exhilarating; definitely not your average afternoon snorkel, trying to avoid the bergs floating above your head and making sure that that was your buddy tapping your fin and not something looking for second course.
Drop offs and kelp covered wall dives added variety to the rest of our time. The marine life was fascinating with giant isopods crawling around like 10cm woodlice, sea spiders, heaps of ribbon worms (10 times the size found anywhere else on the planet) and the world's only known species of bloodless fish, all beckoning the lens of the macro photographer.
Diving in Antarctic (or the Arctic for that matter) is an activity not to be taken lightly. Dry suit experience in cold conditions is a definite prerequisite. Two independent freeze protected regulators are used with a Y or H valve as a safety net from free flow. Y and H valves are not easy to find amongst UK dive centres so some of our group were using the setup for the first time on location. Diving here is big and bulky, but very rewarding. Thick undersuits such as the Arctic xerotherm and a good base layer, such as Sub Zero or Bam's bamboo material clothing, are essential. The argument between wet versus dry glove continues of course, but my 7mm 3 finger mitts served me well, particularly with a goodly helping of hot water poured inside before immersion!
These expeditions are arranged by Aqua-Firma Worldwide and are not all dive, dive, dive. The option to spend time in Buenos Aires and the truly magnificent Iguazu falls beforehand were awe inspiring, leaving Antarctica much to live up to. The voyage puts plenty of focus on life both above and below the waterline, perfect for the photographer and non-diving partners. In this way the trip brings to life every aspect of the Antarctic ecosystem whether you venture below the waves or not. This group was lead by Aqua-Firma's marine scientist, Charlotte Caffrey, and the boat based expedition team are first class experts in their field. A comprehensive on board lecture programme informs and entertains throughout.
Many of the non-divers and divers returned to civilisation and immediately booked Aqua-Firma's Arctic version of the same voyage in June - apparently unscathed by polar predators but bitten by the polar bug - once and for all.
Our Commitment to the Climate
Aqua-Firma is committed to the conservation of the places it visits. This is why the company has calculated the average CO2 emissions of its Arctic and Antarctic Voyages and will automatically offset each client’s share of emissions via the charity Rainforest Concern’s new Rainforest4Climate programme. Aqua-Firma will also automatically offset the carbon emissions of flights booked through them for its polar expeditions.