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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Falling for the World Under the White Sea

For MTMikhail Safonov
I met Mikhail Safonov at the North Pole in 1999. The previous year, a professional rescuer, Andrei Rozhkov, had approached him about organizing the first spring dive at the pole. They would take advantage of a temporary base (set up for skiers, balloonists and parachutists each April since 1994) to bring their equipment and get a helicopter ride to the exact pole. Rozhkov, a veteran parachutist and diver, had died of a heart attack during the dive, and I had been 3 kilometers away on an expedition of my own. The first man to dive at the pole had become the first man to die doing it.

Safonov had returned a year later with six Russians and three Westerners. I had witnessed that dive, which went smoothly, and Safonov and I had become friends.

On the train ride back from a week's dive this year, this time on the White Sea, I had asked Safonov, who is 31, how a childhood in Moscow led him to diving -- he's done close to 3,000 dives -- and particularly to ice diving.

"By the time I was 7, I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist," he said. "Later I became interested in worms because they are useful in understanding evolution. I started diving at 18, but in Soviet days there was no recreational diving. Invertebrate marine biology students were required to take a professional diving course, and that's what I did. Naturally that included diving under ice in lakes and rivers.

"Then in 1990, when I was working on my Ph.D. and supporting my wife and two kids on an teaching assistant's salary, Vladimir Orlov [another marine biologist] and I decided to start a diving club at the university. We thought we could keep the club small, concentrate on instruction, make $500 a month and continue to teach and work as scientists.

"We soon found out that to survive, we had to grow. We started selling diving equipment and organizing diving tours to the Red Sea. But I have a special affinity for the Far North, I get more of a kick coming back to the White Sea each year than I did last year discovering the Galapagos.

"So we bought a small research ship, the Kartesh -- it's 30 meters long, with room for 18 guests -- and started doing summer diving safaris in the White and Barents seas. I was curious to see what things looked like under the ice, so in 1998 we came to dive at the bio-station with four clients. I was really surprised to discover to what extent underwater life goes on in winter. We saw things that we had never seen in summer, such as the mating of the giant snow crabs. When I saw it for the first time, I thought they would fight, and the bigger crab would eat the smaller one. They would jump at each other with tremendous violence and stay locked in a tight embrace for 10 or 15 minutes. We were mesmerized and watched them the whole time. It turned out that the bigger one was a female and a small one was a male."

Safonov took a sip of tea as the train rumbled through the night and continued.

"We've been doing the White Sea in winter ever since," he said. "It's the best place, at least in this hemisphere. The water is very clear, there's a rich marine life and it's reasonably accessible. I've dived around St. Petersburg, but the water is murky and there's very little life, though plenty of shipwrecks. I've been to Novaya Zemlya; there's not much to see and it's very hard to get to. The Barents Sea doesn't freeze in winter because of the Gulf Stream. You can sometimes dive in Norwegian fjords, but often there's no ice.

"While the under-ice marine life is interesting, the ice itself touches you on a more emotional level. At the North Pole, the ridges can rise up to 10 meters above the surface, which means about 100 meters below. It's a fantastic spectacle, and in April the visibility is 70 meters. And knowing there's 4 kilometers of water below you -- that's a strong sensation."

The Moscow State University dive club has trained more than 300 ice divers, probably more than any club in the world. "We don't advertise ice-diving because it's not for everybody," Safonov said. "We increased our fee for the training from $200 to $500 partly to filter out those who aren't really committed."

In addition to dives in lakes around Moscow and the two-month White Sea season, Safonov took divers to the North Pole again in 2000 and 2001. His wife Anastasia became the first woman to dive at the pole. But this year, there was no trip to the pole.

"The problem with ice diving is that it's not profitable because it's very expensive. You use more expensive equipment and clothing and that goes for staff as well as clients. You need extremely qualified personnel, experienced instructors, and there aren't many around. And it's not for everybody -- you have to be strong and have steady nerves. It's dangerous. The seawater under the ice is at minus 1.8 degrees Celsius and the condensation in your regulator can freeze at any time, so you need two regulators. But a dry suit is much more cumbersome than a wetsuit, and your hands are numb with cold, so finding the other regulator fast is something you need to train for. And you can't always surface right away, sometimes you are 40 meters from the ice hole. Last year we had a client drown just below the hole, 4 meters deep. We never understood why.

"So there are very few people who do ice diving. Even cave-diving is more popular, because in caves the water is usually above 10 degrees Celsius and there is a big difference between plus 10 degrees Celsius and minus 2 degrees Celsius.

"If there were more frozen lakes in Europe and a frozen sea, more people would do it, but there is a very limited supply of places. The White Sea is still a terra incognita for Europeans. But the diving business in general is growing, and maybe some day the White Sea could become like Hurghada (the main dive site on Egypt's Red Sea coast). Now that Russia is an open country and it's possible to dive with Russians at the North Pole and the White Sea, the number of ice divers should increase."

The Moscow State University Diving Club is organizing four weeklong trips to the White Sea this spring (March 1-10, March 15-23, March 23-31 and March 29 to April 07). The cost of each trip is $180 per person/per day, which includes accommodation, diving, meals and diving guide. For more information, visit