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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ice Diving at the Top of the World

For MTDivers explore below the surface in pairs and are tied to a diver on the surface by a 45-meter rope, which the tender tugs at regular intervals. Divers say that the water under the sea ice is clearer than in summer, with some animals that are only visible
CHUPA, Far North -- While the rest of the world is just discovering that diving under ice-covered lakes can be fun, a bright young Russian marine biologist is already leading teams to the White Sea, the North Pole and Antarctica.

Ice diving is dangerous, expensive, complicated, unprofitable and uncomfortable, and even less popular than cave diving. So why is he devoting his life to pioneering it?

Because he loves what can be found only under ice: the clear water and the fantastic, infinitely varied shapes of the ice itself; the violent mating of the giant snow crabs, the delicate combfish that float by; and, in lakes, teasing crawfish and catching sleepy fish by hand.

The contours of the jumbled ice not 6 meters from a cliff along the White Sea were curiously hard to see underwater. The light the ice emitted ranged from white to green. Where the light penetrated fully, shining down between bocks broken up by the tides, tiny bubbles caught in the ice shone like miniature light bulbs.

I was lost in contemplation when I heard a scraping sound behind me. It was Misha Safonov, who would call himself the King of Ice-Diving if he weren't so modest, and he was up to one of his favorite pranks.

Displaying his mastery of the dry suit, he had turned upside down, given himself positive buoyancy and was now walking toward me on the flat ice that stretched into the distance on the other side of the dive hole.

Then he stopped and, ever the pedagogue, pointed to his feet, where the air from his tanks had gathered in huge, quivering lumps that glistened like mercury.

He kicked them away with his fins and they broke into myriad bubbles, scuttling under the surface in a desperate search for an escape that would only come in summer.

We were at a spot that marine biologists from Moscow State University had nicknamed the bio-filter, from the large number of mussels carpeting the bottom.

The scientists had been touring the area in 1937 prior to setting up a bio-station, or field lab, 6 kilometers from here.

The station, where we were staying, was made up of two dozen wooden buildings nestled among the pine and birch on a slope that ended with a pier. A few boats were caught in the ice or pulled up on shore.

In summer the place was bustling with students, but now, in March, it was pretty much deserted, except for us.

In addition to Safonov, the vice president of the Moscow State University Diving Club, our group included two club staffers; a professional underwater cameraman and his girlfriend/assistant and five Russians who were paying $100 per day for a week's ice-diving.


Christopher Pala / For MT

The team pulling out blocks of White Sea ice at the dive spot nicknamed The Rock.



We had left Moscow on the train to Murmansk, and, after 26 hours, gotten off in the middle of the night at a tiny station on the White Sea called Chupa, where the train stopped for one minute and we were the only ones to get off.

Two cars had driven us along an awful stretch of the Murmansk-St. Petersburg road for an hour. We had piled into sleds pulled by two clunky Russian snowmobiles and, as dawn broke, traveled for another two hours along the snow-covered shore over frozen marshes and copses.

In summer, the station, at Salma inlet on Kandalakshky Bay, was reached by boat only. In the inter-season, it couldn't be reached at all. It was located right on the Arctic Circle, and Safonov assured us with a straight face that the water was so clear you could see the circle on the bottom.

When we arrived, a pleasant surprise awaited us. Instead of the usual smelly outhouse at the bottom of the garden that is the norm in rural Russia, Safonov had had his staff place a little wooden cabin with a chemical toilet and a gas stove a few steps from the front door.

After a few hours' rest, we piled back into the sleds and drove off to the first dive site.

On the way, we passed one of the few spots in the White Sea that doesn't freeze because of tidal currents.

It was home to a colony of eider ducks (source of the world's warmest down) that, unlike most of their brethren, do not migrate south in winter but remain here, diving for mussels and crabs in the open water.

With Safonov riding behind us on skis, pulled by a rope, we roared across a bay to our first dive site, called The Rock. Located in a bay near an island, it was set above a huge boulder that rose to within 8 meters of the surface, and dropped steeply to 20 meters.

Though nothing marked the spot, Safonov, who had been diving around here since adolescence in summer and since 1998 in winter, knew exactly where it was.

Manual drills and saws came out and we started cutting out blocks of ice to make a pair of holes more than a meter across.

Meanwhile, the two snowmobiles left and returned with another innovation: two crude wooden houses built on runners. One had benches and a table and served as a mess hall, the other as a changing room for the divers. Both were well-heated with gas stoves.

Once the blocks of ice had been pulled out like plugs, it remained to use shovels to take out the lumps of ice that robbed the surface of its transparency. In the end, when only tiny bits remained, we poured boiling water from the expedition tea kettle over the surface to melt them.

Throughout the day, the divers explored the rock in pairs. Each was tied to a diver on the surface by a 45-meter rope held in the hand, and the tender gave tugs at regular intervals. From a distance, the tenders looked like fishermen holding lines.

It was possible to follow the path of the divers from the noise the bubbles made against the ice.

After his first dive under sea ice, I asked Alexei Yegorov, a PR man for a multinational, whether he had liked it.

"It's wonderful," he said. "The water is so much clearer than in summer, I could see 40, 50 meters instead of 10 in summer, so the light is very different.

"But the most surprising thing is that there is so much life below and everything seems dead above," he said, waving to the expanse of whiteness around us.

As the light fell, the diving continued. Leaning over the side of the hole with a mask on, I watched Safonov and a partner shining his powerful flashlight on red sea anemones as he crept on the top of the rock just below us.

The water was so clear he seemed to be 30 meters below and not 75 meters.


Christopher Pala / For MT

Mikhail Safonov riding behind on cross-country skis as the group's sleds roar across the bay on their way to the first dive site.



We also shone a light on a combfish, visible only in winter, and saw how bright-red elements pulsated through its transparent, oval body as it slowly glided across the ice hole.

It was already dark when we returned, and we were treated to an aurora borealis on the way home. It looked as if an invisible being strolled across the clear sky sowing luminous flour this way and that in slow motion, and it was spellbinding.

Then, over a typical Russian meal of soup, dumplings and salad with mayonnaise, we watched the day's footage on video. On the submerged rock were forests of laminaria seaweed, delicate licernaria cuadricornis, orange sea anemones and scurrying small crabs. And there were surprising shots of the ice hole and the tenders seen from below, with the divers saying you could read the minder's body language (I'm cold, your time is up, get out) from 30 meters below the hole.

The next day we went to the so-called Bio-Filter dive site, which is located just below a cliff and was chosen because the tides break up the ice there. As we sawed our way through three holes, a white-tailed eagle wheeled overhead.

The divers spent the day exploring the jumble of ice at the foot of the cliff. "It looks like the cast of the Snow Queen, only all broken down," said Safonov, referring to the Andersen tale.

Once, Vadim the cameraman came up with a frozen regulator (he and everyone else had two) that we thawed with the indispensable kettle.

For the rest of the week, we alternated between the two spots. Sometimes it snowed, sometimes there was brilliant sunshine. Our warm clothing made us physically insensitive to the changes, though divers walking around with snow on their suits made for an amusing sight. The temperature ranged from well below freezing to well above.

On the last day, we erected another of Safonov's inventions: a much larger house without a floor that was set up around a dive hole. Made up of panels that were easier to carry on a sled than the other two houses, it afforded the possibility of diving and changing while sheltered from the wind, although the ice floor prevented the temperature from reaching the warmth in the other two cabins. It would be useful at the start of the next season (which goes from mid-February to mid-April) when temperatures can drop to around minus 10 degrees Celsius.

I spent the night alone in a fisherman's log cabin built under the trees on a head of land near the Bio-Filter site. The ceiling was low and a wood stove kept me warm. There was a full moon in a clear sky and I spent an hour outside sitting on an ice ridge, savoring the silent beauty that is the white White Sea.