Life under the ice
The first time Rob Robbins, Supervisor of Dive Services at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, set his eyes on the ice in 1979 he fell in love.
“McMurdo is the prettiest place in the world,” says Robbins. “It’s all about contrast. Above the water is blue and white—sky and ice.”
It would take a few years before Robbins would discover that locked beneath the white ice is a lush invertebrate life. He wouldn’t get the chance to dive—despite having gone to school to specialize in technical diving and having logged years working underwater in the Gulf of Mexico on oil drilling rigs—until he paid his Antarctic dues.
That entailed working as a General Field Assistant (GFA), in the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), among other jobs. Robbins took to Antarctica and before long was working full time. He’d deploy to the ice for months at a time, and then retreat to his home base in the U.S. He loved the work, but his diving options were limited—at least initially.
Then, in 1984, officials decided to rebuild the seawater intake at McMurdo, and they needed specialized divers to engineer the underwater work. Robbins was in the right place at the right time. He proved his skills and convinced the Antarctic managers to merge the diving crew under one division.
Previously there had been divers for construction work and science divers. When the USAP combined science and commercial diving, officials decided to bring the crew on staff (as opposed to being on a contract basis). And Robbins scored his dream job.
“I wanted to be a diver since I was six,” he says. “I was heavily influenced by Jacques Cousteau and the television show, Sea Hunt.”
In Antarctica, he was equally influenced by the scientists he met. Their work impressed Robbins, and he was proud to assist their research.
“Any job in McMurdo is interesting because you are contributing to the research that is going on down there,” he says. “If you have to have a job—and most of us do—that’s not a bad thing to be doing.”
More, he loves the actual work, which has sent him around the world.
In addition to the Antarctic diving, Robbins has worked in the Arctic (both programs are funded and managed by the National Science Foundation's Division of Polar Programs). He’s contributed to a couple symposia on polar diving in Svalbard, Norway. He has also helped scientists like Dr. Brenda Konar teach the science diving class for University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which they do each year in March at the Kasitsna Bay Lab out of Homer, AK.
He’s been a National Science Foundation grantee investigating the use of rebreathers for science diving out of Barrow (also with Dr. Konar). And he has worked with several filmmakers (BBC, Werner Herzog, Norbert Wu) in McMurdo, which has lead to working as an underwater videographer for Ice Road Truckers in Yellowknife, Canada.
So what’s it like to dive under the ice?
“When you first jump in, it almost takes your breath away,” says Robbins. “Your face is the only thing that really gets wet. You feel the cold on your face immediately, but then it goes numb really fast. So that’s not a problem.”
The problem, according to Robbins, is your hands. They get very cold and ultimately are the reason most dives end somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour and a half into it.
The water in Antarctica stays a consistent 28.5 degrees. Divers wear thermal underwear, and then a quilted insulated layer, underneath specialized dry suits. They also don hard hats and gloves.
Upon impact, the water’s temperature takes the breath away, Robbins says. To get to the water, Robbins and his crew use a big drill to bore holes four feet in diameter through the sea ice. Once in, they typically have unprecedented visibility—up to 800 feet. By contrast, the best visibility in popular diving locales like the Caribbean is about 150 feet.
“Under the water it is lush,” says Robbins. “There’s an enormous variety of sponges and it is so colorful. The invertebrate life is amazing and so is the visibility. There is no where else in the world where you can jump in the water and see the underwater terrain like you can in Antarctica.”
He also experiences animal life in a completely unique way.
“There are penguins and seals in the water and I watch them swim and hear them. The way they vocalize is phenomenal. Sure you hear it on the surface, but under water, it goes through you. There are a huge variety of sounds. It’s eerie and beautiful at the same time.”
Around the 10th of December—when the sun is up 24 hours a day—the ocean gets a plankton bloom that blocks visibility and virtually ends diving season.
“It’s not much fun diving under the ice in limited visibility,” says Robbins.
But each year he returns in August for yet another dive season.
“It is so rare that people really love what they do, and I am in the super lucky position to have that,” says Robbins, who admits that long deployments away from his wife, Polar Field Service’s Robbie Score, take a toll. “Deploying is hard, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. Some day I’ll have to stop. But it’s tough because I really like doing it. I sit at the hole every single dive and say this is so cool I get to jump in the water.” —Rachel Walker