Deepest Dive Under Antarctica Reveals a Shockingly Vibrant World

Our special report offers a rare look at life beneath the frozen continent—where penguins, seals, and exotic creatures thrive.

Tendrils of ice-covered brine, or brinicles, leak from sea ice near East Antarctica’s Dumont d’Urville Station. Ephemeral and seldom seen, they form when trapped, supercooled brine escapes from the ice and freezes less salty seawater.

In the morning, when we arrive on foot from Dumont d’Urville, the French scientific base on the Adélie Coast of East Antarctica, we have to break up a thin layer of ice that has formed over the hole we drilled the day before. The hole goes right through the 10-foot-thick ice floe. It’s just wide enough for a man, and below it lies the sea. We’ve never tried to dive through such a small opening. I go first.

Pushing and pulling with hands, knees, heels, and the tips of my swim fins, I shimmy through the hole. As I plunge at last into the icy water, I look back—to a sickening sight. The hole has already begun to close behind me.

The bottom surface of the sea ice is a thick slurry of floating ice crystals, and my descent has set them in motion. They’re converging on the hole as if it were an upside-down drain. By the time I thrust one arm into the icy mush, it’s three feet thick. Grabbing the safety rope, I pull myself up inch by inch, but my shoulders get stuck. Suddenly I’m stunned by a sharp blow to the head: Cédric Gentil, one of my dive buddies, is trying to dig me out, and his shovel has struck my skull. Finally a hand grabs mine and hauls me into the air. Today’s dive is over—but it’s only one of 32.

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