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.TODAY’SPOPULAR STORIES
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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.
When at last we’re ready to topple into the freezing water, we’re wearing and carrying 200 pounds each. It feels like we’re learning to dive all over again. Moving is a struggle, swimming almost impossible. The cold quickly anesthetizes the few square inches of exposed skin on our cheeks, and as the dive wears on, it intrudes into our suits and gloves, biting harder and harder. It’s unbearable, but we must bear it. Toward the end, as we’re pausing on our ascent to decompress, we search for anything to distract us from the pain.
When we finally crawl or haul ourselves out of the freezing ocean, I lie prostrate on the ice, my brain too dulled to think about removing my gear, my skin hard and wrinkled, my lips, hands, and feet swollen and numb—then, as my body warms and the blood starts to flow again, the pain is at its worst. It’s so intense I find myself wishing my extremities were still frozen. After four weeks, I can’t feel my toes anymore, even in the warmth. It will take seven months after our return to Europe for my damaged nerves to recover.