Deepsea Under The PoleUnder the melting ice
Deepsea Under The Pole by Rolex was a pioneering expedition undertaken in 2010 to learn more about the submerged side of the Arctic. During a combination of ski trekking and scuba diving in one of the toughest climates on the planet, the eight expedition members successfully conducted scientific experiments.
The team gathered exceptional audiovisual material on a disappearing world where snow and ice coexist with an unexpectedly abundant and singular marine fauna. Rolex was proud to continue its support for the team with the Under The Pole III expedition in 2017, helping further discoveries and shedding new light on our understanding of the planet.
The 2010 Deepsea Under The Pole expedition took the team’s members, led by Ghislain Bardout, to the North Pole – then lowered them through a metre of ice into freezing water and under the polar ice cap. It all began as a daydream in the mind of a 15-year-old French schoolboy.
Growing up in Ferney-Voltaire, near France’s border with Switzerland, Ghislain Bardout was captivated by the scenes his imagination brought forth of the North Pole – polar bears and sparkling snow, of course, but also the unseen majesty of crystal blue water under sculptured white ice. Curious, he searched for underwater photographs of the Pole, but there were none. No one had ever dived under the ice to take them.
Fifteen years later, at the top of the world, he understood why.
We were expecting severe cold, but it was still a shock. It penetrated every layer of clothing and tore at our skin. Frostbite was our constant enemy.
Just getting his expedition, Deepsea Under The Pole by Rolex, to the North Pole had been a monumental job, requiring nearly three years of round-the-clock planning, fundraising, research, logistical preparation and physical and mental training. The team had trained during winters in the French Alps and northern Finland, where they tested their equipment and their resilience on the sea ice of the northern Baltic.
So exhausting were those final preparations, followed by the long journey from France to Montreal and on to the Canadian high Arctic, that Bardout permitted himself a moment of exultation after the eight-person team was dropped off near the Pole on 26 March 2010. “Standing there, watching the plane take off, it felt like expedition number one had just ended,” he recalls. “Getting there was a real achievement.”
Expedition number two was even more ambitious. It called for a two-month, 800-kilometre (497-mile) ski trek to Ellesmere Island on the moving polar ice floe, with frequent stops to scuba dive beneath it. The purpose of those dives was documentation and the team would make unprecedented underwater images of the vanishing polar ice cap, along with hundreds of scientific observations related to human physiology and global climate change. Yet after arriving at 89°19’ North, Bardout realized that the team’s biggest, and most immediate, challenge would be adapting to the polar environment.
They had timed their arrival for late March to take advantage of the Arctic’s transition from winter to spring, when the ice is still thick, the ocean is clear and the sun, having cleared the horizon, is rising higher in the sky every day. But spring in the Arctic is fickle and soon after the team set out on skis towing pulks, or floating sleds, packed with gear, their efforts were paralysed by air temperatures of -40° C (-40° F) – even as they began trying to make dives.
“Those first few days were hell,” Bardout recalls. “We were expecting severe cold, but it was still a shock. It penetrated every layer of clothing and tore at our skin. Frostbite was our constant enemy.”
Conditions were just so hard. There was nothing wrong with our equipment, but everything was breaking.
To make matters worse, their equipment began to break almost immediately, as the intense cold caused metal to snap, plastic to shatter and the simplest mechanism to malfunction. Equipment battle-tested on the sea ice of northern Finland turned as brittle as glass at the North Pole.
On one of their first dives under the ice, the dry suit of Emmanuelle Périé, the expedition’s only woman, began to fill with freezing water, due to ice in the purge of her suit. And that was just the beginning.
“Imagine trying to dry off and raise your core temperature when the wind chill is minus 45°C,” says Périé, recalling the first frantic moments after she resurfaced and the group put their crisis training to work. “Then, as we were drying wet clothes in the exhaust of our generator, my parka caught fire. That was not a good feeling, seeing my main defence against the Arctic cold suddenly full of holes. That’s the kind of thing we were dealing with from the very first day. It was wild.”
After every dive, it took hours to clear the ice off the regulators, cameras and other underwater gear, and even longer to repair the damaged equipment. “The only diving instruments which performed all the time”, she adds, were their Rolex watches – the Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea model.
With several Arctic expeditions under his belt, Bardout recognized the danger signs. He called a moratorium on further dives until the team could regain their balance and acclimatize to the brutal conditions. So for the next 10 days, the group skied, camped, repaired their equipment and made their way south on the drifting ice, gaining mastery of the polar environment while stretching their levels of endurance to seven or eight hours of skiing per day.
“I think that was probably our key decision,” he says. “Conditions were just so hard. There was nothing wrong with our equipment, but everything was breaking – cameras, cables, skis, lighting equipment. Things like that take a toll. We were well trained, but I knew from experience that those first 10 or 12 days can make or break an expedition. If we hadn’t managed to get things under control, ours could have been a disaster.”
The break from diving was also an opportunity for the team to gel. Besides expedition leader Bardout, 30, and his partner Périé, 31, a skipper and diving instructor, the group included Benoît Poyelle, 32, an oceanographic engineer and photographer; Alban Michon, 32, a diving specialist in charge of the underwater gear; Samuel Audrain, 31, a professional diver and marine mechanic; Clément Infante, 25, an alpinist; Vincent Berthet, 28, a cameraman; Pascal Rey, 34, a mountaineer and emergency medical specialist; and finally Kayak, a one year-old Siberian husky, white as the Arctic snow, who served as a watchdog for polar bears. Support team member Valentine Ribadeau Dumas remained in Resolute Bay and acted as primary contact with the team on the ice.
Waiting 10 days to dive also bought time for the weather to warm up, although at first the volatility of the Arctic spring made things worse instead of better.
In early April, for example, the air temperature rose from -40°C (-40°F) to -1°C (-30.2°F) within 24 hours – a welcome change – but the fast-changing weather brought gale-force winds which ripped through the camp for the next two days and turned the relatively flat ice fields they’d been traversing into a vast, chaotic jumble of ice blocks the size of small buildings, punctuated by leads (fissures) of open water. Another raging wind storm blew the ice floe they were on more than 30 kilometres (18 miles) west, pushing up more compression ridges and erasing days of progress towards their destination. Conditions were so chaotic that their resupply plane couldn’t land and instead was forced to drop supplies by parachute, far away from the camp, in order to avoid cracks and open water.
Eventually, however, weather conditions – and the group’s teamwork – improved to the point that Bardout signalled for the dives to resume. It was then that the expedition found its rhythm and its purpose.
This time, the dives went well. For each change of diving location, the team spent days at a time skiing and pulling their sleds, sometimes portaging over blocks of ice and grinding out eight to 10 kilometres (five to six miles) before setting up camp for the night. On diving days, there was a morning dive through a hole cut in the ice, followed by lunch and another dive in the late afternoon, usually in a different location.
Gradually, as the expedition moved south on the ice floe, its photographers created a stunning visual record of the sea ice as seen from below, while other team members collected scientific data both above and below the ice.
In collaboration with the Géo Scaph Association, the team measured the effects of the polar seas on human physiology, especially body temperature, by swallowing “radio” pills before each dive that tracked the body’s reactions. And for climatologist Christian Haas at Canada’s Alberta University, they collected data on snow thickness, as well as charting density and buoyancy measurements that suggest the thickness of the ice shelf itself.
During the weeks spent in the Arctic, the expedition also documented various signs of global climate change, including melting from the bottom of the polar ice sheet, a process that has left the ice noticeably thinner and more vulnerable than it was just a few years ago, according to Bardout and Périé, who were at the Pole in 2007 and 2008.
Today we see pictures of open water at the North Pole in early spring and polar bears swimming very long distances, and that’s not normal. The ice cap is melting right before our eyes and it isn’t recovering.
Their impression is confirmed by meteorologist Wayne Davidson, who has followed changes in the Arctic ice floe from a base on Ellesmere Island since 1985. According to Davidson, the Arctic ice has been getting noticeably thinner since 1998, resulting in an alarming increase in surface temperatures.
“When the sun rises, ice melts – that’s a natural phenomenon,” Bardout adds. “It’s happened every spring in the Arctic for thousands of years. But today we see pictures of open water at the North Pole in early spring and polar bears swimming very long distances, and that’s not normal. The ice cap is melting right before our eyes and it isn’t recovering. What we saw and filmed on the expedition was that a lot of that melting occurs on the bottom of the ice sheet, not on top where most people are looking. I saw this with my own eyes.”
For the team, the polar landscape became more difficult and treacherous with every passing day, as the ice piled up in pressure ridges and the April sun began to melt the ice and snow. Soon it became clear that the expedition would not be able to both dive and reach the coast of Ellesmere Island overland as they had originally planned. Faced with the prospect of abandoning the all-important dives, the group decided not to drop everything and race for the coast, but to spend the rest of their time exploring the top and bottom of the ice cap, compiling the most comprehensive photo documentation that has ever been done.
The team completed 51 dives in all and would probably be diving still if conditions hadn’t deteriorated further. By the third week in April, temperatures had soared to 10 to 15 degrees higher than normal and the ice was melting fast – “fragmenting into pieces more and more every day”, wrote Bardout, announcing the decision to leave the Pole earlier than planned. “We’ve heard cracking noises underwater while diving and we hear it in the tents at night. You can feel the ice pressure releasing. You feel fear.”
With the first break in the weather, the team was plucked off the melting ice along with Kayak and their gear. Airlifted to Ellesmere Island and then home to France, where Bardout and Périé would plan their next expedition – which would include long and very deep dives – to photograph and assess the state of polar sea ice and its biodiversity closer to the west and north Greenland coast, where Inuit hunters depend on the slow circling of seasons and a thick sheet of ice to earn their livelihoods..
“The submarine sea ice environment is almost completely unknown,” says Bardout, explaining his passion for the frozen underbelly of the Arctic. “Relatively few images of it exist in the public domain and most of them were taken in the same basic place, within easy striking distance of logistics bases with airfields. But the ice is different everywhere you go in the Arctic and the submarine landscape varies enormously from place to place. We just want to show the beauty of this vanishing world.”