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The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Fifteen

All Stout annotations are in italics.

Stout: My first Antarctic dive is probably one of the most astounding memories of my entire life. I was sitting on the edge of the hole – they’ve cored out a hole with a big drill through the ice; the ice is 12 feet thick – and I’m looking down into the water. Because diving is ordinarily a stressful activity, ice diving in Antarctica is exponentially stressful. And dangerous: A 22-year-old diver had died during a dive the previous year when he got a carotid squeeze from a too-tight dive suit neck line that resulted in his losing consciousness. He rocketed upwards, cracking his skull on the concrete-hard underside of the sea ice. So as a diver, before your dive you don’t do much of anything. You have dive tenders to check all of your equipment for you and put your equipment on you so you don’t have to think about anything except for the dive, which is –

ARCUDI: …Enough.

STOUT: I’m sitting there with my feet dangling in the water; I’m looking down and I make a remark that, “I thought our first dive was going to be a deep dive,” because I can clearly see the bottom from where I’m sitting. The tenders asked, “How deep do you think that is?” I said, “Well, it looks like it’s about 20 to 25 feet deep, 30 at the most.” The tender said, “You’re looking at a 100 feet bottom.” The water was so crystal clear – it was just extraordinary. I get all of my stuff on and there’s a rope called a “down line” that goes from the top of the hole down to the sea bottom. I start going down the rope through the ice. Intellectually I know this is not happening, but I swear to God that the tube I’m descending is getting narrower and narrower. I’m getting more claustrophobic going down this twelve-foot tube of ice. The sides of the tube are like milk glass, really extraordinary. I finally clear the bottom of the ice; this enormous vista opens up for me. I can see forever. The light shining through the twelve feet of ice turns that ice’s under surface a deep, brilliant turquoise blue. The visibility is astounding. As I said, it felt like I was flying, hovering in thick air. There is so much to see; I’m trying to take it all in – I’m just on total sensory overload, just short-circuiting all over the place. I felt like the fetus baby in 2001: A Space Odyssey on Jupiter, just trying to take all this stuff in.

At the same time, this was a test-dive for me; I’m supposed to be diving responsibly and doing all of this stuff that the other diver on the bottom is telling me to do. And at the same time as that, my brain is completely shorting out from the input, from all of this spectacle. This goose egg-sized and egg-shaped creature floats past me. It’s clear like a jellyfish; it’s called a ctenophore, a comb jelly. It’s got psychedelic rainbow track lights that are zipping up the sides of its body. I’m seeing this ten-foot jellyfish drifting by in all of its different colors. It was just unbelievable. At the same time, I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah. You’re supposed to be following particular instructions and functions as a diver.” It was absolutely exhilarating.

I was surprised, too, by the cold. The things that get coldest first and fastest are your fingers because you’ve got an enormous amount of surface area surrounding your fingers. Just before you make your dive, the gloves are the last things that you put on. The tenders pour hot water in the gloves, you plunge your hands into this water, they snap the top of the gloves around your wrists and your gloves seal tight. You make the initial part of your dive with gloves full of hot water. The only area of you that is really exposed to the icy water directly is parts of your face, because you’ve got the mask over most of your face. You’ve got a hood over most of your head and the hood also covers your neck and the underside of your chin. Mostly, what are exposed are your lips and your cheeks. I thought that would be really painful, but in actuality I found it exhilarating. It felt like my skin was sizzling from the cold – not an unpleasant sensation at all; an extraordinary feeling, although in a very short time my lips were frozen numb. I couldn’t feel my regulator – my breathing apparatus. Every once in a while I’d taste saltwater; I’d know that my breathing apparatus had drifted out of my mouth without my realizing it; I’d just mash it back in with my hand.

OK. This seems like the most appropriate spot to tell you two Antarctic scuba dive stories.

Days later I suited up for my second ice dive. Instead of a round hole drilled through the ice, or entering the water through a random fissure in the ice, I was taken to a small shack built by some of the New Zealand divers. Inside the shelter was a square dive hole. It was much smaller in diameter that the drilled hole of my previous dive.

Ready to make my dive, I sat at the edge and lifted myself up to enter the water. The bottom of my air tank caught one edge of the square rim of the dive hole, quickly plunging me face forward into the opposite rim. My face hit the rim, shattering my dive mask. Dive over. I was helped out of the hole and moved back into the shack. I took off my shattered mask. There was a lot of blood. A shard of glass had hit and cut into my brow (I still have the scar).

This was a moment of truth time. End any attempt to dive at that moment(or that day) — or borrow a mask, summon up my courage and try again? I opted for the latter. It proved to be the right decision, as it showed the regular Antarctic divers that I had heart. It made them much more welcoming of me; they all became defenders of my right to dive down there.

Typically, when I wanted to make a dive and the conditions were right, I would tag along with a small group of Antarctic marine biologists and dive with them. On another dive occasion, we stopped to make a dive in what’s called a “seal crack”. That’s a fissure in the ice that seals surface out of. Two divers went in. They shot out of the water about two minutes later followed by an angry Weddell’s bull seal. That was his crack!

We moved to another location. The two divers went in. They emerged a little over half an hour later.

“How was it?” I asked. “Is it worth suiting up?”

“It’s cathedrals of ice.”

With that description in mind, I immediately and enthusiastically suited up and went into the fissure with two female divers.

It was truly fantastic. Underwater I could hear the Weddell seals communicating with each other. They sounded like a combination of Japanese Taico drums and electronic synthesizer rising and falling trills.

One diver signaled to me that she was cold. She went back to the fissure hole and got out.

I didn’t want to be the last diver down there, so I made my way over to the down line. It was heavily flagged so that it would be difficult to miss. I went up the line hand over hand until I reached the under surface of the twelve feet thick ice sheet. But instead of the hole I had entered from, there was just a thin crack in the ice just big enough to fit my fingers. What had I done wrong?

I went back down to the bottom and tried again. Same thing.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Is this my worst nightmare come true? Trapped beneath the Antarctic ice?”

I checked my air; I still had another half an hour (I had become really good at “sipping” my air, using very little of it during my dives).

I swam over to the remaining diver and explained to her using sign language of the difficulty I was having. She pointed to where I had been, then made a broad “No! No!” gesture, then pointed in a different direction. I swam in that direction — and found my entry hole! I was elated.

Here’s what had happened: The divers I was with were making four or five dives each day (I was just doing one per day). In doing so, they had become a bit cavalier in regards to watching the down line. The ocean current had taken our down line from the wide entry point of the crack down to the narrow sliver of the crack — with no one noticing.

I did seven dives total down there. I feel really privileged. I am on the extremely short list of people who have scuba-dived in Antarctica [pause]. I also made the very first telephone call from Antarctica. AT &T were testing their new satellite equipment down there and offered me the chance to speak to my wife. It was a frustrating (because of the satellite delay time confusion) but thrilling.

I was also on television for several days while I was down at McMurdo Station. ABC-TV had a crew down there, doing science reports from Antarctica. I quickly became ABC’s go-to guy because I could “translate” what the scientists were saying into everyday language the public could understand. My segments aired every morning in the US on their ABC affiliates (including KABC Channel 7 in Los Angeles where my family got to see me each morning) for about a week or two.