Below FreezingBelow Freezing


June 23, 2017

5 min read
Words & Photos: Alyssa Adler

Underwater photographer and videographer Alyssa Adler shares her experience diving in the Antarctic and shooting for National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions.

What made you decide to start scuba diving?

The pressure to know what to do with my life at the formative age of eighteen had been weighing on me for two terms. I had switched my major four times and enjoyed education, but felt no particular spark towards any one area of study. I decided in a rainy, reflective moment – and I still vividly remember it – that I needed to consider what I wanted my life to look like AFTER my time at university, not during. I quickly grabbed a pad of paper and a pen to scribble down the things I felt mattered to me most: have fun, get outside, do something new every day. From my first days as a bipedal monster I have craved exploration, and with these guidelines now in front of me I decided two majors could likely help me reach my goals: marine biology and forestry. At the time my older brother was studying forestry, which pushed me to pursue the opposite. I knew that to reach my objectives I’d need niche skills that allowed me to extend further than the lab, so I signed up for the next semester’s PADI Open Water course.

Expedition Diver in Antarctica
  1. My dive buddy performing last minute gear-checks before our descent.

The water around the Antarctic diver is colder than ice, literally.”

Tell us a little bit about what you do now.

After many years of dedicated effort in science and enthusiastic diving, I began working for a company called Lindblad Expeditions, which partners with National Geographic to lead extraordinary vessel based eco-tourism expeditions worldwide. As Undersea Specialist, I scuba dive in remote locations with a trusty camera by my side, gathering both video footage and photos to bring back onboard as an educational tool for whichever environment the ship may find herself in. My favorite locations include (but couldn’t possibly be limited to) Antarctica, Southern Argentina, and the stunning coastline of British Columbia.

Author Alyssa Adler carrying a tank
  1. Carrying a tank for refill in Southeast Alaska (Photo by Ian Strachan, IG: @ianjstrachan.).
Leopard Seal
  1. A curious leopard seal approaches my Zodiac off the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
What about Antarctica initially piqued your interest?

I was an avid reader as a child. When I was about about ten years old, my father gave me the book, Endurance. This non-fiction story details the adventures of Sir Ernest Shackleton (The Boss) and his men on their attempted circumpolar navigation while Antarctic exploration was still in its infancy - 1914-1917. Endurance spoke to me then, and again each time I re-read it. I do not aim to compare my activity to the great age of exploration, but as an Antarctic diver in 2017 I do feel a connection with those who came 100 years before me. I feel incredibly lucky and honored to be in that number, to see things people have not seen and go places people have not gone.

What is it like to scuba dive in Antarctica?

From the moment your head dips underwater the ocean fully consumes you. You can’t hear or speak to your buddy; communication is limited to hand signals. For me, that is spectacular — I love the feeling of being so truly in my own head. As an early diver I focused heavily on my breathing, ensuring that it was slow and deep, both to conserve air and stay safe. As an experienced diver, this unshakable habit creates a great sense of meditation. For each deep breath in and out, my heart slows, my concentration narrows, my focus is keen. In Antarctica, these elements of experience pair with a true sense of exploration; the list of Antarctic divers is not long.

Tell us about the water itself – what is it like down there?

There is a very real element of potential danger, and the need to be acutely aware of one’s surroundings. The water around the Antarctic diver is colder than ice, literally. Since saltwater is denser than freshwater, it requires a lower temperature to freeze. Where freshwater freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius, seawater freezes at 28.5 degrees Fahrenheit, -1.7 degrees Celsius — a palpable difference when submerged. The Southern Ocean hovers around 29 – 32 degrees Fahrenheit, -1.5 - 0 degrees Celsius. I am often asked if it’s cold down there, and despite the phenomenal amount of gear it certainly is. The wool woven into my Icebreaker layers, thick fleece, and tough canvas outerwear work overtime to stave off the cold, but eventually the dive will end due to numb extremities rather than low oxygen. Diving in Antarctica is work, but the reward is to explore a part of the world that human eyes have spent a remarkably low amount with firsthand. Each time I dive in remote locations like these I feel like I’m exploring in the last real way possible in 2017. We’ve covered the land, let’s move to the sea.

“I needed to consider what I wanted my life to look like AFTER my time at university, not during.”

  1. Playing around with a young California Sea Lion. Video by Mike Greenfelder, IG: @gahooley.
Diver with Ice
  1. My dive buddy surfacing after a dive at Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

Each time I dive in remote locations like these I feel like I’m exploring in the last real way possible in 2017. We’ve covered the land, let’s move to the sea.”

Where is your next destination?

In mid-June I’ll head to Norway and Iceland for a month and a half. This is an area I haven’t explored but cannot wait to figure out! If you’d like to follow me, find me on Instagram @alyssamadler.

Finish this sentence: nature means to me…

Nature means to me a place of refuge, to be surrounded by unhinged beauty and inescapable balance.

Details in the ice
  1. Details in the ice, Antarctica.
Ship with Antarctic Ice
  1. The National Geographic Explorer at anchor in Neko Harbour, Antarctica.