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20,000 leagues beneath the ice

I couldn’t be more excited about the chance to lug around some heavy equipment. Technically, I’m a dive tender for the day, but it’s really like golf caddying minus the putting tips. This manual labor is actually doled out as a “boondoggle” – a form of work-recreation those of us employed at McMurdo Station in Antarctica can do as a respite from our normal jobs (I’m usually a cook).

That’s why I find myself – on my one day off a week – squatting next to a hole drilled in ice that is eight feet thick. I’ve blackened the windows to our wooden dive shack to keep out the 24-hour sun, leaving only the cobalt sea beckoning below. The harmonic sounds of Weddell seals penetrate the thick ice. Each year, a half-dozen or more underwater research projects come through the dive program here in McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. Some diving is done on the far side of the continent at a tiny US research base, Palmer Station.

But McMurdo is a mecca for polar diving. In fact, a significant part of what we know about underwater life in Antarctica comes from within a two-hour driving radius of the McMurdo Station research base. And almost all of the breathtaking documentary footage you’ll ever see captured below the sea ice – which remains here for more than 10 months a year – is shot from this area.

Are you scientifically literate? Take our quiz[/url]" data-reactid="8">Recommended: Are you scientifically literate? Take our quiz

Today I’m following a research team testing high-tech rebreathers. By recycling the oxygen in a closed-circuit system, these slim alternatives to bulky air tanks eliminate the air bubbles that divers normally produce when they exhale. It makes it easier to study the ice overhead.

Jeff Bozanic, a diver on the team, says the equipment has come a long way since he first dived here in 1989. “I used to end my dives crying, it was so uncomfortable,” he says. “Yet you had people coming back each year. Now we have better insulating garments, better glove systems, even electric heating systems.”

On another day, I visit the Crary Science and Engineering Center, which houses a flow-through aquarium where divers can bring back live specimens for experiments. Caitlin Shishido, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is flipping orange sea spiders in a tank and measuring how they react to rising temperatures.

The creatures are found all over the world. They’re usually the size of a dime, but here in the cold, oxygen-rich water, they’ve grown to the size of a human hand. Her team has been studying this bizarre phenomenon for the past decade. Like canaries in a coal mine, invertebrates here can help scientists understand what rising temperatures and increasing acidification may mean for life in the world’s oceans.

On my last day, I drop by the dive shack to say goodbye to Rob Robbins, the program supervisor, who’s clocked 2,094 dives in a 20-year career here. After a while, I would assume that it becomes just another day at the office. But before every dive, while sitting on the edge of a hole, he says he finds himself thinking, “Wow, I get to jump in this water.”

Yet unlocking this hidden world comes at a price. You have to cope with working in an icy crypt with only one tiny escape hole. “Since we’re diving under a ceiling [of ice], it’s claustrophobic, and plenty of people really don’t like that,” says Mr. Robbins. He’s seen everything from tiny nudibranchs to giant octopuses to sea sponges the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. “There is simply not a dive I’ve made that I’ve taken for granted,” says Robbins.

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