I could no more stay in Lon­don, away from the co­ral reefs, than I could give up breath­ing air

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Dawn was break­ing over Antarc­tica as I awoke. For close to three days we’d been at sea, hav­ing set sail from the south­ern tip of Ar­gentina on our re­search ves­sel Alu­cia. Noth­ing could have pre­pared me, though, for the breath­tak­ing sight of ice­bergs ahead of us. It was like a win­ter won­der­land.

If you tuned into last Sun­day’s episode of Blue Planet II on BBC One, you can prob­a­bly pic­ture the scene. But ab­sorb­ing this land­scape from the deck of Alu­cia was some­thing else en­tirely.

We had been plan­ning this ex­pe­di­tion for two years, bury­ing our­selves in re­search and work­ing out what we might find. Yet you can never quite pre­dict ex­actly if an op­er­a­tion as com­plex as this will suc­ceed.

The lo­gis­tics were no small feat: for this five­week mis­sion we had in tow two sub­mersibles, a he­li­copter, an im­pres­sive amount of kit and a crew of around 50.

Ea­ger to be­gin the last stage of our jour­ney, Alu­cia’s cap­tain had been watch­ing the weather, wait­ing for the per­fect mo­ment to de­part. Get it wrong, and you face a rough ride across the Drake Pas­sage, one of the world’s most un­for­giv­ing stretches of ocean.

For­tu­nately, he picked the right mo­ment, and ours was a smooth cross­ing. And now here we were, cruis­ing through Earth’s most hos­tile and re­mote con­ti­nent, soon to ex­plore parts no hu­man has ever vis­ited be­fore, two-thirds of a mile be­neath its icy wa­ters.

As David At­ten­bor­ough says on the pro­gramme, no hu­man has ever de­scended into the depths that sur­round Antarc­tica — un­til now. I was to have a front-row seat at the fron­tier of sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery.

The ap­peal of spend­ing 500 hours in to­tal be­neath the waves, for up to eight hours at a time, may be lost on some. But I would live down there if I could.

My tele­vi­sion ca­reer be­gan on Def II, Janet Street-Porter’s youth-fo­cused chan­nel­within-a-chan­nel at BBC Two in the early 1990s. But for my 30th birth­day, I treated my­self to a scuba dive while on hol­i­day in Thai­land, and from the mo­ment I first put my head un­der­wa­ter, that was it: I could no more stay in Lon­don, away from the co­ral reefs, than I could give up breath­ing air.

So af­ter a year wind­ing up my af­fairs, and with my long­ing for the sea still as strong, I left city life be­hind and spent the fol­low­ing decade study­ing the re­mote co­ral reefs of the Pa­cific Ocean with an NGO. I came off the ship ev­ery cou­ple of years, and then only for a few weeks at a time.

“How could you spend 10 years on a ship?” peo­ple ask me. My ques­tion to them is: “How could you not?” My fam­ily is from the rugged coast­line of Done­gal in Ire­land — so per­haps a con­nec­tion with the sea was in my DNA. In any case, at 31 there was noth­ing to stop me tak­ing off. When I even­tu­ally re­turned to Lon­don, and to tele­vi­sion, Blue Planet II was in de­vel­op­ment — and four years later, here we are.

What a jour­ney it has been: ex­hil­a­rat­ing, ex­haust­ing — and of­ten per­ilous! We were work­ing at the very edge of hu­man knowl­edge, and the un­known depths con­tained dan­gers we couldn’t fore­see.

En­closed be­neath the ocean in a nine-tonne, bat­tery-pow­ered sub­mersible, a mere seven inches of acrylic were all that pro­tected the pi­lot, cam­era­man and me from pres­sure 100 times greater than at the sur­face. Our oxy­gen sup­ply was cleaned by a scrub­ber that kept car­bon diox­ide at safe lev­els. When these lev­els be­gan to rise or the bat­ter­ies lost power, we had to re­turn to the sur­face. Per­ish the thought you might need to go to the loo while sub­merged — there were no pro­vi­sions for those calls of na­ture, and luck­ily we al­ways man­aged to hold out.

Ev­ery time we head into the field to film, we take risk ex­tremely se­ri­ously. As the pro­ducer, it’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity to as­sess pro­to­cols and pro­ce­dures ex­haus­tively. But what we did not know was that rocks could fall out of the melt­ing base of ice­bergs and plum­met to­wards our sub. Yet out of pos­si­ble dan­ger came dis­cov­ery: sci­en­tists re­alised these rocks were vi­tal to deep-sea life in Antarc­tica, pro­vid­ing an an­chor­age on which life could thrive.

How­ever, it wasn’t un­til wa­ter started leak­ing into the sub at a depth of 450 me­tres that the true risks of what I was do­ing hit home. It wasn’t ter­ror I felt as much as res­ig­na­tion.

“If this is go­ing to blow,” I rea­soned, “there’s noth­ing I can do.”

But within 20 min­utes, the pi­lot had iso­lated the leak and shut down the prob­lem. When he asked if we wanted to as­cend, I de­clined and we stayed down film­ing for two more hours. Ev­ery mo­ment in the deep sea counts. If I seemed calm, per­haps it was be­cause I’ve spent a long time at sea and af­ter a while you grow ac­cus­tomed to the dan­ger. I’ve seen heavy storms, a cy­clone and I’ve even lost a mast 1,000 miles from shore. How­ever, what the au­di­ence didn’t see were the long hours wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen. You can mo­men­tar­ily for­get where you are and it be­comes nor­mal to be in this dark void, il­lu­mi­nated only where you choose to shine a light. Some­times the senses be­come so in­ured, you

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