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updated 11/2/2005 6:08:45 PM ET 2005-11-02T23:08:45

Mission Possible
Thermal underwear: check. Drysuit: check. Gloves and hood: check, check. Two sets of environmentally sealed regulators: check. Gearing up for a cold-water dive is a lot like planning an undercover mission — preparation is essential for success. As divers, we’re lucky; we can acquire the skills and special gear to mastermind our own mission to alien environments. Whether to an inland lake in our own backyard or a journey to the end of the world, every cold-water dive takes on the exploratory shades of an expedition.

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ANTARCTIC: Lifetime Bragging Rights
Nearly 90 years ago, explorer Sir Earnest Shackleton and his crew set out to attempt the first crossing of the Antarctic continent by foot. But before they even reached its shore, their objective swiftly shifted to survival when their ship, the Endurance, became trapped and was slowly crushed by ice. Shackleton and a skeleton crew set out on an 800-mile open-ocean crossing in a lifeboat followed by a 22-mile walk across the treacherous and uncharted South Georgia Island to reach the whaling station at Stromness, a rescue mission that saved the lives of all 28 crew who’d been stranded on Elephant Island for 138 days. Their story of endurance and survival against all odds stoked the world’s imagination then, and it still burns today.

Their story would be different if they set out today. First, they probably wouldn’t be stranded for too long. Tourism is inarguably Antarctica’s premier growth industry: Just a few years ago, more than 13,000 tourists visited, many no doubt inspired by the legend of the Endurance and its crew. Further, today’s explorers travel in vessels ranging from Russian icebreakers to expedition cruise ships with hulls strengthened to withstand ice.

And while a ship is essential to experiencing the singularity of Antarctic’s extremes, recreational divers who are drysuit-skilled and equipped with cold-water dive gear are the ones holding the golden ticket. They can slip into holes created and kept open by Weddell seals (divers sometimes have to hold a safety stop while seals fill their lungs at the hole) and snorkel alongside icebergs the size of a city block. Divers can abandon the observation platforms where landlubbers are wrapped like mummies, gripping binoculars through which they peer at leopard seals hunting their penguin prey. Instead, divers can join the seals as playmates (or playthings?), plastic fins being nipped by pinnipeds and ports being poked by curious noses.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground OK, so jumping into 28°F water feels like your blood is crackling to a halt inside your veins and a million needles are pricking the thin line of exposed skin around your lips. But the sensation soon passes, and the payoff is sublime.

That goes for above the water, too. The frozen contnent is surrounded by the Southern Ocean, where an abundance of plankton supports the world’s largest concentration of marine wildlife. Millions of seabirds, penguins, seals and whales appear in glorious abundance with the coming of the Southern Hemisphere’s spring season. Always be on the lookout for orcas spyhopping through the broken ice, their bodies thrust vertically, high above the water, as they scan for prey. If a humpback appears, guard your spot at the rail and wait. An entire pod may be nearby.

Ports of call may include South Georgia Island, home to the wandering albatross — the world’s largest flying bird — and an enormous king penguin colony (over 100,000 strong). Though this island was once a major whaling station it is now mostly uninhabited. King penguins are now the only pedestrians on the streets of  Grytviken, a former fishing village. And at King Edward’s Point is the lonely grave of Shackleton, who died on a later expedition — a poignant reminder of one of the Antarctic’s most enduring stories.

MUST DO

Jail at the End of the World
Criminals not only built the jail, but those with good behavior were rewarded with paid work outside. Ushuaia literally grew up around the jail — now an informative museum called Museo Maritimo y ex Presidio de Ushuaia and a potent symbol of Ushuaia’s colonization.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Ultimate Antarctica With Sport Diver: Fast Facts
Dates: Dec. 27, 2006-Jan. 17, 2007 Must be a PADI advanced diver with at least 20 drysuit dives logged Maximum 44 guests (divers and nondivers) aboard the 210-foot Grigoriy Mikheev Up to 14 days of diving, with one or two dives per day, conditions permitting Excursions to visit with penguins, albatross and seals Glacier hikes and trekking along Shackleton’s route on South Georgia Island Trip begins and ends in Ushuaia, Argentina Web: www.sportdiver.com/adventures

CLEAR LAKE, OREGON: Clarity in the Cascades
If you could pull the plug on Oregon’s Clear Lake, you’d be hiking through a 3,000-year-old petrified forest, preserved by the cold, mineral-free water and light currents that course through its depths. But since the lake is fed by snow runoff that passes through miles of volcanic rock and is contained by a dam formed from lava flow as old as the submerged forest itself, this mystical realm is exclusive to scuba divers — who must feel like birds aloft an ancient forest canopy. Divers brave the year-round 40ºF (give or take a couple of degrees) to explore this lake, where visibility regularly exceeds 200 feet.

Only two hours east of Salem, Oregon, and at an elevation of 3,100 feet, Clear Lake is part of the headwaters of the McKenzie River, known to kayakers for its rapids and to day hikers for its varied beauty, including some exceptional waterfalls. In the surrounding streams, forests and hills, people have found arrowheads, fish-eyed agates, seventy different kinds of petrified wood, fossilized leaves and crystal geodes. Landlubbers picnic around Clear Lake or fish for stocked trout, all the while being astonished by blue-green water clear enough to see to the bottom. But it’s divers who are the lucky ones: By layering thermals and donning drysuits they immerse themselves in one of diving’s rarest sensations —the near absence of life and sound.

There is little life, plant or animal, to observe in the crystal-clear water, and since motorized vehicles are banned, absolute silence prevails. Divers drift weightless through an environment where rowboats bob overhead and hidden vents burst through the thick sediment that covers the floor, looking like dandelion puffs blowing their seed. Night dives hold the allure of a full moon or the scattershot of stars viewed through a liquid filter.

There are two entrances to the 1.5-mile-long lake: the lodge side on the east and the campground side on the west. The east side has some of the clearest water you can imagine and is where you see the trees. With a slightly shorter walk, the west side is easier to reach, and there are some interesting rock formations to explore, but don’t expect the famous Clear Lake viz. Insider’s tip: Come prepared to show off your best buoyancy skills lest you stir up the sediment and turn the dive into Murky Lake.

MUST DO

Small Town Oregon
Sisters is an artsy town where you’ll find unique shops, hot java and good eats, all within view of the Cascade Mountains. Sisters is just a little past the Clear Lake exit if driving from Portland or Salem.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Dive Oregon: Fast Facts
Constant water temperature around 40 degrees Best time to dive is during the snowmelt (but after the roads are clear) or before the snowfall to avoid summer crowds and mosquitoes Picnic areas and campground Clear Lake Resort offers semi-modern cabins, rowboat rentals, lunch counter and store From Portland, drive south on I-5 and take Exit #253 (Hwy. 22) at Salem and drive east to McKenzie Highway Nearest filling station is in SalemWeb: http://www.oregonscubaclub.com/

TOBERMORY, GREAT LAKES: Chillin’ in Fathom Five
It’s been decades since the fishermen’s nets were hung to dry in Tobermory, yet it still feels more Atlantic-fishing-village than remote-Ontario-town. The population of this outpost of 500 residents at the far tip of the rugged Bruce Peninsula on the eastern shore of Lake Huron swells on summer weekends to several thousand. Most come to hop the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island, but there are plenty of scuba divers, too. Where once a fishing haven kept its people firmly bobbing atop the ice-cold water now lies a diver’s den — the fishing boats have long since been converted to dive charters.

Considering there are some 900 documented shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, there’s no shortage of sites, and Tobermory boasts the highest density: 21 within five miles of Tobermory Harbor. In 1972 it became the first underwater marine park in the Great Lakes. In 1987, Parks Canada took note and declared Fathom Five National Marine Park Canada’s first National Marine Conservation Center. Soon after, Dominion money poured in, many old buildings were treated to facelifts and tourism took off.

Day in, day out, all summer divers explore the wrecks from shore, off charters or from their own inflatables, as Great Lakes shipwreck expert Cris Kohl has for weeks at a time since he became a certified diver in the 1970s (he grew up a six-hour drive south, in Windsor, Ontario). The area and its dozens of uninhabited islands are densely forested, packed with wildlife and recognized for its pristine freshwater ecosystem, which for divers means chilly water with amazing viz — water that is clear, fresh and very cold. The best visibility is in June when the water temperature is in the low 40s°F. Wait a month and add 10 degrees, or visit in August or September when the temperature climbs into the high 50s°F.

Divers love the Tugs — four tugboats can be visited in a single dive off a wooden platform, which was built expressly for divers to ease their entry over the rocky shore. The vessels sank between 1905 and 1947, and most are badly broken up, but the Alice, which ran aground in gale-force winds in 1927, is nearly intact; her steam engine, boiler, driveshaft and propeller are photogenic, and the graceful curve of the stern railing follows the line of the fantail, attesting to the beauty and workmanship of that era.

The Sweepstakes, a twin-masted schooner, is accessible from shore and is also a popular second dive with charters. According to Kohl, it’s the most-visited shipwreck in all the Great Lakes due to its intactness and accessibility. Protected at the end of a cove in 20 feet of water, the wreck has been there since 1885 and remains in perfect condition. Of great interest to divers are the bow’s starboard railing, the windlass, the Roman numeral draft markings, the mast holes and the centerboard box below deck.

The Wetmore is a wooden steamer that ran ashore in 1901 and broke up before it could be salvaged. It’s popular because the viz is always high, it’s in only 25 feet of water and there’s lots to see. Starting at the bow, there’s a huge mound of anchor chain that leads to a massive wooden-stock anchor. There’s also a boiler, what’s left of the propeller (three of the four blades broke off when it ran ashore) and scattered tools, such as wrenches. The Wetmore is unusual in that the hull has split open and divers can see the 19th-century construction techniques, like the use of hanging knees — sort of like pegs used to attach the deck to the hull.

The Niagara II is Tobermory’s most recent wreck: It was scuttled in May 1999 with all its doors and hatches removed. The 185-foot steel freighter is in about 80 feet of water and is much-loved by divers because there’s so much to see, and even when you’re inside, daylight is always visible.

In town, don’t miss St. Edmond’s Museum. The second floor is dedicated to shipwrecks in the Tobermory area; since it was established before legislation was passed to protect the wrecks, it has an excellent collection of artifacts. The Fathom Five National Marine Park is also known for its interpretive exhibits about the area’s shipwrecks. At the end of the day, join the leagues of divers who gather at the Crow’s Nest for good eats, local music and endless conversation.

MUST DO
Walk All Over Bruce

Day trippers and long-haul hikers set out to explore the scenic trails of Bruce Peninsula National Park. Expect watery panoramas from stony cliffs; in summer, 44 species of orchid bloom in the park’s glades.

MUST DIVE

1. The Tugs
2. The Sweepstakes
3. The Niagara II
4. The W.L. Wetmore
5. The Grotto

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Divers Den: Fast Facts
PADI dive center Tank fills Custom nitrox mixes Open-water to advanced technical training Equipment rentals Full fleet of boats for scheduled trips and charters 519-596-2363Web: http://www.diversden.ca/

SCAPA FLOW, SCOTLAND: A Ghostly Fleet

Off the northeast coast of Scotland lies a lonely scattering of islands known as the Orkneys: a desolate, windswept landscape where traces of stone-age settlements and standing stone circles remain. Random tourists seeking a wee dram of authentic Scottish culture rarely wander this far off the beaten path, but in the town of Stromness, the blue and white international code “A” flag used by divers studs a string of pubs spaced an even 20 feet apart (or so it seems).

Stromness is situated in Scapa Flow, a natural harbor used since the 13th-century Viking fleet of King Haokon and still in use today. To divers, Scapa Flow is the cold-water, WWI version of the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll or Truk Lagoon and is arguably Europe’s top wreck-diving destination.

In November 1918, after the WWI armistice between the Allies and Germany, 74 German ships surrendered and were ordered to lay anchor in Scapa Flow. The following June, the German admiral, upset by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, ordered his skeleton crews to scuttle the entire German High Seas Fleet. British forces managed to prevent 22 of the huge vessels from sinking, but 52 still ended up on the bottom. Unfortunately for wreck divers, a massive salvage operation for scrap metal continued for decades, leaving only three intact battleships (500+ feet long) and four cruisers (300+ feet long).

The battleships lure technical divers, but there are several other wrecks, all in depths ranging from 30 to 150 feet, in remarkably good condition. In Burra Sound, only 20 minutes from Stromness, the popular WWI and WWII blockships lie in 30 to 50 feet of water. The blockships had been used as coastal defense mechanisms to allow only one entrance into Scapa Flow and clearly were targets of the enemy. Compared to the German fleet, these wrecks have lots of marine life and excellent visibility.

The blockship Gobernador Bories is likely the most photogenic wreck of the bunch; it’s flooded with light and pulses with sea life. Swim the length of the inside hull and you’ll be followed by tame fish looking for a handout and will swim through the ranks of hundreds of ballan wrasse.

In Orkney’s beautiful, clear waters, divers can expect walls of brightly colored jewel anemones, angler fish, scallops and tons of invertebrates, including pincushion starfish, nudibranchs, brittle starfish, shrimp and squat lobsters. Great stands of kelp mark the entrances to Scapa Flow.

Wreck diving has become a major activity in recent years, but real-time virtual exploration is possible, too. Roving Eye Enterprises charters a boat equipped with a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) that can navigate the waters independently of the boat to explore the wrecks. A built-in video camera relays the images to a large television screen accompanied by a full commentary for the passengers about the extent and background of the wrecks.

Diving in Orkney isn’t just about the wrecks, though. Stanger Head is a dramatic site with a deep drop straight from the cliffs, enormous rocks on the bottom, big caves and a swimmable passage right through the headland. And the voyage to the Old Man of Hoy, an iconic rock stack on the Atlantic side of Orkney, leads past the red sandstone cliffs of the Kame of Hoy and the 1,200-foot St. John’s Head, the highest vertical cliff face in Britain. Weather permitting, it’s possible to dive at the “feet of the Old Man.”

Of course, what’s a visit to Scotland without draining a few drams? The Orkney Distillery doesn’t disappoint with its Scapa Flow single-malt scotch. And if your dive gear already has you over-weight on the airplane, then stock up on the region’s beautiful handcrafted silver jewelry.

MUST DO
The Italians

In 1940, Churchill bolstered defense of Scapa Flow by installing concrete causeways between the islands, from which many blockship remains can still be seen. The Italian POWs who built the Churchill Barriers also built themselves the beautiful Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm that can still be visited today.

MUST DIVE
1. The light cruiser Brummer
2. The light cruiser Koln
3. The blockship Doyle
4. The blockship Gobernador Bories
5. The WWII escort ship F2

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Scapa Scuba: Fast Facts
PADI dive center All skill levels Guided boat and shore diving Charters PADI specialties include drysuit diving and nitrox Full dive shop Equipment rentals  011-44-1856-851218Web: http://www.scapascuba.co.uk/

VESTFJORD, NORWAY: The Great Herring Hunt
Every November, intrepid travelers journey 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle in hopes of seeing of one of nature’s greatest spectacles: orcas on their great herring hunt in Norway’s stunning Vestfjord. Vestfjord is one of the few places in the world where you’re almost guaranteed to encounter orcas underwater and to witness entire pods on their primal hunt.

Each year, millions of tons of herring single out the spectacular Vestfjord, a far-reaching inlet that cleaves Norway’s rugged snow-dusted mountains, for a particular form of hibernation. There the herring dive deep into the cold water, slowing their metabolism and reducing their need to feed. Drawn to this enormous food source, hundreds of orcas converge in the herring-stuffed fjords and wait until the clouds of fish drift toward the surface. And while the shoals of fish converge here for up to five months, November is the peak gorging season for the orcas.

During the six hours of daylight, divers perch on an inflatable zodiac (with snorkel and scuba gear at the ready), tracking the orcas by scanning for telltale signs of their presence — blow-spouts bursting across the horizon like underwater bombs being detonated, and slick black dorsal fins that pierce the water’s surface like periscopes.

In the ideal scenario, the drysuit-clad diver slips into the 38-42°F water to snorkel (scuba is the exception rather than the rule) amongst the hunting pod. Chirps, whistles and blows vibrate through the diver’s body as an entire pod swirls some 10 feet below. They cast curtains of bubble-nets around the herring, drawing them tighter until the fish transform the near-freezing water into an apparent boil. That’s when the orcas flip nose-down and smack their powerful tails up then down through the dense throngs of fish, stunning them into paralysis and allowing the orcas to feed at leisure.

An encounter like this is the ultimate reward for the investment required for such a journey. But the pay-offs continue well into the dark hours of the day — perhaps at a pub where you drink like the locals, playing cards, swapping stories and feasting on local specialties. Or watch the purple and neon-green northern lights dance across the cold, clear sky. You blink and rub your eyes before realizing you are witnessing a display of aurora borealis: proof, once again, that nature never sends invitations for her best shows. She performs at will, for anyone lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

MUST DO

All-Nighter
Oslo’s nightlife is hot 365 days a year with cafes, bars and nightclubs open till 3 a.m. If after a week on a live-aboard you’re yearning for some stimulation, plan for a late night before catching your flight home.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Big Animals Photography Expedition: Fast Facts
Vestfjord, Norway Trips scheduled every November Six full days of orca searching  Maximum five guests Must be drysuit experienced 91-foot live-aboard M.S. Langoysund877-2-C-WHALEWeb: http://www.biganimals.com/

As the official publication of the PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver is the magazine divers turn to each month to find out what’s going on in their world. Sport Diver is the ultimate source for up to date information on dive culture, equipment, travel, training and PADI Diving Society activities.

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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