Diving the Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

“Let me get this straight. We’re boarding a handmade wooden sailing boat…. in Greenland. Then we will sail up to an area highly concentrated with Icebergs … go scuba diving in sub zero temperatures”Yep, that’s the plan!” Kingsley nodded his head as a huge grin wiped across his face.So there we were, in Kangerlussuaq, waiting for our boat Breskell to arrive. It was coming all the way from Virginia, so the three of us were somewhat nervous. What if the boat doesn’t arrive? There’s nothing here!  With such anticipation of what lay ahead and almost 24h of daylight at this time of year, it was difficult to sleep. Looking back, we really had no idea what to prepare for. We did, however, make the right call in following our intuition.

“There it is!” Kiki announced pointing to the centre of the harbour.

There seemed to be no movement on the deck of Breskell but before long, we spotted a tiny wooden row boat coming towards us. I looked over to Kingsley “getting in and out of the water in that little thing with scuba gear isn’t going to be easy!”. We both shrugged.“We’ll make it work!” we agreed.

Upon boarding the boat we were greeted by our skipper Olivier. Prior to the trip our communication with him was limited to a few emails and Skpye calls. His confidence in the success of the mission through decades of sailing experience was the big reason we felt like we could make this trip work. Within minutes of being on board, Olivier sat us down for a safety briefing.“If you fall overboard, you’ve got about 3 minutes to live.” Olivier explained with a very serious look in his eyes.

“..and it’s going to take more than 3 minutes for me to turn this boat around” he continued. “So if you fall in.. you’re dead”.  He was serious. After all, he was no stranger to the dangers of the sea.

“I lost a boat in the Bahamas” he shared with us later that evening.This was just one of a many compelling sailing stories we would have the privilege of learning about during this trip. As a boat builder at the South West boat school in Florida, Oliver explained that boats are his life. His father built boats, and he had learned everything he knew about sailing and building them from his father. In fact the boat we were sitting on was designed by his father and hand built by himself.“Sailing is part of me. It’s in my genes” he explained. When Oliver was at sea, he was at home. We were now guests in his home and we would play by his rules.

But Kiki had a different perspective on the cold. She could barely contain her excitement dangling one of her hands in the water grinning. Kiki is Dutch freediver who specialises in cold water therapy. She has been training to withstand cold temperatures and has taught her body and mind to deal with these extreme conditions. On this trip her plans were to freedive the sub zero glacial waters of The Ilulissat Icefjord.She explained to us that as soon as you go into cold water your mind just kind of shuts off.

“When you’re in the cold you’re forced to be fully focused on the moment you’re in”. She explained. “The cold has helped me through some tough times in life and taught me a lot”.

“I want to show people that we are capable of things like this. We are capable of so much more than we think” Kiki pleaded with passion.

Oliver looked shocked but intrigued “Now this, is something I have to see!”.We were off. The plan for the trip was to try and make it up to The World Heritage listed Ilulissat Icefjord. The site is one of the few places where the Greenland ice cap reaches the sea. The ice that flows out to sea here comes from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. At about 40m per day. the stream of ice flowing from this glacier is one of the fastest in the world.“It is rumoured that the iceberg that sunk The Titanic calved from this glacier” explained Maluk, who spent much of his youth growing up in Greenland.

One of our biggest challenges in preparing for a scuba trip in Greenland is organising scuba tanks. Thankfully we had been put in touch with one of the few people in the country that could help us out, Bo Lings.Bo from Sirius Greenland was based in Sisimiut, the second largest city in Greenland. Home to just over 5,000 people, this “city” was not much more than a small town. We were greeted in the harbour by fishermen who allowed us to pull up alongside. They had recently returned from a fishing trip. The catch was Arctic crab. With fishing exports from Greenland in the past 20 years accounting for 90% of the country’s total exports, these men were part of the majority of the country’s residents which rely heavily on local ocean resources for their livelihood.In addition to supplying us with scuba cylinders, Bo was able to give us some good tips about places to jump in, local marine life, and some of the challenges that we may face. Besides from the cold and breaking ice, one of our biggest challenges was tackling strong currents. This was especially of concern to us because Breskell was never designed as a diving boat, and more importantly the small tender was unlikely to be enough for a rescue if needed.“I think the only way to make this work is for us to be transported one at a time to the drop site” I explained to Oliver. Kingsley pointed to the small island several hundred meters from the boat where we wanted to dive. We waited for the peak of high tide.

The look on Kingsley’s face reflected how I was feeling. Nervous. One of the expedition leaders, Edgar, stood up to the role of driving the tender  and the two took off for the island. Kitted up in my wetsuit, I looked through a pair of binoculars… it seemed as though the plan was actually going to work.Before long, I was at the island too. Moments later we were underwater. We were diving in The Arctic! The site was spectacular. Vibrant, healthy fields of seaweed. Aside from a few curious Greenlandic Cod, fish life though was limited. But at a closer look within the rocky reef, tightly packed beds of small shellfish filtered the nutrient rich water and small macro life hid in the gaps of the reef.With the first dive under our belt, our confidence was soaring. Thankfully all of the equipment was all in order, cameras were functioning well… the dive was a success.

While the kelp beds we had just experienced were impressive, our sights were really set on Disko Bay. In the build up to this trip, visions of the expedition involved glaciers, icebergs and whales but with strong winds continuing late into the afternoon, our skipper didn’t seem to think it would still be an option. “Impossible” exclaimed Oliver over dinner. “We won’t be able to make it up there with these conditions”.

The crew didn’t let these words impact our spirit. Even though we may not be able to make it up to the Ilulissat Icefjord, we may still come into close contact with icebergs.With the prevailing conditions, Oliver explained the importance of having set destinations each day with sheltered places to moor overnight. The next few mornings involved 4am starts, lots of coffee and long shifts at the helm and on watch. Each day the wind grew crisper and the extra layers of clothes we packed, finally became useful. “Iceberg!!!!” A loud call came from up deck. We all raced upstairs. As we sailed closer, the giant white floating structure grew larger and larger. It was massive… and there was more in the distance too.Our captain Olivier told us right from the start of the expedition, Icebergs were a concern. As a wooden hulled boat, a collision would be catastrophic.

After confidently navigating between icebergs for a few days Oliver’s Arctic sailing confidence was soaring. “I am not scared of icebergs no more” explained Olivier. “It’s the growlers we need to watch out for” he rolled off with a distinct French accent.I looked at Kinglsey puzzled “Growlers?”… thinking grizzly / polar bear hybrids or something like that. He shrugged his shoulders. The boat was fitted with a radar that would pick up icebergs on the surface but the smaller partially submerged “growlers” were something we needed to watch carefully for.

The call “growler” became a familiar echo as the icebergs grew more dense. We were getting close to Aasiaat, a small town at Disko Bay’s southern edge. Finally it really felt like the real Arctic experience that we had envisaged. It was beautiful.As we entered the bay of Aasiaat we were greeted by whales. “Humpback’s and Minke’s” Kingsley called! The boat slowed down to a gentle drift. Without hesitation I was in my suit and ready to go, waiting for the whales to come close. The pod frolicked playfully closely as I lay in the water camera in hand, welcoming their presence. I could hear their calls in through the water. At one point I looked down and saw bubbles rising from the depth. They were underneath me! But that was as close as they would come. The whales kept their distance and after some time we returned to the boat.The crew were ecstatic, we had made it to Disko Bay. The plan was a quick stock up of supplies at the store and with just a few days left before we had to fly out, there was still hope to make it up to the Illulisat Iceford.

Between Aasiat and Disko Island there is a small group of islands that we were aiming for that night. This would put us within a day’s sail of Illulisat. We wasted no more time, lifted the ropes and got going. Upon arrival at these islands it was late in the afternoon but there was still plenty of sunlight. With just days left in our expedition, Kingsley and I knew exactly what we wanted to do… another dive!The following morning we rose again at 4am to get going. Excitement, anticipation and… more coffee, helped us push through. By midday, what appeared to be a wall of ice appeared at the horizon. It was the Icefjord!  But none of us knew exactly what to expect ahead.

With Icebergs literally everywhere now making navigation a challenge. A path through the ice was not clear. Earlier that day Olivier explained that we may not be able to reach the town. Not going any further from here may be too dangerous.

But by now Oliver was in full captain mode. Calls of growlers didn’t seem to phase him as much as before. Sounds of small pieces of ice colliding with the bow caused for some uneasy looks within the crew. He had confidence in his boat and was determined to reach the port of Illulisat.  After all, by making it into this port, it would mean another successful expedition, safety and a sense of accomplishment.

Below is the trailer from this expedition by London based film maker Dominic Joyce .

“This is one of the greatest moments of my life” Olivier said quietly as a tear roll down his cheek. We had made it.

With two days before we had to fly out, there was still time for our dream of diving in the presence of an Iceberg. We had confidence in our equipment, boat and captain. There was plenty of ice around. Our biggest uncertainties was within the icebergs themselves and choosing the right spot to jump in. We had been warned about the dangers of ice collapsing and these bergs weren’t something to mess with.We sought advice from a local boat taxi driver. He had years of experience in the area, driving boats around the Icefjord. Never in his time though had he been with people who wanted to get in. While he didn’t feel ecstatic about our plans, we negotiated a plan to get in the water on snorkel. If we could be shown a safe place to jump in and learn where to avoid, we may have a chance to scuba dive here in our last morning before we needed to leave.

Our the driver stopped the boat near some breaching whales, we wasted no time but to jump straight into the water. My dive computer read -2. My face was instantly numb. As I swam towards a humpback tail in the distance, I was already imagining what I would see next. Whales and Icebergs, this is the moment I had been waiting for! As I got closer and closer to the iceberg, it seemed to grown taller and taller. Once I reached the base I looked up and and I felt as though I was at next to a ten story building of ice.Then… something felt wrong. I heard muffled screams and shouting in the distance. As I pulled my dive hood away from my ear, the shouting grew louder. I was being warned to swim away from the iceberg. It was cracking. I was scared!

I frantically swam back to the boat and climbed aboard. My heart was racing but a huge grin came across my face. It was incredible.

Later, we found a safer site to jump in and snorkeled our way along to the base of a smaller berg. Once again the whales stayed too far away to film, but their nearby presence was enough. This was really something special.On returning from our snorkel we began to plan our dive. Oliver agreed that on our way out of the Icefjord the following morning, we could dive the Icebergs.

Our moment had arrived. Breskell was right up next to the Icebergs we were ready to jump in. With echoes of the panicked calls from yesterday’s snorkel racing through my mind, I wasn’t sure if this was a great idea. I also knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this. We jumped in.

With the iceberg in sight. I nodded at Kinglsey and we started our descent.The structure of the iceberg underwater was completely different to that exposed from the top. Initially the surface looked like ripples like those from a sandy beach but as we continued along the slope, the shapes changed.  Further along, deep vertical carvings were engraved in the icy sheet like claw marks from a giant animal had scratched down the side. The changes in shapes and texture along the ice were mesmerising. My imagination was running wild.The sound of all the ice surrounding us was overwhelming. Cracking, scratching, colliding.

I was worried that the nearby ice would collapse. The depth of this water was over 200m deep, that thought alone was intimidating. We continued along the icy wall, ever so often making a sudden bolt away from the icy edge when the sounds of the ice were especially concerning.Overall we spent about 30 minutes underwater. Upon surfacing we high fived. What an adventure! What an experience!

But we weren’t ready to get out just now. As part of our plans for this trip, we had a wild dream of filming Ice free diver and daredevil Kiki Bosch freedive these waters, in just her swimsuit.

I was already starting to shake. My hands were numb. It was now or never. I called out “let’s do this Kiki!”

Kiki had been training for this moment for months. She was prepared and I had the confidence in her abilities to make this happen. Even still, this is an incredibly dangerous stunt and there’s a lot that could go wrong.I let the air back out of my BCD and waited, several meters deep next to the iceberg. Within a few moments, Kiki was down there. She glided past, and reached out touching the iceberg with one hand. In this moment Kiki was doing something most people would simply rule out as impossible. She is quite literally overcoming the impossible.One of the reasons I love videography is being able to share experiences like this that most people would never have the opportunity to feel in their life. Once people see for themselves that something like this is possible, all of a sudden it becomes possible.

This philosophy also speaks true with climate change. It’s easy to discard something as fake and untrue if you haven’t seen it for yourself. As an underwater videographer I’ve been seen many climate impacts first hand. My mission is to share these with the world.Sometimes I think we really need more people in the world like Kiki Bosch and Olivier who are able to defy the odds and change people’s perspectives into realising that a change in culture starts with you. The first step in changing the world is to change yourself, and if you truly believe that you can actually do something meaningful… then maybe, just maybe it is.

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This expedition was made possible through non profit organisation Ninth Wave Global. Ninth wave are independent, international organisation and think tank which works in unknown or forgotten territories over the horizon generating space for investigation and positive change in environmental, community and social settings.

Stefan Andrews is a marine biologist and science teacher from Australia. He is a specialist fish surveyor, scientific diver and underwater videographer. He has been producing, filming and editing for Ocean Imaging for over five years and is currently working as a Biology teacher in the UK.  

 

Olivier Huin is currently in Greenland preparing for his North West Passage journey this summer. The journey needs a careful physical and mental preparation. If you’re interested in sailing safely in one of the most beautiful place in the world, he encourages you to get in touch. 

This incredible adventure was supported by some generous friends, family and fans who contributed through our Patreon page. We sincerely thank each and every one of you for helping us make the most out of this unique  opportunity:

  • Gerald Caussade
  • Zac Raymond
  • Thomas Wernberg
  • Deike Alberts
  • Ang Lin
  • Jenny and Bill Ferguson
  • Nicki Ara
  • Jo Brown
  • Peter Bergman
  • Victoria Ginnane
  • Divesangha
  • Tom and Lucia Keen
  • Phil and Karen Andrews
  • Gunnar Inge
  • Caroline Brown
  • Natalie Anne

We will be diving in The Arctic in August!

With no dive centres, Greenland is not an easy place to organise things like SCUBA cylinders. Through our network we have managed to get in touch with a guy in a town called Sisimiut who will be able to help us out.

Earlier this week we announced a proposal for our plans to film in The Arctic this August. Thanks to your support we’ve already reached our first goal of $250! We will be able to hire tanks and weights for this trip, two essential pieces of equipment that we are unable to bring along. I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thankyou to everyone who has contributed so far.

Yesterday we also Skyped with the skipper of the sailing boat we will be joining in Greenland. Right now he is in Virginia and he plan on leaving later this month with a small crew to make the journey North. He seemed very determined to get the boat up there and explained to us that once he reached Nuuk (capital of Greenland), he is happy to be flexible with his plans.

We explained our desires to reach Disko Bay as per our proposal and he liked the idea but explained that that a lot will depend on the wind. Other members of the crew who will be joining the expedition have expressed a great deal of interest in visiting local Indigenous communities in Greenland. We are excited at the possibilities of this trip and appreciate all of you guys who are helping make this happen.

Our next goal through Patreon will enable us to take along solar chargers for our electronic equipment. We recently found out that the ship we will be boarding was stuck by lightning and will need some electrical work. Since we rely heavily on electricity to charge our camera batteries etc. we want to make sure that we are not put in a situation that we are unable to film.

We have looked at some affordable high quality solar chargers that will mean guaranteed charging (we will have almost 24h/day of sunlight). This will also mean in our downtime we will be able to use our laptops to edit footage as we go, giving us the opportunity to release videos within a short timeframe of events unfolding on this expedition.

To learn more about our expedition, click the link below. By contributing $1 or more, you will gain access to a special private feed of our progress in the build up and during this expedition. We look forward to sharing this exciting experience with you.