OUCH, I YELPED, and rapidly pulled my hand back out of my three-fingered diving mitt, which Steve had just filled with boiling water.
This was my only dive trip to date where scalding was a necessary hazard to endure, in order to avoid paralysed frozen fingers by the end of the dive.
The addition of a small amount of seawater cooled my hands and finally, ensconced in multiple layers under my drysuit (Weezle Extreme Plus undersuits being the almost unanimous choice), I braced myself against the inevitable ice-cream headache and slipped into the water.
My fellow expeditioners, Dion Poncet and Paul Brewin, were barely visible through the milky haze of the glacier-impregnated 0°C water. They were grasping a concrete larval-settlement panel we hoped to deploy on this dive.
A metre or so beneath the surface, the visibility started to clear. I followed the pair’s rapidly disappearing fins towards the edge of the kelp. We needed a secure location to deposit the panel, and Dion claimed to know just the spot.
During a previous BBC filming trip he had noticed a small cave that would be easy to relocate later to recover the panel, and which was also inhabited by a mysterious resident giant sponge.
Silty kelp obscured a nondescript 8m rock face ahead of me. This didn’t look like the sponge mecca that Dion had promised.
Unexpectedly, a fur seal swished by, giving my legs a casual swipe with its flippers before vanishing into the murk.
Distracted only for a moment, I was alarmed to see that my buddies had apparently disappeared, but after a brief search I spied Paul’s blue fin-tips peeking out from the edge of the trailing kelp. Weaving my head through the fronds, I came upon a wall of colour – bright orange soft corals, fan worms, but above all sponges in a huge variety of forms and colours, all able to flourish here away from the light.
Struggling not to kick my buddies in my excitement (quite a feat, as the cave was only just large enough to contain us all), I lined up to take a wide-angle shot of the prize specimen – the “giant sponge”.
I was pretty sure it was a specimen of a glass sponge, a class of sponges most common to abyssal depths, and a group I had never seen before.
This was perhaps the shallowest ever recorded, able to flourish here in South Georgia’s fjordic waters.

HAVING VISITED THE FALKLAND ISLANDS to dive with its Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG) on two previous trips (The Jasons & the Golden Fleece, August 2009), I was delighted (after hinting only very slightly) when I was invited on its South Georgia expedition, as part of an eight-person dive team.
My job as a marine biologist for National Museums Northern Ireland often involves describing sponge communities, but rarely from locations as spectacular as this. The SMSG normally surveys its home waters, some 850 miles to the west, but had been asked to investigate the shallow marine life of this sub-Antarctic island.
Most SMSG divers are volunteers, but the project is managed by staffer Dr Paul Brewin. The hope is that this work will lead to the designation of Marine Protected Areas around the island, and enable the Convention on Biological Diversity to be extended to South Georgia.
The plan was to survey the north coast of the island to 18m (a depth restriction imposed because of the lack of an accessible recompression chamber). Marine life and habitats
were to be recorded quantitively, using transects and quadrat samples taken from each site at three depth zones.
While the rest of the team battled through the kelp with their bulky sampling equipment, fellow taxonomist geek Dr Emma Wells and I had been charged with documenting our respective specialities, algae and sponges.
Originally we were to dive together, but the flaw in this plan was that sponges are more abundant at deeper sites, whereas Emma’s algae inhabited the shallower zones. So we ended up tagging along in a three with the shallow- and deep-zone teams respectively.

SOUTH GEORGIA WILL BE FAMILIAR to polar exploration fans as the island where Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic story of survival culminated after his ship, the Endurance, was trapped and destroyed by ice during his ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
After a perilous sea crossing in a tiny ship’s lifeboat, he landed on the south side of the island and faced a desperate struggle over the mountainous interior.
Eventually he reached a whaling station to sound the alarm, resulting in the rescue of the rest of the ship’s company from distant Elephant Island.
Visitors today can view the mountains over which Shackleton struggled, sweeping dramatically into the sea and forming a series of magnificent steep-sided bays and fjords along South Georgia’s 100-mile length.
The island lies beneath the Antarctic polar front in the stormy “furious 50s” of the Southern Ocean, 1300 miles east of South America and about 900 miles north-east of the Antarctic Peninsula.
South Georgia was a major whaling station until 1965, but now only the rusting ruins of the old settlements decay silently on its shores. There are no permanent inhabitants but there
are two British Antarctic Survey scientific bases, a government office and, surprisingly, a small museum, staffed during the brief summer season in which cruise ships frequently visit.
Access to the remote island is possible only by sea, during the southern summer. Even then, the weather is extremely unpredictable, with violent storm-force katabatic winds rushing down the massive glaciers. Glacial run-off can heavily influence the bays, so visibility under water can be very poor.
The marine life in the region was last surveyed by the 1925-27 Discovery expedition, which mainly employed dredging and trawling. What little diving there has been occurred mostly around the BAS base at King Edward Point.
I and the rest of the team were entering a largely unexplored underwater world.
Our expedition vessel was the Pharos SG, the 80m supply vessel for South Georgia. The ship is not equipped for diving and all gear, including compressors and shipping containers which would serve as labs and equipment stores, had been loaded in the Falkland Islands prior to the four-day voyage.
While operating from such a large ship had several advantages, including an onboard chef and the luxury of private cabins, there was one substantial problem: the 4m drop into the Delta RIBs we used to access sites.
We eventually decided on loading the kit before launching the RIBs, but we still had to make our way down the pilot ladder – which required a grip of iron and nerves of steel if the infamous Southern Ocean swell was running.
Six surveys a day was the goal, so time was tight and we could expect strict words from Dive Officer Jude if we overstayed our allocated time.
However, thanks to Captain Chris and his crew the survey ran incredibly smoothly. I suspect that the crew enjoyed the change from their normal duties of pursuing illegal fishing vessels in South Georgia’s territorial waters, although they seemed rather bemused by our fascination with marine creepy-crawlies, and our eagerness to jump into the freezing water.
Diving protocols had been carefully assessed to deal with the difficult environment. The water temperature was a chilly 0-2°C and, in addition to the hot-water-in-gloves trick, we
had selected regs with environmentally sealed first stages, and carried a pony and spare reg in case of a free-flow.
Dive times had been restricted to lessen the probability of hypothermia.
Leopard seals were another potential threat. Following a fatal encounter at Rothera Antarctic base, the British Antarctic Survey, one of the organisations involved in this trip, was understandably concerned about the potential for attacks.
We agreed on a half-hour pre-dive leopard-seal watch to minimise the risk to expedition divers. We didn’t see any leopard seals, however, and it’s likely that most had headed south for the summer with the retreating ice. We were torn between regret and relief.

THE SAME COULD NOT BE SAID for Antarctic fur seals, Arctocephalus gazella, which we encountered on almost every dive. Around 95% of the world’s population breeds on South Georgia, and they carpeted many of the beaches near which we were diving.
We were occasionally buzzed by them during dives but they were most prevalent on the 5m safety stops, milling around us like over-enthusiastic puppies.
They had a rather disconcerting habit of repeatedly biting the water as they did this, as if they were sizing us up. Few of us were actually touched, although Paul Brickle was twice bitten on the hood, perhaps because of its “yum yum yellow” colouring. He swore that the pair of eyes he subsequently drew on it worked well as a deterrent.
Seaweed dominated all the habitats we surveyed. Giant kelp forest (Macrocystis pyrifera) loomed above many sites, providing both a convenient stop shotline and a fur-seal playground.
Much of the remaining exposed rock was covered in Himantothallus grandifolius – like British sugar kelp on steroids, as the fronds of this trailing weed could reach more than 30m.
The dense kelp posed special problems for my sponge work. Survey teams followed a strict path over the bottom, photographing and collecting specimens, but I needed to search for upright areas of rock that were likely to be more sponge-rich.
As a compromise, I would venture a few metres off the survey path to scope out “spongy” habitat while attached to a reel, so that I could be retrieved if necessary.

IT WAS ON ONE SUCH MISSION that I came across an odd-looking fish – the endemic South Georgia crocodilefish, Parachaenichthys georgianus, platypus-billed and bright red in colour. It was lying on the bottom and unperturbed by the volley of camera flashes I fired off.
Excited by my find, I raced back to my buddies Paul Brickle and Steve Cartwright and made what I thought was the obvious signal for “big fish”.
A look of horror appeared on their faces, and they seemed only slightly mollified by my repeated “OK” signals.
Post-dive, Paul explained that my “big fish” could easily be confused with “big leopard seal”.

IN THE LIMITED TIME between dives, we worked in our makeshift shipping-container lab, attempting to catalogue and preserve the collected specimens as comprehensively as possible, fuelled by endless cups of tea and the chef’s delicious pastries.
As it lies below the south-Antarctic convergence zone, many of the species are also present in the Antarctic, although it is expected that some will prove to be endemic and new to science.
Many species have been documented previously only on dredging expeditions so it is likely that the SMSG photos will be the first live images of many species.
Huge bright orange sea spiders, iridescent blue snails, sea-slugs with undulating tentacles, bulbous anemones and several species of starfish with colours from mauve to luminous orange were brought back to the surface.
I relished the chance to see marine life from a new part of the world, but wasn’t expecting to find something I couldn’t even begin to classify. Long, cylindrical and pink, this strange animal was covered in small globular projections.
A sea cucumber, I wondered. Not wanting to dissect our only specimen, I proceeded with the time-honoured
ID technique of flicking through photo guides. Eventually, with the help of Drs Paul Brickle and Judith Brown, it was identified as a species of cnidarian (the same group as corals, anemones and jellyfish).
Twenty-five sites were surveyed, spread over South Georgia’s north coast. Back on dry land, work is now underway on the 4347 specimens of marine life collected, and preliminary investigations of the sponges have indicated that several species new to science are present.
Co-ordinates for all the sites and specimens were recorded, and these will help to create maps of species diversity which will be essential for future marine management.
SMSG also plans to produce a guide to marine life for other visitors to South Georgia.
The information collected will lead to a better understanding of, and a more secure future for, the amazing marine life of this sub-Antarctic island.

More information on the project and the Shallow Marine Surveys Group can be found at www.smsg-falklands.org and on South Georgia at www.sgisland.gs