Diving expedition to the east coast of Greenland! It sounds like an exclusive trip for researchers and professional divers, but it’s not just for die-hards. To dive in spring in Greenland, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, there is no special training or equipment required. All that is needed is cold water compatible diving equipment and a drysuit... As well as no fear to dive in extreme water temperatures down to -2 degrees Celsius. But where else in the world can you still discover new dive sites where nobody has dived before and have the privilege to log them into your divebook?
By Tobias Friedrich
Traveling by dog sled:
"Pur! Pur!" shouts Inuit Mika. "Pur, Jackie, Pur!" he commands his husky "Jackie", named after the film star Jackie Chan. The dog knows exactly what his leader wants: "Pur" is a modified form of "pull" and this is what the dog has to do now: Pull! The dog's paws sink deep into the snow and the thin rope strongly tightens. In mid-April the sun is already quite warm, and small puddles have already started forming everywhere. It seems hardly possible that the sledge dogs can pull the sledges with the dog handlers, two guests and equipment over the next hill, but the 2 dogs still manage it. They pull a weight corresponding to their own body weight of about 12 kilograms - and that too, over several hours. The sled glides almost silently through the still frozen fjord into the mountains, which is covered with ice and snow, but with the beginning of spring, already showing a few scattered brown spots.
"Dogs are the real heroes of the Arctic," said Sven Gust of Northern Explorer.
"The dogs are the true heroes of the Arctic." says Sven Gust of Northern Explorers. The German, who settled north of Trondheim in Norway, have been organizing diving expeditions to arctic waters for many years. "Huskies were the most important animals in Greenland in the past centuries. In Winter they were the only option for transport and played the important role of bringing the Inuit to the ice frontier and enabled them to hunt in outlying fjords." says Gust.
Recently the dogs are more often replaced by gasoline-fuelled snowmobiles as they require no attention during the summer, while dogs need to be fed constantly. "Most Inuit are very poor and cannot afford much. A snowmobile can stand in the corner and costs no money in the summer." explains Gust.
Luckily there are still enough huskies and dog handlers that rely on this traditional mode of transport in Tasiilaq, the capital of East Greenland with about 2000 inhabitants. "Especially when the ice gets thin, the dog sledges still have an advantage over the heavier snowmobiles." says Gust. For tourists the dog sledges are a popular option to encounter the traditions of Greenland. "Next to the diving, we want to offer this unique experience to our guests." says Gust. During the week-long expedition, there is a three-day tour, which leads into a nearby fjord. "With the dogs we need about five or six hours to get there" says Gust. The majority of the diving equipment will be transported by snowmobile, so that the dogs don’t need to pull the heavy load.
When the dogs start to pull the sledge, it’s a quite a bizarre feeling, because you don’t know where to hold on or where to put your feet. But finally, when the sledge silently passes over the frozen fjord, all guests have a grin on their face and nobody is worried anymore. The dogs that have been waiting impatiently are now no longer tenable. Their tongues are hanging out and they throw themselves into their harnesses so hard that the thin ropes, to which the carriage is mounted, are tightened strongly. Only in steep climbs or wet snow, guests have to jump off the sledge and run alongside to make it a little easier for the dogs. "Running in deep snow is more strenuous than I thought. Respect for the dogs increases when you can jump onto the sledge again." says the German Thomas from Heidelberg. Thomas is an amateur triathlete, who hardly ever complains about effort. He likes to travel to the arctic a lot. "In particular, the combination of diving and adventure with dog sledges was especially appealing to me in this expedition." he continues.
The icebergs of the fjords:
During the dog sledding tour, the participants stay in a place, that sums up the adventurous character of this trip: A lonely cottage, which lies on the edge of Semalik Fjord. There is no running water, but still plenty of snow on the roof to thaw. Also, there is only power from the generator. But the stove heats the cabin quickly and ensures cosy warmth that comforts the adventurers that are coming back from a long dog sled ride.
From the comfy hut, the daily dive trips are starting: The special attractions underwater are the icebergs that are frozen in the fjord which had broken off last summer in a nearby glacier, these are fed by the huge Greenland ice cap. But first, an appropriate entry point has to be found in the water. "How and where we can go diving, can’t be predicted." says Gust. Anyone who has been in the arctic, knows exactly what he means by that: First of all, the weather can change at any time and on the other hand the ice conditions must always be watched carefully. If the ice is too thin, even the comparatively gentle Huskies can’t drive up to the ice edge.
But there is a solution to that: A hole needs to be hacked into the thicker part of the ice in the fjord and divers need to descend into there. "Big cracks in the ice can quickly occur in the spring time and divers could also get into the water in one of those cracks. But it’s important always to have a look at the surrounding situation in order to stay safe." Gust explained while looking at the fjord with binoculars.
All these concerns are less important once you are in the icy water. But there it’s also important to observe the safety rules: For example: in minus two degrees Celsius water regulators should not be used at the surface, since there is the greatest risk of freezing there. During the dive, it is recommended to switch every five minutes between the two main regulators, which of course are on independent first stages. By following all the safety instructions of the arctic-experienced guide Sven Gust, the guests will get an incomparable dive experience: Shortly after the descent under the snow covered ice, darkness surrounds the divers quickly. After a while, their eyes get used to the environment and a new, surreal world becomes recognizable.
By following these few guidelines, you should be able to take full advantage of this rather unique experience. As soon as you are immersed, you plunge into darkness, but your eyes will quickly adapt to this new environment.
At some parts the snowpack is not as dense and illuminates the underwater landscape a little. Small, frozen icebergs reveal unsuspected structures below the surface: sometimes sharp-edged, almost crescent-shaped - then again round and smooth not dissimilar to many concatenated bowling balls.
One never tires of discovering these whimsical shapes and structures that also shine in various colours. The many shades of ice ranging from white-grey to deep blue, which occurs only in very strongly pressed ice, as is the case with the Greenland ice sheet. The water colour ranges from a dark green to a deep black in the depths of the fjord. The divers have the sensation of being transported deep into a cave, inside a mountain. Due to the low visibility, the divers can only explore small sections. Secured by a line showing the way to the exit hole, the risk would be too great if the divers were to move further. "We have never had a diving accident, but safety comes first." urges Gust. In the remote wilderness of Greenland, safety is of great importance, because the next hyperbaric chamber is in Reykjavik, which is two hours away by plane in Iceland.
Sven Gust has reserved the best for the end of the trip: the icebergs on the Atlantic coast. Demonstrating the immense logistical effort that is needed for a Greenland expedition to reach the dive sites: From the accommodation in Tasiilaq, the equipment has to be first brought by car to the harbour, loaded onto a sled and pulled by muscle power to the ice frontier - now everybody wants the Huskies back! Finally, everything is stowed in a small day boat. From there it goes through the icy fjords: weaving its way through without breaking the ice, the boat makes it’s way through with a seemingly relaxed Inuit captain. "That is amazing!" shouts Ian from the USA. He has been filming the ride with his action camera and is now looking back from the bow, grinning to the other passengers. "I can’t wait for the dive!" he anticipates the next adventure. But not every iceberg that has broken off from the northern glaciers and drives along the coast to the south, can be dived. "The iceberg must be as stable as possible without overhanging edges or larger cracks, otherwise a piece could suddenly break off." warns Gust. Of course, this risk can never entirely be ruled out, but thanks to the experience of the organizer and the many dives on icebergs, he can assess the potential danger well and unerringly choose the correct ice giant.
In April, the visibility on the coast is very good. At least 20 to 30 meters are not uncommon - up to 60 meters, according to Gust. A bit of the XNUMX% of the iceberg, which is supposed to be underwater, can already be seen from the surface. The water is not warmer, but during the dive, at the sight of the ice, the cold temperature are quickly forgotten. The structures of these giants are shimmering blue-greenish in the strong sunlight. The colossal structure reveals unexpected shapes which take various forms such as: reefs with canyons, coves and small plateaus, which extend far beyond the part of the iceberg that can be seen over the water surface. In some places, sharp edges, like oversized axes rise from the ice and in others the ice is traversed by fine cracks that run like veins through it. Almost everywhere is a thin, few centimetres width, transparent layer of ice over a solid white core that looks like snow. In this fantastic visibility, a safety line is no longer necessary, because at any time the boat can be seen. The vessel follows the divers between the ice floes on the surface. The reasons for the good visibility is a result of less water melting on the coast as well as the algal bloom which starts only a few weeks later in the year. "After I visited Greenland in the summer with much less visibility, I was finally able to check off the experience with the spectacular conditions I saw." says Thomas from Heidelberg. "In the summer the whales are the biggest highlight and in the spring the focus changes to the icebergs." he continues enthusiastically. There are no sad farewells, because the trip is topped by a helicopter flight over the sea ice. "It’s only possible to reach the airport with a helicopter. For the boats the ice is still too thick at this time of the year." explains the smiling Sven Gust, while sitting in the bright red helicopter while the turbines start roaring.
Pictures and Text by Tobias Friederich