Thanks to the horrors of climate change, it’s Antarctica’s ice cover that gets most of the media’s attention – and that’s fair enough. As some breathtaking new photography reveals, however, the best of the Southern Continent actually lies deep below the surface, just offshore.
Evolutionary biology is a remarkable thing, and no matter where on Earth you go, life can be found. The waters underneath Antarctica’s sea ice are no exception, and as featured in July’s issue of National Geographic magazine, these creatures live in a truly otherworldly environment.
These photographs are the very first from a pioneering expedition that dove deeper than anyone ever has underneath the Antarctic ice. The water there was no warmer than -2°C (28°F), and because of the high salt content, the actual temperature was even lower.
The team had to wear specialized gear with in-built heating equipment – without it, they would suffer organ failure in a matter of minutes. They were monitored by a physician during each dive, and one of the photographers ended up receiving long-term nerve damage in his toes.
Clearly, it was all worth all the painstaking effort.
Emperor penguins were captured rocketing through the water on their way to feed beneath clouds of microalgae. Feather stars “waving their frond-like arms” are seen clinging on to crimson rocks at depths of 70 meters (230 feet). Young Weddell seals just weeks old come up to the camera, curious as to what on Earth those strange humans are doing down there.
In order to get down to this depth, the team first had to break the ice, which isn’t as easy as it may sound. Starting out at the Dumont d’Urville, the French scientific base on the Adélie Coast of East Antarctica, they drilled a 3-meter (10-foot) hole, but found that conditions were so cold that it quickly froze over and they had to keep punching their way through.
Their efforts rewarded them with not only stunning images of flora and fauna already known to science, but even a brand-new species of anemone. This strange creature attaches itself to the underside of ice floes and uses its tentacles to grab potential dinners that swim or drift by.
At present, it’s the only known anemone species to live inside ice, and marine biologists have no idea how it has the strength or ability to break through it, let alone survive there in the first place.
French biologist and photographer Laurent Ballesta, who authored the feature in NatGeo, remarks: “Where, in this century on this Earth, can you be truly alone? Where can you see something no one has seen before?”
The world beneath Antarctica clearly provided him with a visually arresting answer.
To read National Geographic's July issue and view more of their stunning images, click here.