deGeneration X: It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I'm Gonna Dive)

Travel Features The End of the World
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Sitting at

a cafe in the Argentine Lake District, I scrolled through my Facebook news feed until an image of a leopard seal caught my eye. My friend posted the photo with a caption that questioned how man could hunt such a magnificent creature. The image was ironic because, little did she know, leopard seals are actually dangerous and aggressive predators that kill man.

A month earlier, my fiancée and I were mere days from heading south of the Antarctic Circle, and I asked the tour company representative, “Any chance I can dive in Antarctica?”

“Regrettably, no,” he said. “We stopped offering dives because of the leopard seals.”

“Is it an environmental thing?” I asked ignorantly.

“No, the seals are very dangerous. Divers have been killed by seals.”

“‘We are talking about seals?” I pressed, dumbfounded.

“Yes, the seals move slowly on land so just don’t get too close,” the rep responded, “but they move very fast in the water. Even the Killer Whales avoid them.”

On our trip to the White Continent, I saw a leopard seal rip the head off a penguin, and at a research facility stop, a scientist described how a seal recently killed one of their colleagues. The seal snuck up behind him during an underwater dive and rapidly pulled him several hundred feet down and then back up toward the surface and then down again. The predatory seal, which proceeded to rip into the diver with its canine-like teeth, apparently knew about the dangers of pressurization. A magnificent creature, indeed.

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If diving

in Antarctica was out, I wanted to find the next best option, and I found just that in Ushuaia, Argentina, the main South American departure point for Antarctic excursions. While the small Chilean town of Puerto Williams is a bit further south, most map nerds consider Ushuaia the southernmost city in the world, and it bills itself as Fin Del Mundo (End of the World). Though I would not get to dive the White Continent, I could dive in the Beagle Channel off the rugged coastline of Tierra del Fuego. The waterway, named after the HMS Beagle that took Charles Drawn through the channel in 1833, is a special dive spot that includes numerous shipwrecks. For advanced divers, the wrecks include the 500-foot Monte Cervantes, a.k.a. “The Titanic of the South,” which sank in early 1930. The company offering the Beagle Channel adventure was called Ushuaia Divers.

“It’s a dry-suit dive,” said Carlos, our robust dive master, who was apparently a former fighter pilot. “Have you done a dry-suit dive before?”

“No,” I responded. “How is it different?”

“It is similar,” he explained. “The suit is thicker, tighter, and it helps keep your body dry and insulated from the cold. You need to bring clothes to wear under the dry suit. We recommend thermal pants, a sweater and two pairs of socks. You should also bring a towel. The price of the trip is $160. I have a couple diving in two days. Do you want to join them?”

“Definitely.”

The day before the dive, we made a long ascent up a snow-capped peak in Tierra del Fuego National Park. This meant sore leg muscles for the dive, but it was the safer bet to avoid potential pressurization issues from post-dive high elevations. Early the next morning, I met the dive master and a friendly Dutch couple at the shop. Squeezing into the dry suit made me feel like a human hot dog. The dive master then gave instructions, which included another seal warning. While the fierce predator is primarily found in Antarctica, strays occasionally make their way up to the Chilean and Argentine coasts. Should we encounter a leopard seal, we needed to return to the boat immediately. With this many warnings, I started to understand why the Navy elite are called SEALs.

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“And stay away from the ocean floor,” Carlos continued. “If you get too close, the [sediment] on the bottom will decrease visibility.”

The winter months in Ushuaia—which correspond to the summer months in North America—are colder and more likely to attract a leopard seal, but the visibility is much better. The warmer summer months, however, spur plankton growth that reduces visibility to about 20 feet. If a diver kicks up the sediment on the ocean floor, the visibility is even worse, and I unfortunately did just that in my first minute underwater.

The boat zipped us to our first dive spot in the Bridges Islands, an archipelago sheltered from the strong winds and currents found elsewhere. Dropping backwards into the water, my first sensation was the shock of extreme cold, and my second sensation was my awkward kick stroke. My swim fin came off during entry and landed on the ocean floor 30 feet below. I swam in the dive master’s direction, did my best to turn upright and then pointed to the bootie-only foot. The single fin impaired my coordination and caused sediment to kick up as I sank too close to the ocean floor. Impressively, the dive master found the fin within minutes, and the next challenge was putting it back on underwater in a tight, restrictive dry suit. In the process, I hit the ocean floor and made the visibility even worse.

I feared I would be remembered as the problem diver in the group, but the next complication came within minutes and involved someone else. One of the Dutch divers used hand signs to imply she could not bare the cold any longer and needed to ascend.

Technically, the dive master should have brought us all up, but that would have ended the dive immediately. Instead, he signaled for her partner and me to stay put, and he would be right back. We waited, during which time the sediment settled, and the dive master found us about five minutes later. We already used up half our oxygen, but we were finally ready to explore.

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The Beagle Channel

lacks colorful coral, and the fish tend to be small and grayish in color, but divers do see plenty of giant red southern king crabs, reddish-orange starfish and massive kelp forests. Kelps are large seaweeds that, off the coast of Ushuaia, recall an underwater Amazon jungle with broken rays of light shining through the entangled algae vines. Navigating the seaweed required some caution to avoid getting caught up, but we mostly just steered clear. Around the forests, we also saw various other sponges and crustaceans.

When we returned to the boat, the Dutch woman immediately apologized in English. “I am sorry,” she said. “I was shaking. I couldn’t take it.”

She would sit out the next the dive.

While the water was cold, the wind chill was worse. The drysuit was so tight that my neck would hurt for days, yet some water managed to seep in, and the frigid Tierra del Fuego winds cut through the suit like daggers as the boat raced toward the second dive spot. I couldn’t wait to arrive.

Once we did, we took a break at a nearby shelter in the Bridges Islands and got ready for round two. Sitting on the edge of the boat and ready to drop back, I thought to myself, “Please don’t lose a fin this time.” Fortunately, I did not. In addition to keeping both fins, I also managed to steer clear of the ocean floor. Similar to the first dive, we encountered massive amounts of seaweed and several hefty king crabs, and we completed the dive without incident.

Was the ice-bucket dive worth it? Compared to the colorful Caribbean reefs or the transparent waters of Southeast Asia, the Tierra del Fuego dive spots offered less visual stimulation. At the same time, the Beagle Channel felt vastly different than the typical dive, and navigating the crab and seaweed-filled waters felt more like an adventure. Plus, when I arrived back at the hotel, my cold, pruned body enjoyed the best hot shower I could remember.

In a move that might sound sadistic, my fiancée and I visited the revolutionary-themed Ushuaia Che, Que Potito restaurant that night and ate a massive king crab that we chose from a saltwater cage. Two days later, we headed to Antarctica. While the leopard seals repeatedly snapped their jaws and chased us on the Antarctic terrain, we could easily escape. Still, even the seals’ feeble land chases triggered fear, and I could only imagine the terror it might produce had I encountered one in the frigid southern waters.

David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.