Scuba diving in Antarctica: Everything you need to know

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Antarctica Planning & Tips

Scuba diving in Antarctica is something that very few divers get to experience. The remote location and high costs of visiting are the main culprits for this, but the challenging environment also requires a significant amount of technical skill, which often prevents less experienced divers from exploring this magical underwater kingdom.

For those lucky divers able to experience the White Continent from below the waterline I’ve put together a short guide covering all the things you’ll need to consider prior to booking. Please note that only a handful of Antarctic diving voyages depart each season, but one of our specialists would be delighted to help you find the right itinerary.

What will I see if I go scuba diving in Antarctica?

A scuba diver underwater next to a huge iceberg in Antarctica
A diver inspects the underbelly of an Antarctic iceberg
– Copyright John Neuschwander

Like the landscape above, the waters of Antarctica offer divers a completely unique experience. The pocked underbellies of icebergs shine through the inky darkness like huge glowing walls and shimmer in the light, reflecting hues of deep blue and green. The first time I witnessed an iceberg beneath the waves I was completely amazed. Some of the larger icebergs stretch out beneath you disappearing down far into the depths creating a glorious ring of blue light. It’s truly humbling.

Antarctic wildlife is another big draw for divers the world over. Seals and penguins are common sights beneath the water and it’s amazing to see just how fast these creatures dart past you. The trails of bubbles they leave demonstrate their speed and make for some excellent photos. The wildlife in Antarctica is not afraid of humans and close underwater encounters are fairly frequent.

Although we did not see any whales on my last trip, the divemaster regaled us with several tales of humpback encounters from the previous season in which divers had come face to face with the giant creatures.

Gentoo penguins diving below the water in the Southern Ocean
A scuba diver inspecting coral in the Southern Ocean, Antarctica
Coral and fish on the Antarctic sea floor

The Antarctic seafloor is home to an impressive array of marine species that can often be seen during the dives. Jellyfish, starfish, sea snails, sea butterflies and crabs are all common sites, as are kelp and soft coral.

What qualifications will I need to go scuba diving in Antarctica?

Three Polar scuba divers resurfacing to their rubber boat in Antarctica
Polar divers resurfacing to their zodiac boat – Copyright Francois Deriberolles

Antarctica is a remote and wildly changeable environment and the cold water means that considerable experience is required to dive here. Although the restrictions can seem tedious, they are there to safeguard every single person. Without quick access to hospital facilities, being sensible is simply good common sense for everyone on board.

Although you do not have to be a qualified ice diver to scuba dive in Antarctica, you will need to provide the following to participate:

  • An internationally recognised diving certificate
  • A logbook demonstrating that you have participated in at least 30 cold water dry-suit dives in which the temperature was 4° celsius or below
  • A signed statement from your doctor stating that you are in good enough physical health to go scuba diving in Antarctica (make sure your doctor’s note is no older than two years)

What will the itinerary look like?

Polar divers testing their equipment in icy Antarctic waters
Polar divers testing their equipment – Copyright Francois Deriberolles

The first dive of the expedition is always a safety check dive. This gives you the chance to get comfortable with the environment and check that you’re confident with your gear. I’m glad we did this because I was way off with my weight estimation. The check dive is also when you’ll be partnered with your ‘dive buddy’ so that you can watch out for one another. This proved to be a great idea as my dive buddy was more experienced than I was and it felt good to have another pair of eyes on the situation.

Assuming the weather plays ball, your divemaster will attempt to lead two dives per day. The first will be in the morning and the second will be in the afternoon. It’s always worth noting that this can change frequently depending on weather and ice warnings.

The dive sites will change daily and can range from deep water dives to shallow ice dives. Generally speaking, you’ll board a zodiac with all your equipment and journey 10-15 minutes to the dive site. Occasionally you’ll also dive directly from the beach. Dive excursions never go beyond a maximum of 20 meters (65 feet) in depth and most dive expeditions last roughly 1-2 hours.

A diver inspects the blue underbelly of an Antarctic iceberg
A diver inspects the blue underbelly of an Antarctic iceberg
– Copyright Pascal Kobeh

If you would also like to experience Antarctica from above and partake in shore excursions that’s not a problem, just make sure to inform the dive-master prior to the anticipated dive. I actually found that one dive per day and one shore landing worked well for me as I was able to make the most of both worlds.

Although I have not personally experienced this, some itineraries offer guests the opportunity to go snorkeling in Antarctica. If you don’t have the necessary diving experience, this is potentially a great way to cut your teeth in cold water and immerse yourself in the marine life of Antarctica.

What will I need to bring with me?

Two Polar divers geared up and in the icy water
Two Polar divers geared up and exploring a colossal iceberg
– Copyright Alexander Kassler

Your Antarctic operator will provide your scuba tanks, compressor and weights. However, you will be required to bring the following items:

  • Drysuit with hood and dry gloves
  • Undergarments and thermals
  • 2 separate freeze protected regulators
  • Depth gauge, knife and torch, watch or computer, and compass
  • Pressure gauge and stabilising jacket
  • Mask, fins and snorkel
  • Weight belt

You will be expected to clean and prepare your equipment before and after every dive. We were given a dedicated area to store all of our dive gear, which was a relief given the small cabin size. Remember to also bring any spare parts in case your equipment breaks or is damaged during a dive. You won’t find replacements at the bottom of the world!

I found mitts to be warmer than the 5-finger dry gloves, but this comes down to personal preference. I also wore three thermal layers underneath my drysuit, whilst some of the other guests only wore two.

Final considerations

A Polar diver exploring an underwater kingdom of blue ice in Antarctica
Exploring an underwater kingdom of blue ice
– Copyright Ivo Madder

Because it’s a specialist experience, scuba diving in Antarctica comes at an additional cost above your voyage price. Expect to pay between $500-$1000 USD per person depending on which operator you sail with.

Nothing is guaranteed in Antarctica. The wildlife and the weather run to their own tune and your dive-master will only be able to act based on past experiences and weather forecasts. Ice conditions and visibility change daily and it can be a lottery as to what you’ll get. On my trip the waters near the pack ice were clear, whilst the open areas tended to be hazier, but conditions won’t be consistent trip to trip.

Because of choking sea ice, dive itineraries are only offered in the Antarctic high summer period from mid-December to mid-February when the temperatures are at their warmest. Bear in mind, however, that water temperatures will still be freezing so make sure you bring warm clothes that are easy to change into. The zodiac trips, especially post-dive, are very cold and you’ll want to warm yourself up straight away.

Polar scuba divers in a rubber boat in the snow in Antarctica
Returning to the ship can be cold, especially if there is snow coming down
– Copyright Cyriel de Grijs

With scuba diving itineraries in Antarctica being so uncommon, some expert help goes a long way when it comes to advising you on the best operator for your circumstances. If you’ve got your heart set on the Antarctic diving experience, our Antarctica specialists are here to help find the perfect itinerary for you.

Alex Mudd

Head of Swoop Antarctica

Head of Swoop Antarctica, Alex, returned from his first trip to the 7th continent 16 years ago firmly bitten by 'polar fever' and obsessed with icebergs. Further forays into the Polar regions have included following muskoxen in Greenland and dog sledding across Spitsbergen.

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