Pictures: Mysterious Deep-Sea Life Below Antarctica

In the deepest dive ever beneath Antarctic ice, thriving plants and animals are captured on camera.

In an expedition unlike any other, National Geographic photographer Laurent Ballesta took a cold, harsh plunge below the sea ice in the deepest dive ever under Antarctica.

In October 2015, the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere, Ballesta joined a small team for a 36-day excursion beginning at the Dumont d’Urville, the French scientific base on the Adélie Coast of East Antarctica. The trek took place as ice began to break up, allowing Ballesta and his team to break through 10-foot-thick ice and dive down as deep as 230 feet.

Ballesta, who’s worked for decades as a deep-diving photographer, previously dived to 400 feet off South Africa to photograph rare coelacanths, and in French Polynesia, he dived for 24 straight hours to document the mating of 17,000 groupers. 

For nearly five hours at a time, divers documented plant and animal life up to 230 feet below the surface.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

The process for this journey wasn’t a simple one, however; the trip took two years to prepare.

Once in Antarctica, getting into the diving suits took an hour alone, and once equipment was secured, divers carried up to 200 pounds below the ice. The weight makes swimming almost impossible, Ballesta says, but without dry suits, divers would die in as little as 10 minutes.

An emperor penguin accompanies photographers on top of the ice. The day camp was on one of these floes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

 A photographer documents sea life under Antarctica. The divers carried around 200 pounds of gear during their endeavours under the ice.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

The five-hour dives into the sub-29 degrees Fahrenheit water—salt water remains liquid below freshwater’s freezing point of 32 degrees—are excruciatingly painful.

But what Ballesta captured on the ocean floor, he compared to “a luxuriant garden.”

“The waters under Antarctic ice are like Mount Everest: magical, but so hostile that you have to be sure of your desire before you go,” he said.

One of Antarctica’s 16 species of octopus sits on the bottom. All Antarctic octopuses have a specialised pigment in their blood, turning it blue, to help them survive subfreezing temperatures.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

The most southerly breeding mammal in the world, a Weddell seal, swims beneath the ice. The seals stay near the coast, breathing air through holes in the ice.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

At depths of 30 to 50 feet, forests of kelp, giant sea stars, and giant sea spiders are visible to the naked eye and much bigger than those in warmer waters. (Read "This Extreme Swimmer Fights for Antarctica's Oceans—in a Speedo")

At 230 feet, the limit of the dives, Ballesta says the diversity is greatest. Gorgonian sea fans, shellfish, soft corals, sponges, and small fishes exhibit the “colors and exuberance” like that of tropical coral reefs.

Once above the ice, Ballesta says it took seven months after returning to Europe for his damaged nerves to recover from the harsh conditions he experienced in the icy waters.

A diver swims more than 200 feet below the surface, where the light is dim and temperatures drop below 29 degrees Fahrenheit.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

A young Weddell seal sits in an ice gap. The juvenile will be about 10 feet long and weigh half a tonne once its fully grown.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

Although the trip was intense, it was well worth it, according to Ballesta.

“You cannot go half-heartedly; you cannot feign your passion. The demands are too great,” he said. “But that’s what makes the images you see here unprecedented, and the experience of having taken them and of having seen this place so unforgettable.”

The icy waters below Antarctica are also home to a variety of marine invertebrates.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

A seal swims beneath sea ice near East Antarctica’s Dumont d’Urville Station.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

A diver swims beneath several feet of Antarctic ice. The rope hanging nearby helps divers find their way back to the surface.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

Header Image: A diver watches an emperor penguin as it swims nearby. The brown patches above are microalgae, which cling to sea ice and photosynthesize in the spring. PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURENT BALLESTA

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit