When One and One Come Together in Greenland

At the border of the ice the shelves were drifting around, so Anna took the opportunity for a short swim
and to relax on the ice.

When Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland circa 982, he sailed west and made landfall several weeks and many hundreds of miles later. Theories about why he called this new land Greenland vary from wanting to attract settlers to reflecting the possibly warmer climate and greener surroundings at that time as suggested by ice core data. With an ice sheet now covering 80 percent of the country, Greenland is anything but green. But the largest island in the world is now being rediscovered by divers who travel to this arctic territory seeking encounters with giants such as whales, glaciers and icebergs.

As an underwater photographer who makes a living exclusively from photography, I have a different perspective on destinations and journeys than what a hobbyist or casual traveler might have. Before I confirm a trip, I think about how and to whom I'm going to sell a specific piece. Magazines generally like to print articles about traditional destinations such as the Caribbean, the Red Sea or Indonesia because many of their readers want to go there for vacation. I like to look for different approaches in underwater photography or destinations that are less likely to have been extensively visited, such as the caves beneath Budapest, Hungary.

Recognizing the abundance of subjects found in frigid seas, I got certified in drysuit diving and planned to go diving in Norway. The tour operator also offered a trip to Greenland, which I decided to try after studying their literature. In 2012 I booked the trip, photographed icebergs above and below water, and easily sold the story to my editorial clients. The only problem was that the trip was in August, when the visibility underwater is poor due to the large amounts of fresh water melting from the glaciers as well as the algae bloom that starts in early summer.

I returned to the east coast of Greenland in the spring of 2015, when the water visibility is much better but the water is a lot colder. My dive computer showed 26°F (minus 3°C). In these extreme conditions I was finally able to shoot some images of icebergs in visibility of more than 164 feet (50 meters) to show these massive ice structures in their true immensity. These images were also well-received commercially, so in March 2019 I immersed myself in Greenland once again.

Anna von Boetticher joins the author, Tobias Friedrich, just before a dive. She
is about to go under the ice in a 6 mm wetsuit, while Friedrich is in a full drysuit.
Anna von Boetticher, the most successful German freediver and holder of 33 national records, was joining the same trip. Weather conditions had interrupted her plans to dive near icebergs on an Antarctica trip the year before, so she intended to have that experience in Greenland. We discovered that we were on the same trip two months before departing, so we planned to do some shoots together, which ended up being our main objective for two weeks. But before even thinking about taking pictures underwater, we had some challenges to overcome.

In East Greenland, March is the middle of winter, when the pack ice reaches from the fjords far into the oceans. Boat travel is almost impossible along the coast, especially in the frozen fjords. We moved all our gear by helicopter from Kulusuk Airport to Tasiilaq, a town 15 miles away with a population of about 2,000. Until you arrive, you have no idea of the conditions, especially the ice, and the weather may prevent you from being outside at all.

Anticipating losing some time to bad weather, we planned a two-week window for photography. The ice and weather conditions were perfect when we arrived. The Tasiilaq Fjord just outside the town had completely frozen with a layer of ice 12 to 20 inches (30 to 50 cm) thick, but above us was blue sky and almost no wind. Smaller icebergs were frozen into the layer of ice where we were planning to dive.

Getting to the icebergs was the next challenge. On some ice surfaces it was easy to haul the photo and dive gear with a snowmobile. Rough ice prevented the snowmobile from reaching the dive site, however, so we had to tow several hundred pounds of gear on sledges for the last few hundred yards every day, back and forth through the deep snow on top of the ice.

We picked a reasonably large iceberg as a potential dive site and tried to cut some holes into the ice. It's difficult to tell how thick the ice is around the iceberg. In some places it was up to 3 feet (1 meter) thick, making it impossible to dig a hole there. For safety we needed several holes, so it took several hours just to prepare the site.

Physical activity combined with the extreme cold posed other problems. Wearing thick clothes could cause us to easily get sweaty while preparing the site, which usually isn't a significant problem but is in these conditions. Sweat under your drysuit can't go anywhere and can cool you down, causing you to get cold very easily once you're in the water — in water temperatures nearing minus 28°F (minus 2°C), this could end your dive after a few minutes. We worked in teams to share the tasks in short intervals to prevent our bodies from sweating.

Anna was diving without a line and depended on the photographer to show her
the exit hole if she lost sight of it.
The regulators and dive gear were additional challenges. The top layer is fresh water, which freezes at a higher temperature than salt water. If fresh water is introduced into the system and the diver descends into the colder salt water, regulators can seize and free flow. To avoid this, we deflated our BCDs so we could sink to a depth of at least 3 feet before taking our first breaths. We still occasionally had free flows because of the extreme frigidity of the water, but it helped to pour hot salt water into the second stages and BCD valves. Once we submerged, it felt like a regular coldwater dive, aside from the lips and parts of the face exposed to the icy water being painfully cold. After a few minutes these parts begin to get numb and don't hurt anymore.

We wanted to wear the most efficient thermal garments underneath our drysuits. Some coldwater divers take heated undergarments with them, but they require large and heavy battery tanks, which would be a problem in our remote destination. Heated back-pain belts from the pharmacy worked very well. They warm the tissues and will last at least a couple of hours.

Staying warm in the water depends upon whether or not you have good blood circulation. People with poor blood circulation may get cold very quickly in their hands and feet. Being in the water for 30 minutes shouldn't be a problem, but staying longer will need either mental stamina or activity that keeps the blood circulating. Once out of the water the body warms quickly, especially the hands, but standing on the ice all day doesn't help to heat the feet. Pouring hot water into your booties helps.

It's easy to warm up between the dives without wind and with hot tea to drink, but everything becomes much more difficult if there is wind and the outside temperature is low. One day we had an outside temperature of almost minus 4°F (minus 20°C) as well as strong winds, which made it feel like minus 20°F degrees outside. After a few minutes out of the water everything liquid will freeze, including the drysuit you are wearing. Those conditions made a second dive that day almost impossible.

Luckily, most of us were wearing drysuits that at least kept us dry inside, in contrast to Anna, who was wearing only a 6 mm wetsuit in the water. Due to her high activity level (swimming up and down and holding her breath), she was able to dive for up to 20 minutes, giving me time to get enough shots of her next to the icebergs. Her coldwater stamina was important as we did several dives a day, if possible, and changed locations to get visually different scenarios under the ice. It was important for us to show a small human next to a huge iceberg for the viewer to feel the scale of these incredible masses of frozen water.

The water actually was ice cold, and stormy days brought an extreme wind chill temperature, making it impossible
to warm up on the surface.

On the early dives we both had a safety line attached to us for help with easily finding the exit hole. After a few dives we were confident enough to dive without the line, which meant an additional safety risk but also that the line would no longer be visible in the images or interfere with Anna's dives. She had to trust me as both her photographer and safety diver. I didn't take my eyes off her on her way back to the hole, even though my instinct usually was to immediately look at my images.

This additional safety rule became very important one time when Anna was coming up a little too early and couldn't find the hole. I was aware of the situation as soon as I saw her looking around and immediately swam toward her while pointing to the exit. Fortunately, Anna is professional enough to stay calm in a situation like this, and once she looked at me she could easily swim back to the hole.

These extreme conditions need extreme safety precautions. Anna, who could easily hold her breath for more than three minutes while moving, was diving for only a maximum of one and a half minutes so she would have time to react to unexpected circumstances. She was heroic in her ability to fight off the cold in these conditions, even changing out of her wetsuit in minus 4°F (minus 20°C) temperature.

My objective in Greenland was to get as many shots as possible of a freediver with an iceberg from different angles. It was important to get different perspectives of Anna with the ice to provide some variety. We varied the perspective with some images showing Anna from a distance and some with her in the middle of the ice. We quickly got a good portfolio of shots that established the adventure, which then gave us time to experiment with other ideas and perspectives.

One time Anna took one of my Keldan video lights with her to have an extra light source to illuminate the ice from below. She was able to entertain my idea of sitting upside down under the surface on a piece of ice. The freshwater layer was almost 3 feet (1 meter) thick, so the halocline presented some interesting imaging possibilities as well. We had some stormy days in Greenland, but the first days were so productive we were satisfied with our collaboration after only a week.

Conditions can change quickly in Greenland, and just two hours after we left the whole ice pack in the fjord broke off and floated out to sea, eliminating diving opportunities in the bay. While we were lucky with the conditions, our teamwork allowed us to capitalize on the luck to successfully create our images under the ice.
Explore More
See more of freediver Anna von Boetticher under the ice in Greenland in this video.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2019