Diving in Alaska requires extra protection

Institute Insights


Ken Dunton, left, a professor, and Danny Fraser, a graduate student, stand aboard the RV Proteus after diving on the Boulder Patch, off Alaska, in August 2022. Photo by Ted Dunton

Ken Dunton, left, a professor, and Danny Fraser, a graduate student, stand aboard the RV Proteus after diving on the Boulder Patch, off Alaska, in August 2022. Photo by Ted Dunton

Diving off the jetties in Port Aransas can be fun when the visibility is good, and the jellyfish are at a minimum. Jetty dives can offer views of a variety of cool fish, crustaceans, sea turtles and the occasional sea urchin.

The Gulf of Mexico’s water is warm enough in the summer to dive in shorts and a t-shirt but during the same time of year in the Alaskan Arctic, the waters are still frigid enough to require dry suits.

Scientists have been diving on and studying an Arctic kelp bed along Alaska’s northern coast, called the Boulder Patch, for at least the past 40 years, and I was honored with the opportunity to join in this research. However, before I could join a small research team for a summer dive on the Boulder Patch in 2022 and 2023, I needed to get some more training and experience with dry suit diving.

In April of 2022, I flew from Port Aransas to Anchorage, Alaska. After a quick night in a hostel, I boarded a small, single engine plane and flew from Anchorage to Homer, Alaska, where a taxi took me to a ferry that was already waiting for me to board. After I apologized for my tardiness to the boat captain, the ferry took me across Kachemak Bay to a remote field station inside Kasitsna Bay, where I was to meet an experienced scientific diver, Dr. Katrin Iken, professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who would be my instructor for the week.

An isopod (Saduria entomon) crawls along the seafloor in front of soft-bodied coral (Gersemia rubiformis) at an area known as the Boulder Patch, off Alaska. Photo by Ken Dunton

An isopod (Saduria entomon) crawls along the seafloor in front of soft-bodied coral (Gersemia rubiformis) at an area known as the Boulder Patch, off Alaska. Photo by Ken Dunton

After stopping outside of the small town of Seldovia to drop off passengers and supplies, we pushed on to the isolated field station tucked between snow-covered pine trees and a rocky intertidal beach. Out of the light fog, a dock slowly appeared, along with my instructor, who was waiting alone for my arrival.

Diving with dry suits is similar to wet suits; there are just extra safety considerations and inherently some different gear. The dry suit, thicker gloves, and hood kept my core temperature cozy and safe; it was only the unprotected areas of my forehead and cheeks that would experience an initial jolt from the cold water, followed by a gentle numbness.

Danny Fraser is a University of Texas Marine Science Institute graduate student whose specialty is benthic ecology.

Danny Fraser is a University of Texas Marine Science Institute graduate student whose specialty is benthic ecology.

My instructor took me on repeated dives to get me used to my new dry suit setup, and while I followed her lead underwater, I got to see colorful nudibranchs (sea slugs), kelp beds, clusters of sabellid (feather duster) worms, sea sponges and sea stars (both the five-pointed and 10-pointed species).

After a week of intensive diving with my instructor in Kasitsna Bay, I was ready for my first Arctic dive later that year.

Every dive on the Boulder Patch was a challenging adventure.

A swim out to a buoy, a descent into frigid murky water and navigating lines along the bottom that helped guide me from one instrument to a field experiment location, and so on.

Following a line from a buoy down into a murky abyss is always somewhat unnerving, but the dive sites are only around 6 meters (about 20 feet) deep. The average visibility was around 1 meter (about 3 feet), allowing me to see all the Arctic kelp, soft-bodied coral and marine invertebrates once I reached the bottom.

The Boulder Patch is truly a biodiversity hotspot along the Alaskan Arctic coast, with so much marine life just below the waves and passing icebergs. However, there is also an incredible amount of marine life just below the jetty rocks in Port Aransas too. You just have to look for it. There is an entirely different world just below the surface of our world’s oceans, well worth exploring and protecting.

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