Meet the man who swims under ice in the Arctic

Like many, Alban Michon is a polar explorer. Unlike many, he likes to go swimming when he’s there.
By Dominique Granger

For most people, going to Greenland or to one of the poles would be a full on adventure in itself. But for modern explorer Alban Michon, this is only half of the thrill: the other half is under the water! We caught up with the ice-diving specialist – who recently published a new book – just before he embarked on a ship to Antarctica, where he is going to spend 15 days with a small group of people who want to see our world in a different way: living on a ship and diving under the ice!

Things to see under the sea!

All instagram clips are excerpts of the film Le Piège Blanc. Production: le cinquième rêve / Director Thierry Robert

So, tell us: why diving?
Alban Michon: I absolutely love the weightlessness, the sensations you get out of it. A lot in the oceans and the sea is yet to be discovered. Exploring them is the true adventure: we can learn so much from the life down there. As divers, we’re a bit like modern explorers. What I want to bring back is images to fascinate people, to make them dream. I want to pass on a message, to tell people: “Look how beautiful the world truly is. We have to preserve it!”

This is a polar plunge...

What surprises you the most under the ice?
The amazing amount of life you can find in a polar environment. It is very lively: there are cod, massive sharks, jellyfish, polar bears…

You actually encountered a polar bear??
Yes! While coming up from a dive, I saw a bear that was swimming above me. We ended up looking at each other in the eyes: it was such a strong feeling!!

Were you scared?
Not really, mostly hypnotized by the encounter, even though I know it is a massive predator. There was no aggressiveness: just curiosity. It’s amazing to have the chance to encounter such powerful animals. There’s an adrenaline rush for sure!

Check out the gallery below

Being often around the poles, do you see the impacts of climate change?
These impacts are real, and they touch me deeply. Ice affects everything and I want to bring people’s attention to it. You know, in 50 years, we are going to gain one degree, which doesn’t look like much. One day, I went for a dive, and the water was at -1.6. The ice was clear and crisp, very solid, beautiful. Then I came back at some point and the water was at -1.4, so 0.2 degrees warmer: the ice was yellow, seaweed was growing, and the ice was so soft we could put our hand through it. Can you imagine the impact of one degree if we can see such a difference with 0.2?

Diving beneath the Arctic ice
Icy paddling in the Arctic © Andy Parant

What are the dangers of diving under the ice?
It’s relatively safe, but it’s still an activity in a relatively hostile environment. The gear can freeze, slabs of ice can fall at any time… but I still feel safer under the ice than on the highway!

Best thing about what you do?
The vibe: all the lights and amazing colours. The skies lit with Northern lights are just amazing. The ice is so powerful: it rules climate. It can look insignificant, but it is strong and powerful. It can crush you, it can crush ships and boats… For me, ice is alive. I’m enthralled.

Toughest aspects?
The cold, of course. When your hands and feet start to freeze, that’s the toughest.

Diving beneath the Arctic ice
Northern lights light up the mission © Andy Parant

What does a normal expedition day look like?
We get up, we prepare and eat our breakfast. We eat a lot throughout the day: we need a good 5,500 kCal per day! Then we get ready, plan the day’s route and get in our kayaks. We navigate, stop to check the weather and eat a lot and very regularly. We’re really tired at night, but we have to dry up and change. Some days, we don’t navigate, we dive instead. We note everything in a diary, and eat again, then go to bed.

It must not be very comfortable to put back on cold, wet equipment?
Yeah, but… is happiness always in comfort?

Alban Michon just released a book, called Glaceo, about his 51 days expedition in Greenland. Check it out here.

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