Arctic Explorer Swims With a Polar Bear

Up for a brisk Arctic swim? Alban Michon reveals amazing life and beauty under the ice.
Diving beneath the Arctic ice
Those bubbles have nowhere to go © Andy Parant
By Dominique Granger

For most of us, just putting together a trip 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.

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We caught up with the ice-diving specialist just before he embarked on a ship to Antarctica, where he will spend 15 days with a small group of people living on a ship and diving under the ice.

Things to see under the sea

The Instagram clips below are excerpts of the film "Le Piège Blanc." (Production: le cinquième rêve / Director Thierry Robert) So, why do you dive in Arctic waters?

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. I want to bring back 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!”

Swimming with a polar bear buddy

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!

Since you're around the poles often, 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 1 degree, which doesn’t [seem] like much. But one day, I went for a dive and the water was at -1.6 Celsius [about 29 degrees F]. 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, and 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 1 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 colors. The skies lit with the 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.

And the 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 and 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. Some days, we don’t navigate, we dive instead. We’re really tired at night, but we have to dry up and change. We note everything in a diary, 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-day expedition in Greenland. Check it out here.

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