North of Spitsbergen, 1999: An expedition to the inhospitable expanse of the Arctic Ocean to test technical equipment for extreme diving, wetsuits for the lowest water temperatures, regulators for deep diving, and a diving watch that is sure to make life easier for divers under the most extreme conditions.
In addition to the latest development from the Frankfurt watch specialists, Frankfurt’s Mario M. Weidner is also on board. As an internationally renowned extreme- and deep-diving expert, he is the perfect man to team up with Sinn’s design engineers – and as a mixed-gas diver, the toughest testimonial to the material used. Being a man of extremes, the 36-year-old has already explored 900 shipwrecks, diving to depths of 179 metres. Dives that demand hours of maximum performance from both man and material under extreme pressure, cold and darkness. Captivated as a child by the underwater adventures of Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass, Weidner went further than any other with dives that go way beyond sports diving. Delving further and deeper into the ocean on his shipwreck dives, he often unearths secrets of the past that otherwise would have remained hidden for posterity. A diver that walks a fascinating line between extreme sports and science. A man who goes beyond the boundaries, using technology that pushes the boundaries of science and research.
While today’s researchers are characterised by their white coats and high-tech labs, in the days of Scott and Amundsen it was strong pioneers driven by a passion to explore and an ambition to research. Pioneers wanting to see and achieve things that no other had seen or achieved before them. And such pioneers still exist: researchers pursuing their goal under the most extreme conditions. At world’s end, in the Arctic or Antarctic. Or in other inhospitable parts of the world. Or underwater – in uncharted territory. Although two-thirds of our planet is covered in water, less than five per cent of this water has been explored – a huge habitat containing not only 98 per cent biomass, but also seemingly unlimited potential for food, energy and health for future generations. Such exploration of what was originally an environment not accessible by humans requires the use of advanced technology offering maximum safety, functionality and reliability.
More than good reason for the watch engineers of the Frankfurt firm Sinn to give the people who work here a tool which in its basic form is essential for underwater survival: a highly functional chronograph, a specialised timepiece that allows precise times and periods to be recorded and controlled. A must-have, especially for diving depths that go far beyond sports diving: e.g. technical diving at depths of between 50 and 200 metres, where there is a fine line between success and failure and the consequences of a malfunction, technical or otherwise, can be inexorably life threatening. The outcome depends solely on the experience, training and mentality of the diver, who is almost totally dependent on the reliability and functionality of their equipment. This is where Mario M. Weidner comes in – and the expedition to the icy Arctic Ocean.
On 28 June 1999, those taking part in the expedition meet in Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Norway’s northernmost province Spitsbergen, where hundreds of kilograms of expensive equipment are loaded onto the Professor Molchanov – the ice-strengthened former Russian research vessel of the Murmansk Hydrometeorological Administration, which will take the divers and the accompanying natural scientists to the ice front over the next few days. Journeying into the endless expanse of pack ice, another stop is made in Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world. Researchers from all over the world gather here, especially during the summer months when the sun refuses to set. In the Koldewey Station, the northernmost outpost of the Alfred Wegener Institute, researchers are given one more opportunity to exchange ideas and information, before leaving the final enclave of civilisation. The voyage then continues further north to regions of untouched wilderness. From here on in, the feeling of civilised security is confined to 72 metres of steel – and the reassuring sound of the diesel engine driving stoically and reliably through the steel-blue water.
Throughout the voyage, the Professor Molchanov anchors twice a day. The eight-metre-long inflatable dinghies – robust expedition Zodiacs with powerful outboard motors – are lowered into the water. Then it’s all hands to the deck to get the land and diving equipment over the railing and into the boats two metres below – not always an easy endeavour when the sea is so icy cold and rough.
A constant companion on a trip to one of the drifting ice floes or in the barren and brash wilderness on land is the polar bear guard. Away from built-up areas (which is practically everywhere on Spitsbergen), it is mandatory to have a rifle-wielding bear guard ready to fire. Polar bears can appear at any time, are excellent swimmers and can swim up to 200 kilometres at a time.
All caution aside, an almost breathless enthusiasm prevails amongst the expedition participants, as nature proves to be as fascinating and magnificent as it is inhospitable. Snow-peaked mountains from the coast to the horizon.
Low-growing, but sprawling, diverse natural species, pale colours and clear air mixed with bright splashes of colour from delicate flowers and a coolly glowing sun that never sets. The lonely expanse of the Arctic Ocean, interspersed with snow-white drift ice. And above all, magnificent tranquillity. Tranquillity and vastness that take hold more than once. A timelessly barren land, a forgotten corner of our planet – and yet a powerful, wild piece of nature that is mercilessly superior to humans in all its minuteness.
The first dive on the afternoon of 30 June gets Mario Weidner and his team used to the conditions and checking the equipment. From now on, they all proceed with the greatest care and utmost caution. Each of them has previous knowledge and experience in diving in cold water and under the ice. The expensive diving equipment consisting of two 15-litre twin packs, two 12-litre aluminium stage tanks, and a 2-litre argon cylinder is a must – and defines the state-of-the-art technology used for technical diving under such extreme conditions. The potential risk of such an undertaking is also highlighted by the mandatory extra insurance required by all divers: a special policy covers the higher risks when diving in these regions – the nearest pressure chamber is around 1,000 kilometres away, and a rescue helicopter would take at least five hours to reach them. The divers are highly concentrated on the task at hand and curious about the unknown world underwater. Just a few metres below, a fascinating picture unfolds: countless snails, sea urchins and sea anemones nestling amongst the huge, gently swaying leaves of the kelp (seaweed), most of which are several metres long. Fish such as sea bass, scorpion fish and lumpfish feel at home in the nutrient-rich water, which is only two to four degrees Celsius.
On 6 July 1999, the expedition vessel drops off the divers and researchers at their destination, the northernmost point of the journey: 81° 01' 47". The Zodiacs bring the teams to carefully selected, free-floating floes – small enough to stay close to the edge in case of an emergency and big enough to pick up the divers and dinghies safely. The wind is fresh and light snow is quickly making the base ship disappear in the dim light. Preparations are quickly made, the equipment is tested and the cameras are prepared to begin filming. Time is of the essence, as the floes are constantly moving – and a merging of floes can be a deathtrap for divers under water. After laying out the equipment on the ice floe, the heavily laden Mario Weidner lowers himself into the water. The conditions here are good: no current, excellent visibility. The dive begins – the power extremist from Frankfurt lets himself sink into the dark depths of the Arctic Ocean. He ‘floats’ under the ice, while light and air bubbles play under the surface. Large air pockets form under the ice floes, flowing like mercury in all directions. The light from the surface starts to fade. Delicate, almost translucent jellyfish and tiny swimming snails are now the diver’s only companions. A dreamlike spectacle of colour in blue and turquoise. Bizarre ice formations, viewed from below, shimmering blue crevasses – between them, the diver looking up towards the world above, the rising air bubbles: the orientation of human life.
At a depth of 64.5 metres Weidner stops. As far as the experts are aware, this was the greatest diving depth ever to be reached this far north. Friends and colleagues applaud as he surfaces. The accompanying Sinn team verifies what the extreme diver has already confirmed himself: the prototype of the Sinn 203 ARKTIS, worn on his left arm over his wetsuit, has remained reliably watertight. Relentless scrutiny of the timepiece’s accuracy over the next few hours will also reveal that no deviations can be noted from the nominal values. Not a single tiny droplet of Arctic water was able to penetrate, and even the most extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations had no effect on the precise functioning of the watch. All four Sinn 203 ARKTIS prototypes taken along withstood the very real extreme conditions – as Mario M. Weidner documents: ‘What I found particularly positive – especially underwater – was the very easy-to-read blue dial in combination with the slightly curved sapphire glass, even from extreme angles. It was only the leather strap that tested less than satisfactory. The leather turned out to be too soft for the extreme demands of frequent diving in Arctic waters, leading to increased abrasion when wet. A rubber band would therefore be more suitable for divers.’
At the end of a successful day for all involved, it was clear that the new Sinn 203 would live up to its name: 203 ARKTIS – in proud recognition of tried-and-tested evidence of its intrinsic values. And a symbolic expression of its appearance: as cool and steely as the light at 81° latitude, as blue and bright as the depths of the Arctic Ocean.