Polar explorer Alban Michon dives under icebergs
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2015)
Alban Michon feels at home in a world of rugged, sharp-edged ice floes, glittering mountains of snow and endless, blue deep sea waters. The French adventurer and explorer has passionately devoted himself to the polar region and to diving underneath the ice. He has swum under the geographical North Pole and travelled over 1,000 kilometres along the coast of Greenland with a kayak.
As a child, Alban Michon already had a pronounced sense of adventure. At 11 he was already diving as often as he was able to. At 23 he bought his own ice diving school, the ‘L’école de plongée sous-glace’ in Tignes, France. After that followed the ‘Vasques du Quercy’, the training centre for cave diving in the French region of Lot. Michon quickly became the benchmark in Europe for ice or cave diving. However, contact with people continues to be the driving force behind all his activities.
Alban Michon tells us of his expeditions, the dangers of ice diving, coming face to face with polar bears and how climate change is affecting the eternal ice of the Arctic.
Where does your passion for the coldest regions of the world come from?
Actually, I don‘t exactly know. In 1998 I did a dive in a frozen lake and loved it. The atmosphere, the effects of the light, and the translucent roof impressed me. I really like this type of diving, but I am also sensitive to cold.
You are an adventurer and polar explorer. What does your research in the polar region consist of?
There are several things. For me it is most important to bring back wonderful pictures and videos in order to share the beauty of the polar region with others. That gets people, who will never have the opportunity of going there, dreaming. I think that showing people images of this wonderful natural environment awakens the desire to want to protect it. Beyond this, we also do scientific studies. For example we are working in Greenland with the French space agency CNES from Toulouse on the topic of pollution of the atmosphere. We always happily support research institutes if our adventures can help science to make progress.
Why under the ice?
In order to bring back beautiful pictures, to show an environment and fauna which perhaps is not so well known. If people like the pictures, then we also give them a statement about the climate. For me, ice represents the past and the future. Ice impresses me with its beauty and its strength. A drop of water which falls from the sky transforms into a phenomenal force, which destroyed the ships of the first polar explorers for example, and which also has an effect on our climate. That is fascinating.
While we’re on the subject of climate: I suspect that the consequences of climate change are clearly visible in the polar region. What have you seen?
Apart from the fact that there is more drift ice in the water in Greenland, I always like to tell a story of something which happened to me at the North Pole: as we began to dive underneath the ice floes, the water had a temperature of minus 1.6 degrees celsius. The ice was clear, sharp and felt hard. A month later, after the sun rose again following the polar night, the water had a temperature of 1.4 degrees celcius. The ice had become yellowish, soft and very cloudy.
If we consider these observations, what do you think has to be done in order to save the Arctic? Is it even possible to stop the dramatic changes?
I am an optimist by nature, but I don’t believe that we can change the development curve for the polar region. I think that the ice will disappear in the summer and will form the Arctic again in winter. Above all, the large industrial nations have to considerably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. We have to invest in research and development and promote innovation which will bring us renewable and 100 percent clean energies one day.
When is the best time for ice diving? And why?
That depends on where you go to dive. But February or March is often the best time. At the North Pole, the sun touches the horizon at the end of the polar night on 21 March. If you dive under the ice at that time, you will find excellent water quality with a visibility of more than 150 metres.
Ice diving is very dangerous. What are the main risks under the water?
That’s a funny question as I don‘t consider ice diving to be dangerous at all. I just live it. I am much more scared on the motorway with many people around me as I am alone under an iceberg. I am extremely concentrated and only listen to myself. The main dangers are the coldness and hypothermia. The coldness makes you numb and the heartbeat slows down, you start to hallucinate and fall asleep. Another danger is becoming disorientated, but with a well-fastened rope you can find the way out no problem.
Have you ever experienced a threatening situation?
Yes, it once happened that the arctic sea ice closed a hole through which we had entered beforehand and we no longer had a way out.
How do you calm yourself and remain concentrated in such moments?
Firstly, it is necessary to know that an expedition needs one or two years preparation time. You want to be able to assess and eliminate all possible risks. Beyond this, I have 27 years of experience in diving - 19 years in ice and cave diving. We reduce the unknown factors as far as it is possible and think about what we call ‘what if’ in diving. That means that you have to have an answer to every possible problem. ‘What will I do if.......’ I have to know the solution otherwise I don‘t dive. I also use the redundancy system which doubles the number of safety elements. If something breaks I always have a replacement.
Do you have a type of mantra or something which you use to calm you if you start to panic?
No, not at all. I am very, very calm underwater. I listen to my body. I can hear my heartbeat. Ultimately, everything happens in your head. I have never had a panic attack underwater. Panicking is not a solution, it’s not possible. Otherwise you’ll die. In fact, I am so in harmony with the water that I form a kind of symbiosis with it, I become one with it.
How do you prepare yourself for an ice dive? Mentally and physically?
Before the adventure I prepare myself physically by running and doing some weight training. Mentally - my experience already gives me a lot of faith. But I by no means believe that I can do everything, you still have to stay alert and not rest on your achievements.
What was your most unusual experience under the ice?
I think the most unbelievable experience was when I came face to face with a polar bear upon surfacing. A fantastic moment. But every place is magical. I remember reaching the heart of a glacier at the North Pole and finding myself in a labyrinth of ice. Very impressive.
I have seen that it is possible to accompany you on your expeditions. Can anyone come or are there certain prerequisites and skills necessary?
I organise tailor-made adventures. Either for divers, in which case you have to be a good diver. Or we organise extraordinary adventure tours without diving, for example for a boy who I took to the Tsaatan in Mongolia in order to live with them for a few weeks. You just have to want to leave your comfort zone.
That’s right, one of your journeys was in Mongolia. What did you do there and why Mongolia?
I took a youth who had lost his direction in life to the Taiga area, to the people of Tsaatan. These are reindeer breeders, nomads who live in the middle of the woods in winter. It was already an adventure to find them. Then we took part in their daily life. This helped him to put things into perspective and realise that it’s not the end of the world if the screen of his telephone is broken. For the nomads it is a dream to even possess a television. And they are extremely happy that for four years, they have had a solar station which charges their batteries. Now at night they have a little light in the yurts - if you experience something like this it does make you contemplative.
You have just published your new book ‘Glaceo’. What is it about?
The book shows beautiful pictures from inside the ice, it is a homage to a world which fascinates and enchants me, a world which I am in love with. Did you know that there are eleven different types of ice in the world? The sounds, the colour, the relief is never the same - whether you are diving in the Arctic, Greenland or at the North Pole. This has always captivated me.
What other location in the world would be a challenge for you? What would you like to see?
I would like to dive among the glaciers of Patagonia. That would be a very, very big challenge for me.
What are your plans for next year? Are there adventures awaiting you?
I always have many projects. One should have been realised this year, but the necessary financing was lacking and we had to postpone it until next year. I have my fingers crossed that I will raise the outstanding amount. It is always difficult to finance an adventure but that is just part of the game.
Alban Michon is an adventurer, explorer and polar researcher. He also works as a lecturer, writes books and holds presentations in order to share his experiences and his consequently positive philosophy and energy. In addition, he works as a tour guide for the company Abyssworld, and takes interested customers on expeditions to Siberia and the Antarctic.
Picture credit © Andy Parant