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National Geographic photos take you deep under Antarctica’s ice to reveal unexpected beauty

© Laurent Ballesta/National Geographic
Seldom-seen tendrils of ice-covered brine leak from sea ice.
By Johnny Simon
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The cracking of the Larsen C ice shelf off the edge of Antarctica captured worldwide attention last week, with experts saying maps will need to be redrawn to accommodate the changes wrought by shifting polar ice.

National Geographic magazine has a particularly well-timed special report on Antarctica in crisis, highlighting the dwindling ice—along with images of the rarely seen biodiversity hiding underneath.

In the July issue, photographer Laurent Ballesta recounts his recent death-defying dives below the ice, a feat he took on more than 30 times over several weeks.

National Geographic Magazine
The cover of the July 2017 issue.

The salt water was only 29°F, so detailed planning and equipment were required. Just getting the in the water required a complex, multi-layer swimsuit, which took more than an hour to put on. Once in his suit, he descended through a narrow opening drilled into a 10-foot-deep floe, an entryway that would soon start freezing up behind him.

The cold, deep waters isolated from the rest of the world have developed a complex biodiversity over millions of years. Along with seals and penguins, Ballesta saw 15-inch starfish, octopi, scallops, and fields of kelp, While the environment on the surface ice remains inhospitable for most life, the world he explored under the ice were “reminiscent of tropical coral reefs”

© Laurent Ballesta/National Geographic
A Weddell seal accompanies her pup on a swim. When the juvenile is fully grown, it will be its mom’s size: about 10 feet long and weighing half a ton. These placid seals stay close to the coast, surfacing to breathe through holes in the ice.
© Laurent Ballesta/National Geographic
A sea star nestled up to a worm-ridden, treelike sponge. It’s more than a foot across.
© Laurent Ballesta/National Geographic
An octopus jets above a seabed packed with life. Antarctica has at least 16 species of octopuses. All have a specialized pigment in their blood called hemocyanin, which turns the blood blue and helps them survive subfreezing temperatures.

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