Diving Under the North Pole
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Feb 1976, p. 301-313
MacInnis, Dr. Joseph, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Highlights of the last five years of Arctic expeditions conducted by Dr. Joseph A. MacInnis out of a small consulting company in Toronto, whose business is "ocean information." Projects ranged from diving accident management and prevention to assisting federal government in certain aspects of policies and programs for marine science and industry. Arctic expedition has important parallels with the problems of free enterprise, such as the risks an entrepreneur must take. Vision, initiative and perseverance are necessary. A description of the Arctic environment. Reasons for exploration. Followed by a film with commentary and details of projects. The challenges of preservation and protection of the environment.
Date of Original
26 Feb 1976
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
FEBRUARY 26, 1976
Diving Under the North Pole
AN ADDRESS BY Dr. Joseph MacInnis
CHAIRMAN The President, H. Allan Leal, Q.C.


Mr. Minister, ladies and gentlemen: We bid you a cordial welcome to this luncheon meeting of The Empire Club of Canada. We are truly delighted that so many people who have supported Dr. MacInnis in the past should have found it possible to be here to support him today.

Much of beauty has been written in the English tongue, both in prose and poetry, on the love and lore of the sea. With the greatest respect, our distinguished guest and speaker today has written some of the finest of those lines as you who have read his prose, Underwater Man. and his poetry, Underwater Images, will attest. In that assessment, I call in aid a few lines picked at random from his prose written on Mykonos on the Aegean Sea:

The sand is soft and cold beneath my feet. I stop and hear the sea begin to breathe. A slow swell breaks darkly against the shore and then sighs away in recession. Another lifts its longing form up the sand. It retreats. The cadence has started afresh.

That could only have been written by one who knows and loves the sea. But Dr. MacInnis is no dilettante. He has pledged his formal medical education, his daring, his energies, his ingenuity and his business acumen to unlocking the mysteries of the deep and the advancement of undersea technology. He has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by the lines in Gray's Elegy:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The secrets are about to be yielded up.

Our guest is a Canadian scientist who has devoted the past twelve years to the study of men living and working beneath the sea. His early work was in the United States where he provided medical support for some of the deepest and longest manned dives in history. In 1968 he formed a consulting firm, Undersea Research Limited, in Toronto, and has held consulting contracts with the U.S. Navy, the Smithsonian Institution, Ocean Systems, Inc., Perry Oceanographics and Oceaneering International, Inc. His Canadian government contracts include the Privy Council Office, the Ministry of State for Science and Technology and, in his private capacity, the Prime Minister's Office, when the latter occasionally deigns to get in beyond his depth. He currently has consulting contracts with the Department of Environment in Ottawa and Oceaneering International, the world's largest diving company.

In 1969 Dr. MacInnis established "Sublimnos", Canada's first underwater manned station program. In 1970 he formed the James Allister MacInnis Foundation for underwater research and education in Canada. Between 1970 and 1974 he led four scientific diving expeditions to Resolute Bay, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He surely is one of the few Canadians to view the northern lights in the southern sky. During the third expedition, "Sub-Igloo", the world's first polar dive station, was established under the ice. During the fourth expedition Dr. MacInnis led the first team of diving scientists to the North Pole. In 1975 he took Prince Charles of England on a thirty-minute dive under the ice of Resolute Bay, from whence he returned safely, nor lost his uncommon touch. He has provided medical and life-support for over two hundred experimental and open-sea dives and has, himself, experienced pressure effects to depths of 650 feet, enough to give a lesser mortal a permanent helium cackle.

Dr. MacInnis has authored over thirty scientific papers on diving medicine, including publications in the Journal of Applied Physiology and the magazine Scientific American. He is a research associate at three universities in Canada and the United States. Recently he received American and Canadian patents for an undersea communications station.

Dr. MacInnis' expeditions and studies have carried him to many parts of the world including South America, Europe, the Arctic, the Caribbean and the Pacific. His expedition photographs and stories have appeared in National Geographic Magazine and on Canadian and American television networks.

In 1972 Dr. MacInnis was appointed to the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council. In 1974 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and appointed to the Canadian Council on Fitness and Health. In 1976 he was accorded Canada's highest honour and made a Member of the Order of Canada.

We know more now and will know still more in our own time about this vast portion of our planet because of the work of Dr. Joseph MacInnis. As he himself has written, "The depth dimension is open, but much remains to be done." Dr. MacInnis will do it because he is still young and has, in the words which Tennyson put in the mouth of Ulysses, another man of the sea:

. . . this gray spirit yearning in desire To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

It is a privilege to introduce a scientist, a poet, a prose writer, a medical doctor, a diver, a merchant chief, and the current Canadian renaissance man, Dr. Joseph A. MacInnis.


Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen and fellow dwellers of sometimes deep and chilly waters (the speaker makes a gentle motion in the direction of Mr. Leo Bernier, Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources), it is indeed a pleasure to talk to you today of the highlights of the past five years of our Arctic expeditions. In a few minutes I will be showing, on film, some of those experiences.

Since 1968, I have run a small consulting company in Toronto. Our business is "ocean information", and ranges from diving accident management and prevention to assisting the federal government in certain aspects of its policies and programs for marine science and industry. Last year we were also involved in the production of the "New Wave" television series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

These past eight years in business for myself have given me a glimpse of some of the enormous problems that, like the great monolithic glaciers coming out of the north, face the small businessman today. For the next thirty minutes, we'll be talking about exploring in the Arctic, but I would like you to know that this kind of endeavour contains important parallels with the problems of free enterprise. In both cases, the entrepreneur finds himself in a hostile environment, and it takes a certain kind of vision, initiative and perseverance to maintain meaningful forward motion.

The past five years of northern expeditions have allowed me, for two to three months of each year, to spend time in the pursuit of knowledge. But it's more than that. It's the excitement of classical adventure. It's the pursuit of self awareness in an environment that is both hard and lovely; an environment that forces the best physical and mental effort from anyone who confronts it on its own terms.

You all know the Arctic from reading about it in books, and some of you know it personally from your own experiences. It is a place of myth and misconception; but a theatre of exciting opportunity.

The underwater Arctic is the most hostile environment in the world. We know this from first hand experience. Our team has made nine expeditions and travelled some 50,000 miles across northern Canada to such diverse sites as the north slope of Alaska, the Queen Elizabeth Islands and the North Pole. Since 1970 we have conducted forty projects and made 715 dives north of the Arctic Circle. Some seventy-five individuals, representing many disciplines in small rotating scientific teams, were involved.

Why do we go north, and why do we go under the ice? An important question. Canada has a million square miles of continental shelf that remains hidden under the ice for most of the year. Of that million square miles, the human eye has seen something less than a few city blocks. All of our knowledge has come indirectly, from seismic instruments, fishing nets, charts, drilled cores and grab samples. We know that locked under the ice are priceless resources, such as oil and gas and hard minerals. Our high consumer society, here in southern Canada, is taking dead aim on those resources.

However, the Arctic Ocean is the least known of all the world's seas. We know little about the life that dwells there and even less about the relationships between the various levels of the marine biosystems. Therefore, we dive to carry out specific scientific surveys that will shed more light on the natural processes of the environment. We need to make first hand observations in situ, on the animals and plants and their activities throughout the four seasons of the year.

Another reason that we go north and dive beneath the polar ice is to define the problems and clarify the operational techniques for future military, commercial and scientific dives in the Arctic. Our work is "anticipatory" in nature--we are attempting to develop the capability before the urgent problems arise. Those problems relate to search, salvage, construction and maintenance tasks.

The third reason for going north is "training". It is essential to expose as many students and professionals as possible to the difficulties of arctic undersea operations, so that they, in the years to come, can be responsible for their own expeditions. It is hoped that they will participate in the effective management of this vital portion of the country.

Our work is conducted through a non-profit Foundation in Toronto and is supported by enormous enthusiasm and very little money. Several of the people at today's head table were responsible for assisting our northern ventures. Our team is made up of engineers, biologists, geologists and students who pour their energy and expertise into the crucible of each expedition and force it to work.

I would now like to show you some of the films that illustrate, better than words, the highlights of the past five years. These photographs are made possible by the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

(The film opens with an obese seal waddling across the ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.)

Any resemblance between this individual and a politician you know is entirely co-incidental. This is the harp seal, whose dominion is the ocean, and who lives in cold green corridors beneath a roof of ice. It is his ocean we have journeyed to for five years. He is a distinct reminder that the Arctic is the most hostile part of the planet. To me, he also suggests that man's recent presence is a threat to the vulnerable life in these remote seas.

Once underwater, the harp seal is almost poetic in his movements. These are the first photographs ever taken of him in his own airless environment. The water where he swims is so cold it can kill a man in five minutes if he is unprotected by a thermal suit.

1972 was an outstanding year for us, for in December we launched "Sub-Igloo", the world's first small transparent manned station. We placed it on the sea floor of Resolute Bay where it provided an important refuge and communications station. Constructed of transparent acrylic it gave us 360° of visibility. "Sub-Igloo" is semi-portable and requires no heavy equipment to place it on the sea floor. Here under five feet of ice, it gave us an essential foothold on the Arctic continental shelf.

In terms of human exploration, the underwater world of the Arctic, with its vibrant life and canopy of ice, is similar to Canada in the fifteenth century when the first Europeans explored it. Tomorrow's ocean world includes exploratory well heads, sub-sea production platforms, pipelines and an extraordinary amount of work for scientific and industrial divers. If we are to understand, use, and effectively manage this part of Canada, almost half the territory of the nation, then we must develop the capability to actually work and when necessary, live under the ice.

The walls of "Sub-Igloo" are so transparent that occasionally we throw water on them from the inside just to remind us that there is something there holding back the pressure. There are eight tons of upward buoyancy generated by "Sub-Igloo". The inside of the station is filled with air, and provides the same function as a small tent does to a mountaineer: shelter, refuge and communication. It's an important place to be when the water temperature is 1.9°C, when there's a fathom of ice overhead and above that it is 50° below zero.

From inside our manned station, "Sub-Igloo", we could see and quickly appreciate the animal life of the area, or "other nations" as Henry Beston once called them. Outside the transparent walls were living pulses of life, such as jelly fish and anenomies. You have heard scientists call them and their kin vulnerable or fragile, and indeed they are. You have only to go there, and see them up close to appreciate their delicacy. It doesn't take a sledge hammer to comprehend the impact that a large oil spill could have on the underwater ecosystem of the north.

One of the major projects of the Arctic IV Expedition in 1974 was the first oxygen-helium dives into the Arctic Ocean. We conducted four 220 foot dives. We were confident that similar equipment and techniques would someday be used in this part of the world, but had no idea that they would be applied so rapidly. In the fall of 1974, a Pan Arctic aircraft crashed near Rae Point, Melville Island. The same team that conducted the oxygen-helium dives during our expedition conducted the search and salvage operation of the aircraft in 130 feet of water. Their "rehearsal", during Arctic III and IV, allowed them to move swiftly and surely in the completion of their mission.

What we were trying to do during these expeditions was to prepare for the future. In the process, we had a series of "firsts"; things that no one else had done. We developed and constructed the first manned station, carried out the first biological and geological manned surveys, made the first diving trip to the North Pole and conducted the first 24hour dive.

The film that you are seeing shows a diver and his support team making the plunge to 220 feet. The site is significant, for it is in the Northwest Passage, almost directly under where the U.S.S. Manhattan passed only a few years before. We now know that commercial divers, the workers of the sea, will be the leaders of underwater activity in the Arctic. They will be the ones who will work on the pipelines and production platforms.

The task being undertaken here was a simulated performance task to give us an idea of the problems of working on a well-head valve, deep in the Arctic Ocean. The work was conducted by a Canadian company, CanDive Services in Vancouver, as part of a joint effort between the Canadian Forces and commercial divers.

Deep divers have a special approach to their work. It's an attitude that as businessmen I am sure you are familiar with, for it includes the honest assessment of risk. During each moment of a deep dive, these men make hard judgments on the challenges immediately ahead of them. They are investing not only their money but their reputations and their lives for something they really believe in. They do their work well. They know that goals, clearly defined, are important and that it requires logical sequential steps to accomplish them. One false move by this diver, working 220 feet below the ice, means loss of his life.

This is a view looking up from the fifty-foot decompression stop. The diver told me afterwards that at 220 feet the dive hole looked to him to be about a quarter of the size of a postage stamp.

Deep divers are rugged individuals who are in the front ranks of free enterprise. They know how to work like hell and to accept the risks.

The last portion of one particular dive involved a very critical phase that almost got us into trouble. Normally we take the diver from fifty feet and put him into the decompression chamber on the surface. The transition must be done within five minutes. Usually, it is not too much of a problem but these films show that occasionally we run into difficulty. This particular problem had to do with the disconnecting of a hose to the diver's chest. It would not come free and until we unsnapped it we were unable to put him in the decompression chamber. At this point, unable to break things free, the diver faces serious decompression sickness and possibly paralysis or even death. Fortunately, we made it and decompressed him in time.

The highlight of our five years of arctic expeditions was the North Pole project. In April of 1974, as part of the Arctic IV Expedition, we went to the top of the world where all the time zones merge and all geographic directions are south.

We were flown to the Pole courtesy of the Canadian Forces who were simulating a search and rescue mission. There are about one thousand commercial flights over the North Pole every month, and there is the chance that one of them may some day have to land on the polar ice cap. The Canadian Forces will be responsible for their recovery.

We landed at the Pole and remained there for 63 hours. At the top of the world, the Forces team dropped us via helicopter and then parachuted our diving and camping gear. There were five of us and we were alone. Very alone. There was no loneliness more complete. We were 450 miles from the nearest land, the ice was some fifteen feet thick and below that, about fourteen thousand feet of water.

We conducted fourteen dives and spent ten hours beneath the surface, diving down to a maximum depth of about one hundred feet.

Our presence at the North Pole was important, not only to science and technology. The North Pole Project confirmed that Canada has a capability to put small teams of divers anywhere below its Arctic Ocean. If these waters are truly Canadian, and their management our responsibility, then we must have the capability to operate above and below the ice.

This was the first time that man had dived at the North Pole. We located faint hints of life, in small slivers of almost transparent protoplasm, and found the clearest water than any of us had ever seen. We could see for about a quarter of a mile.

These photographs show an underwater upside-down mountain range at the North Pole. Actually, it's a "pressure ridge" where thousands of tons of ice have been forced together into a huge shamble of blocks by distant winds and currents. The blocks shown here extend down as far as a hundred feet or deeper. We know little of the structure of these pressure ridges from first hand observations, and it is essential to learn more about them because they are important in terms of arctic shipping and the design of ice breakers.

In twenty-five years of diving, the North Pole dives were for me a highlight. Imagine, taking a swim at the spot Perry and Byrd had struggled so hard to attain.

We found time for humour. It is an essential ingredient in any northern expedition and an important lubricant for hardship. Here is an example. This is a diver walking upside down at the North Pole. He has inflated his suit with air and its buoyancy holds him up against the ice.

My colleagues an this expedition, and in all of the nine expeditions to the north, have the same motivation that fires an exploring businessman. They both start with a dream and follow it with vision and perseverance. At the North Pole, we were extremely fortunate. We had no overburden of bureaucracy. There was no one to tell us what to do and how to do it, and none of us was concerned about welfare payments or pension cheques.

It was a kind of enterprise that perhaps was not entirely free, but that left all of the participants with a sense of well being and a feeling of worthwhile achievement.

I suggest to you that none of these expeditions or their success came easily. There were many critics and many barriers to overcome in terms of raising money and convincing people of the value of our work.

I worry whether the attitude that initiates this kind of exploration will continue in Canada. This is a conservative country. Too conservative. Challenge, risk, and vision are words that are losing their sharp edge. There is a tendency just to sit back in our comfortable pews and let someone else do the job for us. The entrepreneur, the believer in his own vision, is becoming scarce.

A lot of attention is given today to endangered animals. For example, there is great concern about the future of the great whales, an essential part of our world, suffering the threat of extinction. Every fourteen minutes, another whale is killed and for no rational reason.

I suggest that we must also be careful to preserve those special human beings who are ready to take risks and accept challenges. They are rare animals with critical vision and initiative. They make any enterprise productive. Unless we are careful, we will lose them. How ironic! Without knowing it, we would have lost one of the most valuable of the endangered species.

Our distinguished guest and speaker was thanked on behalf of the audience by Dr. Harold V. Cranfield, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Diving Under the North Pole

Highlights of the last five years of Arctic expeditions conducted by Dr. Joseph A. MacInnis out of a small consulting company in Toronto, whose business is "ocean information." Projects ranged from diving accident management and prevention to assisting federal government in certain aspects of policies and programs for marine science and industry. Arctic expedition has important parallels with the problems of free enterprise, such as the risks an entrepreneur must take. Vision, initiative and perseverance are necessary. A description of the Arctic environment. Reasons for exploration. Followed by a film with commentary and details of projects. The challenges of preservation and protection of the environment.