Andy Torbet is on a quest to match the swimming skills of the seal. This challenge takes him to Alaska, for a swim in freezing lake water under a sheet of solid ice.
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Have you ever wondered what it would be like
if humans had the super skills of animals?
But who would be crazy enough to try and fly like a falcon,
grip like a gorilla, and swim like a shark?
I'm Andy Torbet, and this is Beyond Bionic.
The show where I try and match the skills
of some of nature's most incredible animals.
Action is Andy's middle name.
I mean, it's Thomas, but...
And now, I'm using my super skills to take on nature's superheroes
in the biggest challenge of my life.
And don't worry.
I'm hanging around to make sure he doesn't do anything too extreme.
To date, the Beyond Bionic team have set me a near-impossible challenge
as I attempt to swim underneath this frozen lake in Alaska.
Well, you're always saying, "Life's too short for standing still."
It's time to go Beyond Bionic.
This is a real sink-or-swim challenge you've taken on.
On today's Beyond Bionic,
we're heading out into the North Sea off the Northumberland coast
in search of one of my favourite animals.
We're looking for a super-friendly animal
that's specially adapted to live on land,
but also in some of the coldest waters in the world.
You're such a tease, Andy. Get in already!
The animal I'm diving deep for is at its most graceful under the water.
And it's not long before I catch my first glimpse of a seal.
Aw, I think he likes you, Andy!
These are grey seals.
They can spend hours in water so cold, no human would survive.
The only reason I can swim in these waters
is because I'm wearing a dry suit,
which is totally watertight, and with a layer of insulation,
helps protect me from the chilly temperatures.
These animals don't just have fur to keep them warm -
they also have a thick layer of fat, called blubber,
that helps to insulate them no matter how cold the water.
That cold sure isn't bothering this little dude.
He's totally at home down here.
That is so cool.
You see seals on land, these big lumbering animals.
But underwater, they're so much more skilful, so much more agile,
they're like acrobats.
And now, I've got to match them.
There are 33 species of seal, and all are super-skilled swimmers.
But that's not the only amazing thing
about these marvellous marine mammals.
Seals are expert fisherfolk,
and make cone-shaped breathing holes in ice sheets,
so they can hunt for food across large areas.
The holes also make quick escape routes
if predators appear unexpectedly.
That's a whole lot of fantasticness right there!
Seals are aquatic chatterboxes...
..and often talk to each other using clicks, groans, whistles,
Different noises mean different things,
from defending territory to warning of danger.
Well, they do say it's good to talk.
Seals' eyes can focus both on land and under water -
twice as useful as a human's.
Seals have huge, round lenses in their eyes,
so their vision doesn't go blurry under water,
and an iris that can open right up to let in as much light as possible.
Those peepers are off-the-scale cute, too!
The seal is one cool creature, Andy. So how are you going to match it?
My chilly challenge is to conquer the cold,
and swim in some of the most frosty waters in the world.
I've got to swim 40 metres under the ice of this frozen Alaskan lake.
I'm going to attempt to swim from one breathing hole to another,
holding my breath the whole time.
And no blubbering if you fail.
"Seal" what I did there?
So, I need to search out the science that can help me go beyond bionic...
Go! ..to swim like a seal.
You could say this challenge is all about breaking the ice.
The seal is definitely one cool creature,
but if I'm to stand any chance of matching its skills in icy water,
I'm going to need to get used to being a bit chilly myself.
So, I've come to the Manchester Ship Canal for an open-water swim.
Before I dive in, I need a medical once-over from paramedic Phil,
so he can compare how my vital signs measure up
after I've been for a dip.
And there we go, the little beep, and you're already at 35.1,
-which is quite cold.
And how low do you expect that to go after the swim?
If you get towards 30 or anywhere below,
we're really going to get worried about cold water shock.
Cold water shock happens anywhere below 15 Celsius.
Blood vessels in your skin close, the flow slows,
your heart beats faster, and blood pressure increases,
all affecting your breathing and movement.
That does not sound so good.
It's quite important that we know where you are now,
and we can then monitor you when you're in the water,
because it won't take long for you to get into a situation
where you need help.
Also taking the plunge with me is expert swimmer Keri-anne Payne,
who's an Olympic open water and champion cold water specialist.
So who better to give me some top tips for this ice-cold challenge?
When we jump in, it's going to be about 60 to 90 seconds
of what is called cold water shock.
So your brain is going to go,
"Oh, my goodness. What is going on?" And it's going to want to fight.
It's going to want to move your arms and your legs,
but the best thing to do in the situation is just to float.
Swimming in open water is dangerous,
so watching me carefully is a rescue team.
They'll monitor how I'm getting on,
and pluck me out straight away if I get into trouble.
I can't put this off any longer. It's time to get in.
One, two, three, go!
The water I'm jumping into is 7.4 degrees.
In Alaska, it's going to be nearer to freezing.
-Can you feel your heart rate?
And you're feeling it's quite hard to breathe?
-Yeah, OK, so in this situation...
The best thing to do is just to try and lean back a little bit,
open up the airways.
So, just a couple of deep breaths in...and out. There you go.
Keri-anne isn't feeling the cold as much,
as she's wearing her wet suit, which is helping keep her warm.
I'm going to try and get you just a little bit warmer again.
It's not going to be much help,
but we're just going to swim just little bit. So...
-If we swim a little bit that way...
..and then we'll come back again.
Head up, breaststroke is good.
I can start to feel, you know, the cold.
-I've overcome that initial cold water shock.
-I'm in control of my breathing...
..but I can feel the cold seeping into my arms and legs.
So I think in that situation,
it's probably time for us now to get back out.
Compared to the average seal,
which can stay in cold water for 45 minutes,
and only comes up for air, not because of the cold...
my two and a half minutes feels like a feeble effort.
I wasn't quite prepared for how quickly
I start to lose co-ordination and power of my arms and legs.
Of course, that's what you need to swim,
that's what you need to stay afloat.
SO there's a very real danger there that if you're in much longer,
you lose the ability to keep your head above water, and you drown.
But for now, I'm safely back on dry land,
and paramedic Phil is right on hand to re-check my vital signs.
-Your heart's racing, cos you're still fighting that cold.
Quick ear temperature.
And there we go.
So, your core temperature hasn't dropped too much.
It's obviously your extremities that are really feeling the cold,
and that was only two and a half minutes.
-You go get yourself warm.
My challenge to match the seal is quickly turning out to be
more difficult and more dangerous than I'd imagined.
It's clear my body alone is just not cut out for freezing temperatures.
So, Andy, that cold water shock - I could see it.
Physically, I could see it when you jumped in.
I didn't struggle anywhere near as much as you are struggling,
because your skin was just completely out,
whereas I had the wet suit.
SO I think there definitely needs to be a look into what you wear
-when you do your big challenge.
It's certainly opened my eyes to how big the challenge is.
Some of the dangers involved, really.
-Thank you very much for that.
When I say thank you, I'm not sure I really mean it,
-but shall we go and get warm?
Seals are great at fighting off the cold, and it's all down to blubber.
A super-insulating layer of fat that keeps the cold out and body heat in.
Like a built in onesie!
The harbour porpoise is a lover of the blubber, too.
But with only two and a half centimetres,
they only have half as much as the seal,
which is wrapped up in five centimetres
of the all-important insulation.
I've got a spare scarf and jacket you can borrow.
Not only are seals well-insulated,
they're also good at holding their breath.
But so is a dolphin,
who can last 20 minutes under water on one breath.
Although, that's nothing compared to the elephant seal,
which can stay underwater for an incredible two hours.
Whoa! That has literally taken my breath away.
Seals are also renowned for their driving ability,
but can they take on the walrus?
This marine mammal can be found hanging out
at 90 metres below the surface.
But you've got to go a lot further down, to a staggering 600 metres,
to find the Weddell seal.
This animal so gets my seal of approval.
Animals really are nature's superheroes, and I'm totally in awe.
But I'm also seriously competitive.
Hate being beaten, and I like to win.
So, if I'm going to stand a chance against the strongest, fastest,
and best-designed animals in the world, I need their super skills.
And how do I do that?
I'm going around the world
to find the latest in cutting-edge technology,
and the experts who can help me transform my body,
and go Beyond Bionic.
I've been set the ultimate seal swimming challenge.
Now, this I need to see.
When I'm in icy water,
I'll lose body heat through something called convection.
That's when heat is transferred from my body to the cold water.
Though technically, it is.
To survive this, I'm going to have to rely on insulation.
Material that slows heat loss by making a barrier
between me and the lake.
The seal has built in insulation - a layer of fatty blubber -
but I need to wear clothes to keep warm.
Problem is, add water, like the chilly lake,
and wet clothes stop insulating, and you lose heat very quickly.
So, here's a tip, Andy, don't be a drip.
I need something to wear when I'm swimming
that will keep my body heat in, and the water out.
Just like the super-insulating blubber of a seal.
My next task is to find blubber of my own
for protection against the super-cool temperatures I'll face
on my final challenge.
I'm at the University of Portsmouth to meet Dr Heather Massey.
She's a cold water expert, and wants to dunk me all over again.
So you know the challenge I'm facing.
Well, we're going to put you to the test,
and see how you measure up to being put in our cold water tank.
Initially, we'll put you in in your shorts,
and then we'll gradually add more and more clothes
to see how your responses change.
Before we can pick the right gear to help me mimic the seal,
Heather has some tests
that will show how the cold affects my coordination.
I'm going to ask you to thread our nut onto our bolt,
-and we'll time you doing that.
Heather needs to know how my body performs before it gets cold.
Stop. 27 seconds. Lovely!
Next, type a simple text.
You're going to text, "It's time to go bionic...help." Go.
-Let's do this.
And now, it's time to get cold again.
This water is 12 degrees -
the same temperature as your cold water tap at home.
You know, you don't look like you're enjoying this, Andy.
Yeah, just like before, that cold water shock is back.
Although this water is slightly warmer than it was in the canal,
I'll be in for longer.
That initial cold water response, that gasping,
is beginning to wear off.
So I've got a bit more control over my lungs.
But it's not getting any warmer.
After ten chilly minutes,
it's time to rerun the tests and see how much the cold has affected me.
You can see on the thermal camera...
..it's like somebody's painted my body black.
This special camera shows the only part of me
that's a normal temperature is my head.
Below my neck is completely blue,
and that means my body is very cold right now.
Heather gets me to try the simple task again,
-to see if there's a difference.
-Nut and bolt test.
-Last time, I think we did this in about 27 seconds or something.
Much more difficult.
And this is after only ten minutes in the water.
-OK, so a minute and five seconds -
so that took you over twice as long to do.
And the text message, as well.
So, that's not quite as affected as the nut and bolt test.
For now, the seal still has the upper hand,
but to combat the cold, I'm bringing out some trusted tech.
My dry suit keeps me completely enclosed,
and as the name suggests, dry.
This is what I used when I first met my seal friends in the North Sea.
Well, we know that works. Just fast-forward me to the test results.
Excellent - 21 seconds.
-Look at that.
The times are good.
But if I'm going to sue them under the ice like a seal,
I need to be as sleek as one, too,
and the dry suit is just too bulky for the job.
It's time to try out a wet suit.
Dr Heather has given me an extra piece of technology
to help fight the cold.
Not only have I got a big, thick wet suit on,
I'm also wearing this specialist undersuit
that's got electric heating piles in it,
so this time, I should be toasty warm.
Wow! It's like a superhero secret power body suit thing.
How a wet suit works is that it traps the cold water,
and lets your body warm that up,
and that keeps a warm water barrier around your body.
I can feel the panels in my legs and in my back from the undersuit
heating up nicely. Doesn't feel cold at all.
OK, so basically, by adding more technology,
we've made you more like a seal.
Hey, so, you've gone totally Beyond Bionic!
Watch out, Mr Seal!
-Shall we get you out?
Let's hope the wet suit stands up when it comes to the tests.
-Oh! 28 seconds!
So, how does a seal text? Tricky with the flippers.
Not quite as good as the dry suit,
but a bit positive of the streamlined wet suit
is that it'll give me far more manoeuvrability
in the freezing cold waters in Alaska.
This challenge isn't just about surviving cold water -
it's also about swimming like a seal,
and that is where the wet suit trumps the dry suit.
The Beyond Bionic team have set me an incredible challenge -
to swim like a seal for 40 metres under a frozen Alaskan lake,
holding my breath.
Seals have evolved for ice-water swimming,
with a thick layer of fatty blubber to keep out the cold.
And, so far, I've learnt my body alone isn't cut out for icy waters.
To match the icy survival skills of the seal,
I've skated all the way to Fairbanks in snowy Alaska,
where the temperature is a freezing -18 Celsius.
Snow way! That's colder than my freezer at home!
The ice beneath my feet right now is 20cm thick,
and I need to cut through that
if I want to be able to dive to the freezing cold waters beneath.
Seals do this by scraping with their claws and biting with their teeth,
cutting an ice hole by keeping it open.
We, on the other hand, will use power tools.
We've seen you dunked like a man-sized cookie already,
but how do you plan on surviving under the ice?
-There you go.
I've got my wet suit and my heated liner - we tested it in Portsmouth -
and I've got my fins.
Both should help me mimic the seal,
my suit acting like blubber, to keep me insulated and warm,
and my fins making me swim faster, like flippers.
But no-one should attempt to swim like this alone.
There's a diving team here to make sure I'm safe,
including ice diver Nicole.
So, we have this 40-metre distance for you starting in this triangle.
You're going to swim all the way down to the other triangle
-at 40 metres.
And I see you've got more holes cut in the middle.
Yes. So, these are your safety holes, and they're every ten metres.
So if you need to pull out at any time, we'll get you right on out.
-So, have you dived this lake before?
So what does it feel like when you first jump in?
It is like the coldest bath you've ever taken in your life.
But before I attempt the full 40-metre swim,
I'm going to take a refreshing dip in the water first,
to give me an idea of the extreme cold.
Seals do this every single day.
I'm glad I am not a seal.
With this quick test dive,
it should tell me a lot about how difficult
the real challenge is going to be.
-Remember to breathe.
When you first get in, not only does it take your breath away -
it's so cold on your skin, it feels like your skin's on fire.
But this challenge isn't just about how I cope in the cold -
I need to be able to hold my breath under water.
And our bodies have a clever way of dealing with this.
When you put your face in cold water,
it triggers something called the mammalian dive reflex...
..and basically what happens is cold water gets on your face,
and your body starts slowing your heart rate down,
starts conserving oxygen, cos it thinks you might be underwater,
you might need to hold your breath, and it's trying to keep you alive.
-OK, shall I go all the way under now?
-I think so.
The lake water is just four degrees,
and as soon as I move away from the hole, it's almost pitch-black.
I did not expect this.
So, how was it?
The suit and heat suit is actually working OK,
but I think it's the psychology of it.
The fact that you are kind of trapped under the ice.
It's a long swim in those conditions.
Above the ice, the team have set up a special Arctic oven just for me.
You mean a tent with central heating.
It's very important when you're exposed
to extremely cold temperatures, you get in somewhere and warm up,
and that avoids you getting hypothermia,
which is where your body is losing more heat than it can produce,
and that leads to a dangerously low core body temperature.
Thankfully, it's toasty warm in here.
Lucky you, Andy.
It's got me thinking, what if you tried to warm up a seal?
So, what if a seal took a nice, hot bath?
Well, it'd be a far-from-relaxing bubbly soap.
Seals are better at staying warm than cooling down,
so it would quickly overheat and get pretty poorly.
What if a seal wants to catch some Z's?
Seals can snooze almost fully submerged in water.
It's called bottling,
and they switch off half their brain when they do it.
What if a person ate as much every day as a seal?
Well, they'd probably get a stomachache,
and end up smelling very fishy.
The grey seal will eat up to 12kg of fish daily.
That's six times more food than we humans eat.
It's time for my final challenge -
to swim in a near-freezing lake under a solid sheet of ice
in an attempt to match the amazing survival skills of the seal.
All right, ice man, think you can seal the deal?
Well, I'm back at the lake at Fairbanks,
and the temperature has taken a nosedive to -28 degrees Celsius.
It is truly sub-zero - proper seal conditions.
Wow, you're giving me the chills, Andy!
It's so cold now that the ice on the lake
has frozen another five centimetres.
What happened to the hole?
Well, it got a little chilly last night!
So, what do we need to do?
You have to start with this big, heavy piece of metal.
Pound that into the ice.
-Let's get fully warmed up with this ice saw.
You're going to stick that down into that hole you just made.
Saw right through just like you're sawing a log.
And just like a seal, I'm cutting my own hole in the ice.
Now, one of the things I was a bit worried about yesterday -
it's quite dark under there.
I need to be able to see where I'm going so I can find my way out.
-We have your safety line...
..and we actually attached glowsticks.
But as soon as we got it into the water,
the light stopped working, because it's so cold out.
So, we're going to try our dive lights on the line,
-and hopefully that will light up your way.
Well, I'll leave you to finish this off, and I'll go and get changed.
All right, I've been getting cold!
Everything is set.
The challenge is on.
And I'm in the zone.
I'm concentrating on my breathing,
and trying to put out of my mind any thoughts of the extreme cold
I'm about to endure under the ice.
40 metres is starting to feel like a very long way.
OK, just the final bit is to get on my seal flippers,
and then, it's time to get in the water before I freeze up.
It's so cold, if you leave this for a second or two,
ice starts forming on the water surface.
Brrr! Good luck, Andy!
As I take the plunge,
it's obvious the lake water is colder
than when I did my bionic training,
and the lack of light under the ice is still playing on my mind.
Visibility isn't great down there.
It's quite hard to see where I'm going, hard to see the holes.
But they've put a line down there for me,
so I'm going to feel my way along,
and that should take me all the way to the finishing line.
I just need to let this freezing cold water sink into my wet suit,
wait for that initial cold water shock to, sort of, calm down.
I need to be as relaxed as possible to hold my breath at least a minute
to make this 40-metre ice swim.
You still want to do this?
HE SIGHS OK, it's time to go be a seal.
It's time to go Beyond Bionic.
As I begin my swim, dive supervisor Mitch takes charge topside.
OK, Andy's in the water.
My first priority is finding the guideline.
Using this will stop me getting lost and trapped,
and Nicole's dive lights are showing the way perfectly.
Do you see him yet?
I've only been in the water for just 13 seconds.
That's already a quarter of the swim done,
and it's a much-needed confidence boost.
My wet suit and heated liner are definitely giving me some insulation
against the icy water, but the cold is starting to bite.
This feels like I'm making good progress.
Keep going, Andy!
As I make my way further through the murky water,
I'm starting to understand just how impressive an animal
the seal really is.
Expert divers, graceful swimmers, and masters at holding their breath,
seals are completely at home in their aquatic environment,
and they make it all look so easy.
-What do you think? You see him?
I'm three quarters of the way through the bionic challenge,
and I'm starting to feel the pressure.
Holding my breath, fighting the cold, and swimming in the dark
are sapping my energy, and making my lungs burn.
Now's the time to give this all I've got.
Yeah, now it should be coming.
After holding my breath for nearly a minute,
that triangle of light means I'm almost at the end of my swim.
40 metres, coming up!
And it's such a welcome sight!
You did it! Congratulations, you big popsicle!
The wet suit and the heated liner did its job,
just like the seal's blubber.
It was dark down there.
And the biggest issue there
is it's not nice being trapped under the ice in the dark,
holding your breath.
Cos I knew the end was in sight, I could see the hole above me,
I took the time to turn on my back, and look up,
and this arctic light that was shining through the ice
made the whole place actually quite beautiful.
So, this challenge is a win.
Now, it's time to get in my warm tent,
and have a cup of hot chocolate.
I went flipper to flipper with one of nature's best swimmers, the seal.
Masters of their watery habitat,
who've conquered cold water in the North and the South Pole.
I used science and technology to help me increase my cold resistance,
and swim 40 metres under a frozen lake on one single breath.
That was Beyond Bionic.
Andy Torbet travels to Alaska in his quest to swim like a seal in freezing lake water, under a sheet of ice. His journey begins off the Northumberland coast, diving with grey seals to learn how insulating, fatty blubber gives them unrivalled resistance to the cold. Next, Andy meets Olympic medallist Keri-anne Payne and discovers how cold-water shock affects his body. Then Andy tests out blubber-like insulating technology while being dunked in the Extreme Environments Lab pool at Portsmouth University. Will this chilly challenge see him sink or swim?