Text and Photos : Christian Fournier; View the photos on section "reportage"
This strange orange object floating on the water is not a new breed of seal but a human being wearing a survival suit. These suits are mainly made for people like fishermen, who navigate on cold waters. In low temperature waters (less than 45 °F), one could not survive more than ten minutes without special equipment. Based on the principles of a dry suit, a survival suit will allow a person immersed in cold water to survive for several hours (this length of time depends on many factors such as the water and the outside temperatures, the resistance against cold of the person... )
However, unlike dry suits, these suits are not designed for diving purposes but for survival only. They are about 1/4 inch thick. Boots and gloves are attached for better protection, as well as a hood. A front zipper closes the suit up to the chin, the front seal and a piece of neoprene placed over the mouth and the nose provide a relative waterproofing. Buoyancy is achieved by two different ways. As mentioned above, the survival suit is made out of neoprene rubber that contains millions of tiny insulating cells filled with air, making the suit very buoyant. In addition, a balloon-like ring attached to the suit under the arms can be inflated by mouth using a hose included in the suit. Apart from buoyancy, this ring provides a support to the neck and allows the person to float without effort, head out of water.
Thermal insulation is not achieved, as commonly thought, by the suit itself, but by the air trapped in the suit : this air is warmed by the body and provides an effective insulation. Unfortunately, in cold water, the heat loss is high and the human body must continually compensate for this loss. At a certain point, it becomes impossible for the body to keep up and the body temperature drops ; eventually, the person will die from hypothermia. Hopefully, rescuers will be there before this happens. The color orange of the suit has not been chosen for fashion reasons but because this is the color the most easily detectable on the sea.
These pictures were taken in Tracy Arm (Alaska) during a safety drill, demonstrating the efficiency of the suits. Six volunteers jumped from a lifeboat into the ice cold water of Sawyer glacier, under the indifferent eyes of harbor seals. After some paddling around, these special bathers were given a flare used to draw attention. Wet or even immersed, these flares continue to glow with a bright orange "flame" signaling the position to the rescuers.
This drill has been conducted every week, for more than three years now, on board the M/V VIKING SERENADE, formerly M/V STARDANCER, during the Alaskan season, for the delight of the passengers. Many crew members are looking forward to this "icecapade", but the waiting list is very long and only six suits are available on board !