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Krulwich Wonders: Finnish Underwater Ice Fishing Mystery Finally Solved

Saturday, November 10, 2012 - 08:34 AM


I'm going to take you somewhere, but before I do, I should warn you that there's something not quite right about what you'll see. This place I'm going to show you will be astonishingly beautiful. It will be cold. It will be wet. But it will also be a touch -- more than a touch -- mysterious. So watch carefully.

I'm taking you to Finland, to central Finland, and we are going to visit Lake Saarijärvi (the Finns are fond of vowels), a little lake in the middle of the country, which in wintertime is frozen over -- and where Finns like to go ice fishing. Here they practice the little known sport of underwater ice fishing. They fish completely submerged, breathing through air tanks, covered in thermal wear.

Please do not look at what I've written below the video. It will spoil the mystery. Watch the video first. Then read on.

Here we go.

So what just happened?

Well, to summarize: These submerged guys are walking along an icy lake floor. They have a wheelbarrow. They take some buckets of "water" and pour that "water" — or whatever it is (how can they pour water when they're already in the water?) — into the wheelbarrow.

Then, one of them starts to ply a hole into the ice.

The fellow with the wheelbarrow walks over, tilts the wheelbarrow, spilling the "water" onto the seafloor, and once the wheelbarrow is empty (how can it be empty? It's still filled with water), the wheelbarrow, mysteriously, starts to float upward, and then flies up, up, out of the picture, presumably to the lake surface. The fisherman catches no fish. That's it.

This is very weird.

Actually, what it is is extraordinarily clever. This video appeared earlier this year. Four million people saw it, argued about it and decoded it. I missed the whole thing. So if this is your first time, here's what you actually saw.

The entire film was shot upside down.

The cameraman was in the water upside down. The "fishermen" were in the water upside down. They weren't standing on the icy lake floor. They were hanging, suspended, (that is, they were cleverly weighted) on the underside of the lake's surface. Kind of like this:

Robert Krulwich/NPR

That's what the "surprise ending" meant to reveal, that the whole thing was a trick — but I didn't get it. Now that I realize what was going on, it turns out, had I been a little smarter, I would have noticed certain clues all along the way.

The Air 

Notice when the divers breathe, the air from their tanks goes "down." Normally, air should float up. (Actually, of course, the air is going where it should — "up" — but in this topsy-turvy illusion, it looks like it's sinking to the lake floor.) I should have spotted that.

Notice the exhaled air is floating down, not up. YouTube

The 'Water'

What is that liquid stuff that gets poured from the pails into the wheelbarrow, and from the wheelbarrow onto the lake "floor"? Apparently, the film crew trapped some air (maybe using hidden air balloons?) in those pails, so what they poured into the wheelbarrow was plain old air, which has a liquid quality when suspended in water.

That's ordinary air pouring out of the pail. YouTube

The Wheelbarrow 

How'd they get the wheelbarrow to stay upside down on the underside of the lake's surface? Why didn't the wheelbarrow drop to the lake bottom? Well, in the end, you remember, it does float away, but I think the weight of the air trapped in the wheelbarrow, pushing upward toward the sky, may have held the wheelbarrow to the lake surface, plus maybe the air in the wheelbarrow tire helped keep it up there, too. There is no official explanation.

The Divers 

How come the divers didn't get dizzy from spending so much time upside down? Didn't the blood rush to their heads? They seem to have been upside down for a long time. And how did they manage to "step" solidly onto the icy undersurface? The smartypants on Reddit believe the divers in buoyant water weren't as challenged by gravity as upside-down people on land. And the divers wore dry suits insulated with air, and that air, pressing skyward, held them in place.

The Cleverness 

Why anyone would want to film in the freezing cold waters of a wintry Finnish lake, I don't know. I will probably never understand why they did it, but I'll give them this: What they did, they did very, very well.


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Comments [9]

Duke from NYC

OH the bubbles gave it away. bubbles go UP towards the surface, not shooting down to your feet.

Feb. 22 2013 03:22 PM
John from Indiana

At first I wondered what the "liquid" on the "floor" was (it reminded me of mercury), but then when I saw the air from the respirators flowing "down" it was obvious.

The start of the video shows how the air is collected in the bucket: exhaled air pours into the bucket. Then the diver uses his plastic shovel to gather some more air that had missed the bucket and ended up on the "floor".

Dec. 14 2012 05:15 AM

The first time a diver exhaled it was clear that it was filmed upside down.
While I didn't get a sense of mystery I enjoyed it for the cool effects and creative effort of those guys and wondered how they came up with the idea one day and what it took to film and edit this.
Entertaining for sure...

Dec. 03 2012 11:28 AM

Unlike the other geniuses here - I saw most of the video and was amazed. Only after seeing more than half did I realize that the air direction gives the solution. But still the job they did was extra cool.
Thanks for this gem!

Nov. 25 2012 04:02 AM
Jason Seward from Lubbock, TX

While this video was entertaining, I don't really see the mystery. Air goes up, light comes from above, I got what was happening within the first few seconds, seems obvious. Mr. Krulwich, you do amazing work, I appreciate the entertainment, but you can do better.

Nov. 20 2012 08:05 PM
Red from Surf City

As a former research diver, I can assure you that remaining upside down is no problem at all, walking on the ice and with no dizzy issue at all.

First, you have to wear weights to even get below the surface at all. Just a little less weight than normal and you walk upside down just fine.

And the "dizzy" you get when standing on your head is literally all the blood rushing to your head. In the water, the pressure is equal all around and the blood rushes nowhere. Think of the body as a balloon; if you fill a balloon with water and put it on a table, it bulges out and tries to flatten. ( When standing on your head, it will be like your head wants to burst. ) In the water, the water around you exerts the same pressure back as the water inside you - the pressure is equal. The balloon will be round, not flattened, and your head feels just fine.

Nov. 20 2012 02:16 PM
Pete from Miami, Fla

Where did the crew trap air to put in the bucket? Maybe from hidden air balloons, but probably from their scuba tanks.

Nov. 15 2012 09:30 PM
Andy from Connecticut USA

The dead giveaway for me was the light source; when was the last time you saw light emerging from the bottom of a lake? Any photographer will notice this right away. Then I saw the rest of the things you mentioned.

Nov. 15 2012 03:34 AM

For those who have not forgotten the "Fact of the Matter" this again gets at the heart of the issue of Yellow Rain, and what was wrong with the podcast from a third party perspective.

Radiolab has so much to answer for.

Nov. 13 2012 07:30 PM

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