By Steve Lewis
When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a short article for TDI about diving under ice, she asked where I’d be writing about. She has known me long enough to have heard about “cold-water adventures” happening under pack ice around Baffin Island and Sirmilik National Park in Canada’s far north, iceberg diving off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland, and ice-wreck diving during the long Great Lakes winters.
I told her the locale was far closer to home. “They asked me to write about the most fun I’ve had ice diving,” I told her. “SO, I’m going to write about diving in a small pond during Winter Carnival in the local village.”
She asked, why nothing about the amazing upside-down cathedral-like spires of sea ice that glow as top-side sunshine fractures into a thousand different shades of blue and sapphire? Why no mention of an ocean floor thick with sea anemones, sea stars, isopods, and a million different creatures living below a solid roof of ice? And wasn’t I going to mention catching glimpses of walrus and narwhales at depth, or the interaction of great seals checking you out and trying to chew strobe lights and dome ports off cameras? Oh, and no mention at all of polar bears “upstairs” playing cat and mouse with your surface support… them the cat, tough guys weighing in at 240 pounds relegated to the role of mice! Nope, none of that and nothing at all about diving on giant icebergs stuck fast in the sea floor 30 to 40 metres below the surface and offering the most spectacular swim-throughs imaginable.
Instead I wanted to explain why one of my favorite memories of ice diving took me to a three-metre deep muddy bottomed lake in the middle of rural Ontario during one of the coldest winters on record… almost as cold as the one we are suffering through right now.
But first, some explanations.
Diving under ice may sound odd especially if you are a diver who has only experienced coral reefs and blood-temperature water. Well, actually, it is a little odd no matter what your background. When diving requires a chain saw and steel pike to cut holes in the solid ice covering a lake, river or ocean, we are clearly not talking about run-of-the-mill scuba.
Ice diving is different. It requires specialized training, equipment that is not to be found in every dive shop, and surface support that must pay attention and take an active role during the dive.
However, ice diving is an attractive and uniquely exciting experience. Visibility under ice, whether in the Arctic or a local quarry, is typically excellent, and made more majestic by soft light filtering through layers of ice from the world above.
Ice diving covers many types of environments – the ocean, lakes big and small, even rivers and spots where ice floes may be present rather than solid ice. In marine environments especially, the aquatic life you encounter can be stunning. Often overlooked, cold-water diving can offer the very best subjects for photography and video. Visibility is often stunning too. Ice provides a protective layer so that wind does not whip up the surface (no seasickness!) and with water temperatures hovering between 0 and four degrees C, and low light levels, algae growth is inhibited.
Ice diving, just like cave diving and advanced wreck diving, is conducted in a true overhead environment, and it too requires special training. One critical thing to understand is that the techniques for cave, wreck and ice – while sharing some common concepts – are different enough that being proficient in one does not prepare you to dive in another. This is especially true of ice diving since not only is ice diving overhead environment diving, it is also carried out in extremely cold conditions that require special attention to issues that are not relevant when diving wrecks or caves.
An SDI ice diving course will teach you the safety aspects of diving while tethered on a rope under ice, but also how to cut the ice hole through which you enter the water, and how to tend safety ropes for other divers while you remain on the surface in a support role, AND how to prepare your regulators for performance under the ice.
Here are a few of the major differences. Generally speaking, safe ice diving requires a minimum of four people per dive: two divers operating as a buddy pair, and two people to tend their lines.
It is even better (read: it offers more security) to have at least one extra person geared up and on standby ready to get into the water in the case of an emergency. It is also standard practice for each diver to be tethered separately, and to have their own line tender, and is not recommended to have two divers attached to one line. Divers attach lines to a webbing harness with locking carabineers and a bowline knot, much the same as rock climbers.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Being able to communicate with your line tender – the person attached to the other end of your tether line – is an important part of ice diving. Since you are diving in extremely challenging conditions, it is critically important that he or she knows you are doing fine throughout the dive, and if that is not that case, that you need help. During an ice diving course one learns about giving clear, non-ambiguous rope signals. You do not want someone to start hauling you in like a large trout when you are in the middle of getting that perfect nudibranch photograph.
Apart from the obvious dangers of diving in an overhead environment, ice divers must also be careful to monitor their core body temperature both beneath the surface and during surface intervals. Often, the coldest part of an ice dive is the time between dives! Repeat dives should only be undertaken when one is completely comfortable and fully warmed up. One surface-interval trick is to eat high-energy, hot food to replace one’s energy levels.
Ice diving requires special equipment. To begin with, one needs a regulator that will function correctly in extreme cold. This usually translates into an environmentally sealed regulator set, which is designed specifically to be less susceptible to freezing and resultant free-flow of gas.
As well as being environmentally sealed, ice divers also only breathe from their regs when submerged since water – even freezing cold water – may be actually warmer than the surrounding air… especially when the wind is blowing.
Most ice divers also carry some type of redundant gas source. This may take the form of a Y or H valve on a regular single cylinder, a set of twin tanks, two sidemounted tanks or a single cylinder with a pony or stage bottle.
And while some brave souls have been known to ice dive in wet suits, most opt for drysuits and warm underwear, a thick hood, and dry gloves. Even those on the surface tending lines need to be protected. Thick anoraks, caps that cover ears, non-slip, water-proof shoes, and decent gloves are standard. So too is some sort of wind-break or screen, and in really top-flight, well-organized, and deluxe expeditions, a warming hut that sits on top of the diving hole!
Actually, an SDI ice diving program will also introduce divers to gas management procedures, kit failure procedures, personal health and fitness issues and plenty more. It can be a challenging program, but really worthwhile because ice diving does present some unique opportunities to experience diving in a totally different light, as it were.
Which brings us to my story about my best ice dive, and as mentioned, it was not in some exotic locale, just the local village during Winter Carnival. One of the guys in a service club in the village was an ice diver and he suggested something a little different as a fundraiser. For a donation, kids would ice fish and catch numbered tags. Each tag won a small prize… a toy, a gift coupon, a cup of hot chocolate. Our job was to gather around the “fishing holes” wait for “hooks” to appear – actually the hooks were small clips similar to the ones on novelty key rings – and load them up with the tags… then give ‘em a tug.
The effect was priceless. The only issue we had was keeping up with demand. As soon as youngsters saw their friends landing “fish after fish” there was a lineup!
Great fun, great idea, and seeing the look on kids’ faces, priceless.