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Ice Diving, Everything You Need To Know About It

Let’s talk about ice diving! For some adventurers who extensively dive in unexplored waters, the desire to dive under ice eventually strikes. They finally decide to give it a try.

The outsider plunging into icy waters finds themselves in a place where an ice ceiling blocks their retreat, where the rules of diving have changed, and where a person wears as much clothing as they could ever have imagined one could wear underwater. Did they think about all these things when they wished to dive under the ice? Probably not. They would have liked to know more, research more, have read an article like this where we uncover the secrets of ice scuba diving.

1. What Is Ice Diving?

What is Ice Diving? Ice diving is a form of overhead diving, similar to cave or wreck diving. In other words, you can’t surface directly. Ice diving takes place beneath a frozen world where you’ve made a hole and slipped in. What sets ice diving apart from its cousin, cold-water diving? Exactly that, to dive, you have to go through an icy ceiling. The extreme harshness of the environment makes it clear, even without knowing much about ice diving, that specialized training and equipment will be necessary. Whether practiced for recreation, scientific exploration, public safety (think search and rescue operations), or other professional and commercial purposes, ice diving is a demanding activity that involves risks, from the possibility of getting lost under the ice to hypothermia and regulator failure due to low temperatures. Ice divers have to take special precautions, such as venturing into the ice while tethered, and wearing a harness connected to a secure line monitored by an assistant on the surface. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


2. Who Can Do Ice Diving: Training

While ice diving is often a recreational pastime, it also attracts scientists studying Arctic wildlife for specific research, such as orcas or penguins. Recreational ice divers do not need to undergo proper training and certification as Ice Divers. Several agencies offer such certifications, including PADI, SSI, and, of course, SDI. We recommend choosing the latter option, as SDI is a certification agency born out of TDI and has extensive experience in technical diving. Ice diving courses, with professional instructors, will prepare you to face the challenges of this discipline. Some risks, such as regulator freezing, are addressed in these courses, and you’ll learn how to handle them. Adapting to low temperatures using a drysuit is another topic to study. Unlike wet suits, dry suits keep your body completely dry, with your clothing underneath. While they can be bulky, getting familiar with them before diving is an excellent idea. Ice diving is an activity for passionate and experienced divers. Extreme weather conditions require specialized equipment, thorough preparation, and usually, a surface support team. To participate in SDI’s Ice Diver course, you need to be certified as an Advanced Open Water diver and be at least 18 years old.

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3. What A Diver Needs for Ice Diving: Equipment

Ice diving requires specialized equipment to ensure the safety and comfort of divers. In addition to clothing designed to protect against extreme cold, specific tools for cutting holes in the ice, removing accumulated snow, backup equipment, buoyancy devices, and other accessories are essential.

Clothing for Ice Diving: Drysuits with appropriate thermal layers are the norm for ice diving, protecting against low water temperatures, ranging from 4°C to 0°C in freshwater and approximately -1.9°C for seawater. Items like hoods, gloves, boots, and full-face masks are essential to protect the diver’s skin and prevent limb freezing.

The choice between a drysuit and a thick wetsuit may depend on individual cold resistance, with some preferring the former due to the evaporation of water from the wet suit after immersion. Preheating a wetsuit with hot water and using heated shelters are additional strategies to combat the cold.

Ice Diving Equipment: Cold-water diving regulators are essential, and environmentally sealed models prevent the risk of freezing. It is recommended to use at least two regulators rated for ice diving, strategically arranged to ensure a constant air supply in case of problems with one of them.

Divers must be proficient in side-mount configuration and airflow switching, including the ability to switch to an octopus regulator. Keeping regulators warm and dry before immersion reduces the risk of freezing. Pre-dive equipment checks are crucial to ensure its effectiveness at low temperatures.

Buoyancy and Weights: Using a drysuit requires a buoyancy compensator and a slightly negative configuration is preferred for ice diving. Independently operating tethered divers should have a full-face mask, and redundant air supply to ensure safety in emergencies.

Ropes and Guides: Disorientation is common under the ice, so having a guide back to the entry point is essential. The choice between a surface-controlled line or a reel line deployed by the diver and fixed to the ice ceiling depends on various factors, such as current and visibility.

Surface Equipment: Surface equipment must have adequate thermal protection, including waterproof footwear, anorak, hat, UV-filter sunglasses, lip balm, and hand and face cream.

Devices such as crampons can be useful to provide traction on the ice when cutting holes or transporting equipment.

Necessary tools for cutting ice, a tent or tarp to cover the opening, and poles to push away ice from the hole and keep it open should not be forgotten.

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4. How To Conduct an Ice Dive

Preparing the Ice Diving Site: A properly prepared site is essential for ice diving. The snowy surface must be cleared, with radial lines from the hole acting as navigation aids under the ice. Therefore, a snow shovel and an ice saw are necessary to prepare the diving site. The work area and the triangular entry opening cut into the ice must be cleared of snow and kept open. Additionally, two lifelines and ice screws ensure the connection and stability of the equipment during the dive.

Ice Diving is a Team Experience: Ice diving is a team activity, where each diver is connected to an assistant on the surface who controls the line. This assistant helps them return to the entry point; that’s their goal. They handle the unwinding and winding of the line to avoid tangles and communicate with the diver through pulls on the rope, allowing them to monitor the diver’s status. Therefore, divers must be proficient in procedures for diving with a guideline, similar to cave diving or wreck penetration. The safety line is attached to a special harness to avoid any interference during the dive. Recreational ice diving usually has a limit of 30 minutes. This reduces exposure to extremely low temperatures and ensures divers have enough air to stay underwater throughout the dive.

5. Risks Of Diving on Frozen Waters: Special Procedures And Considerations

Getting lost under the ice: One of the biggest risks of ice diving is getting lost down there. Although divers are usually connected by a safety line, the possibility of getting lost is always present. Safety is key, with harnesses and lines monitored by an assistant on the surface to prevent dangerous situations.

TIP: Always maintain a connection through the safety line and establish clear communication with the surface assistant.

Hypothermia: Extremely low temperatures can cause hypothermia if divers are not properly insulated. The use of drysuits and insulating equipment is essential to counteract the icy conditions and ensure divers’ safety.

TIP: Limit the immersion time in extremely cold waters and take regular breaks to warm up.

Regulator freezing failure: The regulator, which controls the airflow from the tank, can fail if it freezes. For this reason, it is crucial to use a regulator specifically designed for cold waters and to keep it protected.

TIP: Before diving, check and test the regulator. Avoid prolonged exhalations through the regulator before submerging to prevent ice formation.

Regulator constant flow: The phenomenon known as regulator constant flow is indeed a problem associated with freezing. In it, the regulator continues to release air even when the diver is not inhaling.

TIP: Close the cylinder valve feeding the frozen regulator (hence the use of sidemount), and switch to your other regulator. This not only conserves gas but also gives time for the frozen regulator to thaw.

Aborting the dive is the best option; for this, if you are connected by a safety line, communicate your situation to the surface assistant through the agreed-upon emergency signal, usually five pulls on the rope. The assistant will understand and help you return to the surface. Those diving without a connection should follow the guideline back to the ice hole.

Surface equipment hazards: Surface support equipment also faces challenges, such as freezing temperatures outside and the risk of falling into the water through thin ice. Surface equipment safety is crucial to support a successful dive.

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6. Popular Destinations for Diving in Frozen Waters

Some of the best places in the world for ice diving are:

White Sea, Russia: Offers stunning underwater landscapes with icebergs and ice formations. The region boasts rich marine life, including anemones, sponges, and various fish species.

Lake Baikal, Russia: The world’s deepest and oldest lake, with crystal-clear waters. The ice diving season generally runs from January to April.

Antarctica: Offers some of the most pristine and remote waters on the planet. Expeditions are usually challenging but rewarding, with the possibility of seeing unique marine life.

Norway: The Tromsø region in Norway provides opportunities for cold-water diving and exploring icy fjords. Wrecks and a variety of marine life can be found.

Canada (Arctic Circle): Places like Resolute Bay or Baffin Island offer ice diving experiences in the Canadian Arctic. Adventurers may encounter icebergs and underwater seals.

Greenland: The fjords and waters around Greenland offer a unique ice diving experience. Icebergs and possibly Arctic marine life can be observed.

Finland: The Åland archipelago in Finland is known for its ice diving conditions. The waters are clear, and there is a diversity of marine life.

If you’ve read this article, you now have a clear understanding of what ice diving is. So, do you fancy trying it? Comment on Facebook!