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Polar Diving, or How to Dive Without Freezing

Before you ask, NO, Dressel Divers does not offer polar diving. No diving in Antarctica, nor in the Arctic. We are still in the Caribbean.

But divers are very human. We always want more: to go deeper, stay longer, and now, to be colder, frozen even. Curious by nature, what can we do! We like to do things that no one else can. Do you know many people who swim in cold water in winter? Even fewer do polar diving.

But if there’s something that really drives divers crazy, it’s discovery. The water is frozen, there are ice chunks larger than countries floating around, all of this is at the most extreme points of our planet, and off we go! Let’s see what’s down there.

1. What is Polar Diving? Stories from Polar Divers

Caribbean Diving Enthusiasts! Are you ready for a radically different adventure?

Down there, it’s so cold that your face, the only part that touches the water, goes numb. It’s not a silent world; the ice cracks, groans, moves, and creaks. The ice melts above and below you. Chunks break off and rise, trapped debris falls, birds dive to catch their food, and there you are, diving at the pole wrapped in layers of clothing. By the way, putting on the diving suits takes an hour.

Diving at the pole isn’t something you can do half-heartedly or just to give it a try, because this type of diving is very demanding.


1.1. When is the Polar Diving Season?

And that’s considering that the polar diving season is in summer, when the sun shines all day. Depending on which pole you choose, the season aligns with different months. July and August offer the best conditions for diving in the Arctic (North Pole), although the season opens in May and ends in September. Surface temperatures range between 5 and 15°C (41 to 59°F).


As for the diving season in Antarctica, the window is open from November to March, with December and January being the best months. You can expect surface temperatures to range from -5 to 8°C (23 to 46°F).


1.2. What is the Water Temperature at the Poles?

At the North Pole, the water is currently at -1°C (30°F). In Antarctica, the temperature can be even lower in the worst-case scenario. These waters are much, much colder than the Caribbean Sea, which doesn’t drop below 26°C (78.8°F). You see, diving at the poles means diving below the freezing point of freshwater, which freezes at zero degrees. But this is the ocean—saltwater. Moreover, it turns out that underneath, there’s a lush garden full of life.


1.3. What is the Average Visibility at the Poles?

At the poles, nature rules. The frozen waters are completely transparent, but when it gets warmer, plankton proliferates, which clouds the water. Additionally, we are at the pole, it’s no secret, the weather there is bad. The currents, tides, and waves can make visibility worse.


1.4. Diving in the Arctic or Antarctica?

Marine life varies between the two poles.

Diving in the Arctic offers the chance to see harp, bearded, and ringed seals. Imposing walruses with their tusks will greet you from the ocean floor. Additionally, belugas, narwhals, and even humpback whales will welcome you to their icy world.

On the other hand, the animals you’ll see while diving in Antarctica include emperor, gentoo, Adélie, and chinstrap penguins gracefully gliding under the ice, or leopard, fur, and Weddell seals lurking in the darkness for their prey.

You might also spot sea lions playing among the rocks and humpback whales singing their underwater melodies (along with 15 other whale species).

Some shipwrecks have been found in the Arctic, mainly 19th and early 20th-century whaling and sealing ships. These wrecks are often in shallow waters, near the coast, or on islands. The “Standard” wreck in Iceland can be explored.

Wrecks in Antarctica are even rarer due to the lesser maritime activity in the region. However, a few have been discovered, such as the Guvernøren, a semi-submerged wreck near Enterprise Island. It was a Norwegian factory ship intentionally grounded after catching fire in 1915.

But if you’re like me, and everything seems wonderful and desirable, accessibility is a point to consider. There are more tour operators offering diving trips to the Arctic, which might make it easier to plan your dive trip to the North Pole.

Polar diving-buceo polar - 4

2. Who Can Practice Polar Diving? Experience and Certification Level

Diving in the polar regions, whether in the Arctic or Antarctic, is an exciting but challenging adventure that requires experience, physical and mental preparation, and proper certification. While polar diving is not considered “technical” diving, it is also not an activity for beginners or people with health issues.

Certification: A minimum of Open Water Diver certification and experience in cold water diving is required. Some ice diving agencies demand more advanced certifications such as Advanced Open Water Diver or Rescue Diver, as well as specialty dry suit and cold-water diving courses.

Experience: It is recommended to have a minimum of 20-50 logged dives in cold water and with a dry suit. So, bring your dive logbook.

Health: Good physical condition is essential since diving in icy waters requires greater effort. It is not recommended for people with heart, respiratory, or circulatory problems. Make sure to have your medical certificate when you arrive at the Pole.

Mental Preparation: Diving in the poles means being ready to face extreme weather conditions, cold temperatures, and potential risks such as strong currents and ice. Not to mention the possibility of encounters with marine wildlife. Remember, polar bears dive too.

Extra Tips:

1. Check the specific requirements of each tour operator before booking your polar diving trip.

2. Attend a cold-water diving course to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to dive safely in the poles.

Different diving organizations offer specific certifications for diving in icy waters. Some of the most common levels include:

  • SDI Ice Diver: This Scuba Diving International certification teaches the correct techniques for ice diving, how to use specialized equipment, and how to handle potential problems associated with ice diving.
  • PADI Ice Diver: Similar to the SDI certification, this certification from PADI also prepares you for ice diving, teaching specific skills and techniques.
  • PADI Dry Suit Diver: This certification teaches you how to dive with a dry suit, which is essential for staying warm during polar dives.

3. Do not underestimate the risks associated with diving in icy waters. Prepare physically and mentally to face a challenging environment.


3. What Do I Need to Dive at the Poles? Equipment for Extreme Conditions


Forget about the Caribbean neoprene; now you need a drysuit to protect you from polar water, which can drop to -1ºC. Choose a comfortable and well-fitted one, with a hood and gloves to keep you warm. Neoprene wetsuits are preferable for greater flexibility and insulation, and you will only need to wear a thin layer of clothing underneath. If you choose an outer suit, remember that it will not provide additional warmth, and you will need to wear multiple layers of clothing, but it will dry faster.

Your drysuit isn’t complete without its accessories. If it doesn’t come with a hood, get a 10mm neoprene one with face and neck sealing. For your hands, you can use 7mm neoprene gloves or semi-dry mittens, or even three-finger mittens for more warmth. If you dare with dry gloves, be aware that you’ll need practice to use them.

Underneath The Suit

Layers upon layers of technical underwear will help trap body heat. First layer: Polypropylene to wick moisture away. Second layer: Fleece, synthetic fur, or Thinsulate, guaranteed warmth! Outer layer: Windproof and waterproof, for total comfort! The one-piece suit is the most used by polar divers.

Post-Dive Clothing

Remember you need to bundle up more than an Eskimo because they’re used to the cold, and you’re not. After the dive, you’ll need warm and wind-resistant clothing to protect yourself from the cold. A hat, waterproof gloves, and a small dry bag to store them in the Zodiac. The polar cold won’t forgive you, so bring waterproof footwear, a parka, sunglasses with UV filter, lip balm, and hand and face cream.

Adapted Diving Gear

Your diving gear also needs to adapt to the extreme cold. Special regulators for cold waters, as normal ones will freeze in polar waters, so you need two sets of environmentally sealed regulators (1st and 2nd stage). Make sure you can switch to your backup regulator if the main one freezes and causes a free flow. A pressure gauge is enough since any free flow would require ending the dive. Some electronic instruments may fail in sub-zero temperatures. Ah! And don’t forget to bring spare batteries because the cold drains them faster.

Choose whichever standard mask you prefer or a full-face mask, but have a spare just in case. Practice changing masks underwater as it can be a challenge in the cold. Forget about spitting to defog it! Use commercial defogging agents and have spare mask and fin straps handy, as the cold can make them brittle.

Polar diving-buceo polar-5

4. How is Polar Diving Done?

Planning: Diving in the polar regions isn’t like swimming in the Caribbean; planning is crucial. You need to study the ice conditions, currents, local marine life, and potential hazards before each dive. Also, keep in mind that it all starts with a checkout dive for guides to assess your level and ensure you’re ready for this extreme adventure of polar diving.

Procedures During the Dive Entry and Exit: Safe entry and exit techniques must be used to avoid injuries or equipment damage. This may include using dive platforms or ice stairs when diving through and under ice.

Buoyancy and Depth Control: Maintaining precise buoyancy control is essential due to water density changes with temperature. Diving should be done at a safe depth to avoid nitrogen narcosis.

Communication: It’s important to maintain effective communication with your diving partner and the surface using hand signals or a voice communication system.

Environmental Awareness: Stay alert to potential hazards such as icebergs, ice collapses, and the fascinating (but dangerous) polar marine life. Watch closely and enjoy this unique spectacle!

Safety Diving with a Buddy: Never dive alone in polar waters. Always dive with an experienced, certified buddy.

Monitoring Physical Condition: We’ve already mentioned the importance of being in good physical shape for polar diving, but when you’re submerged in near-freezing water, you must be very attentive to your physical condition. Your life and the lives of your companions depend on it.

Hydration and Nutrition: It’s important to stay hydrated and consume calorie-rich foods before, during, and after the dive to combat the cold and provide energy.

Time Limit: Dives in polar waters should be of short duration to minimize the risk of hypothermia.

5. The Risks of Polar Diving

Diving in the poles presents risks that you must be aware of and confront with proper preparation. Below, we present the main dangers of ice diving and the measures to prevent them:

1. Getting lost under the ice:

Risk: Becoming disoriented under the ice can be a real danger, even while connected by a safety line.

Prevention: Ensure you are always connected to the safety line and constantly communicate with the surface assistant. Before diving, plan your route and clearly mark the entry and exit points. Use a navigation system and compass to stay oriented.

2. Hypothermia: Risk: The low water and air temperatures can cause hypothermia if you are not adequately insulated. Prevention: A dry suit will protect you from the cold water and keep you dry and warm. Wear thermal underwear, gloves, and a hood for additional insulation. Limit immersion time in extremely cold water and take regular breaks to warm up. Drink water and consume calorie-rich foods before, during, and after the dive.

3. Regulator freezing:

Risk: The regulator, which controls the airflow, may fail if it freezes in cold water.

Prevention: Choose a regulator specifically designed for cold-water diving with anti-freezing features. Store your regulator in a warm, dry place before and after diving. Before each dive, check and test your regulator to ensure it functions properly. Before submerging, avoid prolonged exhalations through the regulator to prevent ice formation.

4. Constant regulator flow:

Risk: Constant regulator flow occurs when it continues to release air even when you are not inhaling.

Prevention: Pay attention, and if you detect constant flow, close the valve of the bottle feeding the frozen regulator (hence the use of side mount) and switch to your other regulator. The best option is to abort the dive. Communicate your situation to the surface assistant using the previously agreed-upon emergency signal (usually five pulls on the rope).

In conclusion, polar diving is an extreme adventure that demands experience, physical and mental preparation, and the proper certification. It is not suitable for beginners or individuals with health issues, but if you dare to dive in the poles, you will live a unique and unforgettable experience at the ends of the Earth.