What's it like to learn ice diving?

If you want to improve your dive skills and are up for a challenge that is both mental and physical, think about taking an ice diving course.

If you are claustrophobic then diving in a location where your only access to the surface is via a hole in the ice is not for you. But, if the idea of this does not freak you out, if you have good skills and are very comfortable in the water, then you may find learning to ice-dive one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of your diving life.

Of course, the specific details of the course will vary depending where you decide to go to do your training.

These notes from a class run by the Arctic Circle Dive Centre on the White Sea in the North West of Russia, where the sea freezes over from February to April every year.

Heading for the Dive Sites

The journey every day to the dive sites is an adventure by itself! You climb into what could best be described as a snow train, consisting of hand-built wooden sleigh boxes pulled by snowmobiles. These transport both people and gear across the ice floe and then up over the hills to neighbouring bays on a narrow track through a snow-flecked, pine-tree-lined winter wonderland. Each dive site is marked by a collection of huts parked next to a series of triangular man-made holes in the sea ice. Yes, triangular holes, rather than round holes, so it is easier for divers to get in and out of the water. Changing is done in the huts, each of which has a gas heater to keep you warm while you dress and undress. When it is your turn to dive, you squeeze yourself out of the doorway fully dressed carrying your fins and mask and head for the nearest hole where your instructor is waiting.

Diving Under Ice

You dive using a single cylinder equipped with a dual outlet valve. Your main regulator is attached to one outlet. Your octopus is on a separate first stage and is attached to the other outlet. This is for safety reasons. If one regulator starts to free flow during the dive, you can reach behind you to switch off the valve outlet that it is attached to, so that you do not lose all your air. You then abort the dive breathing from the regulator that is not free flowing. Each regulator has its own contents gauge and it is good practice to have your BCD inflator attached to one regulator and your drysuit inflator to the other. You must wear a drysuit with an ice-hood and dry-gloves. Don’t even think about ice diving in a wetsuit. No matter how many millimetres of neoprene you are enveloped in, it will not be enough.

Surface dive assistants secure lines to you and your dive team. These lines ensure that you all stay together and in constant contact with the surface assistants. They are by far the most important people in the whole operation. Apart from other tasks, they make sure the hole you have to exit through does not ice up while you are underwater. Then you put your fins and mask on and drop into the hole. Hold on to the ice and dip your face into the water. Only then do you put the regulator in your mouth. If you were to breathe from the regulator in the MINUS 20 degree air above the water, the moisture from your breath would turn to ice in the second stage and the regulator would malfunction.

You deflate your bcd and drysuit, exhale gently and ease yourself down and to the side, wedging yourself gently just under the ice shelf. There you pause to acclimatise yourself to the conditions and run a gear and air check, switching regulators and checking both pressure gauges to ensure cylinder valves are fully open. Then after exchanging signals with your team, you set off. It is an unreal experience to see the ice from beneath. Underwater, the ice forms fantastic sculptures and the sunlight passing through sends refracted rays plunging into the dark depths. There is life down there too. Fish do not hibernate when it gets cold, although they do slow down. So stay alert and look around you as well as up at the ice show.

A Cautionary Note

Sometimes you pass beneath holes that have been used for earlier dives. Although you may be able to see through them clearly, nevertheless the thin layer of ice that has covered the holes since they were made might as well be made of concrete. You could try and punch your way through it but it would be impossible! This is a good reminder of how diving under frozen seas is not an activity to be taken lightly. But what a challenge it is for the adventurous diver!