The Ice Divers: Pushing the Limits of Human Endurance
Image: NOOA

Abysmal depths, sub-zero temperatures, frozen lakes, icebergs… for many, reason enough to stay indoors with a good book and a hot cup of cocoa. For others, a reason to don their wet suits and gloves and to jump right into it – the colder, the better. Welcome to the cool world of ice diving!

Spearfishing in zero-degree temperatures:
Image: Rene Potvin

Ice diving is considered an advanced type of diving – some would say extreme – because it means diving in a closed environment with only one entry or exit point. This kind of diving without a direct, vertical ascent or access to the surface is called penetration diving, which also includes cave and wreck diving.

Ice divers in Hokkaido, Japan:
Ice diving in HokkaidoPhoto:
Image: Shiretoko

Needless to say, this makes ice diving more dangerous than recreational diving and requires special training. Ice divers need to know about different types of ice and how it forms; they need to be able to recognize and avoid unsafe ice conditions, and they need to know how to prepare a dive site and what special equipment they will require.

Going in our out? A sunny day while ice diving at Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada:
Sunny days make going under the ice even more specialPhoto:
Image: Warren Lo

There are various strategies for carving out the ice hole, here one with a runway:
The ice holePhoto:
Image: Chantelle Bennett Blanchard

Some ice divers wear a dry suit under their diving gear, but some prefer just a thicker wet suit. A hood and gloves are essential and some ice divers also wear a face mask to avoid any direct contact of the skin with the water that is usually 4 degrees Celsius or colder.

Hullo! All bundled up and happy:
An ice diver in full gear before going downPhoto:
Image: Seafilms

Each ice diver also wears a special harness so that one end of a rope can be secured to the diver and the other end to the surface. Ice diving is a team sport that requires support under the ice but also a safety diver on stand-by on the surface.

It’s reassuring to see the team! An ice divers view through the exit hole:
An ice diverPhoto:
Image: R. Todd Smith

Anyone toying with the idea of trying out ice diving should also know that each ice diver learns about what to do if the weight belt falls offs that’s keeping him or her under the ice. What would you do if you started ascending towards the ceiling of ice above, fast and beyond your control? Not panicking might be a good idea; that, and trying to impact the underside of the ice so that it breaks and allows for an exit point.

Safety drills and skills dives at Morrison’s Quarry in Wakefield, QC, Canada:
Ice diving in Wakefield, QC, CanadaPhoto:
Image: Chantelle Bennett Blanchard

In really cold climates, ice divers will also have to deal with frozen air supply systems – in which case hopefully a back-up system is available! Losing contact with the line can also be a problem that divers have to deal with.

How many people ice dive is hard to say, especially because it requires a team effort, but it is a sport that enjoys growing popularity, judging by the number of blogs and websites dedicated to the topic.

But apart from fun, ice diving is also undertaken to collect data for scientific research. According to the Scientific Diving Program website, 30 scientists dive each year as part of the US Antarctic Program and more than 4,800 scientific ice dives were logged between 2000 and 2005 alone.

A marine biologist ice diving near Rothera, a research station on the Antarctic peninsula:
A marine biologist ice diving near Rothera, a research station on the Antarctic peninsulaPhoto:
Image: Karen Elizabeth Webb

Fact is, once the initial temperature shock and claustrophobia subsides, it is an experience unlike many others. And it has fascinated enthusiasts since the days when the sport was even more adventurous due to specialized equipment that was then still in its infant stages.

The water sure is cold! Ice diving in the ’70s around London, Canada:
Ice diver in thePhoto:
Image: Alan Owen

Look at these pictures here from the ‘60s and ‘70s, the days of rubber wet suits, and the days when holes were cut into the ice with normal saws!

Right: Got you! Bottom left: A pensive moment in icy waters. Top left: Sawing out the ice in rubber wet suits.
Ice divers in thePhoto:
Images: Dan Barringer

Since those pioneering days, when even scuba diving was a real adventure, ice diving has come a long way. Professional courses and training excursions are available, so what are you waiting for?

Source: 1, 2, 3