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A Different Kind of Destination: Ice Diving

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When I was asked to write an article about a dive destination it put me in a bit of a quandary. I will admit that even though I’ve been to Bonaire, Jamaica, Monterey California, the Florida Keys, and dived on wrecks in Lake Erie and in the St. Lawrence River, I have not traveled as extensively as many. But the destinations I have been to are no less interesting in that they often times present special challenges as seen here. This is one of my favorite destinations so far in my diving career. This is ice diving!

This is a photo of the preparations for some of my most memorable dives. A frozen quarry in Muncie, Indiana USA. The weather was a bright sunny day with little wind and a surface temperature right around 32 degrees F or 0 Celsius. Muncie is a 5 – 6 hour drive from my home. It seems even longer when much of that is over roads covered with snow. I made this trip in January of 2009 to take part in and receive training and certification to dive under the ice. Ice diving presents special challenges in addition to the cold. First of all it is an overhead environment. But unlike a cave or wreck, diving under the ice tends to give one a new appreciation for overheads. It did me. You see in the photo a person shoveling what appears to be a path in the snow. This path serves several purposes. First it allows light to shine through, second is that there will be a number of these paths shoveled out from the hole that is cut to serve as guidelines back to the hole should the tether come undone. Finally in the event a diver does become lost they give the searchers a chance to spot the diver through the ice. The last for me was important since not only can they see us but we can see them from below. When you can look up from 40 or 50 feet and see someone walking over you and realize at the same time that if something went wrong there is little they could do to help, you appreciate the overhead restrictions just that much more.

As you can see from the above photo the lines radiate from the hole in a pattern not unlike a snowflake. As much as it is a stark reminder of the barrier between the diver and the surface it also lends a type of beauty to the dive. When I looked out in front of me the sun was coming down though the ice like curtains of light that we would pass through as we swam.

I arrived in Muncie on Friday and spent the next two nights at the home of our agency CEO, Tom Leaird. He and his wife welcomed me into their home as one of the family. The next day we drove over to his dive shop and I met my buddy for the dives that would take place on Sunday. Ice diving is a segment of the sport that requires a great deal of preparation. Starting at 8 in the morning we covered all the aspects of venturing under the ice on scuba. Class went on until nearly 5 PM with a few breaks and lunch. I need to stop here and just make a note of how important eating is when ice diving. The body burns a great many calories doing this and it recommended that beginning the day before the actual dives the diver take in a minimum of 5000 calories! This may be difficult for some who are not used to eating like this but it is necessary. Even at the dive site food is available in large quantities and is always hot. Speaking of the surface a great deal of support is required for diving under the ice. As seen in the next photograph, a fair number of people are required to conduct a safe ice class. The class itself had 15 divers from many areas participating. There was even a fire dept rescue team as part of the action. Some hardy souls were even diving in wetsuits. I may be called a wimp but if the water is colder than 65 degrees I’m in a drysuit!

It makes it easier when divers have assistance gearing up for dive. Just putting gloves on can be a two man job. Beverly was grateful that Hanna was there to assist as even in the cold air a drysuit can start to feel confining and even get warm with the sun beating down on it. Getting into the frigid water starts to sound pretty good! The panel truck in the background contains two heaters from a school bus that keep it at about 90 degrees F. This is necessary to warm divers between dives. All of this was covered in great detail in class as well as the procedures for manning the lines we were tethered to. Following the classroom portion we ventured over the local YMCA for pool training. This consisted of drills with blacked out masks, being tied to a line, and my favorite exercise. This was where a maze was constructed of lines run vertically the length of the pool. Another line was threaded through this and fastened to our ice belt. We were then given a blacked out mask and instructed to thread our way back through the maze while the tender took up slack in the line we were fastened to. Talk about task loading! This was one of the most difficult and rewarding exercises of my dive career.

The next day was dive day. This was to be my first time under the ice. I admit freely to being a bit nervous and excited. Anytime I enter a new environment there is excitement. The first time on a shipwreck in the Great Lakes was no different. But this is not a wreck. This is a dive in an overhead with cold temperatures and the realization that a mistake here, even with all the precautions that are taken, can have deadly results. Entering the water is a team effort. A giant stride is out of the question as it too dangerous and presents a hazard to the surface support team.

Here I am seated at the actual hole getting ready to enter the water. My buddy is already in the water waiting for me. The chief instructor is doing a final check on my air as another diver hooks up my safety line. This line is hooked to another line that lies coiled in the plastic tub that is by the ladder. It is imperative that lines not be allowed to lie on the ice. In addition to being a trip hazard the line is wet and could freeze onto the ice creating a risk to the divers if the tender were unable to feel the tugs we use to communicate with them. Another line runs from this to my buddy’s harness to keep us from getting separated. There is roughly 12 feet of line between us as we swim. For those used to same ocean type buddy diving this could be an issue. I was fortunate in that my dive buddy was another instructor from Tennessee who knew what she was doing. Beverly was a great person to be teamed up with. Our skill levels and dive styles meshed well. Most of all I trusted her to be able to assist in any emergency and the feeling was mutual. Our two dives each lasted nearly 30 minutes and that is no small feat in 38 degree water! The first dive we were led by another instructor (lots of instructors there that day teaching and taking the class) who went over basic skills and air shares as we hovered near a pipe that was horizontal in the water. At this level of diving all skills should be done hovering and in midwater. After a brief review of these we went on a “tour” of the quarry. For a quarry dive it was very nice as there are a number of attractions including a debris field that is used to simulate a wreck for underwater archaeology classes. A unique feature at any training site.

Exiting the water is also not as easy as an ocean dive from a boat or dock. There you simply slip your fins on your wrists, grab the ladder and climb out. The addition of a heavy steel tank, a drysuit, and the added weight required make it a bit more challenging. Not to mention a surface that is ice and very slick. A fall is a distinct possibility if you are not careful.

On this dive after surfacing a helper was there to assist me with my fins. It was then a matter of climbing a ladder and stepping onto a slab of ice while still being secured to the tether. The next dive we had no ladder and the exit was more like an awkward seal flopping onto the ice while a surface support person hauled on the tank valve. Not exactly graceful but very effective! It is difficult to describe the feeling of being under the ice. What I can tell you is that the visibility is incredible. What is normally a quarry with 20-25 feet of visibility in the regular season dramatically turns into a body of water with nearly triple that. From a depth of 55 feet we could clearly see the surface and people on the ice. The horizontal visibility was easily 75 feet and we could see the freshwater sponges on the walls and the fish that were slowed by the cold water from a great distance. Ice diving is not for everyone make no mistake. It is more than just an advanced type of dive. Some agencies classify it as a technical dive because of the overhead and I agree with this assessment. Anytime you cannot make a direct ascent to the surface it is a technical dive that requires training and experience. It is also unique in that it is not available to everyone. Ice requires cold weather and many divers in tropical or just plain warm climates will never see ice on a body of water let alone dive under it. In many cases the dives are done in lakes and quarries that are not thought of as destinations in the traditional sense. But when you think about it what is a destination? Everyone has their own idea of what that is. For me every dive is a destination if I choose to make it one. And isn’t that what diving is supposed to be? No matter where you are it may be that a destination dive is just around the corner if you choose to make it one. My particular destination on that weekend in January was in an ice covered quarry among good friends, great divers, and an amazing experience I’ll be taking part in again in 2011. I will be heading back there for the ice. Only this time it will not be as student but as an instructor assisting with the class. It is part of the requirements I must meet to teach entire class myself. But even that is somewhat misleading as a good ice class is a team effort and a great one even more so put on by a group of instructors acting a team. And if you choose to do one of these classes you also may look up and see what I saw in the photo below. The triangular shape is the hole and the lines radiating and pointing back towards it show the way to the surface, fresh air, hot chocolate and best of all a little concoction called “sippin chili” that warms you from the inside out. The perfect end to a couple of great dives! For more info on this or to even join me on one of these dives as a student contact me via this site.

By James Lapenta

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  • Lars Hemel said:

    Hello Diverdude,

    Have you ever been to Iceland, it is the ice diving destination in Europe with some great wildlife and other underwater sights. Did you see anything exceptional there?

    Cheers Lars

  • Andrey Bobkov said:

    Hello Diverdude,

    I invite you and other fellow-divers interested in ice diving to Irkutsk, Russia. Lake Baikal is a fabulous destination in April: the ice is still as thick as 1-1,5 meters, it is crystal-clear, so being underwater you can actually see people standing on the ice!
    We usually go on an ice-safari of the lake and travel all the way to the Olkhon island, because the ice is unusually beautiful there. I have some awesome pictures to share, do get in touch and I will e-mail them to you. I am now writing an article about ice diving in the Baikal. It will be available both on my web-site and in my Facebook profile.

    Best regards,
    Andrey Bobkov


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