Interesting facts about ice diving

Ice diving is one of the most adventurous scuba specialties. Learn the roles and responsibilities of support personnel, tenders and safety divers. See beauty few others ever experience.

It is one of the most adventurous types of diving out there and is a great way to try something completely different. It is challenging, takes extra preparation, and is different from most recreational dive types. As a result of this, it gives divers new skills whilst improving upon existing ones and also improves diver confidence in the water. It is a team sport and offers the chance to learn ice diving procedures, such as under-ice communication, and how to work as an ice diving team.

Ice diving is an opportunity to dive sites that may not be accessible or visible during warmer seasons. It also gives a different perspective to a dive site regularly explored during warmer months.

Ice diving is possible anywhere it’s cold enough to freeze the water! Since saltwater has a lower freezing temperature, lakes often make for prime diving in the winter. Currents will often be a little kinder under the ice in a lake too.

Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the United States have regular ice diving traditions with dive centers catering to beginners. If you’re looking ahead something spectacular then you can consider taking PADI’s Polar Specialty Course, which can only be done in Greenland, Spitsbergen and Antarctica.

Ice diving typically has one entry/exit hole. The most obvious hazards of ice diving are getting lost under the ice and hypothermia (which is why it is of great importance to invest in high quality thermal protection). Your ice dive team is comprised of: a buddy to dive under the ice together, a 90% dressed diver as a backup, the primary tender for the team and the backup’s tender. Divers are tethered to the surface with a line and wear a separate harness from their BCD. The line is controlled by the tender and hooke at the end by an anchor (like an ice screw or heavy object that can’t be pulled into the hole by the divers).

The most obvious hazards of ice diving are getting lost under the ice, hypothermia, and regulator failure due to freezing. Scuba divers are generally tethered for safety. This means that the diver wears a harness to which a line is secured, and the other end of the line is secured above the surface and monitored by an attendant. Surface supplied equipment inherently provides a tether, and reduces the risks of regulator first stage freezing as the first stage can be managed by the surface team, and the
breathing gas supply is less limited. For the surface support team, the hazards include freezing temperatures and falling through thin ice.

Dry suits are special scuba suits made to keep water from entering. Using a good dry suit instead of a wet suit can be important for comfort and safety when ice diving.

The first dive in Antarctica was made in 1902 by Willy Heinrich, the carpenter on Drygalski’s 1901–03 expedition. He used a large brass Siebe diving helmet, stiff canvas suit, and heavy lead boots, while supplied with air from the surface. Utilizing this elementary diving gear, Heinrich was able to dive under Drygalski’s expedition vessel Gauss while she was frozen in the ice, carrying out ship repairs such as caulking of the hull. Heinrich was the pioneer of Antarctic diving, and one of the few divers to explore under the sea ice. Most of his diving peers chose the less risky option of staying in open water due to known problems with safely accessing and exploring under the frozen sea.

It was not until 1946 during the US Navy’s pioneering visit to Antarctica, ‘Operation High Jump,’ that diving became widely publicized. During this operation, divers went down to conduct fuel pipeline inspections, and one document even mentions repair of the submarine Stennet near the Ross Ice Shelf. However, despite being much more common place, diving still involved the cumbersome affair of suiting up in a heavy dry suit and large brass helmet, supplied by air either from the surface or a primitive re-breather system.

Through the 1950s diving continued to be an awkward project, and although scientists and navy personnel from both the United States and Australia occasionally used diving to collect underwater specimens, it was not the preferred practice. The scientists who did endeavor to dive for specimens, did so from shore, using bulky gear that made conducting the necessary work difficult and exhausting, causing a realization that the actual gain was not worth the effort.

Finally, in 1961 a breakthrough was made: the first open circuit SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) dive was made in McMurdo Sound. In conjunction with a project to test a sea ice eroding device called the ‘Aqua Therm,’ Jim Thorne and Donald Johnson made one dive. They used the newest advancement in dry suits, moving away from the old stiff suits, and opting for a more flexible version. These new dry suits had rubberized neck seals and allowed compressed air to be pumped into the suit for an extra layer of warmth.