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Two ice diving scuba divers
Ice diving upside down

– Public Domain

This is an introduction to scuba diving under the ice, how you get started and what you can expect from the experience.

When the weather turns cold, many scuba divers hang up their kit and hibernate for the winter.

It doesn’t need to be like that, though, as we’ve already described here on DIVEIN.com.

One of the ways to keep diving throughout the winter is ice diving, which demands very specific considerations but it’s worth it. The clear waters and the beauty of the stillness under an ice floe are some of the attractions for an ice diver.

In this introduction, we’ll take you through the basics of getting started on taking the cold plunge under the ice. 

Ice diving is an advanced form of technical diving that takes place in situations where the surface of the body of water you’re diving in has frozen solid.

Because of this, ice diving is happening in a place with a frozen ceiling that prevents you from surfacing in case you run low on air or if some other form of emergency presents itself. It’s, therefore, both exciting for some scuba divers and more dangerous than your average recreational dive.

Where Do I Find Ice Diving Courses?

Ice diving is an advanced form of diving that shouldn’t be undertaken without proper training. All of the major organizations have ice diving courses, and these are highly recommended. Getting certified by experienced instructors will give you a chance to find out more about what could go wrong in order to avoid having to try it for yourself. 

Some ice diving scuba clubs insist on you having at least your advanced open water certification in order to start your ice diving specialty course. Good buoyancy control is a necessary skill so judge for yourself if you’re ready. 

Despite the conventional wisdom that exists for everybody’s well-being, some divers may forge on into the ice without certification. Fair enough. Just consider these ideas before hopping in with your tropical leisure suit.

First, dive with experienced ice divers on your first outings. This will allow you to learn from others’ experiences while increasing your own.

Also, consider starting you ice diving early in the season, where you can dive under a thin layer of ice that can be broken with relative ease in case you need to crash through the surface in a pinch. In this scenario, the entry and exit need to take place from shore when ice this thin will not support the weight of the diver or the surface crew.

Ice diving is a truly unique type of diving, that offers experiences that no other form of scuba diving can. All diving requires consideration for conditions into which you descend. And like any dive, if you’ve got the fundamentals down there are no worries. Ice diving is no different.

Where Can I go Ice Diving?

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.

Speaking of Antarctica it’s worth mentioning McMurdo Sound, voted top ice diving site. Only diveable during Antarctica’s summer, this 34 mile long and wide stretch of water has clear waters with up to 900 feet visibility! This is great given the unique megafauna present and strange creatures not found anywhere else: penguins, leopard seals, squid, etc.

Read more about McMurdo Sound

Equipment and Planning for Diving Under the Ice

Needless to say, ice diving takes place in very cold environments, so all equipment used must be suited for this. And a good portion of special equipment is also needed. We’re going to run this down for you very thoroughly as the difference between a good experience and a bad can come down to something as meager as an extra pair of socks.

Surface kit

Both the divers and the surface crew (more on these later) need to dress appropriately for the cold weather on the surface. Dressing in layers, including head protection and gloves, will be a necessity in most situations.

And making a plan for how and where the diver will change into dry clothes and warm up following the dive is another key element. In some cases, simply being able to step out of a dry suit and get into a heated car is sufficient planning, but in other cases, heated shelters or something similar may be needed onshore. Consider setting up the day before to simplify your tasks on the dive day.

Dive Gear for the Ice Diver

There are some small additions to the gear needed for ice diving. Many dive centers will rent out ice diving gear, but because the market for winter scuba diving isn’t as robust as during the warmer months, you may have to invest in Drysuits are a key piece of kit, a critical and absolutely necessary component to staying warm. Hoods and gloves that are adequately warm are important, too, and here dry versions of both can be considered. Adequately warm means adequately thick. Check to see that there are no holes in the suit. A quick-release BCD, torch (due to lack of light during the winter and under the ice), and vasoline are recommended items.

Here’s What To Look For When Buying A Dry Suit.

Wetsuits can also be used as long as both the hood and the gloves are at least 5 mm thick. Since your fingers are vulnerable to the cold the gloves should be the three-finger version or semi-dry.

As ice diving happens within an essentially confined environment, double tanks should be used, and all regulators should be cold water certified and well-serviced to avoid freezing and free-flowing.

Ice divers are typically tethered, with a lifeline tied to a harness worn on top of the drysuit, but underneath the BC unit. This allows for easy communication and re-location in case of an emergency.

Ice diving with harness

A diver with a lifeline safely surfaces – Credit: Tatiana Belova

Ice penetration kit

A snow shovel is usually necessary to clear snow before breaking through the ice. And once the ice is cleared, an ice saw or chainsaw is often necessary to cut through the ice and make an entry/exit hole. You can use an ax but it’ll take longer to penetrate the ice.

Ice Diving Procedures – teamwork makes it safe

Ice diving is a team sport that requires more than just the diver, but also a surface crew. Often, the diver will enter the water alone, but be tethered to the surface and the exit hole through the lifeline mentioned above. A line tender stands by the exit hole and feeds line and reels it in as needed.

Sometimes a strong current can conceal itself under the ice, presenting the diver with a nasty surprise. This is where experience comes in handy and someone who knows the waters into which you’re jumping is wise until you get some experience of your own.

A system of communication is used between the diver and the line tender, typically one tug for OK (used by both the diver and the tender, similar to the “OK” sign in SCUBA hand signals), two tugs for “take in rope”, and a series of rapid tugs used to signal an emergency. If this happens, the tender immediately starts reeling in the rope, pulling the diver towards the exit.

Ice diving signals

An ice diver ready with an OK signal – Credit: Public Domain

A fully equipped safety diver should be standing by at the surface, with a line tethered to him/her. In case of an emergency, the safety diver can jump in and come to the aid of the ice diver.

In addition to these roles, other surface crew members might be there to assist the diver when exiting and in getting out of the dive kit and getting warmed up afterward. As well as keeping their eyes open for any shifts in the ice that may pose a threat for the diver or other members of the team.

Gas management should be a major priority, using the same rules as in other overhead environments like cave diving, typically one third for the swim out, one third for the swim back, and one third for backup.

To really appreciate ice diving check out the shenanigans of these crazy Finns who play at being upside down during an ice dive in the dead of winter.

Check out the video, made by a group of Finnish divers: