Why you should care
This might be the world’s most counterintuitive sport.
In the coldest depths of winter, many of us would rather snuggle up in front of the fireplace or bake enough cookies to survive a nuclear holocaust. Sporty types might prefer to head for the ski slopes. And then there are those who want to head to a frozen lake and jump in it — just for fun.
Scuba diving in winter — we’re talking under ice — is a sport of brave souls who see the freezing cold and pitch-dark waters as an attraction and not a deterrent. And so they climb to the top of the Swiss Alps, fly to Iceland or even travel to the icy vastness of Antarctica to practice this unreasonable winter sport. These trips are not the easiest to organize, since they often involve expensive travel fares and require professional support — from $100 a dive to $1,000 in extreme locations — and involve very small groups of people. But exclusivity and isolation are the whole point.
Lake waters are much clearer and quieter in winter than at any other time during the year.
What’s the appeal? Apparently, the view is superb. “The atmosphere of the light through the ice is amazing,” says Florine Quirion, a 30-year-old French diver and author of the blog World Adventure Divers, who first dived under ice in Switzerland a year ago. “I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the amazing blue glow around the hole in the ice,” she recalls.
Lake waters are also much clearer and quieter in winter than at any other time during the year because there are fewer plants and animals. And it’s that promise of a lunar landscape and an outer-space feeling that prompts scuba-diving aficionados to brave the average -24 F temperatures of Alpine waters from December to March.
It’s quite a surreal image: people clumsily walking around a snow-covered mountain lake like stranded penguins. They need to carry their heavy oxygen tanks and coldproof scuba gear, a good dry suit, rope, warm gloves and cap and a regulator that won’t freeze in cold water — otherwise they could lose most of the air in a matter of seconds. While their appearance may seem comical, winter diving requires a lot of expertise and a healthy dose of bravado.
For starters, imagine being under a thick ceiling of ice with your only escape through a small hole above — not ideal for claustrophobics. And the dangers of ice diving are serious. “Unsafe diving practices can leave people under the ice with no air,” says Andrea Zaferes, an ice diving safety expert and Red Cross instructor. Other risks include entanglement and entrapment between the ice and the lake bottom in overly shallow water, she says. That’s why dives are rarely longer than 30 minutes: to avoid hypothermia. Experts insist ice diving should always be done with proper support and training.
So, it’s not your casual dive to see some colorful fish in the Red Sea. Ice diving is technical, physically demanding and, most of all, cold. Still, in this hypercomfortable, overstimulating world of ours, maybe it would be worth a bit of bone chill for a chance to enjoy some real peace and quiet.