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Polar Diving – Taking the Cold Plunge Into Real Discovery

by Jon Lapidese Blog

If you’ve ever gone diving in warm, tropical waters you know how exciting that can be. In the ocean’s depths you’ll be met with an array of colors from schools of fish and the vibrant coral. In tropical waters, your biggest concern is the crowd of other divers exploring these waters along with you. But imagine diving in an environment where only a select few dare to venture. A place so unique only a special few divers have ever experienced its astonishing wonders. This is the magic, the challenge and the reward of polar diving.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica, Arctic

Highlights: Polar Diving

Polar Diving – Taking the Cold Plunge Into Real Discovery

If you’ve ever gone diving in warm, tropical waters you know how exciting that can be. In the ocean’s depths you’ll be met with an array of colors from schools of fish and the vibrant coral. In tropical waters, your biggest concern is the crowd of other divers exploring these waters along with you. But imagine diving in an environment where only a select few dare to venture. A place so unique only a special few divers have ever experienced its astonishing wonders. This is the magic, the challenge and the reward of polar diving.

The frigid waters of this setting breed a variety of marine life unseen elsewhere on the planet. The challenges here too are unmatched. However, for those who have planned and prepared themselves to take on this demanding and unexplored habitat, the benefits are immense.

The Rewards of Polar Diving

As noted, cold-water environments promote a variety of sea life and colors unseen in warmer waters. The combination of the frigid water, sunlight, and ice formations produces a dazzling display of colors and patterns uniquely its own.

Throughout the world, cold-water dives bring excitement for experienced divers willing to take the plunge. In British Columbia, you might spot giant Pacific Octopuses; in California pinnipeds and kelp forests. You may also come face to face with sea dragons, diving in Australia. However, probably the best cold water diving is to be found in the Polar Regions. Here you will be rewarded with sightings of sea squirts, squat lobsters, dogfish, and exotics such as sea butterflies and shrubby horsetails. Here you can even find yourself sharing the waters with seals. In the waters of Antarctica, it’s also common to dive alongside playful penguins.


Another bonus of cold water diving is the frigid preservation of ancient shipwrecks. From the Baltic Sea to the Nova Scotia coast, to the Great Lakes and Antarctica, there are untold undersea treasures to explore.

All undersea diving requires serious preparation and caution – cold water diving even more so. Great care must be taken to keep the body and its core warm at all times. Normal diving equipment may not function properly in temperatures that are just above freezing.


 

In polar diving, traditional wetsuits, even thicker ones, are usually not enough to keep the body warm and safe. Here, dry suits are de rigueur. These suits have sealing systems designed to keep the diver dry at all times. Cold-water regulators are specially designed to resist freezing and keep the flow of air properly controlled. If one wants to go hi-tech, there are now heated undergarments that will keep the body temperature at Caribbean-like levels.

Chill Out – Learning To Polar Dive

Right from the start, the cold-water diving experience is quite different from what tropical water divers are used to. The emphasis here is always on staying warm and not create a shock to the body. You need to allow your body to get used to the cold water gradually. Shore dives are ideal as they allow you to acclimate to the cold and allow your breathing rate to stabilize. In any event, it is best not to suddenly descend into cold water.

As frigid water can cause a regulator to free flow (air flows without being controlled), you need to practice handling this, should there be a malfunction. In addition, air-sharing drills with a buddy are important as a precaution against  a major malfunction.

Hypothermia is a constant danger in cold-water dives, so it is vital to recognize its signs and call off the dive should you suspect you are being affected.

As mentioned, dry suits are necessary in polar waters, so if you’re not familiar with this piece of equipment, you should take a course in dry suit techniques. Also, you’ll need to practice diving with a dry suit until you are comfortable with its extra bulk. If you have new equipment, be sure to do 5 or 6 dives in mild water to get used to it.


 

You will also need to carry extra weight to balance the additional buoyancy of the dry suit. You also may need thicker boots, and with that comes a larger fin.

Gearing Up

Here are some of the specific requirements for polar diving:

As in all cold weather, the layering principal is best for staying warm. In cold water diving, nothing is more important. Besides a dry suit, you’ll need at least two sets of warm undergarments. Depending on the water temperature and your own comfort level, you might even want to use three layers.

Polypropylene is best for the first layer as it wicks away moisture from your body. For the second layer, use thinsulate or fleece, as they are excellent insulators. A windproof shell is best for a third layer.

Besides the dry suit, the other essential piece of equipment is a freeze-protected regulator. Normal dive regulators may freeze in these frigid waters and begin to free flow. Not only is a freeze-protected regulator  a must, in polar waters we carry two as independent systems on twin cylinder outlets.


 

Other cold-water gear that you’ll need: A hood for your dry suit that includes a face seal. Gloves - thick neoprene gloves or mitts are essential , whilst many prefer dry gloves for maximum warmth.

Finally, make sure you have the dive gear you would normally use such as a stabilizing jacket, pressure gauge, depth gauge, compass, knife, mask, fins, snorkel and weight belt.   

The Dive Plan

All dives should have a thorough dive plan, but the challenges of a polar dive make this precaution even more important. As mentioned, it is vital to acclimatize to the cold water initially in shallow safe diving as opposed to a giant stride off a platform into deep water. Knowing how to comfortably move about in a dry suit with its extra buoyancy is essential. Also, you should know that diving in cold water can increase air consumption because of your increased heart rate and the body’s response to stay warm. And of course, you lose body heat much faster underwater than on land. This heat loss is exaggerated even more in cold-water dives.

Even normally easy tasks like replacing a mask underwater can be unexpectedly more difficult in cold water, where your fingers may get stiff. All of this means that every part of your dive must be anticipated. If events don’t go according to your plan, don’t hesitate to call off the dive.


 

Surface ice can be another hazard as it continually shifts. Your entry and exit points can quickly change so be vigilant of its movements.

Also, you need to be constantly alert to your body’s reactions to the cold or unexpected events. Hypothermia can slow your physical and mental processes, or those of your dive buddy’s, so always use caution as it can set in without warning.

After your dive, be ready to warm up quickly. Remove any wet garments and have warm clothes, a hat and gloves plus hot drinks ready to raise your body’s core temperature.

For the experienced diver, the rewards of Polar diving are worth the extra preparation and planning. Oceanwide Expeditions offers polar diving trips to Greenland, Svalbard and Antarctica. Join the experts who will take you to these exceptional diving locations for the adventure of a lifetime.

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