Diving with penguins
One of the most extreme scuba diving experiences is diving under the sea ice. If you can stand these sub-freezing temperatures, then you can enjoy some of the cleanest waters in the world.
The first dive under ice dates back to 1902. The brave man was Willy Heinrich, a German carpenter who was part of the Gauss Expedition, the first German expedition to Antarctica. Lisa Eareckson Kelley, a member of the United States Antarctic Program, records in her book ‘The Antarctic Dive Guide’ that ice diving was practised as long as 100 years ago. Divers back then used to wear very heavy suits and their helmets were made of bronze. Nowadays conditions have improved vastly, including sophisticated communications systems, decompression tables, temperature controls and other body parameters. These are the resources that enable you to practise one of the most extreme forms of diving: what hasn’t changed is the temperature beneath the ice, which normally doesn’t rise above 2 or 3ºC. There are even some exceptional temperatures of below zero. French photographer and diver Alexandre Voyer planned to swim in the icy waters for two hours, but had to abandon his project. The thermometer showed -2ºC. “The first five minutes in the water were the worst, especially my head – I have never been so cold before” he said.
Ice dives do not usually exceed 30 minutes.
The United States’ McMurdo Station in the Antarctic is considered to be the best place in the world to practise ice diving. You can only dive between September and February, as the rest of the year temperatures drop to -40ºC. Under the ice the water is the clearest in the world, offering a visibility of 300 metres.
At McMurdo Station the ice can reach a thickness of 3 metres.
The most ‘professional’ version of this discipline is practised in Greenland, Switzerland and Russia. These are the meccas for skilled divers. Diving among icebergs in Greenland, swimming alongside whales in the icy waters of the Russian White Sea, or entering the ice tunnels of Switzerland’s Lake Sassolo are not adventures to suit everyone’s lungs. In fact, in Greenland you are only allowed to go ice diving in the company of an instructor who acts as a guide and you must also hold a PADI OWA scuba diving certificate.
Beginners dive down to a depth of up to 20 metres.
For those who lack experience and wish to dive in and discover what’s under the ice, there are other alternatives. Many ski and mountain resorts are adding this option to their programme of activities. In a controlled area they open a small hole in the ice for supervised dives. This is the case with the Evolution 2 ski and adventure school, based near Tignes Lake (France), which is located a little over two hours from Geneva and is connected by a high-speed train link. At an altitude of 2,100 metres, this ice diving school welcomes both amateur divers and experts who are preparing polar expeditions. Its founders learned their trade at the North Pole and in Greenland. It is open from the beginning of December to the middle of April and offers safe, supervised diving. The thickness of the ice in this area varies according to the time of year, but the minimum is around 50 centimetres, so it’s best not to look up.