When you think of scuba diving, the first thing that springs to mind is most likely someone swimming around an idyllic coral reef surrounded by schools of brightly colored fish.
What’s more, because coral reefs are found in some of the world’s most popular holiday destinations (the Bahamas, Mexico, and Thailand – just to name a few), for many of us, our first scuba experience is indeed around vibrant tropical reefs.
But what about when the holiday ends?
Well, for those of you living in cooler climates, you’ll be pleased to know that scuba diving isn’t all about diving in the tropics.
Although it might be a bit of a shock to the system at first, making the switch from a fair-weather diver to one that can handle all kinds of climates is definitely one worth making.
It opens up a whole new world of dive sites for you to explore, like shipwrecks, kelp forests, and even lakes. You’ll get to try out new bits of kit and special techniques, and, most importantly, it means you don’t have to wait until your next holiday to get your scuba fix!
Know your Environment
So, first things first, how cold are we talking?
If you’re used to diving in the tropics, then even some of the ‘warmer’ European diving destinations, such as the Canary Islands, will probably feel pretty frosty. And if you’re heading out to Germany for lake diving during the winter, then you’ll definitely feel the chill.
But if you’re brave enough to head out to Norway or Canada for some ice diving, then we’re talking a whole different level of cold…
The key is to know your environment so that you can be fully prepared for whatever climate you’ll encounter.
Make sure that you check out the water temperature in advance so you know what gear to pack and how to plan your dive (but more on that later) – and remember, temperatures can change dramatically throughout the year, so make sure that you check the right month! You should also spec out the air temperature – just because the water is cool, it doesn’t mean the air will be. For instance, in southern Portugal, air temperatures can be as high as 30°C in summer, yet the water can stay a nippy 20°C. So, you need to make sure you’ll be warm enough under the water AND that you won’t overheat on the way to the dive site.
Get the Right Kit
If you’ve been diving for a while, then you probably know what it’s like to get a bit cold under the water – even in the tropics you aren’t safe from those pesky thermoclines! And if not, you’ve definitely been cold on land before. Long story short, being cold is not fun. What’s more, it can be downright dangerous too.
The best way to make sure that you’re first cold-water diving experience is an enjoyable (and safe) one, is to make sure you have the right kit for the job.
In the tropics, most people tend to go for a 2/3mm shorty that will keep you warm underwater but won’t roast you on land. Some people run warm, and might just wear swimwear and a rash vest, while others run cold and might don a full suit (aka ‘longy’) instead.
Some people hate dry suits and want to try out cold-water diving without throwing another unknown in the mix. If you’re one of those people, then you’ll be glad to know that, if you’ll be diving in cool water (as opposed to freezing), then it’s possible to stick with a wetsuit.
For instance, when I went diving in Portugal recently, the water temperature was 16°C. I feel the cold (A LOT) but I was fine in a 7mm longy with a 5mm shorty on top – don’t forget about layering up! It wasn’t all thanks to the wetsuit though… I couldn’t have done it without my accessories.
You lose most body heat through your extremities, so keeping these areas warm should be your number one priority in cold water. A decent hood, pair of gloves, and dive booties really will make all the difference to your cold-water explorations (but they do take some getting used to).
People tend to go for dry suits when diving in water that dips below 14-20°C, depending on their tolerance to the cold. And if you’re ice diving, you really don’t have any choice of suit.
Although they’re expensive and far more technical than wetsuits, dry suits have some awesome benefits. First up, they keep you seriously warm. Like, seriously warm. You can dive in places you couldn’t dream of diving in a wetsuit, and be nice and toasty the entire time. On top of that, if you’re planning a multidive trip, it will keep you nice and warm during your interval and you won’t have to keep on changing.
If you’re interested I a dry suit, but don’t want to splash the cash before you’re sure, why not hire one from a dive store first so you can get a feel for it?
Although you can wear whatever you want underneath a dry suit, there are clothes out there specifically designed to keep you that bit warmer in super cold environments. Thermal trousers, leggings, vests (and even underwear) are all great ways to keep you insulated in icy places.
With colder water, there’s a greater chance that your regulator will freeflow. A great way to reduce the odds of this happening is to get yourself a regulator with an environmental seal. If you’re ice diving, you’ll definitely need this, and you shouldn’t breathe from your reg at the surface either.
Brush Up on your Skills and Problem Solving
Diving in cold water will feel different to diving in the tropics, but there are some simple things you can do to prep yourself for the change and any issues that might arise.
Check your Weights
Wearing all those layers that you aren’t used to will affect your buoyancy. So why not test out your kit in a pool before heading out into the open ocean?
Keep a Beady Eye on your Air
We know you do this already, but it’s extra important on your first few cold-water dives so you don’t get a nasty shock when you realize you’re low on air early.
If you’re worried about diving in cold water, why not practice a few things to build up your confidence. For instance, if you’re worried about your regulator freeflowing, then why not practice the regulator freeflow and buddy breathing skills before you head out?
Get to Know your Gear
If you’ve never worn them before, bear in mind that your hood can reduce your hearing, so make sure you take extra care to check above you for boats before you surface. What’s more, your usual fins might not fit with your boots on top, so try them on before heading out on any trips. Finally, gloves can make some skills a bit harder (like re-connecting your LPI), so you might want to play around with your gear with your gloves on dry land first.
Talk to your Buddy
If you tell your buddy your new to cold-water diving, then they’ll know to allow you extra time to get used to your gear and the temperature (and that your air supply might not last so long!).
Take it Slow
Don’t forget, there’s no need to rush. Even if you fancy ice diving one day, you can still ease yourself into the world of cold-water diving, giving you time to acclimatize and get to grips with your gear.
Adapt your Plan
Some parts of dive planning are the same wherever you are, but there are a few things you should bear in mind when diving in cold places.
Gently warming up will raise your body temperature slightly, which is a great way to get it prepped for cold environments (you don’t want any muscles to seize up when the cold hits you!). What’s more, it will also limber you up for lugging around all that gear (yepp, cold water diving does require more gear…).
Dress Up in Time
When diving in cooler places, you can’t just sit back on a boat in your bikini and shove on a wetsuit right before you splash into the water. If the air temperature is cold, you’ll need to put your wetsuit(s) or drysuit on in advance. Plus, your extra accessories will take a while to put on, so allow plenty of time so that you don’t hold up your fellow divers!
Stay Well Fueled
When diving in cold places, your body will use up more energy keeping you warm, so it’s more important than ever to keep up your strength. Eat well before a dive (but not too soon before!) and take snacks with you.
Sometimes people forget to hydrate in cooler climates without the sun as a fierce reminder – but you’ll still be exercising so it’s important. Hot drinks will keep you hydrated and warm, so they’re a definite winner.
Reduce your Bottom Time
You’ll get through your air quicker in cool water, especially during your first few dives when everything is new. So, don’t be overambitious – surface earlier and keep a larger air reserve than usual until you know your limits.
So, as we’ve seen cold water-diving is very different from diving in the tropics. You’ll need to plan it carefully, familiarize yourself with some new gear, and maybe even brush up on a few skills before you head out into open water.
It might take some getting used to, but once you’re kitted out and know the score, you’ll be able to explore some of the most remote places on our planet, no matter what the weather!