The Call From Beneath the Ice – What Is Ice Diving and Why Is It So Popular?

As you can probably guess from the name, ice diving involves diving in ice-cold water for either recreational, scientific, or commercial reasons.

Because it is such a unique experience, ice diving can hardly be compared to any other craft or sport, no matter how extreme or dangerous. Despite the risk involved, this activity is also incredibly popular by most standards.

So what is ice diving, why is it suddenly so popular, and who exactly engages in such a seemingly dangerous activity?

To answer these questions, we should probably delve into some of the reasons behind what makes ice diving not only exciting but useful as well. And while we’re at it, we’ll also dig into why so many people are drawn to this unique and thrilling hobby in the first place.

what is ice diving

Why Do People Ice Dive?

This is actually a much more complex question than people realize. If you ask an experienced professional – “Why do you ice dive?” – the answer might surprise you.

For some, it’s all about the unique and peculiar nature of this activity. The thrill one feels after diving beneath an icy surface is unlike anything else. It’s about discovery. For these divers, there’s a whole new world hiding beneath the ice, filled with wonders you could only dream about. 

There are also the professionals. These are people who will dive beneath the ice at a moment’s notice to execute a rescue operation or to retrieve a valuable asset or artifact that needs to be recovered quickly.

Whatever the reason, the people who venture into the icy deep are all seeking something. That may be a stranded diver, a piece of valuable equipment, an old wreck, or some endangered marine fauna that needs photographing. And if you’re thinking about ice diving, it means that you’re probably looking for that special something yourself.

How Does Ice Diving Work?

The first thing you need to understand about ice diving is that it’s a lot more complicated than regular diving, For starters, ice diving is a team effort whereas scuba diving can be done with one or two people if they are sufficiently experienced.

A Team Effort

Because it is a team effort, ice diving requires a reliable team and good teamwork to go with it. Most ice diving teams are made up of at least four people but can be as big as six or more. 

As a team effort, ice diving involves two divers who actually go underwater and two line tenders on the surface to mind the lines. Diving beneath ice presents a unique set of challenges for divers, including keeping track of the safety line (for when the diver needs to resurface on short notice).

The Entry Point

Once your dive team is on location, you’ll have to make an entry point at the dive site. People usually pick a place where the ice is at least a foot thick before proceeding to cut the hole.

You can cut a hole in the ice either by using an ice saw, a chainsaw, or any other penetrating tool that can get the job done. Bear in mind that the most popular entry holes are usually made in the shape of a triangle with 6-feet wide edges for easy entry.


The next step involves setting up the tether and safety lines. Since most ice diving endeavors make use of a single entry point, you will only have to set this up once.

Know that the spare lines are usually coiled up or laid out straight on the ice with no other contraptions involved. It is also common for people to come up with a dive plan at this part of the preparation process.

With that out of the way, the dive site preparation process usually includes a test dive from the safety diver to ensure that water visibility is optimal and that there aren’t any immovable obstacles that might get in the way.

Safety Protocols

Safety protocols are paramount when you’re ice diving, more so than any other type of diving. For instance, air supply management needs to be properly assessed as do the safety lines.

If you’re doing a bit of wreck diving or exploring an elaborate cave system, you should probably manage your air supply to only use a third of your air as you go in, a third for the exploration, and another third for coming back safe.

Because of how dangerous ice diving can get, a dive team should always have a set of emergency procedures to adhere to, along with all the medical equipment they can carry.

How Cold Is Ice Diving?

It’s probably obvious that with ice diving, the temperatures can get pretty low indeed. The diving temperature in Antarctica is usually around 0°C (32 °F) while Arctic temperatures typically range between 5°C (41 °F) and 0°C (32 °F).

It should also be obvious that extremely cold temperatures have a damaging effect on equipment as well. For instance, prior to diving, regulators must be kept warm and free of any moisture in order to avoid freezing over. 

What Do You Wear For Ice Diving?

Due to the hazardous nature of ice diving, only the best quality gear will suffice. Keep in mind that most scuba diving gear isn’t really built for colder environments and that it takes some elegant engineering to design equipment for an environment such as this.

  • Warm clothes – You need warm clothes for surface activities, way before you get to the actual diving. Also, you will have to ensure that you have warm clothes waiting for you when you resurface. With the water temperature being close to freezing, you absolutely must have a warm change of clothing ready to go when you exit the water.
  • A dry suit – A dry suit is essential when diving in any cold water environment, not just ice diving. This kind of suit will also provide you with a lot more mobility in and out of the water, and is essential to preventing hypothermia.
  • A scuba hood – You need a scuba hood to keep your head well-insulated from the cold. Human beings lose half their body heat through their heads, so the importance of a decent scuba hood cannot be understated.

Is Ice Diving A Sport?

If you think about it, ice diving showcases all the attributes of an extreme sport, with a unique set of requirements and conditions.

Some people have come to call it ‘winter diving’ and that definitely fits the bill when thinking about casual and sports diving. On the other hand, there’s so much more to ice diving than just having fun, and you shouldn’t only see it as a hobby.

Given the complexity of ice diving and the many purposes it serves, we cannot definitively claim ice diving to be a sport or not. Let us instead refer to it as a team diving activity for good measure.

Benefits of Ice Diving

Not many people realize that cold water diving can offer real health benefits when done regularly and responsibly. For instance, swimming in cold water is well-known to boost your immune system. The benefits of cold water immersion on the immune system have been studied thoroughly over the years.

Diving in cold water can also improve your circulation considerably, and not just in the short term. It’s true that diving in water of any temperature can increase your circulatory health, but icy water can do this much more efficiently.

We should also point out that ice diving can help you burn calories and reduce stress if you do it often enough. The reason why this happens is because cold water forces your body to increase core temperature, burning calories and fat in order to build heat. Cold-water diving can even stimulate your body’s digestion and blood flow, even if with only intermittent dive sessions.

Practical Uses For Ice Diving

Apart from the exhilarating experience that some ice divers undoubtedly seek out when they choose this activity, there are several practical benefits to consider.

For starters, biologists often take ice diving courses in order to study elusive marine life up close – like polar bears! These creatures rarely attack humans when they’re in the water, which makes them way easier to study during an ice dive.

The recovery of precious artifacts and valuable equipment is another one of many ice diving benefits. While it isn’t all that difficult for companies to find commercial divers to recover any valuable equipment that they lose in warmer waters, the situation changes dramatically whenever they misplace technology at the bottom of a frozen lake. An experienced ice diver comes in handy in situations like these.

Also, people suffer accidents when they’re out at sea, from time to time. When a boat capsizes in the frozen north, it’s always professional ice divers that get called to lend a helping hand.

The Equipment

The quality of your equipment plays a very important role when diving. Whether you are scuba diving In temperate waters or deep diving near the Arctic circle, you must place a heavy importance on the quality of your diving gear.

  • Exposure suit – An exposure suit should be seen as a vital piece of ice diving equipment, one that can be life saving in extreme temperature environments. The drysuit is a type of exposure suit that is meant for situations where water temperature approaches freezing.
  • Dive gloves – Just like the exposure suit, the dive gloves are tasked with providing you with exposure protection while giving you ample room to move. In the absence of a heated space to go once you’re out of the water, the best you can do is minimize your exposure to the elements.
  • Diving regulator – A diving regulator suitable for cold water is mandatory when engaged in any ice diving activity. Along with good thermal insulation, a thermally-resistant diving regulator should be seen as an essential part of the scuba unit.
  • Drysuit – The drysuit is a type of exposure suit that serves a specific purpose. Best used with a buoyancy control unit like a compensator, a drysuit enables the diver to withstand very cold temperatures without the risk of ever getting in direct contact with the cold water.
  • Tethered diver – Although optional, investing in a tethered diver could make diving under frozen surfaces much more comfortable by providing you with the capacity to employ voice communication modules. Although not essential for an amateur diver, tethered divers are absolutely necessary for professional diving excursions.
  • Harness – A decent weight harness will not only help you strap your gear up in a comfortable fashion but it will also help with your buoyancy quite a bit. In the absence of a special harness, any weighted harness should do the trick for a casual diver.
  • Chainsaw – Due to the nature of ice diving, you will always need to have a quick way to break the ice on hand. Although a chainsaw is recommended for the job, you could also get the same result with a traditional hand saw. Power tools are highly recommended as hand tools can be time consuming and labor intensive.

Your First Time Ice Diving

If you’re already an experienced scuba diver and you want to challenge yourself with an ice dive, know that there is little actual difference in concept between the two.

There is a point, however, where ice diving differs from regular scuba diving – danger. Scuba diving comes with its own risks but ice diving is a lot more hazardous. The risky nature of this activity is one of the reasons why it is so attractive to thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies around the world.

If you’re new to ice diving, you are advised to get some familiarity with diving under the ice by attending an ice diver certification course. These courses are easy to find and can quite literally save your life in the long run.

Another thing you want to do is to start off in an area where the ice is thin enough to break should you ever find yourself in any real danger.

On a related note, never go ice diving without a diving team, and always remember to go over the safety drills in preparation for the actual dive.

Be Aware Of Safety Regulations

Remember that each country and state has different regulations regarding the ice thickness and its load-bearing capacity.

As such, your average cave diving adventure in your home state may require a completely different type of equipment than, let’s say, diving at Lake Baikal. This is because Lake Baikal freezes a lot earlier in the year, which means that depending on when you get there, the ice may already be half a meter thick.

Now, there are many types of ice diving regulations that you need to take into consideration. Some of these rules govern safety and injury aversion, whereas others are focused on nature conservation and availability.

What you want to do is to get yourself up to speed regarding any local ice diving laws that might hinder your experience. You need to do this before you actually get there to save yourself an awful lot of trouble.

The Importance Of A Rescue Diver

Another thing you want to do when planning an ice diving adventure is to find yourself a diver in response. The job of such a diver is to dive in, fully equipped with emergency equipment at the first sign of trouble.

As soon as this diver receives the emergency signal through the signal line, he will dive in and rescue you from whatever situation you got yourself into. It is also important that you include the rescue diver in the actual dive planning beforehand.

Many lives have been saved over the years because of rescue divers, simply by virtue of having them present. The chances that you’ll end up needing assistance should be low. Nevertheless, there’s no way to avoid trouble altogether, not if you’re diving on a regular basis.


What is ice diving? It is a form of scuba diving for sure, but the environment alters the experience altogether.

There’s something unique about diving under the ice surrounded by extreme cold. It’s the kind of frontier that most people never have the chance to explore, not without exposing themselves to real danger.

Whether you’re a biologist studying marine life or an amateur scuba diver looking to expand your horizons, you will surely recognize the huge potential for adventure that such an experience offers.

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