Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It Can’t Get Much Colder

Diving in cold water has really come a long way in the recent years. There are so many specialized materials and manufactures that cold water diving is not only bearable but enjoyable – for the right type of diver. To me its just an equation – warmth equals the right equipment. And when you work in such a diverse underwater environments as the National Park Service  you have to have the right gear. Drysuits provide the initial protection and if everything goes as planed underwater, they live up to their name and you stay dry. Some drysuits are designed to provide a certain level of thermal protection in addition to water tightness, some are just a water proof shell. Add to that a variety of options in dive under garments which offer varying degrees of warmth. My particular thermals are made by Fourth Element and pretty much look like my kids snow suits and for extremely cold water, are equally as thick. Full face masks prevent the dreaded numb lips one gets in cold water from holding the regulator in the mouth. Nothings worse than your breathing regulator falling out because you lips are too numb to feel its presences (yes it’s happened). Dry gloves with fleece liners keep the fingers toasty and dry (usually) and a thick semi-dry hood retains that top layer of heat escape just like mom always told about with a hat. For this trip I have even added heater vest which has an external battery pack and an adjustable heat source to warm up the vest and keep ones core nice and toasty. Even with all that very specialized equipment, let me just say the Arctic Ocean is cold. In fact its impossible to get much colder.

On our first dives on the HMS Investigator the temperature on my dive computer read 34F. Sure, that’s cold, but only 2 or 3 degrees colder than my last project at Isle Royale NP in Lake Superior. This is the Arctic. I had two specific ambitions for this trip. The first was to have my picture taken on a ice flow, the second was to dive in water below freezing. A few patches of ice drifted in last night, so check the first goal off the list. Bring on the cold water. I didn’t have to wait long.

Today’s dive felt different as soon as I hit the bottom at 30’. The visibility was very distorted, almost like a mixture of fresh and salt water (called a halocline) or a temperature gradient difference (called a thermocline). It also was cold. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to feel the difference in a couple degrees, I mean cold is cold, right? Wrong. Today my dive computer read 28.8F. It was the first time I have actually used the high setting on my heater vest (a source of envy amongst the Parks Canada divers). The low temperature occurred on or near the bottom where the visibility was oily. Although not an expert by any means, but what seemed to be occurring was the water was so cold it was attempting to freeze but both tide and salt content kept it in its liquid form. As I swam along the hull of the ship I had these comical visions of a hypothetical flash freeze event with an shipwreck ice cube complete with scuba diving photographer. 

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