Cold Water Diving: How to Get Started

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Just because the weather is chilly doesn’t mean you have to hang up your scuba gear until the summer. With the proper training, equipment, and safety precautions, cold water diving allows you to explore fascinating underwater environments all year round. While more challenging than diving in balmy tropical waters, cold water diving unveils a captivating world of shipwrecks, vibrant marine life, and stunning seascapes that warm water divers rarely get to experience. If you’re interested in expanding your diving adventures, here’s what you need to know to get started with cold water diving.

cold water diving

What is Cold Water Diving?

Cold water diving generally refers to scuba diving in water temperatures below 60°F (15°C). This is much colder than the 77-84°F (25-29°C) that most recreational divers are used to in tropical destinations. In these chilly conditions, your body loses heat very quickly, putting you at risk for hypothermia if you’re not wearing adequate thermal protection. Cold water diving requires specialized equipment, training, and a tough mindset to conquer the cold.

The Challenges of Cold Water Diving

The biggest challenge with cold water diving is the frigid temperatures. Even a 7mm thick wetsuit, the warmest option available, will only keep you comfortable for a short period in very cold water. Your face, head, and hands are especially vulnerable to heat loss. The cold also makes basic tasks like gearing up, descending, and operating dive equipment more difficult with numb fingers. Restricted movement from thick neoprene and reduced dexterity make it harder to perform skills underwater.

Colder water is often murky, with limited visibility due to algae and particles. Navigation, communication, and situational awareness become more difficult. Rough surface conditions, swift currents, and access challenges are also common at cold water dive sites. Thorough dive planning, good buddy contact, and honed skills are crucial for staying safe while cold water diving.

Essential Cold Water Diving Equipment

Exposure Suit – For most cold water diving, you’ll want a well-fitting drysuit to keep you completely dry and insulated from the water. Compressed neoprene drysuits provide more warmth, while membrane suits allow more range of motion. Use drysuit undergarments in varying thicknesses to fine-tune your thermal protection.

Thick wetsuit – For moderately cold water in the 50-60°F (10-15°C) range, an 8-9mm single-piece wetsuit with a hood may suffice. Get a suit that fits snugly without being restrictive.

Regulator – Your scuba regulator must be environmentally sealed and rated for cold water performance (look for an EN250A stamp). Many cold water regulators have a heat exchanger around the first stage to prevent freezing. Use a regulator necklace and bungee to secure your second stages.

BCD – Any BCD that fits over your drysuit or thick wetsuit will work. Wing-style BCDs allow more range of motion than jacket BCDs. Make sure you can access dumps and inflators easily with gloved hands.

Fins – Adjustable, open-heel fins that can accommodate drysuit boots are ideal for cold water diving. Use stiffer, more powerful fins to overcome the drag of a bulky exposure suit.

Boots – Drysuit boots are worn over the integrated socks of a drysuit. Get boots with thick soles for insulation and durability. For wetsuit diving, use 7mm neoprene semi-dry boots.

Gloves – Unless you’re diving in near-freezing water, 5mm or 7mm three-finger mitts are a good compromise between thermal protection and dexterity. Textured palms and fingertips improve grip.

Hood – An attached hood keeps your head warm and prevents water entry at the neck seal. 7mm hoods are warmest. Use a silicone sealer to prevent leaks around your face seal.

Weight System – You’ll need more weight to offset the buoyancy of a thick wetsuit or drysuit. A harness-style weight system works better with this bulky gear than a weight belt. Trim weights allow you to fine-tune your in-water balance.

Getting Started

Take a specialty course – A drysuit diving course will teach you how to control your buoyancy in a drysuit and deal with the unique challenges of cold water diving. You’ll also learn about cold water dive planning, safety protocols, and gear maintenance.

Practice in easier conditions – If you’re new to cold water diving, don’t jump into extreme conditions right away. Start with easier dives in the 50-60°F (10-15°C) range to build your skills and cold tolerance. Practice basic skills like mask clearing and regulator recovery until they become second nature, even with gloved hands.

Master buoyancy control – Maintaining neutral buoyancy is harder in a drysuit or thick wetsuit, so spend time fine-tuning your weighting and practicing buoyancy skills. This is especially important in cold water environments with delicate marine life or overhead environments.

Plan thoroughly – Careful dive planning is essential for safety. Have contingency plans in place for emergencies like regulator free-flows or drysuit leaks. Let surface support know your dive plan and carry signaling devices in case you get separated from your buddy or dive boat.

Stay within your limits – Cold water diving is physically and mentally taxing. Monitor your gas supply and dive time vigilantly, and end the dive if you start getting too cold. Slowly build up the length and depth of your dives as your experience level grows.

Take care of your gear – Rinse and dry your diving gear thoroughly after each dive to prevent damage from salt and freezing temperatures. Store regulators and BCDs partially inflated, and hang wetsuits and drysuits to dry completely before packing them away.

By investing in high-quality thermal protection, training with an experienced diving instructor, and building your skills gradually, you can discover the unique rewards of cold water diving. With the proper mindset and preparation, cold water diving will expand your underwater horizons and allow you to experience a hidden world that few get to witness. Embrace the challenge and get ready for unforgettable adventures!

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