Freediving Below The Ice

Ocean First   Jul 01, 2022

For most people, the sport of freediving is an intimidating pursuit. Although I would typically argue that it's an accessible activity for everyone, the trip I embarked on one year ago was not for the timid or inexperienced. In February of 2019, I traveled to the Canadian Great Lakes with six other freedivers from various parts of the US. It was not easy to leave Colorado mid-winter for a destination that promised to be even colder, but freediving under ice was a bucket-list opportunity I could not let pass by.

After meeting in Toronto, our group made the three-hour drive up to the Bruce Peninsula of Lake Huron. It was in the frozen harbor village of Tobermory where we met up with our local guides, Geoff and Andrew. That night, the Canadians made a dive plan and tried to prepare us for the conditions we would face the next day. The shared anxiety and excitement of what was to come helped the group bond quickly, and our cohesion would only strengthen in the coming days.

The next morning we all donned our 7mm+ thick freediving wetsuits in the comfort of our heated Airbnb. With hooded suits, thick gloves, and socks under parkas and boots, we huddled into our rental car and departed to meet our guides at one of the nearby bays. Upon arrival, we discovered that the ice was a little too thin to walk on. We recollected (only too relieved to climb back into the heated car) and made our way to a new site in front of a quaint lighthouse. With plenty of thick ice, we got to work cutting out a hole large enough for our group. After 45 minutes or so of drilling with ice augers and hacking away with axes, a circle of ice roughly 8 feet in diameter broke free, revealing the clear lake below. Getting into the water took some bravery, but it promised respite from the harsh wind; it was -12°F out on the ice! Already with numb hands and feet, we took turns diving under the ice to get our first glimpse of a new underwater environment.

I barely took enough time to control my breathing and prepare for my first dive. With eyes closed, I willed the cold away as I took a final breath through my snorkel. I dove straight down, kicking deeper with anticipation of the view from below. Sure enough, when I turned to look up at the surface I was rewarded for the pain in my freezing hands and feet. The colors and textures of the ice, now silhouetted against the sunlight, was simply unforgettable. Every shade of turquoise and blue was amongst the seemingly random composition. Ice chunks were frozen together in every size and shape. Smooth and semi-translucent areas were chaotically interrupted by large jagged chunks that blocked out the light. It is difficult to describe how the scene was simultaneously bright, soft, and beautiful, and yet fiercely haunting. This was not a place to linger or push limits. I kicked towards the hole in the frozen ceiling and broke the surface, breathing again with a huge smile.

Even for professional freedivers, holding the breath longer than 30 seconds in 33°F water is challenging. Our dives were short, our faces wind burnt, and all our camera gear was frozen over. After less than an hour, we clumsily clambered back to the shelter of our vehicles, wetsuits freezing instantly once we left the water. The first day had been a humbling learning experience and we all had a newfound respect for our Canadian guides who seemed unaffected by the extreme cold.

Day 2 started much the same way, although there was a little more tension knowing the discomfort we were about to face again. We went back to the first dive site and wow, what a difference overnight! The subzero temperature and wind of the previous 24 hours created a beautifully textured frozen lake surface. This time, the ice was thick enough that we were able to walk far out into the bay, all the way to the edge of the ice where deeper water was accessible. Conditions were no less harsh with temperatures hovering only slightly above zero and strong winds blowing snow and ice across the lake surface, but the crew was a little more prepared. Having learned how to prevent our cameras from freezing over (mostly), we excitedly set about capturing the magic of ice diving from above and below the surface. Satisfied with a longer dive session and capturing some incredible scenes underwater, our hypothermic crew retreated from the lake.

On our third morning, the thought of getting geared up to freeze again was hard to bear. However, we knew this was our last opportunity to experience the magic and allurement of being inside a frozen lake on one breath. Geoff and Andrew made it worth the effort, escorting us out onto the ice of a frozen harbor. After everyone took turns on the ice auger (a great way to warm up!), we succeeded in cutting out another large hole above a beautifully preserved shipwreck lying in only 25ft of water. The Alice G. was a wooden tug boat that ran aground in a storm nearly 100 years ago. With the lower oxygen content in the cold, the clean water has kept the Alice G. and many of Tobermory's other shipwrecks in excellent condition. Needless to say, diving under ice with dramatic lighting above and the remains of an old shipwreck below created an unreal dive setting that left a lasting impression.

After three days of freediving under the frozen ice of Lake Huron, we were ready for a warm break, although I think each of us was sad to leave the company of one another. We all struggled dealing with the cold, but the group's positive attitude and sense of humor never let anyone get discouraged. Every day we helped each other with gear and even fed each other chocolate and whiskey when hands became too cold to grip a bottle. The misery and elation mutually expressed in our pursuit of such a unique experience created a strong bond between us. I consider myself blessed to have shared this adventure with so many great people.

A special thank you to Ashleigh Baird, Kerry Hollowell, Kim Kertz, and Nick Fuist for inviting me along, and a BIG thanks to Perrin James and Anthony Rayburn for capturing the experience through gorgeous photos and video. None of this would have been possible without the hospitality and patient guidance of Geoff Coombs and Andrew Ryzebol. Thank you both for welcoming us Americans and creating such a special experience!