Dive Under Ice in These 6 Frozen Places

Enter a world filled with icebergs, shipwrecks and whales. Just make sure you can get out.
By Brooke Morton

No sport demands a greater awareness of timing than scuba diving, and ice diving only intensifies the life-and-death nature of this activity. Not only are you unable to surface wherever you like thanks to a frozen layer — potentially trapping you in polar waters — but you also have to consider that each minute in this extreme environment increases the possibility of nerve damage and hypothermia. But brave it all and you'll witness the striking beauty of icebergs and a world where visibility can stretch 200 feet.

French freediver Chloé Villaume ice diving in a bikini under Lake Päijänne in Finland
Yes, she’s ice diving in a bikini! © Pekka Tuuri

Ice-diving — in a bikini?

Where: Lake Päijänne, Finland
Why: Thrill seeking
Danger factor: 8

Doctors warned French freediver Chloé Villaume that she'd have just three minutes to swim in 35°F water wearing only a bikini before nerve damage to her extremities could set in. Stig Severinsen, famous for below-the-ice plunges, also warned her about fainting.

"There was a risk, but I didn't really think about it," she says. A lanyard connected her to a team of five safety divers on the surface who, in an emergency, would fish her out in 10 seconds. For Villaume, the swim proved only refreshing. "It gave me adrenaline. I felt really good afterward," she said.

Ice divers enter the water through a hole in the ice in Morrison's Quarry in Wakefield, Quebec, Canada
How do you get into the ice? Cut a hole © Jo-Ann Wilkins

A hole in Canadian ice

Where: Morrison's Quarry, Wakefield, Quebec, Canada
Why: Sharpen ice-diving skills, and admire designs that fellow divers create on the surface by shoveling snow off the ice
Danger factor: 4

Training to ice dive builds procedural muscle memory, but first it shifts perception. "I was afraid it was going to be dark and claustrophobic under the ice," says underwater photographer Jo-Ann Wilkins. "Instead, it's luminous."

Once you adjust to the environment, you work on acclimating to the system of ropes linking you to your dive buddy, and to the surface.
"Someone at the surface tugs the rope to ask you if you're OK, and you tug back to say yes," she says. The biggest emergency is when a diver fails to return a tug. "That's why there's always a safety diver fully dressed at the surface, ready to jump in and find the missing diver," says Wilkins.

An ice diver explores the Alice G tugboat wreck under the ice in the Fathom Five National Marine Park, Tobermory, Ontario, Canada
Half the year, this wreck is under ice © Jerzy Kowalczuk

Ships under the ice

Where: Fathom Five National Marine Park, Tobermory, Ontario, Canada
Why: Explore wrecks, such as the Alice G tugboat
Danger factor: 8

With broken ice, your biggest support is the Weather Channel, because the best way to prepare is to study the wind conditions. "Fifteen knots is way too much," says underwater photographer Jerzy Kowalczuk. Strong winds will send ice formations piling up in one direction. "Then you find yourself without an exit point," says Kowalczuk. "When that happens, keep swimming, pushing ice out of your way. Sometimes people think diving under broken ice is easier, but it's not — it's much more dangerous."

An ice diver has close encounter with a beluga whale under the ice in Kandalaksha on Russia's White Sea
This is a beluga whale © Franco Banfi

Meet a beluga whale

Where: White Sea, Russia
Why: Face-to-face encounters with beluga whales
Danger factor: 5

The ice sheeting Russia's White Sea can thicken to five feet in places, but near the town of Kandalaksha it never freezes over. To breathe, a pod of beluga whales continuously nudges at the surface, keeping it from hardening. Here, the risk isn't in the water, it's in getting there. The most dangerous part is the one-kilometer snowmobile ride to the put-in.

"It's not comfortable because when the ice starts breaking, you have to keep hopping out of the sled," says underwater photographer Franco Banfi. "The bigger problem is that the snow will cover the cuts in the ice," he says, which is why he only travels to the site with experienced local drivers. "If you go by yourself and ride over those cuts, you could fall in."

An ice dive explores huge icebergs in the Tasiilaq Fjord, Greenland
Big, big icebergs underwater © Tobias Friedrich

Under ice in Greenland

Where: The fjord of Tasiilaq, Greenland
Why: Galleries of iceberg art
Danger factor: 9

"Nobody has dived here before — there are no dive maps," says underwater photographer Tobias Friedrich of Greenland, home to some of the world's largest and most dangerous icebergs.

The biggest danger is a collapsing iceberg. "We only dive the smaller icebergs; the big ones are too dangerous," he says. With each one, Friedrich visually scans for overhangs, bridges and cracks.

"If a big iceberg breaks apart, one piece can overturn the boat," he says.
But the constant cracking and breaking of the formations is also what makes them beautiful. "You can dive one iceberg and you may want to see the same one the next day, but it will have flipped to become completely new. It's magic."

An ice diver explores an underwater tunnel in Lake Sassolo, Switzerland
Ice tunnels in Switzerland © Franco Banfi

Underwater ice tunnel

Where: Lake Sassolo, Switzerland
Why: Explore underwater tunnels
Danger factor: 8

"Ice like this can collapse anytime," says underwater shooter Franco Banfi of the freshwater icebergs in this lake near his home. Melt and run-off carve tunnels in the pristine packed snow, but also cause breakage, hastened by diver exhalations.

Because of this, Banfi's model was hesitant to pose. A collapse can happen in 30 seconds, burying a diver in a snow-and-ice avalanche. "You can usually hear the crack, but not always," says Banfi. "And if you hear this, it's already too late."

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