• Terra Observer

Diving under ice: Tales from 50 feet below

With neither ice nor cold water standing in their way, Ontario’s ice divers plunge to icy depths for glimpses of Canada’s most spectacular underwater wonders.

Jade Prévost-Manuel, Co-Editor-In-Chief

Freediving is a sport that has been practiced for thousands of years across cultures. (Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash)

Each summer, tourists flock to Ontario’s startlingly blue lakes and bays: cold-water baths that draw visitors from around the province. With water temperatures peaking in August, Ontario’s scuba season typically falls between June and September. Divers may try spring or fall diving if they can stand the dip in temperatures.

Some dare to go even further. For Ontario’s ice divers—aquatic adrenaline-junkies and rockstars of the Canadian diving scene—four months away from the water is unbearable. The cold isn’t.

Kris Reynolds is an ice scuba diver and ice diving instructor who runs his own shop in Lindsay, Ontario. In the summer, he teaches new divers in freshwater playgrounds like Tobermory. When temperatures take the plunge, so does Reynolds, exploring the abandoned quarries, frozen-over lakes and icy wastelands that beckon hardcore cold-water divers.

There’s a reason why Ontario’s most committed divers submerge themselves in sub-zero waters under a foot of ice. The diving visibility—a scuba diver’s measure of water clarity—isn’t just great. It’s phenomenal.

“The water’s cold, it’s still, and [you don’t have] boat traffic or other factors that stir things up,” Reynolds says. “You can get 100 feet of visibility through the water and it’s like the water’s not even there. It’s unbelievable.”

With great reward comes great responsibility. Ice diving is no joke, and Reynolds’ trips out to the ice can last as long as three days. A single dive requires intense preparation, from assessing the conditions days ahead to setting up warming stations, slicing holes in the ice and manning the holes so that they don’t freeze over. Reynolds also uses a dry suit with a thermal liner specialized for diving in extreme cold—a must for long dives under the ice.

Reynolds and a team of ice divers prep the site at Morrison's Quarry in Gatineau. (Dive Kawartha / Instagram)

Teamwork is critical. For every ice diver, there’s a two-person support team watching their every move. A spotter stationed on the ice holds a line tethered to the diver. A secondary diver is in the water hovering near the ice entry point, acting as the communication point between the spotter holding the rope and the diver below.

The safety team, as well as the rope, is crucial because of the freeze’s tricky nature. Ice moves, meaning the opening might not be in the same spot the diver left it when they resurface. Any delay in locating the exit point could be fatal if a diver’s oxygen runs out.

Regardless of season, diving in Canada comes with its own set of challenges that our southern neighbours aren’t burdened with.

“When you dive up here the environment is harsher, so things you might be able to get away with in warm water diving you certainly can’t get away with here,” Reynolds says.

That’s especially true for Ontario’s freedivers. Ice scuba divers like Reynolds rely on external oxygen tanks for air, whereas freedivers simply hold their breath—something that’s especially tricky when you’re 50 feet or more beneath the ice.

Views of Morrison's Quarry, under the ice. (Dive Kawartha / Instagram)

Freedivers are masters of apnea, or breath holding. Trained professionals can hold their breath for eight to nine minutes, with the world record being 12. From the pearl divers of the Philippines to salvage divers in Ancient Greece, humans have been freediving for thousands of years. Today, it’s a fast-growing sport across Canada. Despite the fact that freedivers can’t keep themselves warm with dry suits, its most serious practitioners aren’t deterred by the ice.

In fact, they crave it.

Freediving Instructor and owner of Dive World Toronto Mario Medarevic's winter diving excursions have helped foster a culture of young, adventurous freedivers who frequent his shop. For Medarevic, who grew up in Malaysia, the transition to ice is a strange one. He spent his early dive days instructing in Thailand before trading the warm waters of the Andaman Sea for Ontario’s freshwater lakescapes.

Like Reynolds, he says the views of the surface from under the ice are exhilarating—seemingly infinite slabs of ice, pock-marked with heaps of snow that let the light filter in just right.

“It’s serene, really,” he says. “When you’re coming up from the cold water into the progressively warmer water, [you] reach the surface and it almost feels warm on your skin, so you know there’s this warmth coming and it’s rewarding.”

Sub-zero water temperatures make it difficult for freedivers to hold their breath and dive deep. The thermoclines they experience during their descent—sharp temperature gradients in the water column—can be shocking to the human body.

“Cold water makes everything harder,” Medarevic says. “Once you break 15 feet [of depth], then 45 feet, you start to feel fairly dramatic changes in water temperature […] it’ll just freak out your body.”

Yet this incredibly harsh environment makes for some of the most phenomenal diving in Canada. In recent years, photos of dramatic underwater ice scenes captured by photographer Geoff Coombs have transformed public perception of Tobermory’s waters from a summer swimming locale into a romantic yet alien world. Often photographing freediving competitor and national depth champion Andrew Ryzebol, Coomb's under-the-ice exploits have captured the attention of prominent national magazines like Canadian Geographic.

Both close friends of Medarevic, Coombs and Ryzebol have become the province’s ice freediving icons—happiest in the unperturbed waters beneath the ice.

“If you really want to make the most of Canada, you can’t just limit yourself to the three months out of the year where the weather is optimal,” Medarevic says. “You kind of have to embrace the fact that some of the most spectacular things happen in winter.”

Now that the ice has melted, Medarevic is planning for the summer season as Ontario businesses enter phase one of the province’s COVID-19 re-opening strategy. Since April, he’s been fielding requests from divers asking for space on their summer Tobermory trips—messages he usually wouldn’t be getting until June. Given that Ontarians have been isolating for the past three months, Medarevic anticipates a busy summer for the outdoor adventure community.

“Generally speaking, Canadians are outdoorsy, adventurous people,” he says. “People are chomping at the bit to get outside, so I think you’re going to see an increase in outdoor activities, whether it’s camping, cycling or scuba diving.”

The ban on international travel has made a lot of Canadians rethink how they’ll be making the most of an unusually quiet summer. Torontonian Lily Nesbitt is one of them.

Nesbitt works in Canada’s film industry and had planned to move to Japan in March to teach English. Now that she’ll be spending the summer in her home province of Ontario, she’s looking forward to spending her weekends exploring the submerged shipwrecks of Tobermory.

Diving in Canada is relatively new for Nesbitt, though the profound connection she feels to the water is something she’s experienced her entire life.

“I’ve always loved diving and swimming, but I didn’t even think about diving in Canada until last summer,” Nesbitt says. “I saw [someone] post pictures of the diving in Tobermory and I [wanted] to know what that was all about.”

Nesbitt exploring a wreck in the cool waters off Tobermory last summer. (Nigel Skinner)

After discovering Dive World last year, Nesbitt completed her open water and advanced open water certifications with the shop. Previously, she’d only gone diving recreationally on warm-water vacations to Hawaii and the Caribbean. But Nesbitt’s most recent experiences have been in cold water dive locales like Tobermory, Trout Lake and British Columbia's coast.

She says learning to dive in cold water has prepared her for anything. Her cold water training, adapted for Canada’s unique aquatic challenges, has made her more aware of her safety and keeps her focused.

“When you’re underwater, you don’t really have the choice to focus on anything else,” she says. “When I’m diving I know how serious the situation I’m in is and I’m having a lot of fun, but I know that I have to focus exactly on what I’m doing and I just find that completely relaxing.”

While sea creatures and corals may be out of the running, wreck diving is the attraction that draws scuba divers to Ontario. The more than 6,000 shipwrecks scattered across the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay have created an exciting underwater playground for divers.

Among them is the Arabia, a wooden schooner invisible to the land-lubber’s eye. The Arabia was carrying over 20,000 bushels of corn when she sank to the bottom of the cool, cerulean blue waters off Echo Island in 1884. For the past 136 years, she’s sat mostly intact at 109 feet below in Tobermory’s Fathom Five National Marine Park.

The Arabia is just one of many Great Lakes shipwrecks known for their remarkable condition. Thanks to the turquoise cocktail of cold, fresh water, these ghostly obstacle courses have persisted for centuries.

“Anywhere else in the world, [it] would be a pile of lumber on the ocean floor,” Reynolds says. “The Arabia didn’t hit anything, didn’t have any damage—it just sank to the bottom, so you can still swim underneath the decking and the front part of the ship. It’s just unbelievable.”

With the summer wreck diving season upon them, dive operators are looking for the green light from charters to get Ontarians back in the water.

“I can’t think of another activity or group of people I’d rather be doing that stuff with,” Medarevic says. “Every single person I’m going with is a person who is only there because they think this is awesome and cool.”

This solitary yet communal sport continues to grow in popularity in the province. Perhaps it's because diving offers a glimpse into a world otherwise unseen by humans—a barren landscape peppered with the remnants of failed shipping routes, cloaked in a natural sort of majesty you can’t replicate on land.

A romantic, yet alien world.