Most new divers begin their journey in warm tropical waters. The two largest destinations in the world for certifying divers, Koh Tao and Utila Island, are in Thailand and Honduras. For many divers, this is going to be the extent of their diving experience.
We get it. Reefs and giant pelagic marine life never get old. But, this is by no means the only type of diving for seeing awesome sights. If you really want to take your diving to the next level, its time to get into cold water diving. We’re going to examine what cold water diving is and why you would want to do it. We’ll then get into how you can get started, what equipment you need, and the best spots around the world for cold water diving.
What Is Cold Water Diving?
Cold water diving, like many other types of diving, is self-explanatory. You will be diving in cold waters. As we stated in the introduction, there are many dive sites around the world that are considered cold water dive sites. Just as many even as in warm locations.
But, why would anyone want to dive in cold waters?
There are many reasons. Everyone from underwater photographers to wreck divers and cave divers enjoy cold water diving. Even if you just want to see marine life, there are many species that you are only going to see in the colder waters. Most of these in the northern and southern hemispheres.
There are also a great many wrecks that have sunk in colder waters. These are some of the best wrecks in the world for diving. The cold water helps to preserve the wrecks much better than tropical waters. Especially, wrecks which sank in fresh water locations such as the North American Great Lakes and other large bodies of fresh water.
Cold water diving can also be a great place for underwater photographers. Colder bodies of water, depending on where they are, can have better visibility. This makes it much easier to take clearer photos.
The other reason many underwater photographers enjoy cold water dives is ice diving. This is where divers drill a hole in the ice and dive down into the water. You can take one search on the internet for ice diving pictures and see why it is an underwater photographers paradise.
Ice diving is often done in conjunction with other types of diving such as technical diving and wreck diving. This is a more advanced form of cold water diving as you are going into an environment with an overhead obstruction. It is important that you have the proper training for this type of diving as well as the correct equipment
How To Get Started With Cold Water Diving
Unlike wreck diving and cave diving, cold water diving doesn’t necessarily require you to have specialized training. As long as you are diving at normal recreational depths, you will be fine to make a cold water dive to your current depth qualification.
The exception to this is if you are ice diving or if you are getting into water cold enough for you to require a drysuit. Ice dives require that you have taken the Ice Diver Specialty Course. You will also need to wear a dry suit which will require you to take the Dry Suit Diver Specialty Course
Whether you need a dry suit for your dive will depend on just how cold the water you are diving in is. Drysuits are recommended for temperatures below 15°C (60°F). You can also use them on dives a little warmer than this to increase your bottom time.
If you decide to do a dive with a drysuit, you will need to talk to the instructor at the center you plan on doing the specialty course with. Some centers have drysuits available for rental. Others will require you to bring your own drysuit. Oftentimes, if you are required to bring your own, the dive center will provide the course as part of buying a drysuit from them.
We recommend buying your own drysuit for training. Especially, if you know you are going to be doing quite a few cold water dives each year. It is always best to use your own drysuit so that you become familiar with it.
Some of what is covered during the training are safety procedures with a drysuit as well as maintenance. Learning these things with the suit you will be using most often will make your first few dives with your new suit much easier.
If your eventual goal is to get into ice diving, we encourage you to go through a few other specialty classes first. Primarily, you should take a wreck diving course. Many of the best dive sites for ice divers are also wreck dives or technical dives.
Get some experience doing these types of dives in warmer waters where you aren’t worried about using a drysuit and dealing with ice. Then, once you have some dives in your logbook, take the Ice Diving Specialty Course.
The Ice Diver Specialty Course is going to primarily be focused on safety. Because ice diving is an overhead environment, you need to understand specific safe diving practices. It is also important to learn the different roles of the people involved with the dive. This includes:
- The special equipment used when ice diving such as safety lines
- How to communicate using proper signals during your dive
- Dealing with any potential emergencies that could come up during the dive
Remember that ice diving can be hazardous. Certainly more so than diving in tropical waters. Because you are in an overhead environment it can be more challenging to deal with problems if they arise. You need to make sure you are using the proper equipment and have all the proper training. Do not try an ice dive or a cold water dive with a dry suit if you do not feel ready.
What Equipment Do You Need For Cold Water Diving?
You are going to need specialized equipment for ice diving. Not just a drysuit either. Your regulator and some of your other pieces of equipment need to be specifically made for cold water and ice diving.
If not, you risk complications such as your regulator freezing up during the dive. The last place you want to have this happen is 30m (100ft) under the ice. So, let’s take a look at the equipment you need when cold water and ice diving. Also, we’ll give you some options for top-notch gear that you can rely on when making these types of dives.
Cold Water Drysuit
This, along with your regulator, is going to be the most important equipment you need for cold water and ice diving. Things like fins and dive computers are fine in just about any conditions. But, when it comes to cold water conditions, you need the drysuit to make sure you don’t get hypothermia. This can occur in waters between temperatures of 16°C and 21°C (60°F and 70°F).
There are a few different factors you must take into consideration before you purchase a drysuit. The dive shop you buy it from will go into detail with each suit. But, we’ll go over a few of these to give you a better idea of what to expect. The main considerations are:
- Suit Type
- Zipper Placement
- Boot Type
There are a few other considerations, such as which undersuit you will want to use and whether to get a telescopic drysuit. This is all outside the scope of this article. The above three points are the most important for buying a new drysuit.
There are two primary suit types popular with divers. The first is a membrane suit and the second neoprene suits. There are pros and cons to each but the gist of it is that neoprene suits tend to be warmer and membrane suits easier to move around in. For the reason provided, membrane suits tend to be the most popular with commercial and technical divers. They are also more popular with divers who prefer using a twin-set tank mount due to having better mobility.
The main con with a membrane suit, that it isn’t as warm, is mitigated using a good undersuit. This is a suit you wear underneath which provides insulation. It does so by trapping a layer of gas between your body and the undersuit. Obviously, one of the biggest drawbacks of this is that you need more weight due to the air between you and the undersuit and the air in the drysuit.
With the neoprene suit, the primary drawback is that it is stiffer. If you choose a membrane suit, it is the decreased warmth as well as greater sensitivity to wear and tear. For a membrane suit, you will want to choose a sturdy outer material such as kevlar which can add toughness and durability to the suit.
Drysuit zippers tend to be made from brass. Like their wetsuit counterparts, the zippers are usually located on the back. What differs about drysuit zippers is that they usually run horizontally along the shoulder blade.
This is in contrast to wetsuit zippers which usually run vertically from the base of the back to the bottom of the neck. The reason for this is because the shoulder blades tend to have the least amount of movement. This reduces the tension placed on the zipper and can help extend the life of your suit. A major plus as zippers tend to be the most expensive part of the drysuit to repair or replace.
In recent years, however, dry suit manufacturers have started installing YKK-plastic zippers. The major advantage that these have over brass is that they can be installed in the front. You can put on your own drysuit without needing assistance from others.
One final drawback of brass zippers is that they require more maintenance. You need to consistently maintain and care for them or they become brittle. YKK-plastic zippers still need maintenance. But, they are easier to care for and tend to be sturdier than brass in the long run.
You will need to decide when buying a drysuit whether you want a front zipping or back zipping suit. If you like to be self-sufficient and don’t want to rely too much on others, a front suit is a better option. Also, if you know you know you usually need to use the bathroom between dives, the front zip is the way to go.
There are two options you have when it comes to the boot type for a drysuit. You can either purchase a drysuit that has the boots built-in, or a drysuit with socks made for rock boots. Both options have pros and cons.
We prefer to use rock boots with our drysuit as we feel they are sturdier. At the end of the day though it is up to personal preference. Let’s take a look at both of them and see what the pros and cons are.
These are boots that are sewn into the drysuit. They have hardened soles to protect your feet from rocks and coral and other debris.
The main benefit of these types of boots is that they come pre-fit with the drysuit. So, they are easier to get on and you don’t have to worry about them slipping off during your dive.
The biggest drawback of these is that they often wear out faster than rock boots. Also, since they are part of the drysuit, you have to take the entire drysuit in to be repaired when they inevitably wear out. This isn’t usually going to be a wallet emptying cost, but it is often more expensive than replacing rock boots.
These are boots that are separate from your drysuit. They have hard bottoms and fit much in the same way as a hiking boot.
There are two major advantages of using rock boots. The first is that they are much more durable than the built-in boots. Rock boots usually have thicker soles which are better able to withstand walking on rocks and other debris. This is especially helpful if you have to walk a long distance to get to the dive point for shore dives.
The second benefit that rock boots have over built-in boots is that when they wear down, they can be easily replaced. Since they are separate from the drysuit, you simply discard your used boots and buy a new pair. This can often be more economical as you don’t have to take your entire drysuit into a specialist to have it repaired.
There are also a number of downsides to these types of boots. The main one is that they are thicker and often require fins with wider openings. This means you may need separate fins for your drysuit diving than regular diving. Also, if your boot slips off during a dive, it can be quite difficult to get it back on with the limited mobility form your drysuit.
We recommend using rock boots if you know you are going to be diving sites which require a lot of walking. But, if you plan on mostly doing boat dives, the built-in dive boots will do the trick and leave you one less piece of equipment to lug around and maintain.
If you do opt for rock boots, we recommend these brands:
Now that you have a good idea of what you should be looking for when purchasing a drysuit, let’s take a look at some recommendations:
- Waterproof D1 Hybrid (Built-in boots)
- Argonaut Flex (Socks/Use with rock boots)
- Hollis DX-300X (Socks/Use with rock boots)
- Waterproof D1 Hybrid (Built-in boots)
- Argonaut Flex (Socks/Use with rock boots)
- Scubapro Everdry 4mm (Socks/Use with rock boots)
A BCD For Cold Water Diving
Since you will be wearing a drysuit when cold water and ice diving, we recommend that you use the drysuit as your primary source of buoyancy control. Use your BCD only as a backup source in the event that your drysuit fails. This will make it easier for you to control your buoyancy overall and will help you to better preserve your air.
When using your BCD during cold water, and especially ice dives, make sure you are filling it slowly. You want to use short bursts of air to prevent your BCD from freezing up and going into free flow. This can happen when water enters the BCD and freezes up. The same can happen to your regulator if you do not use one that is specifically made for cold water and ice diving.
You need to choose your BCD based on the type of diving you will be doing. If you are planning a wreck dive that is under ice, for example, you will want to choose a wing-style BCD for a sidemount or twinset. If you are planning a normal recreational dive in cold water or ice, then you can use your normal jacket style BCD. At the end of the day, it comes down to what type of dive you are doing and then to what you find most comfortable.
The BCDs we recommend for ice diving are:
Wing Style (for sidemount / twin set)
- Hollis HTS 2 (This is the harness only. You will need to purchase the bladder separately, Option 1 and Option 2)
- Dive Rite Nomad XT (Complete setup for side mount diving)
Jacket Style (Normal recreational diving)
Cold Water Dive Regulator
You cannot do coldwater dives or ice dives with a normal regulator. When you breathe in, the regulator will freeze up and can go into freeflow. This can empty your tank in a matter of seconds and leave you in an extremely vulnerable situation. Instead, you need a regulator that has been specifically designed for cold water and ice diving.
The main difference between a normal regulator and a cold water regulator is that the cold water regulator has a sealed diaphragm. This is to prevent water from getting in. When water gets in it freezes up and locks up the flow mechanism.
The threshold for cold water with a regulator is much colder than with a drysuit. What this means is that you don’t need to really start worrying about a cold water regulator until you get into freezing conditions. A drysuit is worn in warmer temperatures for comfort reasons.
We recommend buying a coldwater regulator for both warm water and cold water diving. There are no drawbacks to using a coldwater regulator in warm waters. But, the drawback of a warm water regulator is that it can only be used in those conditions.
The added benefit of a sealed diaphragm regulator in warm waters is that it is easier to maintain. This is because you don’t have to worry about saltwater and other contaminants getting into the diaphragm.
For coldwater regulators we recommend using:
You should choose your fins based on the type of diving you plan on doing. If you are going to be doing a wreck dive, cave dive, or technical dive, you need solid rubber fins without a split. For normal recreational dives, you are good to use your everyday fins that you prefer when not diving in ice or cold water.
For wreck and cave dives you don’t want split fins as they can more easily be caught in lines. They also make it more difficult to do different types of kicks such as frog kicks and helicopter kicks. You will need to utilize these types of kicks in cave and wreck conditions to avoid stirring up sediment.
The fins we recommend are:
Just like the fins, you will be fine using your normal computer when cold water and ice diving. We always recommend you use a computer with air integration capabilities. This allows you to better track your air consumption across multiple dives.
If you are doing a technical dive, you need to have a computer with decompression tracking capabilities. You will also need a computer that can track mixed gasses such as Nitrox and Trimix. Not all computers are capable of this so make sure to do your homework when purchasing a computer.
Two recreational level computers we recommend are:
- Suunto Vyper Novo (Air integration transmitter sold separately)
- Aqua Lung i450t (Air integration transmitter sold separately)
Two technical dive computers we recommend are:
- Suunto Eon Steel (Sold with air integration transmitter)
- Shearwater Perdix (Sold with air integration transmitter)
It is important to have a dive knife, as well as a backup knife or shears when cold water and ice diving. This is especially true if you will be doing a wreck dive.
There is always a risk that you can become tangled in some kind of obstruction such as rope or fishing line. Especially when ice diving, it is not uncommon that divers have been snagged in the lines of ice fishers in the area.
If you are wreck diving in cold water or ice, you also run the risk that your equipment can become snagged. Sometimes, you may be forced to cut a piece of your equipment to free yourself. This will be the case if you have straps hanging loose. Make sure your dive knife can saw, cut, and hammer.
Three great dive knives for cold water and ice diving are:
Dive lights can be important if you plan on doing a technical dive or a wreck dive. For recreational dives in daylight, you shouldn’t need a light unless the visibility is quite poor. There are a few things you should take into consideration when selecting a dive light including:
- Ability to set the light down without it being carried away
- Ability to attach the light to your body
- How bright the light is
- How long the battery lasts
- How deep you can take the light
Two great options we recommend for dive lights are:
What Are The Best Cold Water Diving Locations In The World?
This is one of the world’s best known cold water dive sites. It is located in Iceland and is well known for having visibility of over 100m (325ft).
The dive takes you between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This means you are diving between two continents at one time which makes this one of the more novel dives you can experience in the world. The temperatures hover between 2°C and 4°C (36°F and 39°F). This means you will need both a dry suit as well as a cold water regulator.
The average depth for this dive is between 7m and 12m (22ft and 39ft) with a maximum permitted depth of 18m (60ft). The max depth of the fissure is around 63m (206ft) with a deep cave. But, it is extremely rare for anyone to dive to this depth and only a handful of people have dove the cave.
The combination of the cold temperature, depth, as well as narrow and shifting passages makes this an extremely hazardous cave. So, it is not permitted even for divers with the proper experience to make the dive. The risks are simply too great.
- Location: Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
- Best Time to Dive: April to October
- Skill Level: Open Water Diver and above
Here is a great video showing Silfra Fissure. It shows what it is like to dive the site and explains everything you need to know about the site and its history.
This is a guaranteed ice dive all year round. In fact, it is one of only a few places in the world that can lay claim to that title.
The sea is located in northern Russia and connects with the ice-cold waters of the Arctic Ocean. You can see everything from unique mollusks to migrating whales. There are also varieties of soft corals that you can see. The depths vary greatly depending on the dive site and temperatures range from 6°C to 12°C (43°F to 53°F) out of the ice and -1°C to -2°C(28°F to 30°F) under the ice.
- Location: Northwest Russian Coast
- Best Time to Dive: The best time for ice diving is between early February and late April
- Skill Level: Open Water Diver with Drysuit Specialty Course and higher
Here is a great video showing diving in the White Sea so you can better plan your next dive.
These are a group of islands off the southern coast of California spanning the towns of San Clemente and Santa Barbar. Both of these towns are close to Los Angeles and you can easily make your way along Highway 101 to get to different launch points for dives.
There are way too many dive sites around these eight islands to cover in a day. You can enjoy everything from recreational dives to technical dives and even kelp diving. The temperatures around the island range between 11°C (51°F) and 15°C (59°F).
- Locations: Channel Islands, California
- Best Time to Dive: Dives can be done year-round but the best time for diving is between May and September
- Skill Level: Open Water Diver and higher depending on the dive site
Here is a great video showing kelp diving around Santa Cruz Island. This is one of the eight islands that make up the Channel Islands Archipelago.
If wreck diving is more your speed then Scapa Flow is going to be a paradise. This is a body of water around the Orkney Islands of Scotland.
During World War II, the German Navy scuttled over fifty ships in order to prevent them from being captured by allied forces. Many of these ships were salvaged but a number of them still remain in the bay.
Many people label this as strictly tech diving but there are actually a large number of wrecks that are above the tech diving threshold of 40m (130ft). The average temperature ranges between 4°C (39°F) and 14°C (57°F).
- Location: Orkney Islands, Scotland (off the northern tip of Scotland)
- Best Time to Dive: Early April to early November is the normal dive season for this area of Scotland
- Skill Level: Advanced Open Water Certification and higher
Here is a great video showing what it is like to dive in the Scapa Flow so you can get a better idea of what to expect on your next dive.
The final dive site on our list is another wreck dive. This time, the story behind the wreck is just as interesting as the wreck itself. The Rainbow Warrior was the flagship of Greenpeace, the international environmental organization.
During the mid-1980s, Greenpeace was heavily protesting nuclear testing by the French government. In retaliation for the protests, the French foreign intelligence services carried out an operation to bomb and sink the Rainbow Warrior. The ship was in the port of Auckland in New Zealand at the time of this operation. Operatives planted explosives and sank the ship, which was planned for use in another protest later on.
Today, the ship is a great dive site for wreck divers who don’t mind braving the cold waters of New Zealand. The ship lies at a depth of 27m (89ft) which puts it within recreational dive limits. Average water temperatures around the port are between 14°C and 19°C (57°F and 66°F).
This can be done as a penetration dive so it is best to have completed the Wreck Diver Specialty Course before making the dive.
- Location: Port of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
- Best Time to Dive: January to June are considered the best months for diving around Auckland
- Skill Level: Advanced Open Water Diver and higher with Wreck Diver Specialty Course
Here is a great video of divers touring the Rainbow Warrior so you can get a better idea of what to expect on your next dive.
What are some final tips for cold water diving?
1. Be careful with water and your equipment
Remember how we talked about your regulator and BCD freezing up and going into freeflow. The reason this happens is that water gets into them and freezes when the cold air passes through.
With a cold water regulator, the diaphragm is sealed preventing water from getting int. But, with a BCD, this isn’t the case. If you are doing saltwater dives make sure you wait till your final dive of the day to clean your BCD. Also, make sure it is completely dry before using it the next day. Water from cleaning can stay trapped in the BCD and cause it to freeze up.
2. Stay within your comfort zone
As with other more extreme forms of diving, it is important to take things slowly when cold water diving. If you have never been on a single cold water dive, it is probably best not to jump headfirst into ice diving, for example.
Instead, take things slowly and gradually work your way into more complex dives. Diving is an activity that takes practice in order to sharpen your skills. This practice only comes from performing many dives over a long period of time.
Remember that the dive sites you want to visit will always be there. If you do not feel comfortable making a dive, or if you do not have the skills, come back later. It is never worth risking injury just to make a dive.
3. Do not go cheap with the equipment
With cold water diving the equipment can get expensive. This is especially true if you are doing wreck diving or technical diving in cold water or icy conditions.
There are many hazards already associated with these types of dives, adding cold water and ice increases those. The last thing you want is to buy cheap equipment that you can’t rely on. Remember that your life depends on the ability of your equipment to function in extreme conditions.
Do not just go for the cheapest equipment you can find. Instead, purchase what is the industry standard. Try to always talk with other experienced divers to see what they are successfully using. If you have too, buy what you can over time and rent equipment until you can get a full set up.
What do you think about these dive sites? Do they look cool enough to brave the cold waters? We are always interested in hearing from fellow scuba divers just like you. So, if you have experience with cold water diving or if you have something you would like to share, let us know in the comments. Also, if you have any tips you think can help, make sure to leave them. You never know how your opinion might help your fellow divers.