Ice diving: over the edge



DURING THE WINTER months, the Gulf of St. Lawrence surrounding Prince Edward Island freezes over with ice. Strong winds and shifting tides stack large pieces of ice on top of each other and form ice ridges, sometime 40 feet above sea level along the beach. The pack ice is also forced downward to depths of 30 to 40 feet. As Spring approaches, southwest winds drive the ice floes which are not grounded, out into the Gulf. A band of ice, sometimes 1/2 mile wide is left behind bordering the shoreline. The cold sea water is void of plankton and exceptionally clear.

This is the recipe for an adventure for an experienced diver who wishes to do something a bit unusual (off the beaten path). A walk carrying heavy diving gear to the edge of the ice pan is not something one soon forgets. But neither is the pristine view one gets as they enter the cool clear water.

At first glance there is not much sealife to be seen at the edge of the pack ice. Lobsters, crabs and gunnelfish can be found by searching under small rock and cobbles. Skate and flatfish can be found in the open but are very sluggish due to the cold. They can be gently picked up by hand and offer little resistance. A closer look at clouds of sediment near the base of the ice reveal millions of tiny isopods called mysids. On the pieces of ice itself are another type of isopods, Gammerus. These flea-like animals feed on algae growing on the surface of the ice. The algae gives the ice a dirty appearance.

Divers scare the small animals as they approach and they immediately swim for safety to the cover of seaweed on the bottom.

Unlike ice diving in lakes and rivers, the ceiling of ice is not flat. It is stacked in large pieces forming underwater caves and passageways. And distinct from cave diving which occurs in the dark, the side of the icecave are well lit. Exploration of the caverns should only be done with the tendered rope and buddy system.

Note: This type of diving should only be done by experienced ice divers with the proper equipment. Any diving away from the mouth of the ice caves should be done with a rope and tender system. It is very easy to get disorientated and to get lost under a canopy of ice is fatal.

Also, ice cakes are large and heavy and have lots of inertia. A person could be easily crushed if one got caught between them. Do not dive around moving ice floes! Also carrying heavy diving and camera equipment to the edge of the ice, require the person to be in good physical condition. The divers should also be prepared should an emergency occur on the trip to and from the site.

Description of Slides:

1. Diving at a Quarry Lake, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Ice diving in lakes, ponds or quarries is carried out by cutting out a hole in the ice. The ceiling of the ice underwater is usually as flat as the surface. The divers use a buddy system and rope tender to ensure they do not get lost under the ice.

2. Snorkeling at the edge of the ice floe. Diver Neil McNair enjoys the clear cool water at the edge of the ice pack.

3. Diver swims though a narrow cave in the ice pack

4. Large pieces of ice pile up on top of each other. This sometimes extends right to the bottom forming passageways and chambers.

5. Diver Neil McNair swims under the pack ice.

6. Surface: A diver suits up beside a jagged pile of ice at the edge of the ice floe. After an exhausting walk out over the ice field, the plunge into the cool water can be quite refreshing.

7. Surface: Divers with dog stand on an ice cake.

8. Surface: Face of "Icicle" diver, Neil McNair after a fun filled dive on a very cold day.

9. Surface: Very tired divers after a diving trek in a snowstorm at Cavendish beach, P.E.I. A group of international divers: Rui Santos from Portugal, Bob Semple, Lawrence and Judy McCook from Australia and Raul Ugarte from Chile.

*Bob Semple, a marine biologist and award-winning photographer, including two world competitions for underwater photography, has been a contributor to shunpiking magazine since 1996. He resides in Waverly.


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Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.