Freediving in Northern Waters

Cold, dark water is unappealing to most divers, but there are quite a few hearty souls in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the Northern Atlantic regions of the U.S., who relish jumping into our local waters to see what's below the surface.

By Chris Bustad

Contrary to popular belief we are not mentally deficient, nor are we gluttons for punishment (ok, maybe a little). For the most part, we just share a strong passion for freediving.

Having grown up in Washington State, I’ve always played in the waters of Puget Sound and surrounding lakes; it wasn’t until recently that I traveled to enjoy clear, tropical or semi-tropical waters. While those waters are certainly beautiful, there is also something to be said for diving in the life-rich, colder northern waters. It’s always exciting to drop down, not quite knowing what you’ll see on the bottom. Whether it’s thousands of Dungeness crab moving out of your way, a big lingcod, sea lions, or a giant pacific octopus, you just won’t know until you are up close and personal. No freedive is the same as the one before.

With all that said, diving here does have some down sides. The water can be quite cold, with surface temperatures ranging from 32F to 70F. It’s nothing that a good wetsuit, gloves and socks can’t fix, but with a 7mm wetsuit you do have more work breathing. The colder temperatures can also make equalization more difficult, from the cold water to the thicker hood. Thicker suits also mean thicker gloves — or cold hands. This, in turn, means less dexterity. You’ll also experience more suit compression when you dive with a thicker suit, which will lead to a larger variation in buoyancy throughout your dive.

It can also be psychologically demanding not being able to see where you’re going.  One hundred to 132 feet (30 to 40 meters) is generally considered a fairly deep freedive here, whereas in clear, warm waters I remember looking down at the plate and thinking “no way is that 40 meters; it’s so close!”  It’s a real confidence booster to be able to see where you’re going, but if you get comfortable descending where you can’t see, those dives in clear water will be that much easier.

With limited visibility, proper safety can at times be an issue as well.  Knowing your buddy and good communication is key. Each diver should also have their own float line, whether they are spearfishing or not. This way you’ll always know where your buddy is.

Despite these challenges, when I get someone in the waters around here for the first time, they usually say something like “I had no idea there was that much life around here,” and there’s a lot of truth to that statement. The biomass here rivals anywhere on Earth. Surfacing from a dive on a clear day, especially in winter, can’t be beat. Floating in the water, looking out over the snowcapped Olympic or Cascade Mountains is an experience any diver would appreciate. What some people see as cold, dark water, I view as an opportunity to see something that most people won’t ever see with their own eyes. With each experience different than one before, I can only wonder what I’ll see or feel next.