I don’t intentionally seek out difficult dives but, somehow, they seem to find me. Don’t get me wrong — I love tropical dives. But after several hundred of them, I’m open to new experiences underwater. So, when my friend Marc Grodin asked if I wanted to go ice diving in a quarry in Quebec, I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation.
Ice Diving: not for the inexperienced
Before we go any further, and in the interests of preventing legions of open-water divers from heading to the nearest frozen pond, I’ll say that both Marc and I are fully-certified cave divers. He’s also a tech-diving instructor. So, as we stood on the ice at Morrison’s Quarry just north of Gatineau, the dive he laid out followed the same protocols as any other dive in an overhead environment.
There was a large triangular cut in the ice. Marc had a primary reel to connect us from open water to a main line, laid in around the edge of the quarry a few days earlier. Once we tied into the main, we’d have a continuous line from anywhere under the ice to the exit. This is basic cave protocol. We also had an alternate exit in case of emergency. A group of freedivers were exploring under the ice and they had a large entrance cut close to the middle of the quarry. We would use the rule of thirds to manage our gas supply.
What is ice diving like?
The water was cold — 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 C). I piled on thermal layers under my drysuit. By the time I was finished, I looked a little like the Michelin Man. Marc entered the water first after we finished gearing up. The water was only a few feet deep where the hole had been cut, so swimming was tricky for the first 30 feet with little room between the ice and the mud on the bottom. I did a kind of inverted ceiling-crawl along the bottom of the ice, using my fins to gently push off the ice and propel myself forward. Once the water deepened we entered a magical underwater environment.
It was a sunny day and the light filtered through the ice, creating a dappling effect in the shallow water, not unlike a French Impressionist painting. I couldn’t see the bottom, somewhere 130 feet (40 m) below me, but I could see the solid rock sides of the quarry. The light playing on those surfaces created a surreal effect; my depth perception kept changing because of the shifting light. I enjoyed the effect, but I also stayed within arms reach of the line. Marc and I tied into the main line and headed for deeper water.
We dropped down the side of a steep rock face to about 70 feet (21 m). The light dropped off quickly because of the ice and snow overhead, so I deployed my light. For the next 30 minutes, we swam slowly along the main line exploring the quarry. Over the years, people have placed a few “diver toys” on the bottom including a twin-engine aircraft, a mock submarine and a metal structure that local divers call “the habitat.” I’d seen them all before during summer dives, but in the now-dim light they took on a more ominous appearance, potential places to snag gear or tear a drysuit. I kept well-clear of them as we headed for even deeper water.
At 90 feet (27 m) we leveled off on a small ledge that ran along the face of the cliff. Below us it was pitch black. Ahead and around us I could see only see what my light illuminated. But occasionally, I would turn and look up at the surface — an uneven sheet of dim, translucent light at this depth. The water was crystal clear and I could just make out the free divers halfway across the quarry. I couldn’t believe those maniacs were in this water in wetsuits; after 20 minutes, I was starting to feel the cold and I was totally geared for it.
We reached the back end of the quarry and the rock wall was starting to turn to the left to take us over to the other side. I checked my gas and I was still good to go. But, at the 30-minute mark, I got a signal from Marc that he’d hit the one-third mark. He called the dive and we turned and headed for home.
The return was a pleasant swim. Rather than heading toward a dark abyss, we were swimming toward the light. The shallower we got, the more details we could see until we hit the shallow water by the entrance. When we emerged, I was more than glad the dive was over. We’d been down about 50 minutes and the cold had completely penetrated my thermal insulation. Cold but content, I’d added ice diving to my unique underwater experiences. It’s one that I’d highly recommend, but only if you’ve got the right training.