Thinking of cold water scuba diving might send a shiver down your spine, but if you’ve never tried it you’re missing out on shipwrecks, walls covered in coral and anemones, kelp forests and lots of fish. And with the right drysuit, it’s not hard to keep warm in cold or temperate waters. Here are five of the world’s best cold water scuba diving destinations.
Silfra Fissure, Iceland
Where is it: Iceland sits between Norway and Greenland in the cold North Atlantic Ocean. Land-based tourism has exploded on this tiny island in recent years, with a landscape boasting volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields. But Silfra Fissure makes it a star in the diving world.
What makes it special: When you dive at Silfra, you’re hovering over the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates simultaneously, so you’re technically diving in two continents at once. Aside from the sheer novelty of the experience, the visibility of more than 325 feet (100 m) makes this dive truly remarkable. The crystalline water is the product of melted ice from nearby Langjokull Glacier, and the water temperature hovers between 36 and 39 F (2 to 4 C) year-round, so pack warm.
Details: There are a number of dive centers in Iceland, both around the capital of Reykjavik and in the national park where Silfra is located. Most offer day trips to Silfra with two dives covering all four main areas of the fissure. Divers must be qualified Open Water divers with some drysuit experience, although it’s possible to become qualified in Silfra, too. Snorkeling is also possible.
Channel Islands, California
Where is it: Channel Islands National Park lies off the coast of southern California, and includes Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara Islands. Anacapa and Santa Barbara are the best for diving, along with nearby Catalina Island. You can easily reach the islands from the mainland on day trips.
What makes them special: Huge kelp forests and encounters with curious sea lions make these dives truly memorable. There are plenty of colorful fish, octopus and nudibranchs, too. Most dives sites are shallow, between 33 and 66 feet (10 and 20 m), but ocean conditions here can be quite variable. There are lots of steep shore breaks, and wind and swell generally strengthen as the day goes on.
Details: Divers can book spaces directly with local charter boats or arrange trips through a dive shop. Many of the day boats offer up to three dives, but if you’re planning a few consecutive days of diving, check out liveaboard options. The minimum qualification level is Open Water and water temperatures tend to stay between 61 and 64 F (16 to 18 C) even in summer, so plan for a thick wetsuit and a hood or a drysuit.
Scapa Flow, Scotland
Where is it: Scapa Flow is in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland. Within the islands lies the natural harbor of Scapa Flow, now home to quite a few WWI wrecks.
What makes it special: These wrecks are underwater history museums. They are what remains of the World War I German High Seas Fleet, scuttled here in 1919 by German Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, who feared the ships might fall into British hands. While some of the ships were saved, three battleships and numerous smaller wrecks remain. The battleships are the highlight of dive trips to Scapa: at over 490 feet (150 m) long, they offer plenty to explore on more than one dive. There are also the shallower wrecks of the “block ships,” sunk deliberately between the smaller islands to prevent enemy submarine access into the bay.
Details: Most operators offer liveaboard options, giving divers the best of both worlds. While you stay on the boat, you do return to Stromness harbor every night, which offers plenty of dining options. Dive days here typically include a deeper dive in the morning and shallower afternoon dive. With average water temperatures of around 50 F (10 C) it’s definitely drysuit territory. Those not yet qualified can complete their Open Water qualification here.
White Sea, Northern Russia
Where is it: Northwestern Russia, just south of the Barents Sea. It’s one of the few places in the world where you’re guaranteed ice diving every year.
What makes it special: If you haven’t experienced the eerie feeling of ice diving, you haven’t really dived in cold water. Visibility in the White Sea reaches up to164 F (50 m), which is pretty impressive for cold salt water. Unique to the White Sea is a mollusk called a sea angel. Far from being a real-life angel, divers can watch it fly through mid-water hunting a fellow mollusk called a sea devil. You might also see migrating beluga whales.
Details: If you’re traveling from abroad, fly into Murmansk. Dive operators will transfer you from there. Arctic Circle Dive Center, which is also part of Russia’s oldest and largest dive shop, is one of two centers serving the area. They also organize accommodation in cozy wooden chalets and traditional Russian food. Early pre-booking is essential as foreigners need special permits. Water temperatures are 43 to 53 F (6 to 12 C) and 28 to 30 F (-1 to -2 C) under the ice, so a drysuit and warm undergarments are essential. Divers can complete their ice diving qualification locally.
Vancouver and nearby islands, British Columbia
Where is it: Situated on the west coast of Canada, Vancouver lies in a bay sheltered by a large number of islands. The biggest one of those is Vancouver Island. There is diving off the mainland and day trips to the islands are always popular.
What makes it special: Hornby Island is a paradise for seal and sea lion dives. Not too far away, off the coast of Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, lies the wreck of the HMCS Saskatchewan. Purpose-sunk in 1997, this World War II wreck has become one of Canada’s most successful artificial reefs. Invertebrates, most notably plumose anemones, cover the wreck, and have become hiding places for many different juvenile fish species. Sixgill sharks, giant Pacific octopus and wolf eels are also common in the area. You might even spot orcas on the way out to the dive sites.
Details: The best time to dive the area is in the winter. While the water temperature might be lower —varying from 43 to 57 (6 to 14 C) throughout the year — the water is clearest then. Many operators run day trips to shore-dive sites close to Vancouver, as well as trips to the islands.