Lessons from under the ice

Words & photographs by Geoff Coombs

The ice cracks beneath my feet as I walk out onto the lake.

For some, the idea of diving the frigid waters of the Great Lakes in winter on a single breath might not be very alluring. But for others, this ice-topped wonderland provides a sanctuary for meditation and exploration. In Issue 13 of Oceanographic, Geoff Coombs takes us on a dream-like journey beneath the frozen waters of Lake Huron. 

I stare at the horizon and admire the vast expanse of white that covers Lake Huron, one of the five Great Lakes. Distant islands seem frozen in time, and the dampened sound from snow creates a silent atmosphere. Andrew and I begin taking turns with the auger, drilling through the ice to form our entrance to the waters below. The whole process takes immense effort but has the positive side effect of increasing our body temperature.

The cold water slowly penetrates as I hop in. The exposed skin on my face stings for the first few minutes. Maintaining a steady breath through my snorkel while looking at the deep blue depths below is key to staying calm. The ability to control the mind and breath is paramount to staying calm and adapting to extreme temperatures.

As I float in the opening, I tell my ice diving partner, Andrew Ryzebol, to wait for me on the surface as I descend on a single breath. Once I catch his eye from the depths, he should dive. The underwater currents are negligible – how far we drift is up to us.

Ice diving, Canada, free diving Geoff Coombs
Ice diving, Canada, free diving, Geoff Coombs

I take my last breath, close my eyes and dive down into the cold abyss. I feel my wetsuit constrict as the water pressure around me increases. All the air pockets in my 7mm suit are compressed and the cold begins to set in. The frozen ceiling of ice above me falls away. When I reach around 30 feet, I feel neutral buoyancy take hold and shortly thereafter my body sinks effortlessly. A strange mix of calm and anxiety bubbles up when I am drawn into the cold depths. The kaleidoscope of patterns in the jagged ice envelope me as I look up from the depths below. The discomfort fades for a few brief moments, and the scale of the alien world takes shape. Moody shades of indigo give way to steel-hued cerulean, undulating in the pale light from above. When viewed from underwater, the ice can change dramatically from day to day depending on the weather. Strong winds and cold temperatures will force the ice to build in layers, forming sharp edges and large underwater icebergs. But when the wind is calm, the water freezes in smoother patterns. The ever-changing views and aesthetics of the ice forces me to be adaptable to find new ways to capture it.

Andrew dives. I rise slowly to meet him, camera lifted. He looks like an astronaut drifting above an icy planet. For a moment, I forget that this isn’t the case. A warm beam of light shimmers through the water from our hole in the ice above. A sense of peace and a need for air intertwine, so I allow buoyancy to carry me to the surface. I take a breath and put my snorkel back in my mouth to look down at Andrew and spot him rising up. We will repeat this for as long as we can endure.

I started ice diving with Andrew back in the winter of 2016. We freedived the fresh waters of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay in the summer and when winter came, we felt compelled to continue exploring. My photography career was just beginning, and I figured that there would be potential for some great images under the ice, but I didn’t realise to what degree. This curiosity to investigate the same waters in a different season forced me to test my limits. My diving abilities improved, and my sense of creativity expanded.

Ice diving, freediving, Canada, free diver
Ice diving, freediving, Canada
Ice diving, freediving, Canada

I am fortunate to live close to one of the freshwater diving capitals of the world in Tobermory, Ontario. This small town lies on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a land mass that runs directly through Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The Great Lakes vary in their appearance, but the waters around the Tobermory area are extremely clear with vibrant turquoise hues. The water reminds me of tropical destinations, but without the warmth. Despite the cold, Tobermory offers stunning conditions for diving, along with many wooden shipwrecks more than 100 years old that are exhilarating to explore under ice.

Along the coastline, in Big Tub Harbor, the Sweepstakes Shipwreck lies in around 25 feet of water. It’s an eerie sight, perfectly preserved in the cold waters since it disappeared below the surface in 1885. On our last visit, Andrew and I had to cut through 2.5 feet of ice before we could start exploring. We jumped into the cold water and peered below the surface, pushing ourselves underneath the ice with our hands to find the nose of the wreck. Its ominous bow was highlighted by the blue ice above, and dark shadows shrouded its sides. We swam towards the bow of the wreck while keeping one hand on the ice above our heads. As I filmed Andrew swimming in front of me, I thought about the history of the wreck. For more than 100 years it has been preserved and lying in wait to be explored under the ice.

Ice diving, Canada, free diver, by Geoff Coombs
Ice diving, Canada, free diver

During the winter months, the water temperature drops and snow settles. If there is no ice on the water, the waves in the open lakes can reach 30 feet. Winter storms can be deadly, as regularly proved the case at the turn of the century when these lakes were sailed by wooden schooners and shipping vessels, some of which – like the Sweepstakes Shipwreck – now rest at the bottom of the lake. The winter months also reduce the number of tourists coming from the city, and most of the local businesses close. When things start winding down, the ice divers are just getting ready to go.

The ice forms on the northern shorelines of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay first, along with the shallow western side of the peninsula. When January and February roll along, the ice is blown south by high Arctic winds. This forces the ice to build on the rocky shoreline of the northern and north-eastern end of the peninsula, resulting in the formation of razor-sharp and jagged pieces of ice, often piling on top of each other in robust layers.

From the unpredictable weather patterns and our experience in forecasting the weather using NOAA, Andrew and I have figured out how to estimate when the ice will be best for our adventures. However, the conditions are always changing, and we never know for certain what things will look like until we’re there. The joy of this is that we never see the same thing twice, and each year brings different underwater landscapes.

Ice diving on a single breath is an experience that feeds the imagination. The physical and mental challenges often discourage people from trying, but if you can overcome those demands, the experience is rewarding. It offers you underwater views that look like dreams. As I dive beneath the frozen surface the world goes silent, and my eyes become fixed to the intricate patterns of ice above…

Read the full article, Lessons from under the ice, in Issue 13 of Oceanographic Magazine – available now worldwide.

Subscribe annually before August 1st and receive Issue 13 as your first edition – along with a 33% saving on cover price.

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