Lessons from under the ice

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.

Words & photographs by Geoff Coombs


The ice cracks beneath my feet as I walk out onto the lake. 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 freediving partner, Andrew Ryzebol, to wait for me on the surface as I descend. Once I catch his eye from the depths, he should dive. The underwater currents are negligible – how far we drift is up to us. 

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 freediving under ice with Andrew back in the winter of 2016. We dove 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. 

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.

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Issue Thirteen
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This feature appears in ISSUE 13: This is Hvaldimir of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Thirteen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess

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