18-year-old Canadian SAMARA IRONSIDE had dived in exotic locations but had never been tempted by cold water. With some of the world’s best temperate-water diving close to hand, however, she finally took the plunge in a drysuit
Since doing my first dive in open water, I knew that scuba diving would be a lifelong passion. I felt my life open up to a whole new world, but what I hadn’t realised was that I was still blind to more than half of that world.
Many people are under the impression that all the beautiful diving is in warm water, but that’s not the case. As I began to delve into what lay in the waters surrounding my soon-to-be university town of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, I knew I couldn’t let these unseen wonders pass me by. It was time to toughen up and don a drysuit!
How it started
I had begun my diving adventures on a six-month family voyage down under. At the age of 13, I was taken under the wing of scuba instructor Michael Haselbacher at ProDive Coogee in Sydney, Australia.
Michael was pivotal in setting my diving career into motion. Within two months of my first dive, under fantastic guidance, I had progressed to Junior Advanced Open Water Diver with upwards of 30 dives under my belt, and an ever-growing infatuation for the sport.
I went on to dive areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Galapagos and Panama. Living in the land-locked prairies of western Canada, I felt as though my diving opportunities were limited to holiday and other instances of travel – until I was introduced to the expansive world of coldwater diving.
Before stepping into that chilly water, however, I had a lot of qualms about drysuit diving. When I thought of a drysuit diver, the image in my head was of burly old, seasoned divers, lacking hair and overflowing with pretensions of superiority.
I saw it as a daunting art for the “hardcore“. This is not to say that drysuit, and coldwater diving, are not hardcore – I believe they are – but for the passionate and capable diver this should be encouraging rather than discouraging.
As a young, female Rescue Diver and scuba instructor with relatively little experience and confidence, I expected coldwater diving not to be a fit for me. However, all that changed when I spent three weeks in the UK doing work experience on Scuba Diver magazine. I was introduced to Editor-in-Chief Mark Evans (part of our Canadian clan, through marriage to my cousin Penney), and my perspective began to shift.
His confidence in me shaped my own, and I soon realised that my assumptions were false, and that coldwater diving can be enticing for seasoned divers and new divers alike. After getting an inside look at this world, I have developed a strong desire to show young, apprehensive divers, as I was, that they too can become involved – and should not be lily-livered without valid reason.
One of my main concerns about drysuit diving was that it would be heavy, difficult to move in and quite baggy, prompting fears of air migrating around inside as I dived and catapulting me to the surface feet-first!
I couldn’t believe it when I tried it on – it fitted like a glove, and I now understood why Santi was so emphatic that it needed a vast array of body measurements. My fears were immediately allayed – it was not restrictive or difficult to move around in and, combined with the ultra-warm undersuit, it fit snugly.
Mark gave me a thorough briefing before we went for our first drysuit dive, explaining about inflator-valves and dump-valves, putting in enough gas to eliminate squeeze and so on, but I was still not prepared for the bizarre feeling of walking into water and not getting wet!
All I can describe it like is when you put your hand into water inside a plastic bag – you can feel the pressure of the water but remain somewhat removed through the bag. In a drysuit, it was just the same – except that almost my entire body was removed!
My first experience of drysuit diving was in the shallow waters off Ravenspoint in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey in north Wales. The visibility of 5-6m and temperatures in the low teens was apparently good for the area, but for me it was among the lowest I had experienced. However, the dramatic rocky topography above water was matched by an underwater vista unlike anything I had seen before.
I was entranced by the strange colours and patterns on the large rocks around us. They shifted almost instantaneously from a deep shade of black with specks of gold to a brilliant purple, nearly fluorescent.
Though my mask was approaching its maximum fogging potential – because of my unwillingness to clear it because I was wearing a hood and, with this and my long hair, I thought it was bound to complicate the re-sealing process! – I was still able to spot small crustaceans, including lobster, edible and velvet swimming crabs and prawns, as well as gobies and blennies.
As this was my first experience in a drysuit Mark kept us in the shallows – we went no deeper than 6m – so I struggled somewhat with my buoyancy. I was conscious of not putting too much air into my suit to combat any squeeze for fear of floating upwards.
Adding another factor while diving does call for some mental adjustment, but I soon learned that being cautious and being scared are two different feelings.
Less of a chore
My second drysuit dive was off Newry Beach in Holyhead, this time alongside Mark and Anglesey Divers’ Martin Sampson, who was using the dive as his first foray into the water after a few months lay-off.
As I geared up to enter the water, I noticed that things were getting easier. This was my fourth time dressed in my drysuit, and squeezing into all the seals and getting all the large zippers fastened now seemed less of a chore.
Entering the water I found the same thing; in a small way, I felt as if I was learning to dive all over again. It all seems overwhelming in theory, but when it comes to application, it becomes second nature before you know it. Ensuring to inflate my drysuit only to avoid suit-squeeze, and using my BC to control buoyancy as usual, I found myself much more comfortable, and had few issues.
Martin gave us a guided tour, and again I was amazed by the rich variation of colours in the seaweed adorning the rocky seabed. At 8-9m this gave way to a gloopy mud-like terrain, and tested my finning skills to avoid stirring up the bottom.
It was worth heading out into this moon-like expanse, however, as Martin pointed out delicate sea-pens, resembling feathers sticking vertically out of the seabed, and then, on our way back over the seaweed, we encountered two dogfish, as well as several crabs and prawns.
My third and fourth drysuit dives took place at Vivian Quarry, in Llanberis. With an expected 8°C bottom temperature, I was desperately thinking warm thoughts before and during the dive, but my toasty Flex360 undersuit helped stave off most of the chill, and it was only towards the end of both dives that the cold took its toll on my fingers through my ultra-comfy 4/6mm Aqua Lung gloves.
While descending on a line straight to 18m on my first Vivian dive, I could really feel the drysuit in action, far more than when we were pootling around in the shallows. Taking note of how much air I needed to put into the suit simply to remove the squeeze, I recognised how important it was to use the BC for buoyancy.
Before, like many others, I had wondered if using just one device wouldn’t make it easier, but in fact remembering that there are two things to empty and fill is not so complicated.
These were my first-ever quarry dives, and they hadn’t been something I was particularly relishing, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed the dives. The water was filled with things to see – sunken cars, boats, old buildings from the quarry’s working mine days, and a few interestingly dressed mannequins guarding the waters. But even without these man-made distractions, the dive would have been amazing.
Above the surface, the quarry is surrounded by huge, sheer cliffs, which is appealing to many climbers. But what most visitors don't know is that the cliff continues to be an attraction under water as well. Though most people think that the main attraction for scuba divers is ocean waters, this just proved to me that you don't know what you might enjoy until you try it.
The differences between wetsuit and drysuit diving don’t lie solely in the temperature of the water and the marine life. I believe a huge part of what makes diving so wondrous, and I think others would agree, is the feeling it creates, and the abilities it provides.
It’s all about the opportunity to feel weightless and explore a world that feels completely foreign to our own – to let go of our attachments and forget about our day-to-day concerns.
Although the style of diving is completely different, all the things that drew me to diving in the first place were still prominent, and I found new aspects that will motivate me to continue with coldwater diving.
I found the overall focus and feel of the dives very different to dives in warm water. Rather than having ample mobility and freedom you do feel a little more restricted, which harmonises well with the low visibility commonly associated with cold water.
Rather than constantly looking off into the distance in search of more, you learn to move less, focus on what’s right in front of you, and find satisfaction in the small wonders.
Once I let go and accepted this different style of diving, I was able to find a whole new appreciation, and passion, for the sport and exploration of our world’s waters. I can’t wait to check out my home waters around Vancouver Island now!
Photographs by Mark Evans