It may surprise some divers, but there are as many cold water dive destinations as there are warm water ones.
Locations with colder water temperatures can offer the curious diver an abundance of new and exciting underwater experiences, including unique terrain and wildlife interactions.
Scuba divers are inherently exploratory, so it only makes sense that we all reach a point where we want to take our dive experiences to the next level, and cold water dives are a great way to go!
What is considered cold water diving?
As a general rule, diving in water below 60 degrees fahrenheit is considered cold water diving. At these temperatures, divers must increase exposure protection to defend against hypothermia, and will often adjust other pieces of gear to cater to the specific cold water environment.
Is cold water diving worth the effort?
Spending money on additional gear and training, not to mention the traveling that is often necessary to reach great cold water dive sites, can seem daunting or without purpose.
However, what many divers don’t initially realize is that cold water ecosystems can actually be more unique and developed than many warm water locations.
If you’re interested in seeing bigger animal life like sea lions, whales, and rarer sharks, those encounters often take place in colder waters.
Cold water dives can also offer amazing landscapes, including kelp forests, rocky cliffs, sunken ships, planes, or buses, and even ice shelves.
In addition, cold water dive sites are generally less traveled than warm water dive locations, so you can count on seeing more untouched environments with less people.
Once divers begin to explore cold water diving, inspiring new destinations can be considered for the next vacation, like Sweden, The Galapagos, New Zealand, Alaska, South Africa, Iceland, California, Antarctica, Norway…the list goes on!
How much preparation do I need?
While not true in every scenario, the sightings that draw many divers to cold locations can require additional training or experience.
For example, diving in the kelp forests of California can deposit you into waters between 45 and 70 degrees fahrenheit, depending on the time of year.
If your previous dives were only in 80-90 degree water, the buoyancy difference that comes with the increased exposure suit and corresponding weight requirements will make diving in California seem like a completely new sport.
You’ll want to dive with a buddy experienced in the region before going off to dive as usual.
Similarly, if you want to experience the Orcas and Humpbacks that come in droves to Norway to feed on herring, you’ll need to learn to dive in a drysuit and practice basic dive and motor skills under the stress of very cold water (40-50 degrees fahrenheit).
These examples are just the beginning of ways a scuba diver might need to prepare for a progression into cold water diving.
For cold water sites like deep wrecks or caverns, multiple additional certifications and training are required for a safe experience.
Don’t let the extra work scare you away from these awesome experiences, but definitely respect that you have new things to learn in order to prepare for the journey!
Cold water scuba gear considerations
Additional gear purchases should be considered on a sliding scale, depending on the water temperature and the number of dives being done in those temperatures.
If it’s just one dive between tectonic plates in Iceland, it may not be worth investing in cold water gear.
However, as seasoned divers will attest, it is best to own gear if you dive fairly regularly.
You’ll always know how to use it, know it’s serviced regularly, and be adjusted to your buoyancy and movements with your own kit.
As temperatures dip below 70 degrees fahrenheit, many divers will start to add gloves, hoods, thicker boots, and even vests or thermal shirts to increase warmth while diving.
When approaching 60 degrees or below, increased exposure protection becomes necessary for safety.
Generally at these temperatures, divers will adorn a 7mm wetsuit or semi-dry suit, and many divers that habitually dive in these temperatures will even invest in drysuits.
Once destinations with waters below 45 degrees fahrenheit come into play, divers should be in drysuits with properly thermal undergarments and accessories for safety against hypothermia.
While any scuba regulator can be used in warm water diving, not all scuba regulators are built to withstand cold water and still function normally.
Once water temperatures start to dip below 60 degrees, regulators can start to malfunction or freeze in the low temperatures.
Because of this, many brands manufacture regulators specifically designed for cold water use that offer special features to prevent freezing.
The special features that divers should consider when purchasing a cold-water regulator include an environmental seal, a metal second stage, a heat sink, and a diaphragm model first stage.
Divers can also choose between DIN and Yoke style regulators in addition to more personal style preferences like the number of high pressure/low pressure ports or the adjustable flow rate and venturi valves.
Environmental Seal and Heat Retention
When a first stage is environmentally sealed, it is essentially insulated by a layer of oil or lube so that the regulator’s internal parts do not come into direct contact with the cold water.
Without this temperature shock directly affecting the internal pieces of the first stage, it is much less likely to freeze up and malfunction during use.
A metal second stage is preferred for cold water over plastic because metal retains more heat. Heat sinks further this idea.
They surround key exterior parts of the regulator (and occasionally interior parts) to prevent the metal from cooling.
Piston vs. Diaphragm
Piston first stages are usually preferred in the general dive community because they offer a higher air flow rate, which feels more comfortable (closer to natural breathing) underwater, but they are more prone to free flowing under cold temperatures because of this.
The internal parts of a piston regulator can be coated in an antifreeze material or be environmentally sealed, but a diaphragm first stage is environmentally sealed by design.
While diaphragm regulators do have a lower air flow rate that can make them a bit harder to breathe from, many cold water divers prefer them because of their consistently high performance in cold water environments.
DIN vs. Yoke
DIN regulators screw directly into the air tank, creating a more secure connection between the regulator and air source.
It is also more streamlined because of it’s lower profile. For these reasons, divers in the technical communities often prefer the DIN style.
However, the majority of the recreational dive community uses Yoke regulators, which mount over the tank valve to secure the regulator to the air tank with an external o-ring.
This is a less secure connection, but is generally the more common style worldwide (and therefore it is more likely that you can travel with your regulator and rent matching tanks without issue).
While cold water diving can seem daunting as an idea, the often once-in-a-lifetime results of colder dives are worth the amount of preparation.
After a diver takes the time to properly research necessary gear and brush up on recommended safety skills, cold water diving becomes just another facet of the wonderful hobby that is scuba diving.
If you’d like to hear more about cold water diving destinations, gear, or training recommendations, leave a comment below, and we’ll dive into those topics next!