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June 29, 2010

Cold Water Diving

I know, I know ... It's been ages since I've posted here, and for that I apologize. I decided to write about something we've done quite a bit of lately -- Cold Water diving!

As does just about anyone, I prefer to do most of my diving in warm, clear tropical waters along the coasts of beautiful paradise islands, but that's not always possible. I was feeling like I had done my time diving in cold, murky quarries, rivers and lakes, but after some time away from them I began to miss them. Living in California there's not much warm water around here, so booking flights to tropical destinations is about the only answer. Not only can that be expensive, but it takes a lot of time. Sometimes the craving to breathe compressed air is simply too strong, so donning tons of warm exposure gear has to do.

Let me back up a decade or two to the time I got certified. I did my evaluation dives in Florida, with our dives being at Devil's Den and Rainbow River. We also snorkeled in a quarry near Devil's Den and the visibility there left a lot to be desired. Another option would have been to wait a couple of months until it was warm enough to dive locally in a quarry. Many new divers in Tennessee do their checkout dives in quarries. After my first experience in a local quarry, I totally swore I'd never do it again ... Until that urge to breathe compressed air hit me and the lake or quarry was much closer and more convenient than booking a trip. Getting wet and breathing from a regulator ... even in cold water ... was instant gratification! Sure, you swim around looking at stuff growing on rocks and searching for something more colorful than the usual blue gills, bass, or crawdads, but with a little imagination, I learned to enjoy what I saw locally. Since that time I have made well over a thousand dives in quarries, rivers, and lakes.

Fast forward to earlier this month ...

A couple of weeks ago Conrad and I joined a group of divers on a journey to dive around the Channel Islands while staying several days and nights aboard a liveaboard named "Conception." If you've read his blog, you already know he wrote about it in great detail, so I'll focus more on cold water diving. When packing for a cold water trip, you have to take more gear such as thick wetsuits, gloves, hoods, extra weights, a boat coat to be worn between dives, and even warmer clothes to be worn after the diving is done for the day. You lose a lot of heat, so keeping your core temperature as close to normal as possible is important. The Conception has a room down below that is very warm due to a full size freezer being down there along with a clothes dryer. They have conveniently placed a couple of long rods down there so everyone can keep their exposure suits as warm and as dry as possible. Even the drysuit wearers were taking advantage of these racks.

We made anywhere from two to four dives each day depending on the conditions. The water temperature was in the mid fifties and the air temperature was at least ten degrees warmer with a lot of sunshine. There was a lot of wind, so the surge and wave action was a bit rough. It's always a hit or miss with conditions out there, but well worth the effort. I wore a Scubapro 6.5mm full wetsuit, hood, and 5mm gloves, while Conrad also added another layer of a 5mm Bare hooded shortie. We both stayed amazingly warm. Our feet seem to always get cold first. Since neoprene looses it's compressibility function after lots and lots of dives, that really wasn't all that unexpected. Both of us were wearing boots with 100 - 200 dives to their credit, and we decided it's time for new ones for cold water diving!

The wide variety of underwater critters alone was worth the trip. We saw countless varieties of starfish, urchins, and mollusks on every dive. We saw sea lions, sharks, and were totally surrounded by tens of thousands of pacific sardines. We swam through seemingly endless kelp forests and we searched the huge rock formations in wide open areas. We swam around pinnacles and along the walls of the islands themselves. Some of our fellow divers even ventured into the many sea caves, but the surge was rough and the waters were quite shallow, so we didn't all go inside them. From the bow of the boat we often saw humpback whales and large pods of dolphins feeding in the slip streams on the surface. One morning a baby sea lion crawled up on the swim deck at the stern to see what we were doing. After hanging out there for a few minutes, collecting lots of ohhs and ahhs from the divers, the adorable little fella hopped off and showed us all just how quickly he could swim away as if to tease us about our limited maneuverability in his environment. We were immediately humbled.

As with everything it life that's worth enjoying, all good things must come to an end. Our time aboard the good ship Conception was over and the journey home was ahead. Conrad and I discussed our experiences in the cold waters of the Channel Islands and both decided we could not wait to go again. We said our good-byes to our fellow divers, left Santa Barbara and took our time and began to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway enjoying the view, even though quite a bit of the way was socked in with the common marine cloud layer. We stopped to see the elephant seals and the rocky coastline whenever possible. We walked along the shore at Cannery Row in Monterey, dreaming of the next time we'd enter the Pacific Ocean engulfed in neoprene.

Fast forward to this weekend …

We got our tanks filled and packed our dive gear for a dive in Lake Tahoe. One thing lead to another and we decided to wait until Monday to go. After all, it’s summertime and lots of people are on vacation, plus all the “Weekend Warriors” would be trying to escape the 103 degree days that were predicted. We loaded our gear into the car and made plans to leave at 8:30 Monday morning. That would allow us plenty of time for the journey into the Sierra Nevadas and we’d be driving against the tail end of rush hour traffic. Perfect. We got to Meek’s Bay around 11:00 and took lots of pictures and leisurely assembled our dive gear. Before we reached Lake Tahoe we had to drive across Echo Summit at 7380 feet. To get to Meek’s Bay we had to descend to 6300 feet, and this meant we were basically off-gassing as though we had already been on a scuba dive. (For more information about altitude diving please read Conrad’s entry about altitude diving.)

We got geared up and in the water at 12:45 or so. Our dive profile was 70 feet for 63 minutes, and the water temperature was 47 degrees at depth and 64 on the surface. There’s an algae bloom taking place on the surface down to about 15 – 30 feet depending on the current. Below the algae bloom the water was a beautiful shade of blue and it was crystal clear! Neither Conrad nor I were ever cold during this dive. It was pretty obvious that had we stayed deep for the entire dive we would have gotten cold. 47 degree water is COLD! Thank goodness for warm exposure suits!

Diving Lake Tahoe is addictive. To be able to dive in a lake that’s basically 100% free of trash and litter is virtually unheard of. During the entire 63 minutes we only saw one piece of debris that shouldn’t have been there. It was a notification of buoy registration, and I’m certain it accidentally blew off a boat or a dock along the shoreline.

During our dive we saw literally hundreds of crawdads. The larger ones must fight a lot as we noticed almost every one of them were missing a pincher. We saw what looked like hundreds of tiny fish, but upon closer inspection we decided they were baby crawdads! They seemingly stayed close to home, too. We saw very few fish during this dive. We commonly see huge schools of what look like silver sides, but they were not within the range of our dive this time. As we were making our way back to shore we saw a small catfish that was probably three inches in length. He seemed to be as happy to see us as we were to see him.

As with the Channel Islands trip, we were hardly out of the water when we talked about our next dive in this lake. We always enjoy the diving in Lake Tahoe, and we’re looking forward to diving Fallen Leaf Lake, as well. There’s lots of snow-fed lakes in the Sierra Nevadas … To help pacify our attraction to cold water diving, perhaps we’ll make it a quest to dive as many of them as possible.

Posted by Carol at June 29, 2010 10:02 PM