Scuba diving conjures up images of pink sponge reefs, abundant with sea life, bright red, blue and yellow. Divers playing with tortoises and dolphins. Waters as warm as a bath.
But for Mike Carew and his crew, ice diving on the first weekend of March, the colors are mostly gray and white. Imagine cutting a hole in a frozen lake, and then going under the water. Carew, the owner and master diver of Captain Mike’s Diving in City Island, the Bronx, has been taking a group of divers up to Lake George, New York for an annual weekend trip of diving under the lake since 1987.
“I’ve been told I’m crazy once or twice,” Carew says. But then he issues a dare: “Come join me, see how crazy it is, see how much fun you’re missing.”
So we did.
Ice diving is considered an advanced type of diving in the diving community, and requires special training. To even go ice diving, a diver needs to hold an advanced diving certification.
None who went on Carew’s March trip were new to diving but most were unfamiliar with the sub zero water temperatures. While some divers train to get to the next level of certification; others train for professional purposes. On our recent March trip, a wildlife scientist joined the dive to practice for a trip to Antarctica where he plans to swim with penguins and other sea life.
Carew says that public safety members from the New York police and fire departments were on the trip as well. They dive every so often in freezing waters to keep practicing for the day they need to do a rescue dive in the cold rivers around the city.
But many of Carew’s weekend divers simply do it for the thrill.
Along with him on this trip were longtime divers and friends, Paula Jerman, 50, and Michelle Depew, 60. Jerman teaches people how to dive and her friend Depew will sometimes accompany her. Both have dove around the world seeing everything from reefs, sea life, shipwrecks to caves.“We’ve had a lot of fun teaching people how to dive, taking them out on crazy weather days,” said Depew.
Ice diving requires extra equipment to stay warm in the frozen water-—like a dry suit that does not let any water through, gloves, boots, and hoods. There is only one hole to go under the water and to get out, everywhere else is covered in 20 or more inches of ice. This is ultimately what makes ice dives a more advanced type of dive: the stakes are higher because if divers are in trouble they cannot go up to the surface anywhere like they would be able to do with regular diving. They must return to the original hole, because they would be unable to break through the ice.
The ice divers are attached to a tether, a safety measure not used in regular diving. Three divers go in at a time, all connected to a thick yellow rope that several linemen and safety divers hold on to on the surface. Every so often, the divers must tug on the line twice to let those on top know that everything is okay, according to Carew, who has been diving since he was a teenager. He retired from the NYPD rescue diving team in 1993 to run his own leisure dive shop on City Island.
One tug on the line and the line tenders know to release a bit more line—the divers would like to swim out further. And three tugs means a diver is in danger.
The line tenders call out ‘three’ and everyone rushes to pull the divers in. A minimum of eight people is needed to conduct an ice dive for this reason. “It takes quite a few people to bring them in and even with four people pulling on the line, bringing them in, you’re dragging three divers on the line,” Carew says. “That’s a lot of weight, so it takes some time, and it’s a coordinated effort and takes training.”
Those above the surface have no idea what could be wrong, but they do know they only have minutes before a diver could lose consciousness if the problem is a loss of air.
Knock on wood, Carew says: In all the years that he has taken divers up to the lake to ice dive, none have been injured.
Before each dive, the divers spend an hour planning the dive. The dive path is determined—how long they will stay under, who will lead and who will follow, what depth will they go to, and what will they do in case of an emergency.“That’s what it’s all about, training, experience, learning so you don’t make the fatal mistake,” Carew says.
The best part about the dive? Says Jerman “It’s the people, it’s the people you dive with, it’s a big part of it.” The two have been diving together for about 20 years. Depew says she likes ice diving because “you get to stand under the ice on your feet so you’re upside down, and that’s a gift.”