We woke to a cold morning, overcast and rain trying to be snow. Our dive gear was still crammed in coolers, so the first part of the morning was spent unpacking, and then re-assembling regulators, buoyancy compensators, weight belts and drysuits. Diving in Arctic waters requires special consideration due to the extreme cold and remote location, so we planned our first dive as a “shake-out” to make sure everything was working properly and we had proper weighting. As the water is much colder in the Arctic than it is in southern British Columbia, we had to add another layer or two of undergarments underneath out drysuits. The extra layers meant more buoyancy, which in turn meant our weight belts needed to be heavier to counteract the buoyancy.

Diving in the Arctic, Vancouver Aquarium

Jeremy and the team prepare for a first trial dive to test equipment.

Although it meant carrying extra weight, staying warm is critical to a successful dive in very cold water. Not only is it uncomfortable to be chilly, but numb fingers make it difficult or impossible to properly adjust dive equipment and operate camera and other gear. As well, hypothermia is a very real danger when diving in waters that hover around zero degrees Celsius. Dives are kept shorter, and any sign of drysuit leakage means the dive is terminated. Being cold is one thing, but being wet and cold can be life threatening. Special equipment such as dry gloves (keeps hands dry), heated underwear (cozy), double wrist cuffs (prevents water ingress into gloves if not wearing dry gloves), thicker cold water hood (keeps head warm – useful for thinking!) and of course an extra pair of socks, all help prevent body heat loss. Staying warm out of the water is very important too, so everyone has a warm set of clothes to put on immediately after a dive.

Vancouver Aquarium Diving in the Arctic

Yup, it’s cold out there.

We did our shake-out dive right off the beach adjacent to the Cambridge Bay dock. Even close to shore in shallow water beside a busy pier, there were many interesting animals observed. Among the 25 species recorded, a few noteworthy sightings were a brightly coloured banded gunnel, a four-lined snake blenny and lion’s mane jelly with a group of amphipod hitchhikers.

Diving in the Arctic, jellyfish

Amphipods hitchhike a ride on a lion’s mane jellyfish.

We had planned a boat-based dive for our second dive of the day, but our previously arranged boat operator was stranded due to weather at a remote location. So we drove out towards the airport to the large “tank farm” near the shoreline. A tank farm is a fuel storage depot consisting of a number of large aboveground storage tanks. We were able to drive right to the edge of the water, making for convenient and easy water access. The highlight of this dive was a smack of jellies numbering in the millions. Floating through this endless cloud of otherworldly creatures was a magical experience. But it was cold – the water here reaching a chilly 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Diving in the Arctic

The dive team goes out for a shore dive.

Diving in such a remote location demands effective teamwork both underwater and topside. Close buddy cooperation during dives ensures any problems are quickly solved. The complicated logistics of both project provisioning and emergency response requires a coordinated effort both in advance and on site. So far we have dealt with delayed shipments, missing boat operators, sketchy internet communication and scuba tank filling complications. If nothing else, improvisation and on-the-fly planning are two valuable assets for any team planning dives in Canada’s Arctic.

Blog post by Jeremy Heywood, diving safety officer at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

This summer, scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre head north for innovative Arctic research projects both below and above the ocean’s surface in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the new federal agency responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and for strengthening Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. This is the second in a series of posts.

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One Response

  1. Sequiel Cole

    Did not know that such beautiful colored Jelly fish even existed !!! What a wonderful sight to see. I can only imagine how spectacular they looked up close. Thank you for sharing these pics, and taking those cold dives !!!.


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