You don't have to be scared or worried to freedive in cold waters. It can be really wonderful. If you do everything you are supposed to, magic will happen and you will experience amazing moments, see unique environments and sea creatures, and maybe get a chance to meet some of the huge marine mammals living in the arctic. But of course, there are lots of things you must consider before you enter the water beyond the polar cycle. Pavel Tomm explains.
I bet this is always the first thing that crosses people's minds as soon as they start thinking about freediving in the arctic. And yes, it makes sense, the water is not warm. I freedive in Norwegian fjords every year at the beginning of winter. Actually, because of the Gulf Stream, the water is not that cold. If you have experience with lakes, such as those in the Alps, the water can be much colder there. Here it remains usually between 4 and 7 degrees Celsius, which doesn't sound that bad if you consider that we are diving 70 degrees north. The water can be colder in some locations, like in shallow bays, where the snow is melting. I can tell you, you would notice the difference very quickly. Anyway, the water is cold in general and you are at risk of hypothermia. It is necessary to avoid it but you need to know what to do if it occurs.
First of all, you need good equipment. That means a wetsuit with proper thickness and preferably tailor-made and smooth skin. Trust me, rather than in the water, you likely get cold while spending some time on the boat between dives. Having only the lined wetsuit, the wind would go through. What would I recommend? Since the combination of smooth skin on top and open-cell inside makes the suit fragile, you can choose from wetsuits that have a lined layer in between the layers that are stitched together. That makes the suit unbreakable and super warm. If you asked me which thickness I would recommend, I would say 7 - 8 mm. Definitely not more. Your movement would be limited and you would not feel comfortable anymore.
I use 7,5 mm and because it is tailor-made, I have a hood of 5,5 mm thickness. A thinner suit, like around 5 mm, for example, could only be used for a little while and for someone who doesn't have any problem with cold. But in general, it is not enough for all-day diving. And why tailor-made? Well, you can have the best suit in the world but if it is just too big for you and the water is leaking inside, I wish you good luck.
Gloves and socks. Well, probably you will need to try some, but again, today's market is full. I use 5 mm socks and 7 mm 3 fingers gloves. I'm putting warm water inside before going into the water which helps a lot with keeping my hands warm for a very long time. And yes, I have an underwater camera with me all the time and it's not a problem to control it.
In the water, you must expect that your face is going to be a bit numb after a while. But you know, it's not that bad in the end and you don't feel the cold anymore. I feel cold on my feet, but the rest of my body is in comfort. Never underestimate the gear. It makes the difference between an amazing experience and a nightmare. But If it happens anyway and you start to get cold or get even close to being hypothermic, finish the session immediately and read and study something about signs and symptoms. Always try to do your best to avoid it, but be sure you know what to do when it happens.
The north is wild. It's cold, dark, it's windy and there are lots of local phenomena that it's crucial to know something about. You can not just enter the water anywhere and anytime, it's not how it works. Currents. Again, I'm diving in the fjords of Norway. For those who have never been there, it can look like rivers between lands in some places. But remember, it is where the sea meets the land and of course, there are tides. And in some locations, the tide can create quite a big tide current which could change the freediving session in problematic situations in a second. What can significantly help in such a situation is having a good technique, being kind of fit, and having good carbon fins. It's the same as with the yacht. You always need to plan when to go to your destination because the tide current can be stronger than the speed of your boat.
Wind. The wind can change very quickly and it could be quite dramatic. Looking at the forecast on your mobile device or checking some maps with wind directions could not be enough. The wind is always creating lots of local phenomena and it can easily surprise you. It is likely that the wind speeds up around mountains, starts to blow in different directions than you saw in the forecast, or just blows much harder. The best thing you can do is to talk to some locals, usually fishermen, or to be with an experienced guide in the water.
Swell. The fjords are open to the seas at one side. And when the wind has the right direction, it can bring big swells into it. But because inside big fjords, there are lots of islands and turns and other smaller fjords, you can always find places where you can hide and freedive. But keep in mind, you can be in a calm place, and just behind the corner, the sea can be quite rough.
Same as everywhere else on the planet, you need to know what you can encounter in the water. Arctic waters are rich in marine mammals. Seals, dolphins, porpoises or whales can be seen almost anywhere and even if they are usually shy, trying to avoid you, they still can surprise you. There is a very unique natural event happening in Norwegian fjords every autumn and winter. More than 6 million tons of herrings are entering shallower fjords and bays in the north of Norway and they are followed by huge numbers of orcas and humpbacks who spend a few months there feeding on them. I'm working in Arctic-freediving.com with Jacques de Vos as a dive guide and our job is to bring people in the water so they can freedive with these extraordinary marine mammals. Is it safe? It is the same as with any different wild animals in nature. There will always be some degree of risk and no one can say it is 100% safe. But the risk can be minimized and unsafe situations avoided by following the guidelines of your guide and being properly prepared. Do your research before you book a tour with someone. Find some ethical operators with good reviews. Never break any recommendations or rules even if the guide is saying “that's ok”.
It is definitely a bad idea to go just by yourself. Bear in mind that you need to know how to approach the animals safely and ethically. Unfortunately, every winter we witness behavior that is highly unethical and very often dangerous. Boats trying to block the path of animals, people jumping on top of the baitball to have “the best view ever” and so on. Think about it. You can catch them, if you want to see them, you need to make them close to you, not the other way around. If you end up on top of the baitball, orcas will see you since they use echolocation. A humpback will not - they see only what they see and if they just fly through the ball with their mouth wide open, it could be a problem for them to see you being hidden behind herrings. A good and ethical operator will maximize your chance to see them under the water. Trust them. You can learn a lot and stay safe in all situations.
In general, arctic waters are full of fish that humans have been hunting ever since. The fishing industry is very developed here and it is daily life for locals. You very likely end up in a village where basically everyone is a fisherman or does some fishing for themselves. Therefore, some obstacles can be found in the water and you always need to be ready to for example cut yourself off when being tangled. Of course, it is good to know that at some places it is better to not get into the water at all. There are some laws and regulations about the minimum distance you can dive close to the fishing vessels or fish farms. If you do not respect local rules, the fine can be very big. And the coastguards or Fiskeridirektoratet are always there.
Fishing vessels, ferries, whale watching boats, and many other kinds of boats can be found cruising anywhere in the fjords. The concentration of these is even higher in places where the animals are. It is quite simple: where there are fish, there are fishing boats, most likely whales (in the right part of the year), and then the whale watchers. Keep your eyes open and mark yourself on the surface. Use the alpha flag and put some reflective tape on your snorkel. Remember, the visibility can be limited.
In the end, I think it is the same as anywhere else in the world. If you want to enjoy your time under the water, the more you know the better. Information and knowledge are power.