Ice Diving In Norway

Special Report by James Phillips

Isdykk i sn?efokk

- was the headline in the local paper on Monday 19th Feb 2001. "Nordlands Framtid" had a cover story about the 13 English divers who were braving the elements to go diving under the ice inside the Arctic Circle in northern Norway in the middle of the winter. I mean when else would you expect to go ice-diving? And why did it make the papers?

So what was it like? I hear you ask. Anyone that has dived with either Fliss or I knows which half of the family is macho, and which half only does warm water photography...you guessed it, I am that wimp. I have a drysuit which was successfully stored in the garage for 7 years without ever getting soaked in anger, or seawater, or any sort of water for that matter. How did Mr Wimpy ever get dragged up there (67 N) in the first place?

What comes around goes around!

I guess it was mid-November, Fliss and I were at a really sad event, the funeral of a contemporary of ours, a much loved wife and mother of four boys, when one of the other mums announced she was going to Norway on an extreme diving trip. I think this got to Fliss as the lady concerned is a relative novice, and I wouldn't say that Fliss has been diving for a long time, but I am sure that somewhere in her log-book is an entry recording Jacques Cousteau taking a try dive in Stoney Cove with Fliss as instructor.

Sue happened to mention that there was a place available, and maybe she and Fliss could buddy up for the trip planned for Feb 2001. Fliss bit immediately and I figured ho hum another week at home being beaten by the children. But not for long, by the time we had got home I had been talked into going as a) expedition sponsor b) child minder so Tristan could come too and most surprisingly as c) newest bestest buddy. I should have said no then, but flattery got the better of me and, before Christmas, I suddenly found myself trying to remember what a drysuit does and how it works. This was at the same time as reading the pre-requisites for the trip - PADI advanced open water diver or equivalent, experience of cold water diving in drysuits and at least 20 logged dives. OK OK. So two out of three ain't bad, and I figured what I lacked in drysuit dive experience was more than made up for by 500+ dives and lots of cold water wetsuit dives (like New Year's Day in Littleton Lake at 2ºC).

Then after Christmas we suddenly started getting serious. Mumfie pushed me through a drysuit refresher, and Pete Smith's instructor refresher was made much merrier by the addition of a puffing red-faced individual squeezed into a neoprene suit in the pool. Mumfie had insisted that I needed an undersuit, as did Fliss, but I guess neither of them realised that we were talking about a neoprene suit that was already a tight fit.

Cost so far - new undersuit at £45.

The equipment list included 2 torches, 2 pairs of "dry-gloves" and no regulators, so next on the shopping list was a nice new yellow UK400 with 2 bulbs, a snip at £95. The gloves proved more elusive. Eventually Fliss settled on a new pair of thick 7mm wet gloves, and I got a pair of what looked like gardener's pervert gloves - bright blue with black rubber seals and strange cuffs. Neither were the best buy in the end. Mine were £38, Fliss' £20-ish.

But last of all, and the greatest hassle were my fins. I love my old Mares fins. But they don't fit the stupid drysuit, so I was persuaded by guess who, my drysuit guru Mumfie, that a pair of force fins were the way to go. John at Mike's Warehouse was really helpful, as was Dudley who lent me a pair to try, and Brigette who enthused about them, as did everyone else.

John's only problem was that he couldn't supply them in time, so I ended up grovelling to my local dive shop in Memphis who pulled out all the stops to get me a pair of bright yellow ones during a snatched visit at the end of January. Cost of fins approx. £120 inc express shipping.

The trip was now beginning to cost more in new gear than any other over the last ten years, but by now I was too excited (surely petrified- Ed.) to notice. But I should have been.

3 x 20 = 122?

Tristan came with us as an observer. He cost £395 as a non-diver compared to our cost of £495 each. We had been told initially we would be staying in a "fisherman;s lodge" self- catering. This didn't sound like the lap of luxury to me and the last thing either of us fancied doing was spearfishing for fresh salmon and reindeer after a long day's diving. So it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that we had been relocated opposite the dive shop in Bodoe itself - a town so far north it's almost on the way back down south.

We met the rest of the party and collected our tickets from the trip organiser, proprietor of "Challenger 10", a dive school/shop in Farnborough. He also gave us the list of things we should have brought with us. Hmmm.

It only took 35 minutes to persuade the novice SAS check-in lady that we didn't really have 122kg of luggage between the three of us on a 20kg allowance, and eventually I ended up paying for another 10kg (yet another) £65. The aircraft was full and late and Oslo airport was granted the spectacle of 20 Brits streaming and speeding through from one end to the other to get the Bodoe connection.

Bodoe is about 500 km north of Oslo and we couldn't miss this connection. When we got there at midnight it wasn't cold, there was no snow and we wondered rather smugly what the fuss was all about.

The accommodation proved to be the local youth hostel, across the road from the dive shop and we agreed to meet in the shop at 10am the next morning. Note: Nothing in Bodoe is available before 10am and not much is available after 4.00pm either, so be warned! The youth hostel was above the railway station, but unlike Gatwick, only had about 3 trains a week, so it was quiet.

"What is cold water diving?"

Erik Ellinsen, the 33 year old proprietor of "Polardykk" started the theory session off with this question. According to PADI it is anywhere less than 24 C. Which means we are all already highly qualified.

The water in which we would be diving would be fresh down to a depth of about 5m, and then salt beneath that. What we were not prepared for was the oily mess separating the two layers. We would have an in-water ratio of 2 pupils to 1 instructor, and would be doing 3 ice dives, roped, with a maximum radius of 39m and a max depth of 17m. Surprisingly enough, snorkels would not be required.

Normally when we travel to dive we take as much of our own gear as we can, but this time we didn't use our own regulators. Erik took one look at Fliss' Scubapro G250 and said, "No chance!" He looked at my D400 and said it was my choice, a 50/50 choice. Nice odds. What we were arguing about was the 34 drop in temperature between the first and second stages. They don't like piston powered first stages, only diaphragm operated ones.

Erik's compressor had a much higher than normal air purity standard, max 10mg per m3 for ice-diving. Once your rig is set up in the shop the bottle needs to stay closed for as long as possible. That means until you are in the water and preferably under it. Anything else will, and did, lead to free-flowing which was a major factor in dive one.

The theory course finished around 1pm and then after assembling all the gear and loading it into a trailer we had a 50 mile drive to the dive site, as all the local ice had melted. Our ice hole was a triangle 3x3x3m. The ice was about 1m thick. 8cm of ice is deep enough to support one person. 20cm is the minimum recommended for ice diving. The fresh water at the surface has a temperature between 0 and 4 depth it is 6-7 . The scientists/physicists/boffins amongst you can now discuss heat exchange theory.

The bottles we used were all 300 bar bottles filled to 330 bar. Which became 270 as soon as they got in the water. Rule of thirds applied. 1/3 out, 1/3 back and 1/3 as reserve. No-one needed telling this twice.

The Dives

Day 1 was slow to start and everyone was obviously excited (i.e. nervous). By the time we were in the water it was dark and there was no viz. With drysuits and ski jackets on the surface we were not cold, but it was only minus 2 or 3 anyway. The first dive was very much an orientation dive. In my case, I believe it was a dis-orientation dive. Fliss and I agreed to stay at 5m and become acclimatised and then I had bounced off the muddy bottom at 17m. I realised this was not an effective plan. Most of us hated this dive and most of us did not do too well on this one. Free-flowing regs, disappearing fins (in my case) or incorrect weighting accounted for most of it. But we had had a taste and now knew what to expect. Fliss particularly hated being tied to me on a rope. Apparently PADI are now being told to change their rules and stop tying buddies together. The reporters had a great time. I think this passes for entertainment in Norway.

Day 2 was another slow starter. There is a set speed at which things happen in Norway. It's not an EEC rule because Norway is not in the EEC, but I suspect there is a Government rule about how fast things will happen in Norway. We didn't get in the water until nearly 2pm again, by which time it was snowing heavily, nearly dark, the kids (4 of them) who had come with us were seriously wet and whingey, and the divers were getting cold feet. Literally!

So this is the day the TV camera crew decided to turn up. Are they trying to tell us something? Don't all Norwegians do this at weekends? Apparently not.

The routine is simple enough, first you act as tender, then you are fully kitted standby diver, then you dive, then you do whatever else needs doing. And by the way all the gear has to be schlepped 200m out onto the ice to the ice-hole in the first place. We all did better on this dive, but it was a feat of endurance rather than a 'labour of love'.

By Day 3 we had it sussed. By the way have you noticed our dive-per-day rate is pretty stable? Yup, one dive per day. Told you things happen there at their own pace.

Day 3 saw the ice starting to melt. It is a very unsettling sight to see the fountain created by released compressed air escaping from the ice as it finds the faults and cracks to make fountains of melted ice. We did not stay on the ice too long after the dive today. The viz was better, we had been told to expect sea visibility of around 40m and under ice viz of around 20m. But no-one had mentioned daylight also being necessary.

Oh yes, remember the premonition that I should have had about my gear? By now the zip toggle has been pulled off my drysuit by a ham fisted Norwegian instructor, so I am fitted "in situ" each day with the aid of a large pair of pliers. I have given up on the force fins as they come off after three minutes on each dive, and have borrowed a "set" from Erik. Note: a "set", not a pair, from the dive shop (one red one and one green one, how nautical). That's it folks. We are now amongst the 50 (surviving) qualified ice-divers in Norway.

Tadaa! Ice-diving, don'cha just love it!

MAELSTROM

How many of you have ever wondered where this word came from? None of you probably. So I am going to tell you anyway. It comes from a place called "Saltsraumen" - the salt stream. The handout we were given classes this as one of the world's definitive dive sites, one of the ten best in the world, but also one of the most dangerous. The current can run at up to 25 knots and is strong enough to drag boats and ships under, let alone middle-aged British divers. It quotes itself as a dive of many dives. What would Sir like? Fast, slow, deep, shallow, scenic, photographic or pure adrenaline?

This caused a free and frank exchange of views between Fliss and I as I fancied the deep and fast and she has had unhappy memories of up and down currents in fast flowing areas before. The facts are as follows. 400million cubic metres of water moves through a channel 90m deep, 90m wide and 2km long every 6 hours. That is a lot of water.

We dived at slack water. Nearly. It was only 3 knots. If you get this dive absolutely right you drift to a stop and then drift back again to be picked up at your original entry point. We agreed to a max depth of 35m and split up into 2 groups of 4 plus 1 instructor each (an orange suit and a black suit). With me so far?

At 35m I found my BCD would not inflate, so gave up and used the suit. By this time we had seen the (solitary) wolf-fish, and lots of kelp (as we struggled to grab it and hang on), the second pair of divers had disappeared and the orange suit had been replaced by the black one. 15 minutes later I was looking at Fliss and the black suit's feet wiggling on the surface as I contemplated surfacing 15m below them. I have never considered the wing-in-ground-effect of a drysuit before, or the hydrodynamic properties of my arms, but apparently those rules apply, as Fliss and Sven hit an up-current and flew like little Polaris missiles. This is a seriously exciting dive site. But you do need expert local knowledge to dive it safely.

M.S.Rabat

Built in 1929 in Hamburg, sunk in 1943 by the Americans (the blurb says the RAF but its wrong). She was hit by one bomb which went straight down the engine room stairs as she was trying to leave the harbour at Bodoe. The bomb was not good news for the chap at the foot of the engine room stairs, but he was the only casualty. This is my type of boat dive. Three minutes by RIB from the harbour. Unfortunately this morning my dry suit zip came off entirely, so I borrowed one. Which leaked. A lot. It was worse than a wetsuit. I froze. But the dive was good, 25m viz, 30m to the deck. Great stuff. The cold water has really helped preserve the wreck and there is a lot of life on her. We didn't see the promised shoals of huge cod (all overfished anyway) but there were a lot of fish and deadmens fingers everywhere. We surfaced in a blizzard. Tristan had been boat cover and he looked like a snowman. By the time we docked, Erik told me my mask strap was just about done for, both my computer and Erik's (on the reg) were giving battery warning signs. Now the only thing that hadn't had a problem was er, er, well nothing really.

The next day most folks went home. Erik took us all up the mountains to go sledging and cross country skiing, after telling us that downhill skiing was "only for rich peoples". We stayed another day to let me visit a local airline maintenance base. They invited me to visit in 1988 -this is the first time I've been anywhere near it!

We really enjoyed Bodoe. It is clean and safe. The people are friendly, quiet, filled with curiosity, kindness and generosity. We were brilliantly treated by Erik and his crew. He delegated me to drive one of his cars 100 miles each day in the snow as a matter of course, he loaned us gear from the shop and let Fliss return yet another pair of unsatisfactory gloves. "We don't do this for the money, we do it because it's fun"

So a huge thank you to them (contact Polardykk on 47-7552 5293 polardykk@bodo.com) and to Phil Riall from Challenger 10 (tel 07775 610084) for organising the whole thing.

We told the SAS check-in guy on the return trip how much we'd enjoyed Bodoe and he didn't charge us for the excess baggage. The connection at Oslo meant we had to run through the whole airport again for a change.

Overall we were humbled by the experience we had just had. Norway is a harsh and unforgiving country and the inhabitants are certainly a race apart.

Now all I have to get fixed is the suit, the BCD, the computer, the fins, the mask, the… oh well… next trip we'll just hire it all and not get any excess baggage charges.

This page was last updated on : 06 Sep 2011