Ice Diving in Cleveland Plus
Cleveland Plus is not a typical dive destination. The water is often fairly cold and can be murky. However, due to its shallowness, Lake Erie can have some great wreck diving on the days when the water loses some of its soupiness. To get underwater, quarries are a more reliable choice. The quarries that encourage diving generally are limestone quarries that have ceased mining operations decades ago and have filled with water. This water often comes from springs so it can be clear and still and wonderful for diving. Whitestar Quarry in Gibsonburg is a personal favorite and where many local dive shops do their open water training dives.
The local dive season for several of my robust friends and me is April through November. My first dives of the year are usually one of the first weekends in April. The water is still very cold. Last year it was 39 degrees. It gets as warm as the upper 70s in August. Taking a trip to a warm water location every winter to get some dives in is not always practical and not diving for five months is out of the question. My only option is to try ice diving. I admit I was not totally thrilled about the idea of ice diving.
Warm water diving is so nice; there’s less gear, controlling buoyancy is easier and the fish even seem friendlier. I spent a week diving off the coast of South America in September and imagined diving in only warm water for the rest of my life. But Ohio is my home and I love it here so I decided that maybe ice diving is a good idea after all.
I signed up to get my ice diving certification with Just Add Water in Willoughby. There were five other hardy students in my class along with the two instructors. Certification includes some self-study and several hours in the classroom where we discuss potential problems caused by the cold and procedures we need to follow to stay safe. Finally, we went to Whitestar Quarry to make three dives over two days. The ice was seven inches thick with about five inches of windblown snow on top. This would be plenty thick enough to support our weight but the layer of snow kept everything fairly dark below the ice. Large triangular hole were cut in the ice with modified chainsaws. Triangles are better than squares or circles because it makes it easier to get out of the hole in the narrow corners. Once the triangles are cut, we used large iron rods to push the cut-out under the ice. Two or three divers go in a hole together. One diver is tethered to a support tender that stays out of the water. The tender is monitoring progress of the dive with a series of tugs on the line to communicate with the divers. The other divers are tethered to the main diver and get no farther than ten feet apart. In an emergency, the tender can haul all the divers back to the hole in less than a minute.
The air temperature on the days of the dives was in the mid-20s. It was critical that the first breath from the regulator was underwater to keep the regulators from freezing in the cold air and malfunctioning in what’s called a “free-flow.” So, it’s important that all gear is in peak condition because there’s not a lot of opportunity to test it before the dive. In the relatively warmer water, the regulators work perfectly. Unfortunately in this case “relatively warmer water” meant 35 degrees. Everyone there was wearing dry suits to protect us from the cold water. We dive in special thermal insulation covered with a suit that has a rubber seal at our neck to keep us dry during the dive. After donning a thick hood, all that gets wet is a small area on the face right around the mask. Some divers even had full face masks and basically stayed completely dry.
Once we were all geared up and in the water the dives were pretty similar to any other dives I’ve done in the cold water of March or April. The main difference was that the water was amazingly clear; the algae and sediment that is agitated through the summer has had a chance to settle leaving the water with a beautiful clarity. Of course, another difference was that we couldn’t surface anywhere we chose. We used the tether line to return to the hole after a 20-minute dive.
Ice diving will not be something I do often. An annual trip to the ice covered quarry is sufficient. Still, it’s another way for me to enjoy the wonderful seasons of this area. If I lived in a tropical paradise diving in warm water year round I know I’d miss the winters – just like I miss the springs and falls. What a great place to live. –Submitted by Jim Lee, guest blogger