What makes you colder? Snowboarding or Scuba diving? I had a suspicion that diving in the Pacific Northwest in winter was crazy, in a freezing way, but whole magazines are devoted to it. Divers claim to love it. It’s the best diving anywhere! Better than Australia! All you need is the right gear to keep you warm.
Apparently I am extremely gullible, because it seemed reasonable to me. I’m pretty toasty warm when I’m snowboarding — in the snow and cold and sleet. Snowboarding clothes are pretty clever with their overlapping layers to keep out stray snow and their ability to keep you completely dry even in a torrential downpour. Surely scuba equipment is similar.
So, we scheduled a diving trip in the San Juans. It sounded peaceful and beautiful and adventurous. Beautiful islands! Giant octopus! Just us, the quiet water, and the sealife. How could we go wrong.
Our first clue that this may not be the idyllic scene (well, the first after the general idea of the freezing water) was the suggestion that we get an underwater flashlight. Even though our dive would be around 11 in the morning. And then we got loaded up with gear: boots, gloves, hood, super-thick wetsuit. Will this keep us warm? I was unsure. Our divemaster assured us we’d be fine.
Our second clue that we might be in for the absolute coldest time of our lives ever, including those years I lived in Wisconsin, where it often went weeks without going above 25 below zero and you couldn’t stay outside long for fear of your nostrils freezing together, was that when we got to the boat, we saw that everyone else, except one lone person (and, of course, us) had dry suits.
Now dry suits are quite a bit different from wet suits. Mostly in that when you’re in them, you stay dry. Unlike wet suits, in which you, well, are wet. We asked someone (a dry suit-clad someone, I might add) what the water temperature was. “I don’t know. I try not to think about it.” Alrighty then.
Have I mentioned just how freezing we were on the boat? It was in the low 40s outside, a little windy, and we were on a boat that was speeding across the open water. It was cold.
Finally, we got to the first dive site. We got all suited up and weighted up, strapped on our tanks and our fins and shuffled over to the side of the boat. And walking with frog shoes, pockets full of 30 lbs of lead, a steel tank of compressed air trying to tip you forward, while in a rubber suit and huge plastic goggles isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I stepped off the boat. As soon as I hit the water and started sinking, the icy cold water from the depths of a frozen hell started seeping through my wet suit into my skin. At no time during the dive did I feel warm. Or anything less than so cold I thought my bones were about to shatter. After descending about 15 feet, we were rewarded with views of dark murky water benefited absolutely not all from the flashlight. We could have been surrounded by multi-colored octopi doing interpretive dance for all I know. It just looked black to me.
The second dive would be better. Right? On the way over, P. couldn’t stop shivering and we plotted the deaths of our dry suited companions. We eyed them to see which suits would fit us best.
At the second site, we shuffled over yet again and took the big leap. Jumping into frigid water when already cold and wet makes for a cold experience that I can’t really describe. I couldn’t control my breathing. My chest hurt. My body hurt. My teeth were chattering. We descended. The water was much clearer than on the first dive, but I was too cold to enjoy it. It hurt my chest to breath. I signaled that I wanted to go back up. We were all crazy people.
I felt bad for P. though. You can’t dive alone, so if absolutely can’t take another second of freezing to death, then he has to head back to the boat too. We peeled off the suits and got back into our only slightly wet clothing. Later, when we were back at home in our heat-filled house, I told him I wanted to try again. I could do it this time. I know what to expect now.
He looked at me like I was insane. “It was freezing out there. Let’s never do that again.” I guess I didn’t need to feel so bad after all. So, warm water diving it is. Until the day that we get dry suits. Or steal some from smugly warm divers.
Last night, we went snowboarding. The warmth was refreshing.