Taking the (Cold) Plunge

How do you prepare for cold-water diving? Before we hit the road for Iceland, that’s the question we posed to National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. Paul’s a guy who could probably live comfortably in his freezer. He’s shot stories in Antarctica, the Canadian Arctic, and Svalbard, Norway, at the very top of the world. He has dived under ice and been hit by an airborne penguin. Early next year, you can see his National Geographic feature on the Yukon.

Spencer and I are both certified divers. But when it came to diving Iceland’s inland fissures—water temperature 2°C (35° F)—here’s what he told us:

You’ll want to get a dry suit in advance. There’s a guy in Sweden who makes the best ones in the world. You can tell him I sent you. When you get your suit, take it out to the Potomac River [where I live in Washington DC] and just splash around for a bit. You’ll loosen it up and get used to how it fits. If it’s too tight, that’s how people get claustrophobic. It doesn’t fit right when you’re diving, you’ll get air in your feet and it’s hard to get air out of your feet. You’ll get hamstrung underwater.

Good advice. Take it if you can. Fortunately, we were in the good hands of the team at Scuba Iceland, which generously outfitted us with dry suits and steel tanks. The combination can add up to 100 pounds of weight  as you hike to the dive site. (One irony is that you nearly overheat as you prepare to freeze.)

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Photo by Daniel Stone

We’ll have lots more to say later this week about our diving in Iceland—specifically why we did it, and what we learned. But for now, it’s worth tipping our hat to National Geographic grantee Jónína Ólafsdóttir, who helped us learn an essential truth about temperature: most of the time being cold is psychological, all in your head. Although when you get seriously cold, it’s time to get out of the water.