This is my 3th story in a series of personal scuba diving adventures since I got my PADI certificates. After our first dive without a guide we got even more determined to learn how to scuba dive in the Netherlands. We practiced that whole summer till it got winter. This changed the rules more then we thought. This one time we made a mistake which luckily ended well, but which could have ended in a much more dramatic scene.
The water temperature is around 19°C during summertime in the Netherlands. This year it has even broken the record with 22°C. These are almost tropical temperatures ;) During wintertime however this a totally different story. Then the temperature drops fast and can even reach as low as 1°C.
We had been diving through the whole summer far in to autumn. The water temperatures had been slowly dropping and we had gotten accustomed to the colder temperatures. We even had bought our own wetsuits by this time. Of course as we where buddies we had exactly the same wetsuits :) , a Mares 7mm hooded. We where looking sharp!
Our last scuba dive was around the end of October. Around this period the water temperature had already dropped to around 10 °C. I'm not sure anymore why, but during the months November and December we didn't make a single dive. Perhaps it was to cold or we where just to busy. In those times I didn't go scuba diving as much as I would have liked. As I had to rent my gear I just couldn't afford it. As Victor and me met to celebrate New Year's Eve of 2010, we started talking about how we missed diving. We immediately checked our calendars and a dive was quickly scheduled for the end of january. Confident after a whole summer off scuba diving we had no idea what was in store for us.
We where almost dressed for the North Pole. A woolen cap, thick jacket and winter socks. The heater in the car on high and warm coffee in the hand we drove of to Zeeland in a wintery scene as it was lightly snowing. We had decided to dive on the reef balls of Den Osse kerkweg, a site we know both very well.
We arrived at the dive site and quickly changed in to our gear. I can tell you it's no fun to stand butt naked behind your car in freezing temperatures trying to pull your wetsuit on as fast as possible while it's snowing. As soon as we had our gear on we walked to the end of the pier. We noticed that we where the only divers in a wetsuit and that everyone was giving us strange looks. All other divers (the few that where there) where wearing drysuits.
When we jumped in to the water it was electrifying. It was really, really, but really cold! This was the moment I understood why people only last a minute in these kind of conditions without the right protection. As we descended I immediately felt a sharp pain on my face, like a thousand needles stinging you at the same time. This lasted for approximately a minute after which my face was already totally numb. I looked on my dive computer and saw that the water temperature was around 3°C. While we swam to the reef balls this temperature dropped even further to an astonishing 1°C. The coldest I have ever dived in!
During the dive I felt the water draining my body heat away, even the 7mm wetsuit wasn't enough to protect us from these kind of temperatures. I had a very small hole in my righthand glove allowing cold water to seep inside. After 25 minutes my hand was totally cramped up from the cold and I was holding it against my chest for extra warmth, but to no prevail. Victor and I exchanged glances and decided to abort the dive. In total we had spend around 40 minutes in the water. While climbing out of the water we where groggy and disorientated. We made mistakes trying to disassemble our dive kit. Where we normally do this kind of stuff automatically we where know talking each other through the steps. It took us twice as long as normal.
At that time we didn't know it, that realization came later, but we where showing signs of hypothermia. Diminished use of our hands, forgetfulness, disorientation and feeling chilled. Well it actually felt like our total body core temperature had dropped and that the cold was in our bones. We just didn't get warm and kept on shivering. It took quite some time before this feeling stopped.
Looking back at our situation we where quite shocked and a bit horrified about what had happened. In the end we where lucky, no accidents or further injuries had happened. But it was a clear wake-up call about scuba diving in winter time, this situation could have ended in a different story.
Normally the winter water temperature is around 7°C. That year was also a record for Dutch standards. We have gone over this dive many times afterwards to learn from our mistakes. We have made specific agreements on scuba diving in winter conditions. No scuba dive will last longer then 20 minutes while diving in a wetsuit. When having even the tiniest of holes in our suits we abort the dive. When feeling uncomfortable we abort the dive.
We keep to these agreements to this day. We've learned a lot about scuba diving in winter time in a wetsuit. We fully understand the risks when we step in the water. Scuba diving has always been a dangerous sport. However scuba diving in these kind of conditions is a whole new level.
Tips for scuba diving during winter time in a wetsuit:
- Make sure you have specific agreements with your buddy when what to do.
- Don't be ashamed to abort the dive.
- Always keep an eye on the behavior of your buddy.
- When you have your wetsuit on, fill it with warm water. This way you already have a warm water barrier.
- You can use heat packs in your gloves and near your chest to keep it more warm.
- Make sure you know the dive site well.
- Make sure you bring extra warm clothing to put on afterwards and hot tea to drink.
- Keep your dive time short.
Your biggest questions perhaps still is why we scuba dive in a wetsuit instead of a drysuit. After all these years we just haven't gotten around to buying the dry. It's quite expensive and well... the wetsuit has always worked for us. But this year may be the first time we will be getting drysuits. During my dives in Iceland I had the change to practice and experience diving with one. It really makes a difference. We will see what the future holds for us.