Exposure Protection 101 – Diving in Alberta - and anywhere else in cooler water
By Mark Faas & Connie Faas
Introduction, by Connie:
As land-locked prairie divers, we celebrate what makes cold water diving the best:
The chilliness of the waters is balanced with the warmth of new friendships made. We dive with many new dive buddies who quickly become friends upon sharing these adventures.
As David and I bask in the memories of these adventures, and share pictures, we want to assure all divers that cold water diving can be done in relative comfort. Trust us, if it was not fun, we would not do it! Warm water, tropical diving is easy to love: this is about having a love of cold water diving. Enjoy the primer that follows, by Mark, as he reveals the secrets and tricks of the trade to enjoying cold water diving.
Exposure Protection 101 by Mark Faas:
Water conducts heat 20 times faster than air, so all water feels much colder than air at the same temperature. Divers must choose their exposure protection carefully to have a comfortable dive.
This article will discuss the most common choices for exposure protection locally, and considerations for when to choose them. Additionally, there are several factors which modify how much insulation (underwear) is required, and options for this as well.
By far drysuits are the most common option for divers in Alberta, even for new divers.
At its most basic, a drysuit has an outer layer which prevents water from getting into the suit, and an inner layer of insulation which provides thermal protection.
The diver will add air to compensate for suit squeeze as they descend (which also affects buoyancy). Drysuits are versatile because you can manipulate the inner layer to provide more (or less) warmth depending upon the dive you are planning and surface conditions.
As for learning how to dive in a dry suit, it is not more difficult than a wetsuit, it is just different. A dry suit course will guide you through the skills such as buoyancy characteristics. Many of our student divers learn in a dry suit, beginning with their confined water dives.
The other option for exposure protection is a wetsuit. These are made from neoprene and work by preventing the water from moving around you as you swim. In Alberta, this typically is a 7 mm thick, two piece farmer john style wetsuit.
WHEN TO CHOOSE A WETSUIT
Diving in a wetsuit is an option. In Alberta, typically, this will be reserved for the warmer summer months (July, August, and early September). With a wetsuit that fits well, you can be as warm as someone diving in a drysuit, particularly for the first dive. Getting into a wet wetsuit for the next dive is a less comfortable experience, but not usually a problem on a warm day.
WHEN TO CHOOSE A DRYSUIT
Drysuits are great for all water temperatures we commonly experience in Alberta. The warmest water conditions we typically experience are in late July/early August when water temperatures may rise as high as 20C (68F) at the surface.
In this case, the diver will have a thin base layer under their drysuit (for example, the Aqualung MK1 fleece liner). On a hot day, you can expect to be a bit warm before you get into the water, but comfortable in the water. You may choose to wear wetsuit gloves, or no gloves at all.
As the water temperature drops in September (or June), you will likely choose a thicker base layer (ie. the Aqualung MK2). You will certainly want a hood (typically a 5 mm neoprene hood), and probably dry gloves with a medium weight glove liner. You’ll also want warm socks! This level of exposure protection is what most local divers will start with, as it is versatile, and can be used in the summer months (omit gloves/hood), or colder months (add more base layers, shorten dives).
For comfort in colder months like May & October, you will want more layers under/over your MK2, or underwear such as the Aqualung Thermal Fusion. You will also want the best socks you can get!
The coldest times to dive are the few weeks after the ice comes off the lakes, or before the ice goes on. Here you’ll want every layer you own! You may even want heated clothing, such as the Thermalution vest or Light Monkey heated vest. The thermocline will disappear and the water temperature is usually a consistent 4C from the surface to the bottom of the lake.
Finally, there is ice diving! We don’t get to go ice diving often, but when we do, we are rewarded with fantastic vis. and an incredible story of bragging rights!
You might think we wear even more insulation, but actually, the water doesn’t get any colder (otherwise it is ice!). As w ell, the dives are shorter. All this means you’ll dress with more concern for the air temperature than the water temperature.
OTHER FACTORS THAT AFFECT WARMTH WHILE DIVING
People do polar bear plunges in the middle of the winter (or above the Arctic circle). So one might ask if they can do that, why can’t I dive in a Speedo?
Here are a few of the factors which will cause you to add or remove exposure protection:
Length of dive - the longer you are underwater, the more time you’ll be losing heat for. This is one of the main reasons you can actually wear less insulation for an ice dive than a late season open water dive.
Activity Level - will you be swimming hard, or barely moving? Activity generates heat and will affect how much insulation you want.
Metabolism - if you are hungry, you are more likely to feel the cold. As well, some people generate more heat than others, or are more comfortable in a cooler environment.
Body Shape - A large round object will lose a smaller proportion of heat to the environment than a short thin one. Same thing applies to humans!
Should you have any questions about exposure protection, please ask Mark email@example.com, or Connie firstname.lastname@example.org, at any time.
By Mark Faas
More than one certified diver has been posted to Wainwright, and sold their dive gear, assuming there was nowhere to dive in the middle of the Canadian Prairie. Sometime after arriving in Wainwright, they discover Alberta Adventure Divers, and the local diving community, and the local dive sites!
Where are these dives sites? You can dive in many of the lakes around Wainwright and Lloyd. Arm Lake - been there. Schuster Lake - yes, it has fish & weeds. Golf course water hazards - they have lots of silt and lots of golf balls. However, the most popular location is Clear Lake, near Edgerton, Alberta. Clear Lake has a lot to offer divers.
The Public Beach on the west side of the lake is the common access point. Divers can set up at their vehicles and walk their gear down to the dock to enter the water. From the shore it is a bit of a surface swim to get to the drop off. At the drop off, water depth increases from 7’ to 20’+.
If a large group of divers are out (like Alberta Adventure Divers on a Tuesday night!), dive flags may be tied to landmarks. If not, you can carefully descend so you don’t kick up the silt at the drop off and swim east. Within a few kicks, you will either find a boat, a shark, or a line, suspended 2’ off the bottom. You can follow this line either direction, to find the dive course.
The dive course is extensive, with more than two dozen interesting features to check out. These include teaching platforms, Ogopogo, a shark cage, a dive bell and many more. You can see pictures of some of these on our website. One should monitor their buoyancy when swimming between objects at different depths, taking care to vent air as they swim shallower, and add air as they swim to deeper locations. Because the swims are mostly horizontal, changes in depth can easily sneak up on the unsuspecting diver!
The entire course is connected with ropes which are firmly secured. New divers can hold onto these to assist with their buoyancy if required, but within a few dives, they should be able to use the rope as a guideline only. More experienced divers will swim near enough to reach out and grab the rope in the event of a silt-out. Because of the silt bottom, silt-outs are very easy to cause with a typical flutter kick. For this reason, divers are encouraged to stay close to the guidelines or use a frog kick, and use careful buoyancy control to avoid the bottom. Experienced divers can do an entire dive without disturbing any silt. The best way to do this is to dive lots and gain experience! Of course, we can help out to improve skills with courses like Peak Performance Buoyancy.
If you are interested in checking out the flora and fauna, it is worth your while to take a swim along the drop off. You are likely to see schools of minnows and walleye (with their distinctive white tail spot). To lazily swim along the drop off on a warm summer day is a very relaxing experience. It also makes for a great safety stop!
There are a few safety recommendations. If you are diving by yourself, fly a dive flag, and carry it with you for the entire dive. Clear Lake is very popular for all sorts of recreational activities, not just diving. If you are with a group and a dive flag is set up, you should send your DSMB up every time you surface. This is a valuable skill for warm and cold water divers. If you need to brush up on your skills, you could consider the DSMB specialty.
For divers who are looking for a buddy, feel free to contact the store, follow “Alberta Adventure Divers” on Facebook, or check out the “Lloydminster and Area Divers Connect” Facebook page. As well, please join us on Tuesday nights! Every Tuesday night from the beginning of June to September Long Weekend we are out with the Alberta Adventure Divers trailer, and can provide on-site air fills. If you need gear, contact the dive store by email at email@example.com, or phone 780-842-2882. Ask about the Dive Night gear rental discount!
Even after hearing about all the things to see underwater, many people still ask “WHY?”. Of course, there are many reasons. When you are diving locally you will have the opportunity to improve your dive skills through practice and training. When you go on a dive trip, because of your experience the diving is easy, and you can enjoy the diving without focusing on the diving. As well, Tuesday night dives provide an opportunity to meet other divers, and discuss a shared interest. Warming up around the campfire after a dive while discussing the things divers usually discuss can be as much fun as the diving itself!
Many people learn to dive in the Caribbean or some other tropical location, and then come back to Alberta, thinking they won’t be able to dive until the next time they can afford a plane ticket. What they might not know is that there is an extensive community of divers right here at home. Many of us cannot get enough of the underwater world, and choose to refine our skills and expand our capabilities here, in our local lakes.
Where are these local dive sites? Around Red Deer, a common dive site is Twin Lakes (near Winfield). Every Wednesday, from the May long weekend until the campsite closes at the end of October, divers will gather during the day or after work. In addition, there are social events organized by the Alberta Underwater Council. These events include a Treasure Hunt in June, and the Poker Dive on Canada Day.
There are several reasons divers like this lake. There is a staging area for divers to prepare gear on the shore. You walk down the dock, and can jump into water that is 15’ deep. Much of the life is in the top 20’ of the lake, where you will find Burbot, Jackfish, minnows, and more. Divers have reported Jackfish several feet long! The bottom slopes downwards, and below 20’ you will find a training platform, and other objects to assist divers with their skills. If you make the swim to the west side of the lake, you can find cliffs, which drop from 20’-70’. If the visibility is good, the view can be impressive. More advanced divers may be interested in checking out the bottom of the lake, which is below 100’, but this is cold, dark, and full of fish poop, so it is recommended you seek proper instruction in deep diving first.
The water temperature near the surface can get as warm as 15C (59F) in late August, but divers are wise to prepare for colder temperatures which are expected below the thermoclines. Albertan Divers will typically wear a 7mm wetsuit on the warm summer days of July and August, or a drysuit for the shoulder seasons of May, June, September, and October. Many divers will only dive a drysuit.
Visibility is certainly less than you’ll find in a tropical location, on a great day, vis will be 25’. The bottom is also silt, so a misplaced fin can quickly reduce visibility to zero. For that reason, buoyancy control and finning techniques are important.
So what should you do if you’d like to dive in a local lake, but haven’t before? Cold water diving is certainly different than the tropics. You should consider a Discover Local Diving experience with your friendly PADI Divemaster. You may wish to consider some continuing education courses. In particular, the PADI Drysuit Specialty will show you how to use a drysuit properly to improve warmth while still controlling your buoyancy. The Peak Performance Buoyancy course will help you to adjust your weighting, improve your buoyancy, and introduce finning techniques to minimize contact with the bottom (and disturbing the bottom). After gaining experience with diving you may wish to check out the deeper parts of the lake, for this, you should consider the PADI Advanced Diver course, which builds on your skills, and shows you how to manage some of the concerns which can come up on deeper dives. If you really want to check out the bottom of the lake, consider the PADI Deep Diver Specialty, which will provide you with the training to safely dive below 100’.
But what if you don’t have the gear? Again, your friendly dive staff at Alberta Adventure Divers can help! We have rental gear. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we can arrange all the gear you need! From mask, snorkel, and fins, to a drysuit or wetsuit, we’ve got it all!
So what will you gain by diving around home? For starters, you can dive much more often. This means you will be a better diver when you go to a warm tropical destination. You will be able to focus on the amazing diving you are doing, because diving will be a second nature activity to you. But there is more. You will meet dive buddies who become friends. You will become part of the community of local divers who share a common activity. Because the best part of diving around home isn’t refining our skills, jumping in the cool water on a hot summer day, or even seeing the local northern pike (jackfish). The best part of local diving is the camaraderie, the people, the community of divers.