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White Sea, Russia

February 2014

Our ice-diving experience at the Arctic Circle Dive Centre in Chupa, Russia. Diving in -2°C water, the coldest it gets before it turns into ice, was a really cool experience, both literally and metaphorically. And we even saw sea angels! 

Giulia had the idea to go to the Russian Arctic and learn how to ice-dive and had dragged a couple of friends into this plan as well. I don't remember exactly how my 25 dives at the time and I got convinced that going would be good idea... but there we were, sitting on the train from St Petersburg heading towards Chupa. We even managed to celebrate my birthday as we were choo-choo-ing through the Russian winter tundra. Travelling by long-distance trains in Russia is an experience on its own, maybe to be described in another blog post. We were the only foreigners on the train and attracted a bit of attention especially with all those massive bags with equipment. Trying to explain to the locals, with the language barrier and all, that we were going to Chupa (of all places!) to go diving under the ice was rather comical.  We arrived in Chupa at 2am, and were frantically throwing out our heavy bags from the train onto the snowy platform with the help of some new friends we made on the train, a little bit worried that the train might leave as it was scheduled to stop only for a minute or two. Thankfully we were greeted right away by someone from the Arctic Circle Dive Center, we loaded the bags into the monster snow truck and we rolled towards our final destination Nil'maguba through the darkness and snowy forests.

Despite our late arrival we started the next morning early with breakfast, paperwork and a 2 hour theory lesson for the ice diving course. In the afternoon our first dives were planned. Our instructor was Mikhail Safonov, the founder of the center and also very enthusiastic diver and diving instructor with 1000s of dives under the ice. As we later found out he also organized the first successful expedition that dived at the geographical North Pole, so despite my lack of experience I felt like I was in good hands. 

In the afternoon we loaded our equipment on the sledges pulled by the ski mobiles and off we drove to the diving base about 4km away from the lodge. The set up at the diving base really surprised me, in a good sense of the word. Each maina (the hole in the ice you dive through as the Russians call it) had a little hut on skis nearby, nicely heated with a small wood stove, where we could change and prepare equipment comfortably, which was particularly nice after you come out from the dive and don't feel you hands or face from the cold. Close by was also also a heated hut with toilet (real luxury) and a bigger hut for having food, socializing and briefings. They also had one with a bania (the Russian sauna, where you get beaten with a birch branch) but luckily we were spared!  

The afternoon dive gave us for the first time the impression of what its actually like to be in -2°C water. As I was sitting at the edge of the maina kitting up and looking at my fins dipping into the dark icy water I kept on thinking how the hell did I even get here? But it was too late to chicken out of it so we slipped in and right under the ice next to the maina to try the first drills of the course. 

The diving itself is very different experience from anything I have done before. The coldest I have dived before coming here was 6°C water and you would think that those couple of degrees lower wouldn't make that much difference but oh boy they do....Within one minute of submerging your face (well the remaining exposed couple of cm2) goes painful and then numb. Particularly you don't feel your lips at all, so when doing reg swapping drills between mentally swearing you can't help but wonder if this is how celebrities with Botox lip fillers feels. I was wearing so many fluffy layers underneath my beloved neoprene drysuit I was almost struggling to bend my arms. Despite all the fluff (and hence the added weight, I had 16kg of lead!!!!) I could feel the chill slowly creeping up. The worst part for me were my hands, that were really suffering even in 5mm gloves and 7mm mitts over them. After 20min I was in lot of pain and at 30min when we finished the dive I was not able to use my hands and all I could do was flap helplessly. Even back in hut and with gloves off I could not regain feeling in two of my fingers, freaking me out a little and leaving me almost in tears that I wont be able to do this. That is when our amazing instructor revealed a miracle hack that was a real game changer. He suggested that I ditch the 5mm gloves that were probably restricting the blood flow too much and use only the mitts with an extra neoprene seal that he DYI-ed. The extra neoprene formed a sort of a semi-dry seal that prevented the water from going into the gloves for quite a bit of time, keeping my hands toasty for at least half of the dive. Despite of several little hacks that we learned from the Russians my maximum time underwater was 45min, hands always being the limiting factor, therefore I have total admiration for the instructors that managed to stay in water over an hour for two dives in a row. 

Some of the hacks they were using were a bigger sized drysuits so they could wear extra layers of fluffy undersuits combined with thick woolly sweaters. since if your core stays warm so will your hands. This meant obviously diving with a lot of extra added weight, which they distributed evenly around the body: tank, belt, drysuit pockets, even cable tied to fins!!! They all wear 7mm mitts, never dry gloves, as the don't have the risk of tearing and thus causing a leak also into your drysuit which at those temperatures and if you have mandatory deco as well is a recipe for hypothermia in a short time. And finally they had also full face neoprene hoods limiting the amount of exposed skin to virtually zero and also looked really cool, like a SWAT commando member (or a bank robber),  . 

Next two days we continued with two dives a day and our going through the drills of the course, followed by a little swim around as well. Some drills were fun, like signalling emergency and getting dragged out of water by the rope, flying like superman underwater. Less fun was when we were practicing being the tender and you were the person on surface that had to reel in two divers to the surface (its quite a work out!). In general we were getting used the rhythm and were having fun. In the evenings, we got even a special lecture from Mikhail about his North Pole expeditions with some pictures of amazing ice formations there. Giulia and me obviously started thinking where to find those 50,000 dollars per person to fund this trip. 

After the course was finished we had 3 more days of fun dives. Our favorite spot was the Biofilters Bay where the ice breaks up and refreezes every day and forms really cool formations. We even got to see a sea angel, a little swimming slug that actually look like angel! Swimming around and seeing exciting things underwater makes you forget about the cold.

The highlight of our week of diving was the "bikini dive". I always wondered how people dive just in their bikinis and always wanted to have a sexy picture of me diving in one as well. The White Sea was the perfect opportunity! And since sharing is caring I had brought bikinis for everyone in our group! Even Mikhail joined in and doubled from diving instructor to "snowsmetic surgeon" creating and implanting snow breasts for our friend, Chris! 

All in all we had great fun spending this week in White Sea, learning how to ice-dive. We also got to know some extraordinary Russian divers with lots of stories about other great diving spots in Russia and this trip basically put a bug in our heads about future other dive adventures in this country. This eventually resulted in our expedition to Kamchatka and Commander Islands the following year and Baikal the year after. We still however have to save up those 50,000USD for the North Pole!