The move from warm water to cold water; not a transition any diver is overly ecstatic to do.
First off, let me tell you something about myself. I hate the cold.
I was born and raised in California and my tolerance for winter weather only goes so far. I have a strong affinity for scarves and sweaters, and snow sports were not something I was ever into as a kid. When I first decided to get scuba certified, my thoughts were on tropical water and coral reefs. It’s safe to say that I didn’t start out with any intentions of becoming a cold water diver.
During my first couple years of being certified, I did most of my diving in Hawaii where a 3mm suit was more than enough to keep you warm for a solid dive. To be completely honest, my 5mm boots were the thickest neoprene I owned (or had been diving in). I was used to unrestricted mobility and having to carry very little lead for my dives. Boy was I in for a surprise when I eventually decided that cold water diving would be an interesting idea.
I was also sorely unprepared for the instant brain freeze that comes with 45° water and slow leaching of heat from your extremities. Now, keep in mind that I am a baby when it comes to being cold, so adding neoprene was a must for me. Along with a drastic increase in neoprene, there was also a drastic increase in lead. I’m a pretty buoyant person to begin with, so diving in cold water also meant I was adding almost 26lbs of lead to be able to stay underwater.
My first dive in cold water was a dive off of La Jolla Shores in San Diego, California. California right? Not cold at all! Wrong. So wrong. It was cold. But it was also amazing. Despite being bundled up in more neoprene than I thought was even possible to put on my body and enough lead to counteract all of that added buoyancy, I really enjoyed the cold water dive. I saw marine life that I hadn’t previously seen in warm water, and I realized that I had been psyching myself out for something that really wasn’t that bad. I even went in for a second dive later that morning. I had been partially converted into a cold water diver after that trip. I wasn’t completely sold on it yet, but I also wasn’t totally discounting it anymore.
When I moved to Boston a few months later, I knew I wanted to continue diving. So when the opportunity to intern at ECD popped up, I grabbed it. The first recreational dive I did in New England was a seal dive charter through the shop. A spot opened up last minute and despite being nervous about being too cold (the dive spot was at Isle of Shoals and it was early in the season), I decided to do it.
First off, seals are awesome. They are curious and sometimes brave enough to play with your fins, and they look like giant potatoes when they sleep. But back to the cold. The thermocline was abrupt and you could see the border of the warm and cold water while you were diving. It was something that I had never run into (literally) when I had been diving in warmer water. There was no need to go too deep on this specific dive, but when we did it was akin to sticking your face in a bucket of ice water. It was also a new experience with the other marine life.
When I had been diving in Hawaii, everything was light, bright, and big. I had encountered so many larger organisms like eels, sea turtles, and manta rays while diving in the tropics. The whole underwater experience was totally different in New England. Initially, the cold water appeared more barren and I was disappointed by the lack of “cool” organisms I was seeing on each dive. But as I talked with more people and dove more frequently, I learned that there actually is a lot of cool stuff in cold water. You may have to look closer, but it’s there. I can spend a good portion of my dive exploring a couple large rocks instead of covering lots of ground over the reefs. Now when I see things like seals or sculpins it’s fantastic and it really highlights the dive.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t miss the vibrancy of tropical dives. There are some dives that I spend the entire time playing on the border of the thermocline or watching hermit crabs and moon snails putz around in the sand. But I’ve come to appreciate the smaller details of the New England marine ecosystem.
Transitioning between warm and cold water diving was definitely an experience, but it’s something I’m so glad I did. Don’t get me wrong, I still get cold. But with the right gear it doesn’t happen too often and it’s usually never enough to make me want to end the dive early. I also have so much more geographical range with my diving and I’m able to dive recreationally without traveling to exotic places.