Not Being (too) Miserable Diving in Miserably Cold Water

Diving in cold water isn’t always pleasant, especially for me since I’m often cold, but it can be made more bearable. I moved to the sunshine state in 2015 because apparently I’m cold-blooded and I needed an environment hotter than what Louisiana was offering. I like warm and sun. I’m inching closer and closer to the equator.

And winter needs to make its merry way out of here. I’m working on my Dive Master status, and part of the training includes attending Open Water dives. The shop I’m being certified through does a lot of the check-out dives at Rainbow River in Dunnellon, FL. It’s a pretty drift dive with nearly infinite visibility and some delightful wildlife, including bass, spotted gar, turtles, and you can even spot birds diving into the water for a snack.

fishes in rainbow river
Fishes in Rainbow River

We took the students to the pool just as a cold front was moving in. Classes are held in the evening, after regular workday hours. For most of the year, this is fine. But I swear my first winter will never end. If it’s just a few weeks like this, it may as well be forever and I have instead moved to the Arctic.

So each night it’s getting colder and colder. I’m a wuss and usually got out of the water early. And it’s that getting out part that’s really just awful. Because the pool is heated. It’s like retreating from the frigid clutching grasp of the White Walkers, ducking into the warm(er) pool water.

The springs and spring-fed Rainbow River are not that forgiving. And they aren’t defeated with dragonglass. At a steady 72 degrees Fahrenheit, they’re actually warmer than the air temperature right now. But all of that is relative. Nothing about any of this means that it’s warm by my standards. By any stretch. At all.

Before leaving for what I perceive as ice diving, I set out for some Lava Core. Lava Core is an insulating garment you can wear alone or under a wetsuit, and has been on my wish list since I first learned to dive. Anything colder than bath water can shove it. Anyway, because this was a last-minute decision, I had to settle on what I could find in the area. I found something similar, called SharkSkin, but it wasn’t the coveted Lava Core and I was skeptical. Naturally I couldn’t find garments short enough for me (I’m SO CLOSE to 5’0″. So close.). I got a two piece set, and trusted it would do the job, even though the soft material inside wasn’t as thick as the Lava Core I’d been more familiar with, and my trust was a little forced.

Up until this moment, I used thermal underwear under my wetsuit. Yep, you bet your buttons. I worked as an underwater bridge inspector for two seasons in Louisiana. Diving in Lake Pontchartrain toward the end of the work season was miserably cold. The boys wore drysuits. Eventually I ended up just spotting every day, watching bubbles come from the divers struggling in their giant garbage bag-like suits. But just until I couldn’t stand it anymore, the wizened and weathered Captain Causeway suggested (read: forced me to wear) cotton thermal underwear to wear under my wetsuit. And it actually worked well enough – especially since I couldn’t afford any real thermal protection at the time. So I learned, in a pinch, wearing close-fitting cotton under your wetsuit does seem to help retain some heat. The water warmed by your body and somewhat retained by the wetsuit has an easier time sticking to that cotton material. And the cotton sticks closer to you because, as we all know, wet cotton sticks to skin like white on rice.

We dove Rainbow River on a Saturday. The students performed their skills, my toes froze, but I was surprisingly resilient throughout the whole dive. Normally this dive has me a bit anxious after the surface interval – putting your face back in that cold water is a little less than comfortable. And it was still less than comfortable, but less less than comfortable. My skepticism wavered.

We hung all of our gear out to dry that night in the hotel, and arose early in the morning for breakfast and to drive about 30 minutes north to Williston. As we collected our gear for the day, I noticed that my SharkSkin was exponentially drier than another diver’s Lava Core. Skepticism – poof! Putting on cold wet gear is as bad as putting your face back in the Arctic depths of doom. It’s terrible.

We headed to Blue Grotto. It was my first time diving this  spring. I dove the nearby Devil’s Den, an underground spring, in 2014, but had yet to venture into the other natural springs in Florida until this weekend.

Blue Grotto is a pretty, privately-owned spring. $40 fee to dive. There are three distinct sections of the spring, reaching 100 feet into the earth. We didn’t have to opportunity to go quite that deep – it looked to us like a rebreather course was being held, and we didn’t want to disturb them. Rebreathers demand respect, yo. And because, students.

There’s a cave there, too, but it’s not open for exploring. Even the mouth of the cave is in a restricted area – which I failed to take note of until a warden yelled at me from the surface. However! I got a cool video of Virgil the turtle, though. He’s the resident soft-shell turtle and he’s pretty chill. Check him out on Instagram.

So, the long and short of it, I hate diving in the cold. And my new SharkSkin set made these dives tremendously more bearable and enjoyable. I’m still a wuss and I’ll eventually invest in a semi-dry suit or even a dry suit one day. But I will say I’m impressed with the difference I saw in how much my garments had dried overnight, and the difference in insulation during the dive.

More Tips for Staying Warm

Moral of the story is layers. On a budget, cotton layers. Cotton isn’t the best thermal insulation, but it’s better than nothing. I used to wear wool socks and a cotton beanie, too. I still sometimes wear a cotton tank top under my wetsuit. Something like Lava Core or Sharkskin is preferable.

Also, I don’t usually wear a hood even though it’s an excellent idea which I’m trying to adopt. I hate the way they feel above water.. I feel like I’m being strangled. You may have heard that most of your body heat escapes through your head. But as I understand it, this is only true if the rest of you is covered up and your head is all that’s exposed. This is usually the case if you’re diving in a wetsuit without a hood. Soooo… hood.

Layering up in Rainbow River

If your hood fills up with air while you’re diving, try poking a little hole in the top for the air to escape from.

It’s also a good idea to slip on a beanie after the dive. Or, if you did dive with a hood, you should keep your hood on til the end when it’s cold and windy – it’ll help keep you a little warmer while you doff your gear.

If there are showers, I take off my wetsuit outside by the truck or wherever we set up our gear, but I head to the shower and turn on the hot water to remove the rest of my layers. I also get all of my clothes ready, with the clothes I’m putting on first the most accessible.

If there aren’t showers, I cry and whine but I also make sure my clothes are ready to pull on with my cold dead hands before stripping down to frostbitten vulnerability.

PS, hydrate up before the dive! Coffee warms a diver twice..

UPDATE: I’m sure there’s a reason not to do this, but I had to try it. I ended up with some reusable heat packs and stuck them between the Shark Skin and my wet suit during another cold dive. And it was awesome.

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