Karelia Republic, Russia
Submerged in the water below a frozen white sheet at the top of the earth on Russia’s northwest coast is one of the world’s most chilling dive experiences. Think subzero temperatures, icebergs, and only one way in or out.
Ice diving is popular in Antarctica, Newfoundland, and parts of Austria, but one of the best and most remote places to do it is in Russia’s White Sea. Just getting here is an epic journey in itself, with a flight to Moscow, another flight and a long car ride, or a nearly 28-hour train ride followed by a few hours in a car and another few by snowmobile. But once you’re jumping through a black triangle cut out of the ice and drifting beneath the frozen sea, the time it takes to get here is clearly worth it.
Floating around the underwater rocks and occasional wrecks are starfish, rainbow-colored jellyfish, sea urchins, spider crabs, large round anemones, countless shrimp, and a huge variety of gorgeous fish. Soft corals, sponges, algae, and kelp speckle the sea floor. Above it all is a vast ice cover, filtering sunlight into dazzling colors and shapes.
The Coolest Scuba Experience on Earth
Marine life is particularly rich in the White Sea because the cold water holds more oxygen than warm water. In fact, temperatures can reach below freezing, which means you’ll need your certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), plenty of prior diving experience (or an intensive training program), and a whole lot of gear. Forget the typical wetsuit. For ice diving, you’ll need a dry suit, made of neoprene to wick away sweat and keep you dry, along with Thinsulate-insulated undergarments, at least one neoprene hood to protect your entire neck and face, warm gloves, rubber outer gloves, fins, a tank, weights, and a mouthpiece—among several other pieces of equipment. Your outfitter should supply all necessary equipment.
Diving in these cold conditions is dangerous. For one thing, valves can freeze, either shutting off or sending a diver up toward the solid ice above. As a safety precaution, each ice diver must be secured by rope to two other people: one in the water and one on the surface known as a tender. That way, if someone gets in trouble, the other person in the water can signal an emergency and the person on top can haul you to the surface. Of course, there’s only way out, and that’s through the same ice hole you used to get in. The risks are obvious, but so are the rewards. The exhilaration of slipping into the White Sea’s icy underwater paradise is an out-of-this world, out-of-body experience. Afterward, warm up with a banya, the traditional Russian steam bath, and a good bottle of local vodka.
The Arctic Circle Dive Center, Building 1, 19A, Suvorovskaya St., Moscow ( 7/495-925-7799; www.ice-diving.ru). The dive center also has a resort that provides accommodations and meals.
When to Go: Feb–Apr.
Moscow International Airport, followed by a train ride to Chupa or a flight to Murmansk and a 6-hr. drive to the dive center.