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While Boxing Day shoppers were chasing hot bargains, Fraser Debney and three of his scuba diving friends were into something much colder – the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River.
For Fraser, who is beginning his third year in the sport, the dive at Cardinal in Eastern Ontario was primarily to test his ability to withstand cold water without the gear normally used in such water temperatures.
“It gave me an opportunity to push the limits of my wetsuit,” said Fraser, who lives in Montreal. “The other three more experienced people had dry suits (preferred for cold-water dives because of their warmth).”
Fraser improvised by wearing a fine thermal type of underwear under his wetsuit. “I found that it works well. It gets wet but still stays warm in that layer (between the wetsuit/underwear and his body).”
He had no problem staying in the water for 25 minutes or more. Unfortunately, almost all that time was spent standing near shore helping the others with their gear because his alternate air source froze open as soon as he entered the water. “The air runs continually and there’s no way to shut it off.”
Fraser aborted his dive but the other three divers went down to the wreck of the Conestoga, a freighter carrying a cargo of wheat that burned and sank in the 1920s. Two of the divers experienced similar problems as Fraser did and had to surface. The fourth was fine.
The dive site was chosen for its “large safety factor.” The Conestoga wreck is the location of many training dives. It’s shallow (the ship is within 20 feet of the surface) and the current is not strong. A bonus in winter is that there are fewer particles in the cold water so visibility is better. This helps underwater photographers capture good wreck pictures.
On Boxing Day the river was especially cold (one degree Celsius), which contributed to the freezing problem. Fraser said a lot of dive gear is designed for southern climates, adding that some will say it is cold-water ready, “but cold to California is different than cold water in Canada.”
There is cold-water gear designed to withstand the conditions but it is more expensive. While Fraser found he could get by in cold water without a dry suit, he also learned the temperature limitations of his regulator. “My local dive shop is going to run an ice diving course and I was thinking of participating. Now I know my equipment would not sustain doing that course.”