Move over, Polar Bear Club, there is a new game in town—ice diving!
Ice diving is not actually new, or a game, for that matter. Frosty veterans such as Osamu Higano of Asahikawa Dive House and Masashi Imai of Robinson in Sapporo, have been tramping off the beach, across the frozen ocean and plunging into the wintry waters of Hokkaido for nearly 25 years. The giant ice flows drifting down from the Sea of Okhotsk have provided an ideal platform for a handful of adventure-seeking divers who have opened and expanded dive businesses across the island.
Chainsaws and Triangles
With water temperatures hovering between 0 and -2 degrees, and anywhere between 30 centimeters and two meters of ice skimming the surface, safety procedures are strict.
Several triangular exit and entry holes are drilled with a chainsaw or massive ice-cutting machines, at least 150 meters out. The group sets up a base for protective operations, including a tent for warmth and changing. A rope, long enough to extend well beyond the dive site, is tethered to the ice and stays in the water at all times in case an emergency sweep of the area is necessary.
A one-to-two instructor-to-customer ratio is standard. Due to low visibility and extreme cold, dives do not usually exceed 10 meters in depth or 15 minutes in length, although Yasuhiro Yamamoto of the Dolphin Hotel in Shiretoko runs slightly longer trips for those with experience.
No experience is necessary, however, and anyone 18 years of age or older can try. Depending on conditions, the season usually runs every weekend from the end of January through mid-March.
A basic one-day, two-dive program starts in the \20,000-\30,000 range. This usually includes lunch and, more importantly, a freeze-resistant regulator. Full weekend sets and PADI certification courses are available at most shops. A neoprene dry suit (absolutely essential), BCD and other accessories such as masks and fins cost extra. Fleece and warm underwear are necessary both in the ocean and on land waiting to dive.
So, who ice dives?
Clubs from Tokyo and other Honshu areas comprise almost 90 percent of the clientele in Shiretoko and other Hokkaido locations. The vast majority are yearly repeaters. That said, operators and club members stress that new challengers are always welcome. With a high-tech bi-lingual Website, the Dolphin Hotel seems to garner the most non-Japanese patronage, but most places have English-speaking instructors on staff.
And more importantly, why?
The water is cold and the risk is high. The threat of hypothermia and decreased mental faculties is always present, but the overwhelming rate of returnees speaks for itself.
Perhaps not as colorful as reef diving, the looming quiet delicacy of the floating “bergs” lends a dramatic and other-worldly quality to the experience. While experts continue to explore the details of the bottom environment, first-timers marvel at the cloudy ice above and the persistent wildlife below.
The superstar of the ice diving community is the Sea Angel—or clione in Japanese. A cross between a jellyfish and an underwater firefly, these tiny creatures hover under icebergs and drive divers wild with their placid cuteness. With Batman ears and a translucent body, they are extremely photogenic.
It is a challenge for everyone. Even those with years of experience in warmer waters must step up and adjust to the chilly waters. But from that challenge comes a sense of satisfaction which ice divers always note when asked why they pursue the sport.
And this is Japan, after all. After thinking for a moment when pressed to give reasons to make the trip up to Shiretoko, First Name? Imai, with more than 20 years experience in the biting water, said simply, “At the end of a day ice diving, an onsen feels really good.”
Sounds like a plan.
Asahikawa Dive House
Tel: (01663) 1-3588
Tel: (011) 631-2929
Dolphin Hotel in Shiretoko
Tel: (01522) 4-2888