DMC divers have ‘time of their life’ under the ice

A hole in the ice is not just a sign of the traditional Maine ice fishermen. It’s also a passageway to a beautiful underwater world that requires confidence and a special set of skills to safely explore.

A group of divers from the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center took the plunge, training as ice divers to further their marine science research. Ashely Rossin and Sean O’Neill of the Darling Marine Center were part of the group.

Rossin, a graduate student in the School of Marine Sciences who studies cold-water corals, has experience diving in the frigid waters of Alaska, and hopes the certification will help take her research farther around the globe.

“I want to dive in more cold-water environments: both poles, Norway, more of Alaska, southern Australia, and New Zealand, just to name a few,” she said. “Basically everywhere there are cold-water corals that still need to be discovered, I’ll be there.”

O’Neill, a research associate at the DMC has conducted research in the polar regions and hopes to utilize the ice diving certification in future endeavors. “I was also just curious what it would be like to dive under the ice,” he said. “It was definitely a unique experience.”

Along with Rossin and O’Neill, the ice-diving group included students Teiga Martin, Kathy Miller and Nils Haëntjens, and professor Emmanuel Boss from the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.

Divers received the specialty certification through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). To qualify for the training, divers had to have already earned PADI’s Advanced Open Water certificate.

The two-day training included four hours of classroom time and three dives under the ice at the pond at the Mount Vernon Fire Station, near Augusta. Course instructors were Dave and Matt Sinclair of Port Clyde.

The safety challenges of ice diving include guarding against equipment freezing, making sure that tether lines are securely anchored, and relying on other people to handle the lines and double-check equipment.

“To put two people in the water, it takes about five,” explained Dave Sinclair.

Both O’Neill and Rossin described their experience of being under the ice as surreal.

“I found myself in awe looking up at the air bubbles coalescing underneath the ice,” said O’Neill. “They shimmered like mercury as they danced across the underside of the ice. Truly amazing! It reminded me of looking up at the sky covered by the Aurora Borealis.”

Rossin said that despite being tethered, being under the ice gave her a sense of freedom.

“The world goes silent except for your breath, and you can’t care about what’s happening on the surface,” she said. “There’s no way to check your email or texts. All you have to do is breathe, and have the time of your life.”