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Freezediving: What Doesn’t Freeze You Makes You Stronger

What do you get when you cross a diver’s inner Wim Hof with the urge to exercise their mammalian dive reflex? Freediving cold enough to take your breath away, or at least form ice crystals on your mask. Meet Sabrina Figliomeni and the hardy souls who dub themselves “The FreezeDivers.” Their motto: “It’s not that cold!” (Yeah right!?!) What does it take to plan and execute a free, err freezedive under ice? Remove your thermals, take a deep breath and dive in!

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By Sabrina Figliomeni . Header image by Sabrina Figliomeni

🎶🎶 Predive Clicklist: Do You Wanna Build A Snowman? from Frozen

“If the world is going to end in ice, we may as well cut a hole and go diving,” say a handful of people on the planet. It’s true that jumping into an ice hole—let alone freediving under ice—is not on many people’s bucket list. Setting aside the thought of a massive sheet of solid water over your head for a moment, there are other pre-dive factors to consider: first is the surface cold—so cold your mask is clearly frozen to your hood and your nose and lips are numb. You’re in a 7mm open cell neoprene wetsuit, sure, but the act of getting changed can be daunting, especially when your lube freezes to your skin, the wind springs up, and now you’re regretting not setting up the tent. Let’s face it: most divers consider water at 7° C/45° F to be the type of cold that is too uncomfortable regardless of wetsuit thickness. Knock it down a few degrees and for them it’s a solid “Hell No.”

A few of us semi-jokingly call ourselves “The Freezedivers.” We dive in the conditions described above regularly, partly because if we want to dive year-round we don’t have a choice, but also because we just really like it. Our group consists of a mix of divers of varying abilities. As of this writing, only one of us is a scuba diver (yours truly). There’s nothing inherently special about us—we’re not superhumans, we don’t have any genetic upgrades making us tougher than the average bear, we all feel the cold—and each of us is quite different from the other. However, interestingly enough, and in sharp contrast to our local scuba community, ten out of thirteen of the freedivers on our last outing were women. 

Did you find the thermocline? Photo by Ashley Lauren
Swim over to this hole. It’s way more fun. Photo by Trisha Stovel
On the edge of silence. Photo by Sabrina Figliomeni

For me, there’s something thrilling about being in water that cold, fending off errant chunks of ice and gathering stares from more logical humans bundled up in their winter garb. The meditative warmth I feel when I submerge myself in water cold enough to land me in the hospital cannot be understated. I experience sensations I never thought possible, even as my extremities go numb and I’m plagued by the Screaming Barfies* as the circulation comes rushing back.

Getting There

Forever in search of water to dive, our kind have been known to hike gear (including an ice fishing tent and small propane heater) to remote alpine lakes in the Canadian Rockies for a day of diving. The hunger to explore in these conditions doesn’t die down as the temperature plummets; we just adjust our exposure protection to match. Sometimes our efforts end up as futile cardio and we go get cheeseburgers. Sometimes we’re rewarded with optimal ice conditions, making it completely worth the trudge. A special treat is when we hike to a lake and find it only half-frozen. Having a partial ice sheet to play with is a unique level of fun that really brings out our inner goofballs. Ever tried pulling yourself across the underside of the ice with ice climbing tools? Ice diving is clearly an extremely serious business. 

Part of getting ready for our ice dives is taking the time to set up our area properly, including setting up a tent when we can. The value of this one piece of gear cannot be understated; it’s a lifesaver and completely worth the carry weight when the wind picks up and we’re trying to take off our wetsuits. For some larger dive outings, we’ll set up hot water buckets for warming up toes, and continuous boiling water for lube and sometimes, warm soups. Just because we’re hardy enough to dive under ice doesn’t mean some of us aren’t (self-styled) divas. 

Part of the preparation is also getting into the right headspace for this kind of diving. This is where you start to anticipate your dives and leave everything else in the background where it belongs. There is no room for the frustrations of everyday life in any overhead environment, especially one you’re exploring on one breath.

*Screaming Barfies are a delightful phenomenon we experience when ice climbing—when you’ve had your hands above your head holding on to tools for a period of time and the blood flow has deserted them, they’ve gone numb from cold, and you really can’t feel them. When you lower your hands and the blood comes rushing back, you experience a rather interesting pain as they warm up that makes you want to scream and barf at the same time. Thus, Screaming Barfies.

Sabrina flaunting her inner Wim Hof. It’s really not that cold! Photo by Kim Kertz
Do I really need to get out of the water? Photo by Dakota Doolaege
A nice, err ice pick me up! Photo by Dakota Doolaege

On our last outing, we cut two holes roughly 6 m/20 ft apart and hauled out the massive ice blocks. We had a dramatic cold snap a few months earlier (around -30° C/-22° F and below) which gave us some of the clearest ice we’ve had in years; it was so clear we could see each other as we swam between the holes. We rigged up each hole with a marked free-immersion line (we marked every meter, added weights at the bottom, and deployed a pulley at the surface in the event of a rescue scenario), and a secondary line for photographers as needed. We ran an additional safety line between the two holes. I popped my head in the water with a mask to check the visibility (which was a stunning 15 m/50 ft), no hood required. Even when the water is one degree, it’s really not that cold. 



Taking the (Cold) Plunge

Into the water we went—breaking ice as it formed, cycling in and out, swimming between the holes to sneak up on each other and giggling as though we were at a water park. The biggest challenges with diving under ice are site setup and takedown, deciding whether you should pee in your wetsuit, and managing your mind. Site setup and takedown simply requires a lot of hands, a bit of cardio, and some creative gear packing. Peeing in your wetsuit is your call. Have fun with that one; I’d rather undo my wetsuit in the water than wreck my suit. However, managing your mind—this is the more interesting part. 

There has been an increasing interest in cold immersion in the past year or two, brought on partly by the pandemic, but also by a renewed interest in the positive impacts proper breathing and the cold can have on your health.  Cold immersion is a fantastic way to challenge yourself, build mental fortitude, and open up a winter of water if you’re willing to enjoy a bit of discomfort. Overall, people have developed an aversion to most things that are uncomfortable. Consider what you do in a day physically—you jump in the shower and crank up the hot water. You keep your house at a temperature warm enough for shorts. As for social discomforts, saying hello to a stranger walking by is awkward for most. This aversion to uncomfortable situations—both physical and social—can become a way of life.

Ashley under ice clear as glass. Photo by Kim Kertz
Dakota’s journey to inner space. Photo by Sabrina Figliomeni
“Is someone going to bring me a snack, or do I have to get it myself? Photo by Sabrina Figliomeni

Cold therapy, for one, has become easily accessible and can certainly introduce slightly less comfortable situations to a person’s normal routine. Breathwork in cold immersion also makes a huge impact. When you jump into a freezing lake, you might gasp at the temperature difference, and in some cases you can’t catch your breath. Part of the development of safe practices in cold water involves controlling your breathing and controlling your mind. There are multiple schools of thought on the best way to do this, but my approach has always been slow, intentional, and controlled breathing coupled with an enjoyment of everything you’re feeling (or not feeling). The more relaxed you are, the less your body thinks you’ve fallen off a ship into an icy ocean and are about to die. 



When diving under ice, we are combining the cold water with an overhead environment just to make things a little spicier. We prepare with an appropriate breathe-up to calm the body and bring the mind into that same place. Some divers have mantras, some just enjoy the sensation and silence of preparation. You take that last preparatory breath and dive down. Depth isn’t important here—it’s all the experience. Ice is almost a living thing, much like water. Strong, beautiful, but also unpredictable and terrifyingly powerful. As you surface, you use the line as a guide, and your safety partner helps guide you so you don’t smash your head on the underside of the ice. Your lips are numb, your face is chilled, but you can’t wait to get down there again. 

The beauty of finding joy in discomfort is that, eventually, it’s no longer uncomfortable. My approach when I first started was to remind myself that the water was actually warmer than the air, and it really wasn’t all that cold. 

Dakota reflecting on the questionable decisions (and people) that led him here” Photo by Sabrina Figliomeni

Stay Frosty

On our last day of diving, I was able to sneak in for two final dives of the day. I am fond of finishing up my days of freediving in a swimsuit, no matter the water temperature. Just like any other dive, I slip into the water. I take my time with my breathe-up. It’s not going to be a very deep dive, and certainly not very long: I’m here because I enjoy this. I confirm with my safety partner that they’re ready, take my last preparatory breath, and down I go. 

Chilling out after diving.

I can feel that my hair froze to my back at the surface; as I descend the snow accumulation on my head leaves a dust trail behind me. Feeling the water rush through your hair at that temperature is the most exhilarating thing. I look up at the underside of the ice sheet, my safety partner watching intently, the glow of the sun straining to reach me even through the ice. It’s not as quiet as you think down there. You hear people crunching on the snow, the crackle and pop of the ice sheet itself, the water lapping against the edge of the hole as the wind howls above you. The entire time I’m down there, I don’t even notice the water temperature. There’s no shivering—just an enjoyment of the moment. 

After trying—and failing miserably—to blow a few bubble rings with numb lips I head back to the surface (without smashing my head under the ice), reach the hole, complete my recovery, and notice that it’s actually warmer in the water. When you get past the mild discomfort, you start to really enjoy these experiences and look forward to them. After chilling in the hole and chatting with my safety a bit, I breathe up and prepare to pop down for one more dive. A few other divers strip off their wetsuits and join me, all smiles, not an ounce of discomfort on their faces. After all, why not. It’s not that cold. 

Additional Resources

And lest we forget—InDepth: ICE:How Intrepid Souls Spent Their Winter Lockation (March 2021) #DiveLocal

To explore additional stories, videos and webinars on freediving click: FREE


Sabrina Figliomeni is a dive instructor, freediver, canyoneer, and ice climber based out of Calgary, Alberta. Professionally, she is a Civil Project Manager specializing in flood mitigation and riverbank restoration projects, and she volunteers her time with organizations which promote and support watershed conservation and education. As a cold-enthusiast, she is passionate about the mental health impacts of being outdoors and in the water, and will easily convince you to try something new that scares you. She splits her time between British Columbia’s West Coast and the Canadian Rockies, and her fluffy dog Chief is most certainly the cutest of them all.

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Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA

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By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor

Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey. 

Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever. 

Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.

Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor. 

Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.  

Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor. 

Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage. 

The Founding of Ghost Diving

Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations. 

Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net. 

Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible. 

Launching Ghost Diving USA

Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net. 

Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality. 

The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that. 

For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers. 

Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at info@ghostdivingusa.org

You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.

Photo by Sean Farkas

Additional Resources

Ghost Diving International:https://ghostdiving.org
Aquafil:https://www.aquafil.com
Bracenet:https://bracenet.net/en
Healthy Seas:https://www.healthyseas.org
Alert Diver:Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).


Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends. 

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