Ottawa·Cold Play

Taking the plunge: Omar tries free-diving in frigid waters of ice-covered quarry

The CBC's Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco wanted to try diving without an air supply into the frigid waters of an ice-covered quarry, and this is his first-hand account.

'The first five minutes are pretty much the worst five minutes of your life'

In the third installment of his series Cold Play, Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco takes the plunge and tries ice diving in Morrison's Quarry near Wakefield, Que. 0:55

I get to Morrison's Quarry in Chelsea, Que., just north of Ottawa, on a cold and blustery day. It feels like – 21 with the wind chill, and Philip Beauchamp is chainsawing a portal into the icy water below.

We're about to jump in.

This is an extreme sport. Free-diving means no air supply — you need just one big breath and a whole lot of lung capacity.

Without supervision, things can turn bad in a heartbeat.

"It's the kind of thing you don't do just because you feel like it. You need to be certified. You need to know what to do," says Philip Beauchamp, a free-dive instructor for Apnea City.

'What limits you is your state of mind'

Beauchamp is one of the best. His record is 75 metres, and that's about three minutes of dive time on a single breath. He assures me most people can hold their breath much longer than they think, and in a single weekend he says he can teach newbies to hold their breath for about two minutes.

The wreck of an airplane sits at the bottom of Morrison's Quarry. It's a popular draw for divers. (CBC)

"Most of the time what limits you is your state of mind rather than your breath hold," Beauchamp says.

So, why free-dive in winter?

The ice covering Morrison's Quarry keeps the water undisturbed. The sheet of ice filters the light and blankets the plane and car wreck below in shades of turquoise and pink. This is an aquatic playground unlike any other.  

"The visibility that we get here is equivalent to what we get in the Caribbean. It's worth enduring the cold because the visibility is amazing. You'll never get that in summer," says Francois Leduc, another free-dive instructor at Apnea City.

'The worst five minutes of your life'

I get suited up to see this for myself. Is it cold? Yes. Absolutely.

Layered in a wet suit, I plunge in. My body hyperventilates. I'm breathing in short, sharp spurts. My muscles twitch. My face stings. 

Omar comes up for air. (CBC)

"The first five minutes are pretty much the worst five minutes of your life," Beauchamp tells me. 

Then my body thermoregulates. My hands and feet tingle, but I feel pretty good.

"As long as there's pain and sensation it's fine. Eventually if it starts to freeze, the pain goes away. If it gets to that point, you stop. You get out of the water," says Leduc.

The team from Apnea City go under. On one breath they dive down eight metres, enter the underwater plane wreck and hang out for a while to check out the scenery.

Panic sets in

My challenge is much more modest. I just want to touch that plane but it looks dangerously far away. I take a deep breath, kick my flippers and plunge underneath. Halfway there, the panic sets in. I rush back to the surface.

Beauchamp is smiling.

Omar catches his breath after free-diving. (CBC)

"Stay calm once you're underwater. I know that sounds harder than it may seem, but the more you do it, the more you get used to the experience," he tells me.

The next three tries are fails but they've got me hooked. Under Beauchamp's close watch, I get closer and closer. On the fourth try I actually manage to touch the wreck, and I feel like I could stay here a lot longer. It's quiet, colourful and bright.

Oh, and the cold? We've now been playing underwater for more than half an hour — I guess time really does fly when you're having fun. But I can't feel my feet or hands very well anymore. And that means one thing: time to get out!

Have you enjoyed this tale of winter fun? Check out Omar's attempts at fat biking in the snow, and his experience with snowshoe running.

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