Warm Memories of Hypothermia

This story was published on DivePacific.co.nz on November 6, 2023.

Three tanks. One boat. One day. 11 Celsius. These were the last dives I ever took in cold Northern California waters.

Mark Twain once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” The same might be said about a three-tank, one-day boat dive in Monterey, California, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, my hometown.

These dives took place a few years ago with a group from the Northern California Underwater Photographic Society. Actually, my log book reveals that they were done on October 30, 1988 on the “Cypress Sea” boat. I got so chilled that these were my last Northern California ocean dives ever since.

Though it was the day before Halloween and the air temperature was a balmy 18 degrees C (65 degrees F), my costume included a 7-mm one-piece wetsuit, thick neoprene booties, heavy gloves, and a hood.

Looking up at the kelp forest. Photo by John Lewis.

Looking up at the kelp forest. Photo by John Lewis.

Dive #1: Cold – A full bodysuit of goosebumps.

Despite all this, I was chilled on my first dive since all of my previous boat sojourns were in the more inviting waters of Southern California’s Channel Islands with 19.5 degrees C (67 degrees F), even warmer water in Belize with 24 degrees C (75 degrees F) and downright tepid Baja California with 29 degrees C (85 degrees F).

Anyway, back to Monterey Bay. The initial dive was at 9:40am for 35 minutes at the Diablo/South Pinnacles site. The surface temperature was 12 degrees C (52 degrees F), while bottom temp was 10 degrees C. (50 degrees F).

“Because I only weighed 140 lbs. at the time,
 I involuntarily donned a full body suit of goosebumps –– and wore it for most of the day!”
I just consulted my old log book entry again: “First dive in Northern California. Warm for here; no current or surge, per se. Beautiful pinnacles –– very colorful. Everywhere I looked, I saw anemones, hydrocorals, mollusks, or kelp. Got cold, even though I moved around a lot. Visibility was 30 meters (100 feet) at a depth of 20 meters (66 feet) – my dive buddies said this was amazingly good.”

But the more I dove that day, the colder I got. And the cold water made me breathe faster, so I burned through my air quickly versus my normal 60 minutes per plunge.

Monterey Anemone. Photo by Barbara Wambach.

Monterey Anemone. Photo by Barbara Wambach.

Dive #2: Colder – It felt like icicles stabbing my face.

The second dive began at 11:45am at Lobos Rocks in Monterey Bay, a short boat ride from Pinnacles. I still remember that the chill was so prevalent, it’s all I could think about. Below the canopy of a beautiful kelp forest, I kicked hard to generate heat, but I was still cold even though it was “warm” for here today.
My face was the only skin not covered by thick neoprene. I chronicled this by writing, “The water feels like hundreds of icicles stabbing my face… Hydrocoral was bright – incredible for macro photography, but sorry I didn’t bring my camera today. Saw some jellyfish, lots of big yellow nudibranchs, ling and rock cod, and marveled at the sunlight filtering through the kelp.” This dive lasted 40 minutes at 9 to 12 meters (30 to 40 feet).
Starfish and Urchins. Photo by Virginia Bria.

Starfish and Urchins. Photo by Virginia Bria.

Dive #3: Coldest– “Too cold to pee!”.

After a lunch break of lots of warm fluids and hot soup, the day’s final dive began with a giant stride at 2:45pm. We were now at Stillwater Cove in Carmel Bay, near the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course, but too far away to spot any stray dimpled balls on the bottom.

The air temperature had dropped to 15.5 degrees C (60 degrees F) because of strong winds. Visibility was still 18 to 30.5 meters (60 to 100 feet), though the water temp remained at 11 degrees C (52 degrees) F on the surface and 10 degrees C (50 degrees F) down below.Throughout this dive, I had two main concerns. First, I was still very aware of the cold on my face while descending to 14 meters (46 feet). Second, I really, really had to pee. I knew that urinating in one’s wetsuit can make you feel warmer.

“But I was so cold that I just couldn’t do it, 
even though I tried several times, then gave up”.

I got colder. I remember that if I had brought my camera on this dive, I would not have been able to take any in-focus images because my hands and arms were shaking so severely from the first stage of hypothermia.

I spotted some small crabs, a huge one about .25 meters (10”) long, some humungous starfish with at least 20 legs, and a fluorescent species of blue and orange coral. After just 20 minutes of bottom time, I couldn’t stand the cold any longer so I signaled to my dive buddies by holding my elbows and shivering that I was starting a slow ascent. I again admired the sun flickering through the kelp forest and surfaced 20 minutes later, climbed on the boat, and quickly relieved myself.

Blue whales and other warmer memories.

After I changed out of my damp wetsuit and drank some warm tea, I saw two blue whales spouting near the boat on the return to the dock, which was an extraordinary ending to a memorable day.

By the way, feeling cold while diving is something that I’ve always been particularly concerned about. I’m thin now, but back then, I only weighed about 64 kilos (140 lbs.), so I had relatively little body fat. And that meant that I felt the cold far sooner and more intensely than my dive buddies who were “larger boned”. Sure, I could have worn a dry suit like most of my colleagues, but I’ve always just been a wetsuit kind of guy.

Though I’ll always remember this as a very cold diving experience, I will also always have warm memories of my first ever one-day, three-tank dive excursion with friends from my club. But I have no regrets on relegating myself to becoming a warm water diver forevermore.

Do you have a cold water diving experience? Please comment below…

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