Every year during the dead of winter hundreds of Juneau residents do what most people would consider crazy. They submerge themselves in the frigid ocean waters around the area - for fun.
Scuba diving has grown increasingly popular in Juneau and around Southeast Alaska recently, especially during the winter months. Numerous divers take to the water for recreation, subsistence, education and work.
"I hardly ever dive in the summer, and I dive as much as I can in the winter," said Zac Hoit, who dives about 100 times a year. "In the summer the plankton takes up everything you can see. In the wintertime when there's no productivity in the water, it's the only time you can really see. So that's why you want to dive in the winter when the water is cold."
"In most circles, diving in Alaska would be considered an extreme sport," said John Lachelt, Channel Dive Center owner and a Professional Association of Diving Instructors course director.
Lachelt said the clear water of winter brings hundreds, if not thousands, of divers out to experience Southeast's underwater world.
"It offers unique opportunities to see and experience wildlife that you just don't experience anywhere else on the planet," said Lachelt. "Sea lions are off their rookeries. They're out patrolling and looking for food, fun and frolic. And when they find divers they find fun and frolic."
Lachelt said he often sees sea lions, Dall porpoises, different types of starfish, octopus, the occasional humpback whale, and much more. He said seeing a humpback underwater is an "exhilarating experience."
"Every time I dive I see something new. It's true exploration," said Hoit. "I enjoy diving for subsistence, I enjoy diving for personal use, and I enjoy diving to learn."
During the right seasons and with the proper permits, divers are able to gather a variety of edible sea creatures. Hoit said one of the best aspects of scuba diving in Alaska is being able to catch king crab.
University of Alaska Fairbanks fisheries student Kristin Cieciel said she enjoys recreational diving, but spends most of her underwater time working and studying.
"Research dives are different from recreational dives, because in recreational dives if you get cold you come up," said Cieciel. "Research dives you're down there for a purpose, and you are supposed to be getting that done. So we stay down longer."
Kalei Shotwell, who is helping Cieciel with her research on sea cucumber movement, said quality equipment is a necessity while diving in Alaska.
"You have to really watch it because you can get dangerously cold. That's the scary part," said Shotwell. "If you don't have the right amount of equipment, and if you don't have the right amount of insulation on your body, you're not going to have fun."
Virtually all divers in Southeast wear a dry suit, gloves, a hood, mask, weights to counteract buoyancy, and the air tank.
"Diving up here, the equipment is always a hindrance," said Cieciel. "If you forget a hood or a glove, you can't go out."
She said her gear weighs 79 pounds without the air tank.
"It takes effort to get in the water," said Cieciel. "You have to work to have fun."
Lachelt said many people have a misperception of how cold you actually feel while diving in Alaska.
"The experience temperature-wise isn't a whole lot different from what you would expect if you were going to go up skiing," he said.
"A lot of people don't understand the fact that, yeah the water is cold, but if you can dress and be comfortable for a normal Juneau day in the wintertime, then you can dress and be comfortable and be prepared to dive on a normal Juneau day in the water."
Cieciel said some of the dangers involved with scuba diving are decompression sickness, nitrogen narcosis, running out of air, and stormy weather, but she said it is relatively safe for those who are trained.
"The big things are maintaining your gear, making sure you have the proper safety equipment, and telling someone you're going out," said Cieciel. "You never should dive alone. That's one of the fundamental rules that you should never break."
Lachelt, who has conducted more than 3,500 open-water dives, said every dive is different.
"We offer an experience that's fun, that's educational, it's challenging, it's easy, it's adrenaline-filled, or it's relaxing, depending on what you want to do," he said. "You can actually make the dive exactly what you want it to be."
Shotwell said diving in Alaska isn't for the faint of heart.
"It's not a fairy-tale dive," she said. "I'd say if you're the type of person who wants to scuba dive to see coral reefs and you want to be warm in a tropical environment, then you don't scuba dive in Alaska.
"If you're the type of person who wants to see other places, can deal with the cold water, is interested in what happens in cold water, it's more interesting here."
Eric Morrison can be reached at email@example.com.
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