arctic snorkeling

How to Snorkel in Arctic Waters

Words: Megan Michelson
Photo: Jill Heinerth/               

Snorkeling in the tropics is easy. But what about swimming with beluga whales, penguins, and leopard seals in freezing Arctic waters? Here’s how to do it.

Snorkeling is something most people do on beach vacations to tropical locales like the Bahamas or Hawaii, where the water is warm and the fish are friendly. But Susan Eaton, a geophysicist and journalist from Calgary, Canada, has spent much of the last decade learning how to explore Arctic climates from Antarctica to Greenland with a snorkel, mask, drysuit, and fins to help document oceanic change and disappearing sea ice.

Eaton is now in the midst of planning an all-female expedition, called Sedna Epic, to become the first team to snorkel Canada’s Northwest Passage, a 1,864-mile sea route between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole filled with now-breaking pack ice, walruses, polar bears, and more. We called up Eaton for tips on plunging into the chilly world of extreme snorkeling. 

arctic snorkeling

Team Sedna diver in the water near Silfra, Iceland, which is where the mid-Atlantic Ridge comes ashore on Iceland. Here, divers can place one hand on the North American plate and their other hand on the Eurasian plate.

© Jill Heinerth

1. Why It’s Worth It, and a Warning

“The surface of the water is an exciting place, and something that most deep-sea divers overlook. It’s where the land, the sea, the air, and the ice all meet. It can be extremely remote, with animals unique to polar regions, like leopard seals or belugas. But it can also be extremely dangerous snorkeling around pack ice, and it’s extremely expensive, since you have to go by boat. If you’re a Caribbean snorkeler, not comfortable wearing a drysuit, you’re prone to claustrophobia, or you don’t like getting your face cold, this is probably not the sport for you.”

2. So Come Prepared

“The skills of snorkeling—kicking your legs, breathing through a snorkel—are portable. But understanding the equipment, learning how to read the ice, those are skills that aren’t transferable. Snorkeling in polar waters is high tech. It requires specialized equipment. You need to be an advanced diver, with experience in cold water and ice. But if you’re tenacious, driven, curious, and ready for challenges, you can train for this.”

3. Rough Seas Ahead

“You’ll experience rough seas, currents, waves, winds, and pack ice that moves and changes in shape, size, and configuration. Snorkeling in pack ice is a compact sport. It’s like battling mini icebergs. There’s ice you don’t see that’s whacking you in the head. So we wear helmets. You’ve got to understand the weather and that comes from experience.”

arctic snorkeling

Eaton in a snorkel relay up the western coast of Greenland during Sedna’s proof-of-concept expedition in July 2014.

© Jill Heinerth

4. Take the Plunge

“You need to be comfortable in the water. We wear neoprene hoods and heated dry suits, but our faces still get cold. Get dressed inside your cabin on the ship—put your long underwear on like it’s a ski suit, then put your dry suit on on the deck. It’s like dressing an astronaut—you’ll need help getting in and out. Staying warm is key, but you don’t want to overheat. Getting in the water can feel like a relief, but you have to be fit, both mentally and physically.”

5. Observe and Listen, Don’t Touch

“Observe the animals from a distance. They’ll react far better that way. Once you’re in the water, do your own thing, let them do their own thing. Don’t approach, don’t chase after them. Let things happen naturally. That’s the best way to see animals in the wild. And listen to them. These animals make a lot of noise underwater. You can hear them talking to each other and their songs. Watching them do their thing is very exciting. It’s all going to happen around you.”


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03 2016

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