Under the ice

February 19, 2013

Lake Weissensee, Austria

By Michael Dalder

I’ve been diving for almost 15 years, but due to family matters it has fallen off my list lately. So a new picture assignment at Lake Weissensee in mid-February 2013 just came right to my diver’s heart: The Underwater Ice hockey Championships.

Underwater Ice hockey is not played on top of the ice like ice hockey is usually played but underneath it. That’s where diving comes into the game because the underwater ice hockey players are in fact apnea divers who want to give their sports an additional sportive kick.

My day started early when I met with the men and women from the Vienna rescue divers’ squad ASBOe – Moedling. These dive enthusiasts are responsible for safety and security during the whole tournament. If you dive under ice you can’t go straight to the surface to breath if you have an emergency. Thus ice diving is, together with cave diving, considered to be the most dangerous diving discipline. For that reason I listened to the security briefing attentively.

One of the rescue divers then took a chainsaw and started cutting the entry, exit and security holes into the 15 cm thick ice.

My buddy from the rescue squad who promised to look after me told me: “In case of emergency when you can’t get to the surface – you must stay cool and go back to the entrance you came from – this is a massive psychological step for divers.” “But so far we have brought everyone back out again” he added with a bright smile. I have been diving in caves before so I knew what I had to face.

After checking the equipment we jumped into the water and went down. There I could see the field of play. It was underneath the ice approximately 3 x 6 meters square; each side fronted by a goal. The puck was 10 inches wide and made of Styrofoam so it didn’t sink but floated right under the ice.

The teams consisted of two players (men and women) who took turns with the hockey stick trying to score. Each time they succeeded in scoring the apnea divers came back to the surface to breathe. In total, the game lasted three periods with a ten minute break.

Of course, the air and the water were freezing cold. The air temperatures at this time of year at Lake Weissensee hover around minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 F). The water was plus 2 degrees Celsius (35 F). So this was kind of a challenge for me as well but my diving suit kept me quite comfortable for a while.

Under water I used a Canon EOS 1 Mark IV with a 16-35 mm f2.8 inside a customized housing unit made by UK-Germany, an underwater camera equipment specialist. When the cold water finally reached the limit of my semi-dry suit I had made several good shots as both teams fought hard while I was in the water.

Luckily, the sun came out and created fantastic scenery. So I got a lot of nice pictures on the surface as well. Lake Weissensee in Austria is a long, narrow lake surrounded by snowy mountains. In many European countries it is well-known for its perfect conditions for ice-skaters, because in the winter it is reliably frozen.

After two days of meeting a lot of interesting people, making friends with some and developing a good picture story, team Germany I (Uwe Kiehl and Thomas Jurkschart) made my weekend perfect.

They only lost in the final match against Austria I and took second place in the tournament.

Well done!

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