Ice and Altitude Diving (with bonus crayfish)

Cold water diving the mountain lakes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I think there is a lot of benefit to diving the same sites over and over. However, to grow as a photographer and keep the creative process flowing, it's important to mix things up!


So when the crazy idea to learn how to dive under the ice crept into my head, I went for it. I shot a quick Facebook message to a friend and the next thing I know, I'm gearing up at over 7600 feet of elevation looking at the edge of a scenic lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains less than two weeks later.

The Location


The first set of dives were at Silver Lake, near the Ansel Adams Wilderness. It was truly unique to start and end my dives with a backdrop like this. With that said though, you definitely notice the altitude gearing up!


For the ice diving portion of the trip, we headed even further up the mountains to find ice. Due to warmer temperatures, most of the lakes the group normally dives were completely free of ice; something my instructor has only seen a few times in the last 30 years. After gearing up for safety, and a short run of the chainsaw later, we had a hole cut out and were ready to dive!



About the Diving

For normal diving destinations, there is a lot of planning and research done ahead of time to get a feel for what subjects you'll see and what sort of images you want to shoot. Here, not so much. With the compressed timeframe there was almost no research (or planning) and as a result, I stumbled upon something completely unexpected, a croc-adile fish!



Get it!? Because... ok, ok... bad puns aside, crayfish!  



These high mountain lakes are home to an abundance of signal crayfish, a species introduced to California, possibly as early as 1898. Since then, they've continued to spread through a number of watersheds and as a result, made some pretty unique subjects when I finished with my training dives.



About the Shots

Photography in these conditions can be challenging. With frigid 38-40F temps, time in the water is limited. Extremely silty bottoms with no water movement leave little room erratic fin kicks, and bulky drysuit and thick gloves limit mobility and dexterity, making simple changes to camera settings difficult. When shooting the Tokina 10-17, a mini dome was essential to getting up close to these crayfish, and due to the dark, murky water, a focus light such as the Kraken Hydra 1k was crucial as well.


Slowing down the shutter speed and bumping the ISO will add a little background color and careful strobe positioning to light the foreground will give you a good starting point to capturing these unique critters. There is definitely room for improvement, but no regrets going out of my comfort zone trying something new!





Aaron Halstead is an avid diver, critter enthusiast and underwater photographer living in Southern California. He is pretty addicted, send help.

More work can be found on his InstagramWebsite, or Facebook page.



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