When you think of exotic dive spots, probably the last thing that comes to mind are the mountains, far from the sea and even further from the tropical temperatures we divers enjoy. But diving doesn’t always have to mean wearing a shorty. Let’s push the limits and look at a challenging way to explore the subaquatic worlds of the Alps.
Diving in the Alps
Technically challenging and only for experienced divers, the alpine mountain environment of Austria and its many lakes has always been attracting. Rumors say that these lakes are crystal-clear and almost bottomless, but have little to no aquatic life. Let’s see if that holds true.
To dive in a lake that has a surface temperature of 20 degrees C (68 degrees F) sounds easy, but in most of these mountain lakes temperature plunges to about 8 Celsius (34 F) after just 10 meters of depth. Another challenge is the icing of regulators, so it is recommended to use full redundant regulators as well as first stages, and a dual tank with individually sealable outlets.
The dive gear of choice will be a full dry suit, then. Besides, a neoprene hood and gloves are necessary. We used a DUI TLS 350 drysuit and on top a Halcyon MC System harness. Very technical equipment, but it is also about comfort. Plus, you don’t want to get into a tight situation at this depth.
Another recommendation is redundant flashlights as well as redundant dive masks. If you lose your mask at these freezing temperatures, the cold numbs your face very fast, and you might have panic and difficulty breathing. It feels good to have a replacement mask in your pocket.
We selected the following lakes due to their diversity and challenges:
Attersee (Upper Austria)
Traunsee (Upper Austria)
While Attersee lake is one of the most famous and diverse ones, due to its high number of dive sites for all levels of experience, the other two represent individual challenges and unique features that are worth exploring.
One of the largest mountain lakes of Austria, this divers paradise presents itself with dozens of well-marked dive sites, among those the infamous but spectacular “Schwarze Brücke” (Black Bridge). This dive site has been known for many accidents, as there is a dramatic steep dropoff that takes you almost from surface to over 150m depth (450 ft). Many divers want to see this exciting stone wall but overestimate their abilities or experience anomalies with their equipment.
Besides this scary fact, most dive sites including Schwarze Brücke are very easily accessible and offer excellent visibility. We have seen occasional fish (Aalrutte) as well as unusual rock formations. In general, dives at Attersee lake can run quite deep, so we had to watch our deco as well as air pressure. Even with the DUI trilaminate dry suit, high pressure at these depths compress the undergarment as well as the neoprene gloves and hood and make them thin as a plastic foil.
This lake might be the least-well-known for diving because it has a limited amount of dive sites, but they are very scenic and spectacular. The visibility of this bottomless lake is interesting – up to 15 meters depth there is minimal 5m visibility, and then it suddenly opens up to almost 40 meters visibility. The upper layer takes away a lot of light, though.
We tried two dive sites on Wolfgangsee lake, both in the Western part of the lake. One is called “Franzosenschanze” and the other one opposite the lake, “Ochsenkreuz” which passes by a small rocky island in the lake and has fantastic vistas.
Franzosenschanze is very interesting, as it starts to become deep fast, and there is a ridge out into the blue that takes you from 30m down to about 40 and then up to 25 on a quite isolated peak. Around that peak, steep cliffs drop off to 100m or more. The only way back from this peak is to go along the ridge, back to 40 and then up along the shore. On our dive we had trouble – due to the lighting and lack of air – and didn’t want to go the regular way back down along the ridge, so we decided on an ascent in blue water, having only Plankton and air bubbles as reference, and knowing that a few feet beside us, the ridge drops off to 100 meters. Scary but well done in a buddy team. Never been so happy to be back to surface!
This narrow mountain lake has a distinctive green water color, which gives each dive a unique feel and makes for some interesting photos. Visibility here is worse than in the other lakes, as it is quite rich in nutrients due to food and chemical factories upstream and a relatively high amount of algae. Of the lakes visited, this was our least favorite – but still interesting to see, especially the fantastic vistas of the high mountains surrounding the lake. Definitely worth a visit for lunch or dinner by the lake: Restaurant “Bootshaus” (upscale) or “Schweizerhof” (good local).
Which is your preferred cold-water dive spot? Let us know in the comments field!