Photographer Geoff Coombs Beckons us Down into a Seldom-seen Underworld

Geoff Coombs’ winter underwater photography is startling. Initial reactions: Where is this? What’s happening here? How did he shoot this?

 

“Here, Andrew is suspended weightless beneath the ice. This was a warmer February day where the frozen layer melted and broke off into massive individual slabs of ice.”

Words: Ned Morgan    Photos: Geoff Coombs

Like any pro, Coombs won’t let us in on all his technique secrets, but being a freediver allows him to go where he needs to for the shot. “Freediving” is underwater descent on a single breath of air, and practised divers can train themselves to stay submerged for several minutes at a time.

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“Andrew slides his hand against the surface of the ice as he makes his way to the hole for air.”

For this shoot, “each dive was anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute or so,” says Coombs. “Not that long, because it’s cold. Usually we do casual dives well over a minute to two minutes when it’s warm.”

Coombs stayed under with competitive freediver Andrew Ryzebol as long as it took—capturing him adrift under a thick prison wall of ice. The hole through the ice where they gained access is not obvious or fully visible in the frame. And the composition also benefits by featuring a diver unburdened by scuba gear.

 

“While diving down to 10 metres I looked up to see Andrew floating, encompassed by the hole we had made to breathe. The blocks of ice that were once floating individually a few weeks earlier had now frozen back together and created a world unlike anything I have seen before.”

We don’t recommend deep or prolonged freediving, which is dangerous and occasionally deadly. This is a sport that should never be attempted alone, and never without training.

 

“Andrew ascending from the sandy bottom.”

“We train by diving,” Coombs adds. “We also train in the pool over the winter to maintain and improve our breath holds.” Ryzebol is an AIDA freedive instructor, and Coombs holds his AIDA level 3. (AIDA, Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée, is the Swiss rule- and record-keeping body for freediving.)

 

“The first moments as you descend into the icy depths make us feel exhilarated. Here, Andrew looks back towards the hole as he descends down to the bottom of the lake—really it is a portal to another place, full of peace, mystery, and silence.”

While Coombs’ scenes resemble any number of icebound places—the Arctic Ocean, the Antarctic Peninsula—he shot last winter in Georgian Bay off the east coast of the Bruce Peninsula. “The discomfort and extreme conditions are overshadowed by the beauty and peace found beneath the surface,” says Coombs. “Andrew and I were both suited up in thick wetsuits, gloves, boots, and masks. With a trusty axe we cut through the ice to access the water safely. I shot all photos while freediving on one breath of air—no scuba tanks necessary. Freediving allows us to access the water with minimal restrictions, and ultimate mobility. This world seems alien and dangerous to most, but to us it is a place to experience astonishing natural beauty and wonder.”

 

“A silhouette of Andrew on a ‘no fins’ dive. This is the essence of freediving: going down on one breath of air using only the power of your body.”

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