Atomic Ducks Dive Club celebrates new year with annual Polar Bear Dive

Herald staff writerJanuary 3, 2013 

In temperatures only penguins would love, four local divers plunged Tuesday into the frigid water of the Columbia River at Columbia Point Marina in Richland.

They’re members of the Atomic Ducks Dive Club, celebrating the new year with their annual Polar Bear Dive.

“B-r-r-r, yes, it was cold, 41 degrees,” said Rochelle Peck of Kennewick, who’s made the icy New Year’s Day swim for years. “The cold stings your face at first, but in a few minutes, you don’t notice it because your face gets numb.”

The swim was bearable — mostly — because of Peck’s dry suit, a double-layered garment worn by scuba divers in especially cold water. The suit has an internal warming layer of air.

“They seal around your wrists and neck to keep the water out. But still, after a few minutes, you’re ready to climb out,” she said, estimating they swam in the chilly waters for about 30 minutes.

John Lindberg, vice president of the Atomic Ducks, didn’t take the plunge this year but coordinated the hot cocoa and chili awaiting the divers on shore.

“Dry suits provide adequate insulation, not toasty, but adequate to prevent hypothermia,” Lindberg said. “We’re not tougher than anyone else, just better equipped.”

Ken Gatherum of West Richland went along on the shivery swim to document the dive from underwater.

“That’s the main reason I dive, to take photos,” Gatherum said. “I was actually surprised the water was that warm. I’ve been in when it was 32 degrees. That brings on an instant ice cream headache.”

Peck and Gatherum were joined on the dive by Peck’s husband, George, and Brent Thompson of Pasco.

The four pulled handfuls of trash from the wintry waters as they swam with the fishes.

“I found a 12-inch jigsaw blade and a bucket someone had filled with rocks and dropped into the water. My husband pulled out a big piece of plastic wrap, some 12-, 15-feet long,” Rochelle Peck said.

There was also a lot of paper and trash, even one man’s dress shoe, just the one. Bottles are a common find, especially champagne. “They’re always empty, and usually broken, all sharp and pointy. That’s risky for anyone taking a barefoot dive,” she said.

Atomic Ducks divers commonly police the waters while they dive.

“We’ve found lots of folding chairs and Frisbees over the years. Once even an umbrella that used to be attached to a lawn chair,” Rochelle Peck said. “Cellphones and glasses are common, especially near docks. People have them in hand while transferring from the boat to the dock and splash — in they go.”

Once, on a Polar Bear Dive, an Atomic Ducks diver found a set of keys.

“We were able to find the owner and return them. He was very happy and surprised to get them back,” Lindberg said.

Club members dive in Mid-Columbia rivers and lakes once a month year-round. On occasion, often in the winter, a group will travel together to the tropics for scuba-diving vacations.

“We can, and do, swim in cold water, but warm is nice too,” Lindberg said.

For more information on the Atomic Ducks Dive Club, go to www.ducksdiveclub.org or look for them on Facebook. -- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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