In early 2003 I went to Vancouver, Canada to get a new visa. Of course, I could have gone to El Paso, but where's the fun (or diving for that matter) in that? Visa paperwork out of the way, and with newly minted dry-suit certification in hand, I was heading off to see just how good this coldwater stuff could be. Of course, little was I to know at the time that I would end up living in the Pacific Northwest...
De la Mer, infusé d' astres, et lactescent,
Dévorant les azurs verts.
I have bathed in the Poem of the Sea, steeped in
stars, and milky, devouring the green azures.
'Le Bâteau ivre'
Arthur Rimbaud, 1883
The Nanaimo ferry plies some awesome waters.
I don't think we're in the Carribean any more...
Speaking for myself, I have always found that trips involving a ferry are almost guaranteed to go well. And when it comes to ferries, the fine people of British Columbia really know how to turn it on. So I boarded the ferry for Nanaimo from the Canadian mainland in a state of delicious anticipation.
I had come to Vancouver to get a new visa. Of course, I could have gone to El Paso, but where's the fun (or diving for that matter) in that? Visa paperwork out of the way, and with newly minted dry-suit certification in hand, I was heading off to see just how good this coldwater stuff could be.
Following the comments and advice of Pacific Northwest divers on the D2D board, I set up an accomodation and diving deal with Ocean Explorers Diving and accomodation at the Buccaneer Inn, very conveniently located about 300 yards up the road from the dive shop and close to some excellent pubs. The Buccaneer Inn was the sort of place I remember growing up in small-town coastal Australia, a small, clean, basic hotel with everything you need (like good showers and parking) and nothing you don't (like trouser presses, room service, exercise rooms and bell- hops). I was in heaven.
I rolled up to the dive shop on the first morning to beautiful crisp skies. Snow was visible up in the hills, which may not seem exciting to some of you, but to me it remains endlessly exotic. Ocean Explorers runs a couple of boats, both about 8-pack size. I was on the "Critter Spotting" boat the first morning. As the cold water was new to me, the sites were new to me and the dry-suit was new to me, I decided to leave the camera ashore for the first couple of dives and just get my weighting and trim under control.
The first dive was to a site called "Four Fathom Reef". This is a horseshoe shaped reef of rock, with a central ridge at about 30 feet depth (hence four fathom). The ridge rocks are full of crevices and underhangs, and the place teems with life. Lingcod and Copper Rockfish swarmed about, while the sea-floor was covered with urchins and swimming scallops, a favorite food of the Pacific Giant Octopus. I saw plenty of evidence of octopus dens, but never did see an Octopus on this trip, much to my disappointment. I attribute this in part to my "same ocean same day" buddy, who may have been happy to swim off without me, but I wasn't going to let him get away. Water temperature was a bracing 48°F/9°C. During this dive, and repeated on each subsequent dive, I spotted numerous nudibranchs, including a couple of huge white dorids that would have comfortably fitted in my cupped hand. Dive time was 35 minutes at an average depth of 55 feet, maximum 72 feet.
After a generous surface interval and lunch at a nearby pub (three cheers for hot chocolate), we headed out again for Snake Island Wall. This site was magnificent, a sheer wall starting at about 45 feet that drops away into impenetrable blackness. We passed a close packed field of giant white metridium anemones that receded above us into the shallows and as deep as my light could penetrate from 80 feet. The visibility was about 50 feet at depth, so in all honesty I could only see them down to about 130 feet, but it sure looked a lot further with the abyssal blackness below and the surface only visible as a green glow way way above. On a ledge about the same area as typical desk we spotted a Lingcod that was easily five feet long, with pectoral fins stretching right across the ledge. After drifting along the wall a while we came up into the shallows. I followed a small school of tube-snouts through the grass during my safety stop, finally surfacing after 48 minutes. Maximum depth here was 82 feet, with a bottom temp of 10°C, using EAN33.
At the bottom of this line is a big-ass boat...
The following day was wreck day. Two retired Canadian navy vessels have been sunk just off Snake Island to act as artificial reefs, HMCS Cape Breton and HMCS Saskatchewan. At the time, HMCS Cape Breton held the distinction of being the largest ship every deliberately sunk as a dive attraction, surpassed later by the USS Spiegel-Grove. And at least the HMCS Cape Breton sank upright! While the Cape Breton is bigger, HMCS Saskatchewan has been down longer, and has more encrusting life. Our first dive of the morning was on the HMCS Saskatchewan.
Divers descend to the upper wing of the bridge, HMCS
Metridium anemones, a large sea-cucumber, and tubeworms
We descended a mooring line attached to the radar tower, the wreck coming into view through the green glow of the water as we dropped through 70 feet, a huge and hulking presence spreading. This wreck is moderately deep, with the top deck at about 95 feet and the sea-floor at 130. She is liberally encrusted with life, with metridia and crimson anemones in profusion, brittle-stars crammed into corners, red tubeworms fanning the mild current, and small gobies everywhere. The original gun barrels have been removed and replaced with large bore pipes, which are full to overflowing with life. While the wreck has been extensively prepared to be diver friendly, I decided to just hang outside and photograph the anemones. Dive time was 32 minutes at a maximum depth of 31 meters/100 feet on EAN32, bottom temperature 7°C/45°F, gaining the distinction of being the coldest water I have every voluntarily immersed myself in.
My last dive of this trip was another critter dive, this time to Clarke Rock, and this time with camera in hand. On my wish list were more anemones, sea-pens, perhaps a ling-cod, wolf eels and giant octopus. The last three didn't come together for me, but still this was a great fun dive. Maximum depth at this site was 75 feet/23 metres, with a bottom temperature of 8°C/46°F and a bottom time of 48 minutes using EAN32. We returned to shore just in time for a hurried series of goodbyes and stuffing of gear into the car in time to catch the 3pm ferry back to Vancouver.
Crimson Anemone at Clarke Rock
Seapen at Clarke Rock
Now I know we're not in the Carribean any more...
Four dives is just the beginning of a suggestion of a scratch on the surface of the diving that the Pacific Northwest has to offer, but it was more than enough to let me know I will be back. This is certainly not "Cinderella" diving, the dry-suits, 5mm gloves and thick hood add a degree of physical challenge to the experience. It's deep, it's dark and it's cold and for some people it would be hard to see the appeal. But Dodd's Narrows calls, the Cape Breton remains, the seals never did come out to play, I'll have to go again. Regular divers in the area tell me that things get even better up in Port Hardy or God's Pocket. I suppose I will just have to go see...
Topside shots were taken with a Nikon N80, diving photos taken with a Nikon N6006 in an Ikelite housing, with SS100, 24mm lens. All shots are on Ektachrome 100VS.
A small seastar against a background of kelp.