Dive Magazine -- An Article by Robert Bailey - Published December 2009
01/01/10Renowned as one of the world’s best cold-water dives, Vancouver Island has clear water, a great climate, miles of coastline – and massive marine life, including leviathans such as wolf eels, sea
lions and the legendary giant Pacific octopus. Rob Bailey is your guide to Canada’s rugged island paradise
THE SEPTEMBER morning sun shines
high on the eastern horizon and there’s
not a cloud in the sky. We’re miles from
the nearest road and as far as the eye can
see we are alone. This is our first dive on
Browning Wall, off Canada’s Vancouver
Island, and the anticipation is building
as we put on our equipment.
Armed with cameras, we break the
mirror-calm surface and recognise
immediately why the site is so special.
It’s a vertical mosaic so colourful and so
crowded with life that it rivals any tropical
reef. The emerald-green waters, with
visibility of 25m, are teeming with fish,
and planktonic life ceaselessly drifts by.
There’s so much to take in – and that’s
before we get to the big stuff...
This area is renowned for being home
to some of the largest invertebrate life on
the planet. Sunflower starfish are a metre
across here and plumose anemones reach
that size in height. Orange peel nudibranchs
can grow to 45cm in length, and there are
reports of giant Pacific octopus with arm
spans of up to a staggering 7m. Pausing for
a second to take in the beauty, I realise that
every square inch of space has life on it. So
far, it has lived up to its reputation as the
best temperate-water wall dive in the world.
Located at the far southwest corner of
Canada, Vancouver Island is the largest
island on the Pacific coast of North
America, at nearly 300 miles in length and
50 miles at its widest point. The island has
a mountainous spine that divides the
glacial fjords of the wet, rugged west and
the rolling hills, tree-covered islands and
sheltered coves of the drier east. About half
of the island’s population of 750,000 live
in and around Victoria, the capital of British
Columbia, at the southern tip. The remote
north is a pristine wilderness of forests,
lakes and snowy peaks.
We at Leamington & Warwick BSAC
had been intending to visit Vancouver sland
since 2007, and in September 2009 our
plans finally came to fruition. Our party
of 16 divers – comprising members of
the club and of the Bristol Underwater
Photography Group – embarked on a twoweek
trip encompassing the polar opposites
of the island.
The first week would take us to Browning
Pass, a stretch of water at the top of the
island. The second half of the trip took us
to the island’s south and to Ogden Point
Breakwater in the harbour of downtown
Victoria, a marine sanctuary and
purportedly Canada’s most popular dive
site. Although the island has many more
dive possibilities, diving these two locations
would be sufficient to see some of the
island’s iconic creatures. And from a
personal perspective, I particularly wanted to revisit Browning Pass, ten years
after I was last there, to see if it was still as
good as I remembered it.
Late one afternoon at a site called
Crocker Rock, bright sunshine and virtually
no swell invited us onto the wreck of the
SS Themis, an 82m wooden-hulled
steamer that carried copper ore when it
went down in Browning Pass in a gale in
1906. Today, the wreck is little more than
scattered remains, with much of the
wreckage resting inside a kelp forest. But
the rockfish are plentiful and much larger
here than on other sites, with resident
lingcod approaching 1.5m long. Large rose
anemones living on the debris added
splashes of colour to the scene.
Our hopes of finding one of the resident
wolf eels – at up to 2.5m long, the world’s
largest blenny – were realised as we
surveyed the wreckage trail. Following a
stream of rising bubbles further out on the
wreck, I saw that some of our group were
already interacting with the inquisitive fish,
whose size, compared with the much
smaller Atlantic wolf-fish, is an eye-opener.
After several shots were taken, we worked
our way into the kelp forest, and were
enchanted by the waning sunlight falling
through the kelp and the schools of black
rockfish in the background. After surfacing,
one of the group declared the site to be
among the best they had visited in more
than 20 years of diving.
This part of the North American coast is
home to some of the world’s fastest water,
with currents approaching 15 knots in
places. Queen Charlotte Sound, the body of
water to the north of Vancouver Island, is
an area of high biological productivity and
diversity as a result of the abundant
nutrients supplied by these currents.
Despite this, Browning Pass, located off
the northeastern coast of the island, offers
calm, sheltered waters, which helps to
guarantee diving every day at one of one of
several spots within a 15-minute boat ride
of Clam Cove on Nigei Island, the location
of Browning Pass Hideaway’s dive centre
and cottages. The tides dictate the diving
schedule, with two high and two low tides
of varying height each day. We managed
three dives a day over six days, and
although the water temperature was a cool
9–11°C, the sun was shining so the group
still found it comfortable and relaxing.
Heading out to the sites each day was
every bit as awesome as the diving: on
several occasions, the sky was graced
with bald eagles, black-tailed deer grazed
on the shore, and gangs of Steller sea lions
made their presence known by leaping and
spyhopping. Our host John de Boeck, the
owner of the Hideaway, is undoubtedly one
the most experienced boat captains on the
island, and put in us into virtually currentfree
water on most dives.
The aforementioned Browning Wall is the
star of the area – it is covered with red soft
coral, sponges and an array of marine life.
The wall reaches at least 30m above the
water line and drops to over 60m at its
deepest point. It’s not to be missed.
No matter where you travel, seeing the
local ‘celebrity’ creatures is on everyone’s
to-do list. This trip was no exception, and
the giant Pacific octopus, the subject of
various anecdotes, stories and tall tales,
topped the list. They can be seen on many
sites and tend to venture out of their lairs
when the tide is slack. At Browning Wall,
we watched as one octopus put his arms
around a large Puget Sound king crab and
struggled to find a way in. As I tried to
photograph the spectacle, a decorated
warbonnet swam into frame. After about
five minutes, the cephalopod, realising that
the crab was impenetrable and not in the
least worried about the would-be predator,
abandoned his designs on dinner, leaving
us to reflect on a first-class encounter.
After a week in the north, we moved on
to the southern leg of our trip and to Ogden
Point Breakwater, a 400m-long concrete structure built in 1916 to protect the
Victoria harbour from the waves of the Juan
de Fuca Strait. The breakwater is marked
with five dive flags painted on the lower
tiers. Each flag denotes different habitats,
and a map in the shop at Ogden Point Dive
Center explains what you might see at each
station. They’re all easily accessible, but
depending on what you want to see, be
prepared for a bit of walk: the last marker is
near the end of the breakwater, and is quite
a journey with full kit. Luckily, the shop has
a few trolleys available to ease the load.
The breakwater is an ideal place to tick
off all those creatures you want to see.
We spent our two dives checking out the
resident wolf eels, which are hard to resist
when they’re around. You can also spot
octopus, ratfish, skate, a decent population
of good-sized lingcod, kelp forests, a
variety of jellyfish, and all of the usual
macro subjects, such as grunt, sailfin and
scalyhead sculpin, at depths of 8–35m –
not bad for a downtown site.
Just a few miles southwest of the
harbour is Race Rocks – a small rocky islet
and ecological reserve that the locals say is
the best site in the area. Ogden Point Dive
Center has a speedy, custom-built
aluminium boat specifically to ferry divers
to this site, which can be subject to high
currents. Erin Bradley, the centre’s owner,
was an excellent host for the day – friendly,
helpful and organised.
While there’s a kelp forest and an
excellent 34m wall dive here, the main
attractions are the Steller and California sea
lions that bask in great numbers on the
rock. The size and speed of these great
pinnipeds is daunting at first, with the
Steller males reaching lengths of 3.5m and
weighing more than a tonne. They seemed
more wary of humans than British grey
seals, but came in from time to time for
flybys. When we poked our heads out at the surface after the dive, we were
confronted by a roaring Steller ostensibly
claiming his territorial rights.
I was relieved to see that after a decade
away, the marine life of Vancouver Island
was just as abundant – or even more so –
than I remember it. Luckily, calm water and
sunshine seemed to follow us wherever we
went, and it’s safe to say that the entire
group took away some amazing memories.
We’re already planning another trip back.
NEED TO KNOW -- GETTING THERE
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) offers
direct daily flights from Heathrow to
Vancouver on the mainland. While there
are cheaper options with other carriers,
Air Canada offers more legroom and a
generous weight allowance of two bags
of 23kg each. Prices vary depending
on season, so budget about £600 for
a flight. Flight times are about nine
and a half hours.
We travelled from the mainland to
Vancouver Island by ferry (www.bcferries.
com) – we took our hire car on board, but
foot passengers and coaches can also
travel. Sailing times from Horseshoe Bay
in Vancouver to the island are one and a
half to two hours. Adult one-way fares
cost C$13.50, while cars cost from C$45.
WHEN TO GO
The best times to visit are late March
to early May, or late August to October,
mostly owing to calm weather and to
avoid the summer plankton bloom. The
average water temperature along the
coast is 8–12°C. The climate here is
the mildest in Canada, with coastal
temperatures reaching more than
30°C in summer and rarely falling
below zero in winter.
WHAT TO TAKE
Standard UK dive equipment is perfect –
bring a drysuit if you want be comfortable.
Topside, summers are warm enough for
shorts, T-shirts and dresses, but pack a
jumper, trousers and a light jacket for
cooler evenings and sudden changes in
the weather. Be sure to take a raincoat,
umbrella and scarf for blustery days
during spring and autumn.
For the first leg of our trip, we stayed at
the Browning Pass Hideaway (www.
vancouverislanddive.com) in Clam Cove,
Nigei Island, about 12 miles from Port
Hardy and reachable only by water taxi
expect luxury – describing it as ‘rustic’
would be kind – but excellent food,
helpful crew and fabulous diving are
guaranteed. It offers all-inclusive diving,
accommodation and meals packages for
individuals and groups – dates and prices
vary. In Victoria, we stayed at Helm’s Inn
(www.helmsinn.com), an excellent budget
hotel five minutes from Ogden Point –
prices start from C$72.50 a night.
Tanks, weights and air fills at Browning
Pass Hideaway are included in the
package cost; nitrox is also available.
In Victoria, be sure to visit the wellappointed
Ogden Point Dive Center
(www.divevictoria.com), where the
facilities include hot showers, changing
rooms, toilets, lockers and a freshwater
rinse tank, plus air, nitrox and trimix.
Above the shop is a café that puts most
restaurants to shame.