B.C.'s life aquatic

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Posted by on July 20, 2005 at 00:37:13:

Port Hardy, B.C. — The beam of my dive light reveals a dazzling display of tropical-coloured marine life: pink soft coral, giant sulphur sponge, purple hydrocoral and crimson anemones cover the underwater wall like an unkempt hanging garden.

I'm 20 metres down, drifting along Browning Wall, a tidal pass 20 kilometres northwest of Port Hardy on Vancouver Island's north coast. Sunlight filters through the clear emerald water rendering everything not illuminated by my light in a pale green glow.

A basketball-sized Puget Sound king crab clambers down the slope, startling me. My dive buddy, Brian Lowka, comes in to explore. As I hover above the crab, it backs against a sponge, presenting its powerful pinchers. Built with the proportions of a tank, this mottled-orange crustacean is one of the common residents of these colourful reefs, which are home to the world's largest octopus, giant wolf eels and vast kelp forests.

For those willing to take the plunge, British Columbia has some of the best cold-water diving in the world. While the waters may not be Cayman-crystal-clear or Bahamas-bathtub-warm, they more than make up for it in the diversity of marine life and the variety of diving.

The West Coast's waters are home to about 7,000 species of invertebrates, 400 species of fish and 30 marine mammals. Numerous divable wrecks dot the coast, including six decommissioned Canadian naval ships sunk by the Artificial Reef Society of B.C. Deepwater channels are home to giant cloud sponges and gorgonian fan corals.

Scuba Diving magazine in the United States has rated B.C. as one of the top diving destinations in North America, and the late Jacques Cousteau ranked it as one of the top spots on the globe. While the water is cold — the temperature averages 10 C year-round — with a dry suit divers can enjoy the reefs in relative comfort and observe the marine bounty of the coast.

I made the full-day journey from Vancouver to Port Hardy, near B.C.'s best diving, and based myself at the Hideaway Lodge for five days in early April to take in the start of the area's six-month dive season.

Rustic but comfortable, the Hideaway is a floating cedar-shake lodge adorned with sea monster-shaped driftwood and Japanese glass fishing floats. Run by John DeBoeck, a friendly 52-year-old who has been leading charters on the coast since 1980, the Hideaway is located in Clam Cove, a secluded inlet on the east side of Nigei Island, practically swimming distance to Port Hardy's premier dive sites.

A blend of powerful currents and the proximity to open ocean has created a rich marine ecosystem that draws divers here. There are 16 dive sites within Browning Pass, and eight more in the surrounding area. Because of the currents, dives in the pass must be made at slack tide. Sheltered sites can be dived between slack, so divers staying at the Hideaway Lodge can typically do three or four dives a day.

For the first two days of the trip, our group of seven divers, who are mostly from Alberta, visits the main sites of Browning Pass: 7-Tree Island, North Wall and Frank's Wall. The water is clear and the sun peaks out on many of the dives. Because it's still early in the season, the weather can be unpredictable, so we stay in the relative shelter of Browning Pass.

On previous trips to Port Hardy, I've crossed Queen Charlotte Strait to Slingsby Channel, the Guinness World Records' fastest tidal current, which can exceed 30 kilometres an hour. Dives can be made only when tides are small. Even then, a dive in Slingsby Channel is part roller coaster and part washing machine.

However, the profusion of invertebrate life, supported by nutrients brought in by the awesome currents, is mind-boggling. This is the only place I've ever seen gooseneck barnacles, a rare creature resembling a red goose beak inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Another exposed site I've visited on past trips is Dillon Rock, where I've been greeted by a dozen swimming wolf eels. With a face resembling a toothless old man, these two-metre-long serpents have the demeanour of puppy dogs. Although they're found all along the coast, Dillon is one of the best places to see them. Patting a wolf eel is considered a rite of passage for B.C. divers. At night, the reefs are patrolled by giant Pacific octopi, which come out of their dens to hunt and can be as big as a diver.

In the late summer months, pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, often numbering in the hundreds, cruise the inshore waters of northern Vancouver Island. They ride the dive boat's bow wave and perform aerial acrobatics as skillfully as their aquarium cousins. On one trip to Port Hardy, I had the experience of swimming with these hot dogs of the deep. I lost all track of time and depth as I was mesmerized by their undersea antics.

On the third day of the charter, the storm that we've been warned about all week finally hits. A night of horizontal rain and squalls so fierce my cabin shudders gives way to a miserable morning of incessant precipitation. I put on all my rain gear to walk the 20 or so steps to the dining cabin, and am soaked when I arrive. DeBoeck is listening intently to the marine forecast on the radio. A voice crackles, “Winds southeast 45 gusting to 50 knots.”

“That's just outside the inlet,” DeBoeck says. “We won't be diving for a while.”

With nothing to do but watch the rain, DeBoeck entertains us with stories of the charters he has run over the past 25 years: He has seen orcas hunting dolphins, humpback whales underwater and once had a U.S. Navy Trident sub surface beside his boat. “I thought it was going to capsize us,” he recalls.

For lunch, we dine on Clam Cove Chowder, made with freshly shucked clams. The aroma of the wood stove and the pitter-patter of rain lulls me into a lazy state of reading and napping.

In the evening, as the light begins to fade, and I think of going to bed early, DeBoeck asks, “Wanna go for a dive?” He thinks the wind might have calmed in the channel, maybe enough for us to get out.

In the misty rain, I don my cold, clammy dry suit and shiver at the thought of slipping into the sea. As our skiff chugs toward the entrance to Browning Pass, I see rolling waves breaking on remote islands in Gordon Channel, forming small white lines in the waning light. When we reach 7-Tree Island, one of the top sites in Browning Pass, the current is perfect — a gentle nudge to move us effortlessly along.

I descend through a cloudy surface layer of tea-coloured water, runoff from the past 24 hours of heavy rain, and drift along the vertical wall at a depth of 20 metres. The dim light fades to black. My world is reduced to the small halo of brightness from my dive light.

The reef's nocturnal residents awaken. Dime-sized hermit crabs amble onto branches of soft coral, catching pieces of passing plankton with their pinchers. Shrimp scuttle over crimson anemones, their eyes reflecting my dive light like tiny headlights. A decorated warbonnet peers out from his home in a giant barnacle shell. This cartoon-like creature resembles an eel with big buggy eyes, Mick Jagger-sized lips and a miniature Mohawk.

I smile at his whimsical expression; a touch of warmth in a cold sea.

Globe and Mail article

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