Diving Vancouver Island

This is my personal review of an excellent dive holiday we took in September 2009...

Browning Pass off Vancouver Island had been on my and Chris’ list of must-visit dives for many years. It is reputed to have the best cold water diving in the world thanks to the strong currents which funnel into the narrow channels between mainland Canada and Vancouver Island. These nutrient-rich waters support a huge quantity of life, bigger and better than we’re used to in the UK. Plumose anenomes reach up to 3ft tall, and starfish easily measure the same if not more from arm to arm. Added to this you’ll find giant Pacific octopus, sealions, 6ft long wolf eels, atmospheric kelp forests, walls smothered with colourful soft corals and a huge amount of macro life.
The Hideaway

Our trip was organised by photograper Rob Bailey. Rob had dived this area before on a liveaboard skippered by John deBoeck, and was keen to return, this time staying in John’s land-based accommodation The Hideaway, tucked away in Clam Cove in Nigei Island, off the coast of Port Hardy in the north of Vancouver Island.

We travelled there by flying into Vancouver, and then hiring a car which we took across to Vancouver Island on the ferry. There may be other options for travel, but with lots of diving kit, car was the most convenient. Driving to Port Hardy at the top of the island from the ferry terminal at Nanaimo takes around 4 hours. There is one major road going the length of the island, most of which is dual carriageway. It’s easy driving with some dramatic rainforest scenery along the way.

At Port Hardy we joined a group of 14 other divers and took a half hour water taxi ride to The Hideaway. The skies were grey and there was rain in the air. Not ideal conditions to show The Hideaway at its best. We knew the accommodation was basic, but we were still taken aback when we saw it – I imagined comfortably cosy log cabins with the inconvenience of shared bathrooms maybe. The reality was somewhat different. The Hideaway consists of four or five wooden huts floating on log pontoons. Old fridges, broken furniture and salvaged items litter parts of the pontoon. The only ‘private’ bedroom is actually an old kitchen in a small hut accessed by a couple of wooden planks and separated from an adjoining room by curtains that only reach halfway to the floor. Most of the group slept in a large bunk room with an adjoining living area heated by a log burner. A few others took smaller rooms spread around the three main huts, separated by curtains and heated by rickety gas stoves. The whole place had a ramshackle air about it. It was clean and utilitarian, but luxury it was not!

By day two the rain had stopped and we’d all settled in. Thankfully excellent and plentiful food, good company and great diving more than made up for the shortcomings of the accommodation. We were diving three times a day from John’s open skiffs. Most dive sites were just a few minutes boat-ride away. With the exception of one kelp-covered wreck (home to some wolf eels), the diving is all scenic, but varies from shallow bays and reefs to dramatic walls dropping to hundreds of metres. John had an excellent knowledge of the area’s tides and topography and always put us on good sites, after giving short but informative briefings.

Highlights for me were the walls and rock faces smothered with colourful red and white soft corals, anenomes and weeds. The macro life was excellent with varieties of skulpins, gobies, rockfish, decorator crabs, shrimps and nudibranchs. We saw octopus too. I also enjoyed seeing wolf eels – similar to our wolf fish but much bigger – easily 6-7 feet long and with typically gnarly heads that only a mother could love. The decorated warbonnet looks a little like our tompot blenny but what it lacks in colour it makes up for with an impressively ornate quiff on top of its head. The bizarre grunt skulpin hides in empty barnacle shells and even looks like one from some angles. In one cove we found kelp covered with hooded nudibranchs – weird translucent nudibranchs that feed on plankton using a scoop-shaped mouth. The bull kelp found on many of the dive sites was wonderfully atmospheric. It reached up to the surface from around 10m creating an elegant thin-stemmed forest that sparkled from sunlight shining through their floating fronds. The reefs and kelp were home to varieties of rock fish some of which were beautifully coloured. Some of the group were visited by Stellar Sealions – one diver had eight or so playing around him for some time.

The short journeys to and from the dive sites were also good from a wildlife watching point of view. Evergreen trees reached right to the water’s edge, and with no paths or other signs of habitation you felt surrounded by unspoilt wilderness. We passed close to bald and golden eagles perched in the trees, and saw wild deer on the rocky shores.

By the end of the week we were all enthused about the diving and everyone had had a good time. Would Chris and I go back? Yes, definitely, but while The Hideaway is a pleasant enough place to stay once you see beyond its rustic appearance, we would probably also look at other options for accommodation.

Special thanks to organiser Rob Bailey and the guys from Warwick BSAC for a great trip.

Diving off the skiffs Clam Cove

Other trips and activities Chris and I can recommend in Vancouver Island:

We spent an afternoon with MacKay’s whale watching tours from Port McNeill. Highly recommended. The boat is fast and comfortable and they went out of their way to take us to see a pod of orcas, miles down the coast. We also saw hundreds of dolphins as well as humpback and minke whales.

If you are in Vancouver Island between July and October, don’t miss the opportunity to snorkel with salmon in Campbell River. An organised snorkel tour is the best way to do this. The river was shallow and fast-flowing when we did ours and the rapid ride was an exhilarating experience in itself. Seeing salmon rushing past us in their hundreds, seemingly without any effort at all was amazing. We saw a variety of different salmon and trout, some of the largest salmon must have been around 4-5 feet long.

Shore diving from Ogden Point, Victoria. There’s a very good dive centre here and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about the dive sites and varied life along this long jetty. It’s heck of a long walk, but three quarters of the way along you can dive with wolf eels. Our group enjoyed this dive immensely, although I would have preferred it without the large quantities of fishing line.

Float plane trips. We took a flight from Victoria across the channel to Mount Olympus in the States. The flight lasted an hour and was great fun. There were just four of us in the plane and the pilot gave us a great ride, weaving his way through the mountains, skimming past peaks and over glaciers. He gave some of us the opportunity to sit in the cockpit too.