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Nanaimo Wreck Diving

There are three wrecks within 20 minutes of the dock at Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, making for a fantastic weekend of diving.

My weekend of Nanaimo wreck diving had all the makings of a perfect getaway. My friend Tom and I had agreed to meet in Nanaimo, for two days of good food, great conversation, and what we hoped would be superb diving. I had no doubt about my company, but I was going on faith that the food and diving would hold up their end of the deal.

Nanaimo Wreck Diving

Our dive destination was the wrecks of Nanaimo. There are three of them, all within about 20 minutes of the downtown dock. The jewel in the crown is the HMCS Saskatchewan, a 366-foot (111 m) Canadian destroyer that was scuttled as an artificial reef in October of 1997. It sits between about 40 feet (the superstructure) and 130 feet (the keel), but I’ve been told that most of the good poking around is between 70 and 100 feet (21 to 30 m).

The second wreck is the monster of the group — the HMCS Cape Breton. It’s a 442-foot (134 m) World War II Victory Class ship sitting at 140 feet (43 m). The Cape Breton was sunk in October of 2001, also as an artificial reef. Finally, there’s the baby of the group, the 150-foot (46 m) tug the Rivtow Lion. It was also a World War II ship in the British Navy, sunk in 2005 at a relatively shallow 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 m).

With our diving menu in place, we set out to test another one upon arrival on Friday night. At a cute downtown spot called The Nest Bistro, I went local with a great wild Coho Salmon in a white-wine tarragon sauce. Tom had roasted free-range chicken with a locally made brie sauce.  The food was fantastic — an encouraging start to the weekend.

The HMCS Saskatchewan

We crashed early and the following morning boarded a charter put on by Sea Dragon (approximately $80 U.S. for a two-tank dive if you bring your own gear.) Shepherd Charters also puts on regular trips to the wrecks). It was a quick trip to the wrecks. No sooner had I sorted out my gear and wriggled into my drysuit than we were moored over top of the Saskatchewan. Within a few minutes, Tom and I were over the side and moving down the ascent line. It was classic “Emerald Sea” diving. The jade-green water was a brisk 47 F (8 C), and initially the visibility was poor due to the plankton that’s common in the Pacific Northwest during the warmer months. But after we’d dipped below the 20-foot (6 m) mark, the visibility cleared and I could make out the Saskatchewan’s vague outline.

On the wreck

We were moored to the bow. The first thing that greeted us was the old deck gun, covered in all manner of anemones and sponges. In fact, we could barely make out the hard lines of the weapon anymore. We hung a few feet above the gun, admiring the view and getting our bearings before we struck out along what would have been the starboard side of the ship. The Saskatchewan has been underwater a long time and you can certainly see the effects of the sea claiming it back.  The Saskatchewan is a true artificial reef, covered with massive orange and white plumose anemones from stem to stern.

The wreck is also positively pulsing with fish life. Within seconds, we’d seen several massive lingcod and more varieties of rockfish than I could count: tiger, China and copper in abundance. The boat skipper told us to keep our eyes peeled for seals but we had no luck. We maxed out at close to 100 feet (30 m), and poked our heads into some of the many entrances that have been cut into the wreck (take a good flashlight). All too soon we were getting dangerously close to our NDL, so we swung across the wreck to the other side and made our way back to the ascent line.

The HMCS Cape Breton

About 90 minutes later we were back in the water again, this time on the Cape Breton. This is another deep wreck, and one we’d been told was prone to currents. Current, as it turned out, would be the least of our issues on this dive. As we sank down, visibility didn’t improve as it had on the Saskatchewan. We hit the wreck (almost literally) with about 10 feet (3 m) of viz at best.  Odd, I thought, since the Cape Breton and the Saskatchewan are practically within spitting distance.

That moderate current we’d been warned about was more like a steady pull, so Tom and I hugged the deck and cautiously made our way along one side of the ship, experiencing the wreck more by feel than sight. When it was time to surface, we couldn’t find the ascent line, so I threw a surface marker out on my reel line and we did a mid-water hang for a safety stop. And because of the current, we had a long surface swim back to the boat. At the end of the day, I scored the weekend one for two.

On the food side, Nanaimo was scoring a little better. Saturday night we found a nice BBQ joint, Smoking Georges. I loaded up on the beef brisket along with sides of beans, slaw and cornbread — a meal that would stand the test in Texas in my opinion.

The Rivtow Lion

On our second day, we were scheduled to dive the Rivtow Lion and a wall at Snake Island. The Rivtow is right inside the channel that leads from the inner harbor out to the main bay, so we hadn’t even begun to get our gear together by the time the skipper hooked up to the marker buoy.  The weather had broken and the sun had come out. There wasn’t the slightest ripple on the water.

The whole day felt like it was shaping up pretty well. We dropped over the side and I could see the wreck right away. No dark dives today. We descended down to about 50 feet (15 m) and began a leisurely circuit of the ship. This shallow wreck is easy to dive, with lots of little nooks and crannies to explore, and it’s got a respectable covering of sea life. In fact, given the depth, Tom and I were able to make a couple of circuits around before reluctantly heading for the surface.

Change of Plans

During our surface interval we made our way to Snake Island, which I couldn’t help but notice was covered in dozens of harbor seals rather than snakes. I asked the skipper whether they were approachable. “No worries,” he said. Change of dive plans. Rather than going deep on the wall, we decided to swim over and play with the seals. We made our way along the bottom at about 20 feet (6 m) and slowly surfaced right by the island. The seals seemed unimpressed. I decided to make like seal, so I partly hauled my body out of the water and lay on a seaweed-covered rock.  The seals looked concerned. Tom tried to join me. The seals scattered.

From that point on, our interaction with the seals was like a game of hide and seek. We’d go under to look for the seals and find nothing (though the boat skipper said they were swarming around us constantly). Then we’d pop back up and see their heads bobbing around, often only a few feet away. As soon as they spotted us, they’d disappear again. Repeat several times. As we swam back to the boat we could see torpedo-shaped shadows darting around us. A delightful dive — score 100 percent for day two.

As we motored back to the docks I realized that I’d largely realized my hopes for the weekend. We’d done four dives in two days on some of the most unique cold-water artificial reefs you’ll find anywhere in the world. We’d had some interaction with large marine mammals, which is always a treat. The food had been great and, true to my expectations, the conversation had never lagged. Nanaimo wreck diving delivered a weekend that couldn’t have been any better.