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Scuba Diving Barkley Sound

Jacques Cousteau once called Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island one of the world’s top dive spots. Find out why.                                                

I was walking in the footsteps of a giant. As my boat slipped between Barkley Sound’s dark, forested mountains, I believed that I was about to experience a connection with Jacques Cousteau. The man who’d inspired me to start diving more than 30 years ago had  described Barkley Sound as one of the world’s best places to dive, and I was here to spend two days finding out why scuba diving Barkley Sound made Cousteau’s cut.

Scuba Diving Barkley Sound

On the first day, over breakfast at Rendezvous Dive Lodge, I’d brazenly said, “show me what Cousteau thought was so special about this place.”

Peter Mieras, the owner, happily accepted the challenge. Although swells sometimes make for rough dive conditions at the mouth of Barkley Sound, clear skies and calm waters greeted us that day. As we puttered toward the first location, we saw humpback whales and harbor porpoises playing in the water. When we dropped anchor on Christie Reef, I was in the water in a heartbeat. A quick okay to my dive buddy and I sank beneath the Emerald Sea.

Discovering Barkley Sound 

Initially, my heart sank — bad visibility. But at around 20 feet (6 m), I broke through the upper layer of plankton into clear water and a stunning sight. Intense primary colors were everywhere. There were neon orange fish-eating anemones, bright pink-striped sun stars and lemon-yellow nudibranchs covering lilac and purple-hued rocks. If the B-52s rock band had been asked to design an alien world for a retro sci-fi movie, they might have come up with Barkley Sound. As I came to a rest a few feet above the bottom, I turned my head in the other direction and spotted a 2-foot-long, copper- and gold-colored sea cucumber nestled in a field of giant plumose anemones, each of them pure white and nearly two feet high. If I hadn’t had a regulator in my mouth, my jaw would have hit the reef.

A Burst of Color

A bit of slight motion caught my eye. I turned my head to see a burst of color, but it just didn’t compute. Cold-water fish weren’t supposed to be like this — this was tropical.  And yet I was staring at a black and orange tiger rockfish as intensely colored as anything I’d ever seen on a Caribbean reef. Just beyond, another showstopper — this time a China rockfish with neon yellow stripes along its sides. All too soon it was time to head to the ascent line but not before another surprise on my way back. I ran into a creature that looked vaguely like a dinosaur, a mottled fish with a massive, plated-looking head and two horns. It was about two feet long and its pectoral fins resembled scaly hands.

It was all I could do to climb back on the boat before I started yammering questions. The “dinosaur” was in fact a cabezon, an unusual form of sculpin. I kept up my steady barrage of questions. Not surprised, Peter smiled and said, “I haven’t discovered another place on Earth that offers me something new on every dive the way this place does.”

Dive No. 2

For the day’s second dive, we moved into more sheltered waters on Renate’s Reef. We sank down to about 80 feet (24 m). Within moments we spotted a massive, purplish-grey head that lolled out of a small cave. I’d heard about wolf eels, and once I’d even glimpsed a shadow of one shyly disappearing. But this one stared back at us unconcerned. And then, as if to say, “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” the wolf eel, about five feet long (1.5 m), emerged slowly from its den. It completed two graceful, leisurely circles around us, and then cruised off into the distance, taking up residence in another cave.

We continued along the reef, our lights playing across staghorn bryozoan that grew everywhere in thick clumps. I’d spent a lot of time on coral reefs that couldn’t hold a candle to this place for richness and diversity of fish life.

On the way back to the lodge, Peter casually asked if I was interested in seeing his backyard, Rendezvous’ house reef. Within minutes of arriving at the dock I suited up and along with Peter stepped off the dock. We dropped down to about 30 feet (10 m). The entire length of the house reef was a world in miniature. There were pale, translucent variable dendronotus sea slugs, bright white and orange clown dorids, shaggy-looking opalescent nudibranchs and, every once in a while, an intense spark of color — an orange-peel nudibranch. The entire dive covered only a matter of yards, a universe in a bottle.

An Underwater Cloud

The wind had picked up on our second day as we pulled away from the dock. This did not perturb Peter. “We’ll just tuck in behind a couple of islands,” he said. Within 20 minutes, we anchored at a site called Tyler Rock. Yet another well-populated reef, this site had something almost magical to offer. We swam to the entrance of a small underwater canyon, where I stopped short and stared. Hundreds of pure white, giant plumose anemones lined the canyon from top to bottom. It looked like one large, living organism. Our lights played across the undulating surface and we decided to swim through. As we finned through the mass, it felt as if we were swimming inside a giant, living underwater cloud.

Chuck Point was our second dive of the day. It featured two pinnacles sitting in about 60 feet (18 m), displaying an amazing selection of anemones: bright green surf anemones, massive clusters of strawberry anemones and, once again, the intensely orange fish-eating anemones. The water was also crowded with purple northern sunstars and bright orange cushion stars. For me, though, the final piece-de-resistance appeared near the end of the dive. We had moved into the shallow water next to the shore to start a longish safety stop, and a large field of bull kelp floated above. I lay there, looking up toward the gently waving canopy, watching the filtered light play off the schools of fish. It was a simple, yet perfect, end to a superb weekend of diving.

Regrettably, I had a plane to catch. We returned to the lodge, packed and loaded into the boat for the two-hour trip back to Port Alberni. I’d finally dived Barkley Sound and, after two days and five dives, I left with the feeling that Cousteau was absolutely right.