The water was crystal-clear, though a tad cold — par for the course when it comes to diving British Columbia. I was finishing up a dive on a finger reef in Howe Sound called Worlcomb Island. There was a slight swell that gently rocked me, and I was surrounded by a colorful display of bright green and rust-colored seaweed swaying back and forth. I was watching a crab scuttling along the bottom when I glanced up to make sure I wasn’t too close to the rocks.
Like a fat aquatic sausage, a harbor seal undulated lazily around the corner of the reef and began to swim toward me. He got within about 10 feet when he noticed me. He did what seemed to be a classic cartoon double take — his head snapped away and snapped back again. I could almost hear the twang of a sound effect. He stared for a split second and then shot off like a torpedo.
Nice, I thought, a close encounter with a harbor seal, but it wasn’t over. Within 15 seconds I could see him peeping around the corner of a rock, checking me out again. On second glance, I must have seemed harmless because he emerged from his refuge and made a slow circle around me, giving me the once over. Then as if to say, “you’re not so scary,” he flipped on to his back and slowly swam away.
Diving in B.C., you never know what you’re going to run into. Nonetheless, it’s much more challenging. So, to forestall any issues, here’s a brief survival guide to diving British Columbia with some critical issues to consider.
There’s good news and bad news. Good news: it’s not going to be very much colder in the wintertime. Bad news: it’s pretty cold all year round. Average winter water temperatures are around 44 F (6.6 C). Average summer temperatures around 50 F (10 C). So, no matter when you dive, you’ll want a drysuit or at least a semi-dry. I dove last June with someone in 7mm wetsuit and extra top layer and he claimed it was okay. But his dive times were also significantly shorter than the rest of the group, averaging about 30 minutes, while rest of us were well above 45 minutes. I may be less hardy than most, but once the cold sets in and I start shivering, the dive is over. If you’re the same, good thermal protection as a must.
Here’s an irony: when the temperatures are coldest, visibility is often the best. I prefer winter diving in British Columbia. There’s less chance of any algae or plankton bloom, and there’s no runoff from the rivers. However, even during the rest of the year, the cloudy water often only lasts for the first 30 feet (9 m). Both Barkley and Howe Sounds often have these conditions, so be patient on your descent. But note, at the wrong time of year — or even with the wrong wind or current — some heavy detritus can drift into an area.
Tides and currents
It’s saltwater, so there will be tides and there will be currents, which will vary by location. I know that may sound simple but it’s surprising how many divers enter the water in British Columbia without thinking about the tide. Check your tide tables to make sure you know when it’s ebbing and flowing and when it’s slack. Talk to other divers and locals to find out how strong that tidal pull is going to be — sometimes it’s nothing; sometimes it’s a rocket.
I dove at Race Rocks in the middle of the Straits of Juan de Fuca for a film I was working on. We wisely went in during slack tide but overstayed our welcome trying to get a tricky shot and the tide started to ebb. The cameraman and I barely made it back to the small island we’d dived from; it was like being in a very strong flow in a cave system. On the other hand, there’s a fantastic drift dive through Dodd Narrows on Vancouver Island that shoots divers along like a freight train. But that’s a planned activity with a boat and only for experienced divers.
You’ll need a good one. First of all, when you get below 60 feet (18 m) it will start getting dark. At 90 feet (27 m) it’s very dark. You’ll need that light not only to see, but also to find cool stuff to look at. Most of the critters will be hiding under rocks and in crevices and caves. If you don’t have a light to shine in there, it’s unlikely you’ll see any octopus or wolf eels. Lights are also a good safety feature, making it easy to spot your dive partner (and them you) very quickly.
Don’t rush. British Columbia has a ton of macro life — nudibranchs, various shrimp and crabs, delicate little fish that hide in nooks and crannies. If you belt along one of the many walls, chances are you’ll miss most of what’s there, even the big stuff. I went for a long stretch without seeing a Giant Pacific octopus. I’d look for signs of their dens — pieces of crab shell — and then have a quick look at all the holes around the debris. No luck. But then I went diving with a sharp-eyed divemaster who moved at a glacial pace looking for critters to show me. In two dives he found four octopuses and a wolf eel. So slow down. But don’t worry, it’s not all macro — you’ll see plenty of large critters as well — the odd sea lion, huge lingcod, lots of massive jellyfish, sea stars, and anemones.
Boat diving is possible, but there’s lots of good shore diving up and down Vancouver Island and around Vancouver itself. Porteau Cove, just 20 minutes north of Vancouver, is a great place to start. Because it’s a park, there’s no fishing in the area. Consequently, local marine life has exploded around the area’s artificial reefs. It’s shallow and there’s lots to explore.
To be honest, I don’t have a favorite dive spot in British Columbia. I also don’t have somewhere I’ll tell you to avoid at all costs. The diving is uniformly good up and down the coast. The only distinctions are the different experiences — hunting for six-gill sharks in Barkley Sound; diving with sea lions off Hornby Island; or a week at a dive lodge at God’s Pocket Marine park near Port Hardy. Diving British Columbia could keep you busy for years, especially when you’re armed with the right information.