Vancouver Island Yacht Charter
Live-aboard the dive boat Nautilus Explorer
Aug. 12, 2006 12:30 PM
The amazing thing was the fish. They were everywhere... huge schools of China rockfish looked like something from the tropics. And the submerged walls were coated with life... plumose, sponges, barnacles, clumps of feather duster worms.
But we weren’t at Browning Pass. This was a spire of rock on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast, a spot dived by only a handful of people before, a spot still loaded with fish because it’s not exactly on anyone’s harvest path and still loaded with life because, frankly, hordes of divers haven’t scraped it off.
The goal was to go completely around Vancouver Island on a live-aboard dive boat, something done only once before the previous fall by this same boat. Most dive boats stay on the Inside Passage side, the east coast of this Florida-size island where the diving is relatively easier.
The important term here is ‘relatively.’ We are talking cold water diving with all the drysuit gear this requires, along with tricky currents, since it’s the rush of water that brings nutrients which support the world class life. There are divers who consider Vancouver Island’s east coast challenge enough.
But the west coast has its own rewards and a few more challenges and this trip would give divers a chance for a direct comparison.
Leaving from Steveston, just south of Vancouver, we crossed over to the island and scurried up the east side, stopping briefly for a dive at Texada’s cloud sponges. They hung off the wall in three-foot yellow clumps, each a ball of tubes, each tube with its own critter a shrimp here, a crab there. But best of all were the juvenile quillback rockfish. All those little golden faces peering out of the tubes.
That was at 100 feet. We came up to a ledge at 40 feet and saw a rainbow nudibranch with its crown of translucent waving tentacles. We felt lucky to have spotted it and then saw a second, a third, a fourth. They were all over the place, dozens upon dozens scattered among the pebbles.
And this was only our first dive.
From Texada, it was up to Browning Wall on the northeast corner of the island. Browning is the gold standard of northwest diving. On a dive named Al’s Baby we found broccoli stalks of plumose hanging all over the place a forest of branching white, separated by groups of crimson and green anemones, barnacles, 20-armed sun stars, a huge king crab, a tiny Pacific octopus and so much more life, there literally wasn’t a spot on the wall to rest your finger.
We climbed from the water to a classic northwest scene. An eagle soared overhead in a cloudless sky and as we headed off, a school of Dall’s porpoise sliced through the water around our bow, leaving white streaks of foam in their wake.
Since a cold front was coming through, boat owner/captain Mike Lever decided to stick around a bit longer on the more protected side of the island meaning more dives at Browning and, especially, Dillon Rock with its half dozen friendly wolf eels.
Finally, we eased around the north end of the island and headed south. The northern tip of Vancouver Island is as wild as it comes. With its unbroken forests of cedar, its eagles, whales and porpoise, it could pass easily for the coast of Alaska.
And the fact that we were doing this in a live-aboard dive boat was somewhat of a milestone. Diving in these part has come a long way from the days, hardly 10 years ago, when a live-aboard meant communal toilets and getting dressed on an open, unprotected deck.
Divers here now have many of the amenities folks have had for years in warm water destinations: terry robes, someone making up the cabin, cups of hot chocolate and cinnamon buns handed out as you arrive back from the dive, divemaster guides if you wish.
Plus all sorts of clinics – photo workshops run by top underwater photogs, fish ID courses run by experts from the Vancouver Aquarium, trips that also focus on non-dive activities (kayaking, hiking, visits to Native villages). And, too, diving now means more than just the expected favorites – Copper Cliffs by Quadra, Browning Wall by Port Hardy, Dillon Rock. Trips now take in the Queen Charlotte Islands, Alaska and, of course, the circumnavigation of Vancouver Island.
What allows this is a boat big and fast enough to cover the distance and house its divers in comfort. Mike’s latest boat, the Nautilus Explorer, is 116 feet with beds for 24 divers. The boat cruises at 10 knots and, if pushed, can do nearly 13. On our round-island trip, we covered 600 miles.
And, along the way, we got an intensive photo course with Berkley White, who now believes digital is the only way to go.
So there I was with my very non-digital Nikonos. Geez, my equipment was older than half the crew. But Berkley has a point about digital. People with pocket cameras and not a lot of photo experience were getting the kinds of shots a National Geographic pro would have died for 10 years ago.
My roomate, Anita Floyd, a construction manager from Oregon, snagged a close up of a barnacle and its feeding appendages that was a pastel work of art. My dive buddy, Elaine Field of Seattle, got a small fish on a sponge that was flawlessly posed and lit. There were perfect quillbacks in cloud sponge tubes and even more perfect wolf eels. Yes, digital tends to blow out highlights. But the ability to correct mistakes on the spot and get tack-on focus with ridiculously wide depths of field is nothing short of amazing.
It was a good group. Northwest divers tend to be that way. The jerks are quickly weeded out by conditions that require dedication to the sport. Hey, of 21 divers aboard, only six of us (including me) were on lowly air. Six were using rebreathers. The rest were on nitrox or trimix. Most were divemasters and one guy runs his own charters.
Dedicated, definitely. We hit the village of Tahsis (population 400) and a bunch went to dive mud, hoping for six gill sharks. The rest of us drained the town of its entire stock of margaritas, to the last drop.
The next day, we dove the town dock, again hoping for six gills. No sharks but the dock was a party in itself. For decades, boats have dumped their trash here. A white man’s midden, one guy quipped. We found a rifle encrusted with sponge life. Starfish climbed the pilings. And Elaine found the tiniest octopus.
“Just his eyes peeking out of his hole. You could tell he was curious but you could also almost hear him think, ‘What is that creature looming over me? Is it safe? Will it eat me?’”
The west coast is Vancouver Island’s wild side. This is where North America’s storms come ashore. One of the world’s largest recorded waves, 98 feet, happened here. What’s considered hurricane winds and scurry-for-cover in the Caribbean is just normal winter weather here.
And, so, the diving is quite different.
“Storms scour the outsides of islands, so you have to look for life in protected niches and on the backsides of pinnacles,” Mike said. The life is not as thick and it has to be hardier, sturdy anemones, abalones and flat metridiums rather than delicate sponges and broccoli stalk plumose.
You need to think about what you’re doing, Mike said in his briefing. Current and surge can combine for a rock and roll ride. The trick is to let the surge push you, hold onto something while it’s trying to suck you backwards, then let it push you forward again. And when you come up, Mike warned, stay away from the rocks. The surge can easily carry you 30 feet up or down.
We were diving places that had been dived only once or maybe not at all. On the northern end of the island, it was all virgin.
We named a few. My contribution, “Bashing Rocks,” was, sadly, voted down. Besides the killer surge, it had great macro.
But the best of all was Hot Springs Cove Pinnacle. “Probably the best example of what a pinnacle dive should be,” Mike said.
It’s a 300 foot-wide-rock sitting in 100 feet of water and is affected by both current and a bit of surge, meaning it gets both the hardier surge life and the hungrier soft invertebrate life. Down at 50 feet the rock was completely covered – metridiums, purple flowering tube worms, stars, tunnicates, barnacles, sponges, stalks of plumose, hundreds of fish.
Better yet, staghorn bryozoans, colonial animals that look like miniature tropical finger coral, each about two feet across and holding an entire universe of life. There were tiny brittle stars that were smaller than a fingernail, near-microscopic anemones, fish, shrimp and filter feeders along with multicolored worms that wrapped themselves around the bryozoan fingers. The whole thing writhed with life.
And then the crowning touch: three wolf eels stacked one atop another. And hardly a yard away, a huge octopus wedged into a long, deep crack.
Between dives, we visited an ancient Native village with crumbling bits of overgrown, century-old totem poles. You go to a museum and everything is nicely lit with signs. But here, it’s bushwacking through brush to find half-buried poles. Any log you step across might be a bit of history. The birds are singing and it’s as if you’re the first person to be here in decades.
Another day, we visited Friendly Cove. There are dozens of similar coves along the coast but somehow, every early explorer managed to land here including Vancouver, Cook, and Spaniards Galiano and Valdez. Today, what’s left is a lighthouse, a church with Native carvings, a memorial cairn to Cook and a Native couple with their incredibly friendly (natch) cats.
Then on to Hot Springs Cove. The boardwalk is 1.5 miles of planks, many of them carved with the name of a visiting ship. The path winds through a glorious old growth forest crowded with giant cedars, some ten feet across. At the end is a series of rock basins filled with steaming thermal water. We all squeezed into a small series of pools and watched ocean waves crash on nearby rocks while some chap with a guitar serenaded us with ‘70s ballads.
Our last days, we rounded the southern end of the island, first stopping to visit Bamfield where we toured the Marine Sciences Centre, a research and study facility; they have their own ROV for deep water research and yes, it’s seriously cool.
Then we came into Victoria where we docked at the foot of the Empress Hotel and dived the breakwater. It started really ho hum, lots of rocks, kelp, scallops, barnacles, jellies. Then these giant kelp greenlings showed up. One bruiser had to be three feet long and he just sat there, posing for pictures. And, out of nowhere, a wolf eel nudged Elaine.
This is a popular dive site and he obviously expected a handout. He swam into Elaine’s arms, sat for 10 minutes of pictures (yes, one of the other divers kissed it) and finally settled into my arms before slithering off.
Our last night, Berkley put together a show of our photos. The quality was breathtaking, the eye of a Red Irish Lord, so close, you could see the red flecks across his pupil, a moon jelly with kelp against a glowing sun, nudibranchs of every description and color. Each image was magazine quality, a perfect record of the changing underwater life that rings Vancouver Island.