DIR in the Emerald Sea
By Guy Shockey
Diving has always been a major outdoor attraction for visitors to Vancouver Island. In the last few years, the atmosphere has become much friendlier for those divers who elect to choose a DIR approach to their diving. Due to the efforts of several dedicated divers, there has been a marked upswing in GUE training and DIR support by many of the local dive centers. On any given day, it is not unusual to find DIR divers filling charter boats or mentoring new divers at many of the more well-known dive sites. The community is growing and the diving has never been better.
How to Get There
Traveling to Vancouver Island is as easy as it gets. Air travelers may chose to fly to the international airport in Seattle and rent a vehicle for an easy two-hour drive north to Vancouver, where they can board one of the British Columbia ferries and spend 95 minutes crossing the Georgia Strait to arrive on Vancouver Island. This trip is absolutely beautiful and through Active Pass there is a good chance of spotting a pod of killer whales. There is also a direct passenger ferry service from Seattle to downtown Victoria that runs on a regular schedule.
Alternately, and perhaps even easier, two international airports, Vancouver International Airport and Victoria International Airport, serve the lower mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. In any case, it is highly recommended that visitors rent a vehicle once at the airport, as most of the dive sites on the island are easily accessible by automobile and renting a vehicle will give ready access to some great shore diving.
Be prepared to cover a little distance traveling between the top-rated dive sites on Vancouver Island. The Island is 12,000 square miles of some of the most beautiful country in North America and is nearly bisected by fjords in several locations. It will take the average diver nearly seven hours to travel from the southern portion of the island to the northern tip, so plan for some travel and enjoy the scenery.
DIR-Friendly Dive Centers
The DIR community in Vancouver Island is primarily centered in Victoria, the largest city on the island. Victoria is also the home to three DIR-friendly dive shops—Beyond Deep Diving, Ogden Point Dive Center, and Wilson Diving. Each shop can provide nitrox fills, but Beyond Deep Diving is the only supplier of trimix in the Victoria area.
Beyond Deep Diving was formerly Great Ocean Adventures until its recent purchase by its present owner, who happens to be a GUE-trained diver. This dive center stocks a good supply of everything that makes a DIR diver feel warm and fuzzy, from bolt snaps to seven-foot hoses. They are also the only supplier of DUI dry suits and service Dive Rite and Atomic equipment. The owner, Dave Healy, is a strong supporter of DIR and if he’s not in the shop, he will most likely be at one of the local dive sites.
Wilson Diving is owned and operated by a former Canadian Military Navy Clearance diver, and he is no stranger to technical diving. What Doug Wilson doesn’t know about repairing and servicing diving equipment hasn’t been written yet! His extensive diving experience (he helped produce the DCIEM dive tables) and work with the Pacific Fleet Diving Unit have made him the “go-to” guy for diving equipment issues, regardless of brand. DIR has taken a pretty solid toe-hold in his shop, with one of his instructors being the only GUE Instructor Intern on the island. Needless to say, many Wilson Diving customers are well on their way down the DIR path.
Ogden Point Dive Center has the advantage of being located a stone’s throw from one of Vancouver Island’s premier dive sites: Ogden Point Breakwater. Here you can get argon and nitrox fills as well as support for Halcyon and Scubapro equipment. Ogden Point Dive Center is always a bustling location and regularly runs two charter boats from their shop to some of the other top dive sites on Southern Vancouver Island. While I would not go so far as to say Ogden Point Dive Center is a DIR shop, they are very accommodating to DIR divers and several of their instructors regularly dive with the DIR community.
There are several other dive shops on Vancouver Island between Victoria and Nanaimo; however, it would be incorrect to refer to them as DIR-friendly. These shops would best be referred to as “DIR-neutral.” Only one or two of the shops have nitrox available and the term Standard Mixes will probably be met with a blank stare. These shops are very typical of recreational dive shops the world over, so don’t count on a high level of support for technical diving or DIR equipment. In a pinch, they can provide the traveling diver with needed supplies and service, but DIR has not yet made a real impact in these locations. The same could have been said for Victoria a few years ago, so we will keep our fingers crossed. If your dive travel plans are going to take you north of Victoria and towards Nanaimo, and you anticipate needing gas or other supplies, I would suggest you do some extensive research so you are not disappointed.
There is one dive shop north of Nanaimo and midway up the island that can provide for nearly all your DIR diving needs. Pacific Pro Dive Ltd., located in Courtenay/Comox, is the only full-service dive shop north of Nanaimo. Pacific Pro operates a very nice charter boat to some of the best wreck and reef diving on Vancouver Island. They are your charter operation of choice to visit the Capilano, the MV Gulfstream, and the Sceptre Squamish. They also provide service and support for an extensive range of both recreational and technical diving equipment. Pacific Pro also supplies nitrox and trimix for divers. Pacific Pro is not a DIR shop; however, they are familiar with this style of diving and DIR groups regularly charter their boat. In the shop, divers will find DIR equipment side by side with jacket BCs, and bolt snaps on the same wall as retractors. They usually have what you need, though, and their inventory is quite large as long as you know exactly what you want.
Dive Sites and Charter Operations
Due to the extensive coastline and the many fjords and inlets on the island, diving opportunities abound. In general terms, the underwater topography is matched by what you find above the water line, so you can expect to find some beautiful walls, canyons, and incredible rock formations at most dive sites. Sea life is more prevalent in areas with strong current and tidal action and, as a rule, inlets on the eastern side of the island are much calmer and more protected then those on the island’s rugged west coast. It is beyond the scope of this article to list the hundreds of dive sites on Vancouver Island. Some sites do, however, merit special attention.
The intrepid diver can start with the southern tip of Vancouver Island at world-class dive sites such as Race Rocks and Ten Mile Point. These sites are located in strong current areas, so it is highly recommended that divers first seek local knowledge as to when it is best to dive them. A dive on Race Rocks will more than likely provide divers with some up-close and personal encounters with sea lions and seals; it is quite literally covered in sea lions and they are incredibly curious of divers. Those who have not experienced diving with sea lions are in for a real treat. Ogden Point Dive Center runs regular charters to Race Rocks on weekends; alternatively, divers can set up their own custom charter. Ogden Point Dive Center is very familiar with local waters and will be more than happy to help set up holiday plans. Ten Mile Point is a current dive and features a terrific wall covered in sea life. In between tides this dive will treat the diver to Puget Sound box crabs, octopus, and just about every variety of life the Pacific Northwest has to offer.
British Columbia has a very strong artificial reef program and two of these reefs are accessible from Southern Vancouver Island. The HMCS Mackenzie, a former Navy frigate, and the MV GB Church are less than a 20-minute boat ride from Sidney, BC, and rest in about 100fsw. Both wrecks are covered in life and offer some terrific photo opportunities. It is possible to dive both wrecks on one charter, and both Ogden Point Dive Center and Docside Charters regularly run charters to these sites.
Moving further north, there are numerous dive sites located on the northern side of the Saanich peninsula. Here there is usually no current, excellent visibility, and some very unique cloud sponge formations in places such as Senanus Island. Rock Fish Charters and Docside Charters will safely and comfortably get you to some of the more exclusive dive locations in the inlet. Both companies operate aluminum boats and are not strangers to double tanks and stage and deco bottles.
Some of the diving in the Nanaimo area is very good and the visibility is usually a bit better than many of the southern dive sites, primarily because the waters around Nanaimo are further from the outflow of the Fraser River. There are several great walls to dive near Nanaimo, including Snake Wall and Gabriola Bluffs. These walls provide more than enough depth for even the most experienced technical diver and are home to boot sponges, octopus, wolf eels, and various species of rock fish. Perhaps two of the most popular dive locations are the artificial reefs HMCS Cape Breton and HMCS Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan is a sister ship to the HMCS Mackenzie and is covered in plumose anemones to the point that it is impossible to see the actual ship in some locations. The Cape Breton is a larger ship and sits on the sand at 140ft. Both ships are excellent dives and provide great training grounds for technical divers and wreck divers.
Diver’s Choice operates an excellent charter service to these wrecks and other sites within easy boat traveling from Nanaimo. DIR groups regularly charter this boat at least once a month and the service is second to none. Expect a terrific hot lunch and maybe even some homemade peanut butter pie. Just about every DIR diver in the Pacific Northwest is familiar with their operation and has employed their services. They will mix 32 percent for you on the boat for top-ups or provide both 50 percent and 100 percent O2 for deco gases. I highly recommend that any diver who visits Vancouver Island also plans to spend a day with Diver’s Choice. I also recommend contacting them and booking space ahead of time, as they are one of the busiest charter services on the island.
There are some nice shore diving locations north of Nanaimo such as Madrona Point, and if crossing the island isn’t too much trouble, there are some nice dive locations near China Creek and Port Alberni. Barkley Sound also has some great diving, but be prepared for some wilder seas as it is closer to the exposed west coast. The wreck of the Van Lean is also worth diving and still contains a cargo-hold full of Dodge Colts from when she sank. This dive is in the recreational diving range but extended bottom times are possible if dived as a Tech I dive.
Back on the eastern coast of the island, and moving further north, the wrecks of the Capilano, the MV Gulfstream, and the Sceptre Squamish are all diver favorites. These wrecks vary in depth from 125ft to 190ft and are habitats for some excellent fish populations. The Capilano is home to an unusually large and old yellow-eyed rockfish and while the wreck is smaller than the others, it is still very interesting. The MV Gulfstream was a 200-person passenger ferry that struck a reef and sunk with loss of life in 1947. Some huge lingcod are found near the Gulfstream, and after the bottom portion of the dive, divers can spend their deco on the nearby reef and keep an eye out for seals.
The Sceptre Squamish was a large barge that was carrying a 150-ton crane on deck when she sank. The main boom for this crane rests on the sea floor at 190ft and is a haven for some amazing schools of large rock fish and lingcod. It is a favorite for technical divers and lends itself to scootering. The crane lies at right angles to the barge and divers can circumnavigate the ship and the crane several times with scooters.
The northern tip of the island is home to the world-famous dive sites of God’s Pocket and the Browning Wall. This was Jacques Cousteau’s favorite cold water diving location and second overall only to the Red Sea. Browning Wall is a riot of colors that one would expect to find only in the tropical waters of the South Pacific, and I would defy anyone to find a spot on the wall that was not covered in life. Strawberry anemones punctuate a field of white plumose anemones and because of the current-rich tidal waters just about every form of life found in the Pacific Northwest can be found on this wall. Several charter operators are available, but to my knowledge they are not familiar with DIR. These dives are best done as recreational dives in any case, and the majority of the charter operators are excellent. The diving is absolutely spectacular and it is easy to see why Jacques Cousteau made the comments he did about diving in this part of the world.
DIR diving is alive and growing on Vancouver Island. The community is strongest in the Victoria and South Island region, but is now moving further up the island. There have been regular GUE classes in the Vancouver area during the past two years and several more scheduled for 2009. Many of the students for these classes are Vancouver Island residents who have traveled to Vancouver for the training and then continued to help foster the growth of the DIR community when they returned home. The future looks bright for GUE and DIR on Vancouver Island and the diving is excellent. Once you dive the Emerald Sea—you will see why.