PLUNGING INTO THE DEPTHS
Story by Candace Wu. Photography by Peter McCully, Shirley White and Jay Holbrook
There’s something enchanting about the ebb and flow of the ocean.
Perhaps it’s the vastness of it all; the idea that we are connected in one way or another to the outer edge of the earth.
On a calm evening, the waters lining Parksville Qualicum Beach look as delicate as glass.
But what lies beneath that seemingly perfect surface is one of the greatest mysteries of all time: a world relatively untouched by humanity; free from wrath, greed, gluttony, Facebook.
It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to penetrate this fascinating abyss and learn how to scuba dive. And this year I got to scratch it off my bucket-list. One of the most famous underwater explorers of the 20th century Jacques-Yves Cousteau once said: “From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”
Lore also has it that Cousteau proclaimed Vancouver Island to have the best cold water diving in the world.
That praise has been echoed by scuba enthusiasts all over the place. In 2015 Scuba Diving magazine ranked British Columbia’s coastline as one of the best overall dive spots in North America, taking the top title for Best Advanced Diving, Best Wall Diving and Best Underwater Photography.
It only takes one plunge into the depths of the ocean to find out why.
The moment I passed my PADI Open Water dry suit course I took to the water for an experience I’d been waiting my entire life to have.
After the initial panic of being 60 feet underwater with my sole source of oxygen strapped to my back subsided, it was like gliding through a 3D Planet Earth episode without the commentary. Suddenly the extra 30 pounds of weight in my suit disappeared and while I was well below ground level, it felt like I was flying; suspended in a state of fascination.
On my first dive as a certified scuba diver at Madrona Point in Nanoose Bay, I tackled what is known to scuba-insiders as Main Wall. It was literally crawling with marine life — bright purple and yellow sea stars of all different sizes, rock fish camouflaged into the seafloor, and I even saw a giant Pacific octopus hiding in the crevices of the wall. And just as we were leaving, like a flash of lightning, I noticed a sea lion dart behind fellow divers. In the blink of an eye, the magnificent creature had graced our dive and was gone; and I was left wondering if I even saw it at all.
While you never forget your first, my most recent dive is now a favourite memory.
Though I didn’t see any particularly spectacular marine animals, the dive itself was surreal. I arrived at Dolphin Beach at high tide in the early evening; sunlight was plentiful, blanketing the ocean’s glossy surface.
As I descended into the water, it seemed a bit murky at first, but the deeper I dove, the better the visibility became and suddenly it was like watching high definition television for the first time all over again. I diligently followed my divemaster because I don’t quite trust my underwater navigation skills yet, and he took me through a forest-like trench lined with lush curly ribbons of army -green Bull kelp.
As we passed through the algal beds, I noticed tiny fish and invertebrates peek out from behind the thick curtain of kelp. The kelp provides an important sheltering habitat for a variety of marine life including urchins, sea stars, snails and crabs. Then I looked up and saw an unforgettable vignette: a school of fish, at least 100, swimming in sync with one another while sunlight shed through the water, dotting the ocean with little marine shadows. We continued on, traveling at a slow pace, being careful to appreciate every breath of oxygen we had left in our tanks. I saw a small jellyfish, not bigger than my hand. I looked out and realized there wasn’t just one, but a minefield of jellyfish suspended in the ocean just like us scuba divers.
Shirley White, co-owner of Nanaimo Dive Outfitters, has taught hundreds of people how to scuba dive in the Strait of Georgia — including me.
White says it’s the wide array of marine life living along our coastline that’s so enticing for divers.
“A couple weeks ago I saw my very first squid (at Neckpoint in Nanaimo),” she says. “I’ve been diving in these waters for 12 years now and that was my very first squid. I see lots of squid eggs, especially in the spring, but I’ve never seen a squid before.”
White explains more common marine life to see include lingcod, rockfish, giant Pacific octopus, wolf eels, war bonets, puget sound king crabs, sea slugs and sea cucumbers to name a few.
“There’s lots of variety,” she says.
“You can go down and look at one spot and if you stay calm and stay quiet and stay still, everything that has hidden while you pass by starts to relax and come out again…then when you’re calm and quiet you start to see the interaction between the life.”
While there’s a lot to see, there are some marine creatures you don’t want to run into.
But according to White, there’s not much to worry about on
“Especially diving around here, we don’t really have anything dangerous in our waters,” she says. “The most you might get is a sting from a jellyfish tentacle.”
White says we don’t have any predatory sharks in our waters — and certainly not the great white shark from Jaws.
Asked if she’s ever felt threatened underwater, White says “sea lions can be intimidating when you have a pack of them all over you.”
But she says sea lions and octopus are playful in nature.
“You have to remember they are wild creatures,” she says. “As long as you don’t antagonize the sea life it won’t hurt you.”
BEST DIVE SITES IN NANOOSE BAY
Avid scuba diver and former instructor Jay Holbrook helped compile a list of the best dive sites in Nanoose Bay. Holbrook, who lives in Nanoose, says he dives once a week in the area — and as an artist, he takes much of what he sees in the ocean for inspiration.
MADRONA POINT Madrona Point is a highly rated dive site with a range of opportunity at one location. It’s equipped with shore access and plenty of challenges for all levels of divers. Holbrook says it’s his favourite local spots because you can either do the deep wall (90-95 feet deep) or the small wall (60 feet feet). He say it’s a steep, vertical rock face that attracts a lot of marine life, especially at night.
WALL BEACH Just down from Madrona is another site called Wall Beach, which also has excellent shore access. Holbrook says it’s a fantastic site and if you “time it just right” you’re sure to run into sea lions coming from the log boom nearby. He says sea lions are “a real treat to dive with” and claims the ones at Wall Beach are much calmer than the ones near Hornby Island, known to be a little rambunctious with divers.
BEACHCOMBER PARK Just past the Beachcomber Marina in Nanoose Bay, Beachcomber park is a nice dive. Holbrook says the area doesn’t get a lot of traffic and there’s a bit of a hike to and from the dive site but it’s well worth it. He says you’ll find different types of rockfish at the site and deep down there’s some interesting sponge life. Sea lions also frequent this site.
TYEE COVE Tyee Cove, also referred to as Seducers Cove, is a well known site popular among the dive community for its sheltered location, making it possible to dive despite Mother Nature’s mood swings. Holbrook said it’s his second favourite dive spot for the diversity of marine life it houses, including lots of wolf eels.
DOLPHIN BEACH Just a short distance from Tyee Cove, Dolphin Beach is a popular site, but shore access can be a bit challenging. You’ll need at least a 10-foot-tide on the rise to get in, so be sure to check your tide chart. Holbrook says there’s a neat trench that runs along the seafloor before you get to the main wall.
COTTAM POINT For advanced divers, Cottam point is a great site and sits across from Mistaken Island. However, Holbrook warns there’s often a current if you dive other than a slack tide.
NANKIVELL POINT One of the lesser known sites, Nankivell Point is located south of Schooner Cove. Holbrook says this site was featured in a popular dive book but later taken out in further editions, so it’s waned in popularity. However, Holbrook says it’s a great site with a busy wall of juvenile fish. It has good shore access but Holbrook says divers are more exposed at this site as it’s in the main strait.