- Published on Tuesday, 02 October 2012 12:43
- Written by John Tapley
By John Tapley
Northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia rests Howe Sound: a diving paradise offering relaxing opportunities for divers interested in scanning the surface and delving into the depths; it is well recognized for providing a healthy mixture of deep and shallow water experiences. Wall divers also enjoy repelling along the many critter-encrusted pillars found at particular sites. It’s a relaxing area, nearly untouched by modern inconveniences. When exploring the waves and depths of Howe Sound, troubles seem to carelessly float away in its crisp and brisk Pacific Northwest winds.
Jan Breckman and her husband Kevin have been exploring Howe Sound for many years with their charter company, Sea Dragon Charters. One of their favorite spots, which they discovered years back, is the aptly named “Dragon’s Den”. The steep sheer wall here is more suited for divers with advanced ability, but it is a wonder to behold. Just off Anvil Island in Howe Sound’s northern section, the den sports deep cavernous rooms at 65 feet in. These areas are marked with large overhangs, which call divers into their massive “stockrooms” of aquatic life. Decorative war bonnets, octopus, rockfish, sponges, and nudibranchs of course, fill the waters with cascading colors. The current here is rarely fierce and the bottom plateaus to a steep drop off, which goes down to 300 feet.
The shallow rocky shores of Copper Cove grant a relaxed experience with a smooth entry leading to white sands below. The bottom here is spotted with rocks and eelgrass, which are covered in green kelp. Divers often cite this as a perfect spot for night diving, especially since most of its marine life only comes out to play at night. Common critters here include prawns (both tiny and jumbo), hermit and spider crabs, and ratfish. And Copper Cove is a premium spot for sculpin seekers: grunt, sailfin, and rough-back are just a few scaly sculpin who call the cove their homestead.
Found roughly 1,000 feet off the shores of Bedwell Bay, northeast from the village of Belcarra, the VT-100 was a United States naval mine sweeper, which met its watery end in 1957 after hoodlums set it ablaze. It is a very popular wreck diving spot, but can be difficult to find due to the waters’ subpar visibility, which is caused by large silt clouds and anemone congregations. Shannon Kozak of local Ocean Pro Divers likens the elusive wreck site to a “treasure hunt” in that it is offers a great navigational test to divers. “It’s always more fun when there’s a treasure hunt and a bit of a reward at the end!” she exclaims. Compared to other sites in Howe Sound, sea life here is scarce, but small groups of rockfish and perch can occasionally be witnessed within the rusty wreckage.
Greg McCracken, co-owner of Ocean Quest Dive Centre in Vancouver, states Whytecliff Park is very unique because it provides exciting diving opportunities for novices and experts alike. The park area itself is typically very shallow and is one of the best training locations in the entire province. Nearby Whytecliff Park Lookout (often referred to as Lookout Bay) offers more intimacy and solitude than the populated park spot. Kozak also considers this a top of the line site to dive, especially when the ebb and flow are exactly right; drift diving is often experienced here when conditions are perfect. A perpendicular finger, descending from the shore runs until about 40 feet deep, so divers should be wary and dive at lower depths. The area between the two sites is a very smooth gradient along a 2,000 foot curvature; it is perfect for advancing a diver’s skills. All sorts of aquatic critters call this area their home: giant Pacific octopus, wolf eels, lingcod, rockfish, and an occasional friendly seal. The strong currents encrust smaller creatures, such as sponges and filter-feeding animals to the wall, which in turn, summons colorful nudibranchs in for a feast.
South of Whytecliff Park lies Whyte Islet, which is another thrilling, fantastic site for shore diving aficionados. Beneath the waves, the slope descends quickly: the drop off falls down to 100 feet. It’s easy to get lost in the moment at this tranquil locale, especially as its local residents (black eyed gobies, flatfish, and octopus) gracefully swim by. A kelp bed peppered with plumose hosts even more vibrant critters: purple stars, barnacles, greenlings, and green sea urchins. In years past, the area was the foundation for a marina; divers can have a blast exploring its ruins and wreckage.
With a shore which gradually slopes into the blue, Porteau Cove is another easy to access site filled to the brim with many artificial reefs and is often called a “divers’ sandbox”. Two disused ships, the Granthall and The Centennial III, can give divers hours of great underwater exploration. A bit further out, the Nakaya wreck is popular with wreck divers, but caution should be taken as the ship is degrading at a fast pace. According to McCracken, this spot is akin to diving in an aquarium because it hosts an impressive variety of fish: grunt sculpins, lingcod, perch, quillback, and rockfish to name some. Crab enthusiasts will not be disappointed by this site as hermit, Dungeness, red rock, and an occasional king crab can be seen scuttling about the sandy bottom amidst purple and ochre stars.
A shore diver’s Shangri La, Kelvin Grove boasts an easily accessible spot to take in a great dive. McCracken states this is one of the most popular areas for wall diving as well. The area is characterized by sandy silt-covered and slopes, which run to about 100 feet, followed by dramatic sudden drop offs. A multitude of crags and crevices can be found carved into the walls and plateaus; these recesses accommodate lingcod, perch, gobies, and greenlings. And, on occasion, sixgill sharks are known to swim by. Massive webs of kelp cover the sandy bottom where sea stars, many types of crabs, tunicates, cucumbers, sponges, and enormous nudibranchs routinely congregate. This area really booms during summer months when nearby campsites provide amenities.
One of the most unique diving locales a diver will ever witness, the area often called “Spongebob” by locals is appropriately swarmed with sea sponges of many varieties, but also houses a unique type called the glass sponge. These interesting porous creatures have existed since the Jurassic period and have an uncanny survival mechanism: When a glass sponge dies, its budding latches on to its parent. Over time, the remnants of these expired creatures have formed a massive crust over the whole area, which functions as a reef system. More common critters, which generally inhabit the Pacific Northwest (Puget Sound king crabs and tanner crabs; nudibranchs and anemones; and sculpin and lingcod) can be seen jutting in and out of this serene undersea graveyard. This spot is located in Halkett Bay on the southeastern edge of Gambier Island. Breckman states having good buoyancy control is crucial at this site because there are no nearby walls.
The Mini Reefmaster
This site is located in nearby Collingwood Channel. The rocks come up very close to the surface, so divers and boat enthusiasts should be wary of markers and buoys. This is a very popular site and one of Sea Dragon Charter’s most requested adventures. Marker lines help guide divers down into the depths along the area’s rocks. This spot is very convenient and is widely considered a multi-level dive suitable for many skill levels. The channel is frequently traveled by boaters, so divers should exercise caution while descending and surfacing.
Divers who are in search of seals will fall for Pam Rocks: an abundance of seal families hunt, play, and dwell at this spot. Located in central Howe Sound, this site can be tricky for boaters to navigate due to the many rocks which jut out above and partially below the surface. The bottom is a diver’s playground with many crevices ready to explore and a litany of outcroppings, walls, and ledges. Descent here generally goes to about 90 feet. An incredible amount of bottom-dwelling life hangs out down below: sculpin, urchins, crabs, quillback, and rockfish travel under the cover of kelp beds. And beneath all this energy, mussels, clams, and tritons lazily scrape along the sandy floor.
With its grand number of uncommon dive sites, which cater to divers of all interests and skill levels, it’s no wonder northern Vancouver is a popular diving region. Some adventures stand out in the open and others are nestled in secret; the crisp waters of Howe Sound are hidden treasures just waiting to be unlocked.
Nanaimo Dive Outfitters hosted an Ocean Equipment/Waterproof Demo Days event June 9. For more info, click here.