Snow Fooling – Diving in Nanaimo, B.C.

March 21, 2003

It was snowing again.

I couldn’t help thinking, “Why am I doing this” as I made my way slowly up I-5, watching snow blowing across the pavement in front of me. The weather forecast was calling for on-again, off-again snow showers and blustery weather all week-end, and I was headed to Vancouver Island to go diving. “Why” I asked myself again, “didn’t I bring my skis instead of my dive gear?”

But I knew the answer. Two years ago, on a similarly blustery March week-end, I had completed my Open Water certification. And I was determined to celebrate the anniversary by diving Nanaimo’s famous wrecks – the Saskatchewan and the Cape Breton. Our local dive shop, Northwest Sports Divers, arranges trips to Nanaimo about every other month. This trip included 17 divers, roughly half of who were taking an advanced wreck-diving class. The rest of us were just going to explore and have fun.

The plan was for three days of diving, on two separate charters, for a total of eight dives. I met two of my dive buddies at the Tsawassan ferry at 11 AM, and two and a half hours later we were loading our gear onto a dive boat in Nanaimo. It was windy and cold … and snowing.

Our charter for the first day was Technically Speaking, a 37-foot boat set up to accommodate eight divers. But there were only the three of us, so there was lots of space on board. Owner and operator Harry Wenngatz helped us get our gear loaded and stowed, and soon we were underway. This was an exploratory trip – we wouldn’t be diving the wrecks until tomorrow.

The first destination was Snake Island wall. Cap’n Harry put us right over a “slot” that looks like some kind of fault line extending from the island to the wall. We dropped down to about 40 fsw and followed the fault line out to the wall. The shallower portions of the wall are covered with crimson anemones and populated by several species of rockfish. As we descended below about 80 fsw these were replaced with giant plumose anemones, cloud sponges, and some of the biggest lingcod I’ve ever seen. Following the wall we came to a large overhang, towering above us like the bow of a ship. Swimming underneath it was eerie because the overhang is huge, and blots out any ambient light filtering down from above. We maxed our depth at 118 fsw, but the wall continues downward for several hundred feet. Shining my light upward I could see giant plumose anemones growing upside down off the overhang. There were also patches of strawberry anemones, tube sponges, and an assortment of other marine life covering just about every available surface. I watched my bubbles pool in a place where the overhang was too sheer to allow them to continue their journey to the surface – producing a bit of a “mirror” effect above my head.

At last we headed up and over the wall, into the boulder field that led toward the island. This part of the dive is a macro photographer’s dream. I saw no less than 12 different species of nudibranchs, including one giant swimming nudibranch. There are rock scallops and abalones clustered among the rocks, and abundant fish life. We also found a good-sized octopus tucked up beneath a large cluster of rocks. Snake Island is famous for its playful seals, but we weren’t lucky enough to attract their attention on this particular dive. But there was still plenty to see, and we spent about 15 minutes enjoying the scenery between 30 fsw and safety-stop depth. What an amazing dive site … I have to go back sometime and let the seals find me.

Our second dive was a place called Clarke Rock. This dive site is a pinnacle comprising a series of rocks and ledges that go from roughly 18 fsw all the way down to about 70 fsw. It’s known for wolf eels, but for some reason we didn’t see any on this dive. We did see lots of lingcod and rockfish though, and I amused myself by sneaking up on several medium-size lings and “tweaking” their tails. These Canadian lingcod are a friendly lot, eh? Not one of them was aggressive … they just turned around and glared at me, then glided off to find another resting spot. At last we completed our dive and boarded the boat for the ride back to the marina. Snow was still gently falling.

By the time we unloaded our gear we were pretty well chilled, and really looking forward to a hot shower and warm meal. Our lodging was at the Buccaneer Motel, just a short two-minute drive from the marina. The Buccaneer is a very diver-friendly place, with a station for rinsing gear and a pair of rooms dedicated to hanging and drying dive gear. By the time we checked in, the rest of our group had arrived.

The next day started out more promising. The wind had died, and although the sky was gray, it wasn’t snowing. After an early breakfast, we headed down to board the Sea Kiss, owned and operated by Ed Singer of VI Dive Vacations. The Sea Kiss is a 41-foot Canoe Cove, set up to accommodate 12 divers just about ideally for northwest diving. The boat is arranged to enable divers to move around and gear up comfortably. The cabin is spacious, with two large seating areas. A covered bridge deck allows divers to don and doff exposure gear with plenty of room. And the back of the boat provides space for gearing up and letting buddy teams enter and exit simultaneously. There’s even an onboard air and nitrox filling station, so divers do not need to swap out tanks between dives. This boat’s definitely set up for diving in style.

The plan was to take the “fun divers” out for a pair of morning dives, followed by the “wreck divers” group to the ships in the afternoon. I was going on all four dives. Our first destination of the day was a return to Clarke Rock. This time we were lucky enough to spot several wolf eels among the rocks, as well as a couple of octopus. Afterward we headed over to Jesse Island for what was my favorite dive site of the entire trip.

Jesse Island is a diver’s playground, with walls, ledges, terraces, caves, swim-throughs, and overhangs … much of which is totally covered with plumose and crimson anemones, cup corals, and zoanthids. An abundance of marine life makes use of all this interesting terrain. We saw giant pacific octopus, lingcods, painted and kelp greenlings, several species of rockfish, wolf eels, sea pens, spiny lithoid crabs, golf ball crabs, heart crabs, and many species of colorful nudibranchs. This was one of my all-time best dives, and definitely on my short-list of favorite northwest dive sites.

After the dive we were treated to a hearty, hot bowl of stew as everyone got out of their gear and we headed back to the marina to pick up the second group of divers. A quick exchange of gear and divers followed, then we were off to visit the Saskatchewan.

My first view of the ship was impressive. I had just started my descent down the mooring line connected to the ship’s crow’s nest when I could make out a ghostly outline against the dark, muddy bottom. Descending down the line was like focusing a zoom lens as the ship appeared in more and more detail. Every possible surface area of this ship is covered in life –sponges, corals, sea firs sprouting like ferns in a forest, and plumose anemones looming above all the shorter marine life. My buddy and I were doing the surface tour, swimming from midship to stern to bow and back to the crow’s nest. We could see bubbles exiting various parts of the ship as the wreck class penetrated various portions of the ship. Massive deck guns aim slightly to starboard off the bow – totally encrusted with marine life. We swam out past the bow and dropped down to what was once the ship’s waterline. Looking back at the ship from that angle is a great way to get a perspective on the sheer size of this magnificent vessel. It was awe-inspiring.

On our second dive we slowed down and did a closer inspection of life-forms – many of which are unfamiliar to me. Rob did some minor penetration while I peered into the hatch following his light down a hold or hallway and back out again. I was so fascinated that I allowed myself to go several minutes into deco and had to spend 15 minutes at safety-stop depth. Talk about boring – bring on the underwater video games. When we surfaced, the snow was coming down hard.

It snowed all night long, and the next morning we had about 4 inches accumulation – and it was still coming down. I couldn’t believe we were actually going diving in this. We laughed and made jokes about how it wasn’t sticking to the water. However, when we kicked snow off the boat deck into the water it wasn’t melting either. It made me cold just looking at it.

Getting out to the wrecks was something of an adventure. The storm had kicked up the waves, and our biggest challenge of the day was entry and exit. This morning we were diving the Cape Breton, which lies about 1,000 feet from the Saskatchewan. It’s a bigger, more impressive ship, but being a new wreck it doesn’t have much life on it yet. Once again Rob and I did the surface tour while the class worked on wreck penetration. We managed to take in the whole ship, bow to stern, which is considerable due to its size. Dropping off the stern I noticed that the end of the ship is totally opened up. It’s like hanging four stories up staring at a skyscraper with a missing wall. But the real challenge came during our safety stop. The waves and swells were moving the mooring chain in wild gyrations, and I quickly learned not to look at the chain while trying to maintain depth. Holding onto the chain definitely wasn’t an option, and all you could do was float and watch your computer. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was really a long three minutes.

Once everyone was back on board, the captain decided it was too rough for a second dive on the wrecks. So we headed back to the sheltered environs of Jesse Island. Needless to say I wasn’t disappointed with the decision. Rob and I dropped in on the opposite side of the island than we had dived the previous day, and were rewarded with an even more interesting dive than our first one had been.

After the dive we packed our gear and had lunch while the boat motored back to the dock. It had been an exciting, adventuresome three days of diving. I packed the truck, drove next door, and boarded the Horseshoe Bay ferry for the trip back to the mainland. Settling into a comfortably warm seat on the ferry I gazed out the window as we passed the mooring buoys marking the resting place of the Cape Breton and the Saskatchewan.

It was snowing again.


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