|THROUGH THE GREEN-TINGED PACIFIC WATER, I can see the Saskatchewans forward gun-turret pointing towards me from a good 15m away. On the intervening bow deck grow a scattering of featherstars and plumose anemones.
Its not a solid carpet of anemones, but theyre impressively large, nonetheless. Some are wellie-boot sized, though it is only a few years since this 2380-ton ex-Royal Canadian Navy destroyer was sunk as an artificial reef. If anemones can grow this big in a few years, just how big will they grow in the future
Ever since a cold Easter week diving round Vancouver Island 10 years ago, I had been itching for a chance to return. Toasty warm in a Weezle extreme undersuit at 30m on the Saskatchewan, I inspect the gun turret. The original fittings were a pair of 3in rapid-firing guns. The Canadian Navy couldnt bear to be parted with these so, rather than leave gaps, the Artificial Reef Society has replaced them with steel pipe.
It all looks very realistic, and gives a much better impression than a pair of holes in the turret would have done. I suspect that many divers who had not been told wouldnt even notice.
The only visible sign is the thinner-than-usual wall when you look down the end of the gun barrel.
The wheelhouse and superstructure rise high above the main deck. I cut through a few holes, but stay mainly outside to see the radar masts, boat davits and funnel. All are intact, and home to more big featherstars and wellie-boot anemones.
On the deck rest a few large lingcod, large, solidly built fish with a descriptive name, as they do resemble something between a ling and a cod.
Hovering above and darting aside at the last second of my approach are rockfish, which I last saw in the giant kelp forests of California.
For my second dive on the Saskatchewan, I explore a few more holes. There are basically two approaches to making an artificial reef safe for divers. You either seal off all the holes so that no one can get inside and hurt themselves, or you open it up and make extra holes, on the grounds that divers will get inside eventually, and at least this way they should be able to find their way out.
Members of the British Columbia Artificial Reef Society are the world experts in the second of these techniques, and I love them all for it. On the Saskatchewan they have got it just about right. Every room inside the wreck is accessible, from the officers mess to the engine-room. You can swim from one end to the other inside the wreck, yet you are never more than two doors (or cut holes) away from the outside.
The Saskatchewan isnt British Columbias only artificial reef. The society has also sunk three similar destroyers, a small freighter and, most recently, the fleet support ship Cape Breton, and it has been working on a Boeing 737 which, with luck, will have been sunk by June.
Such an impressive achievement among a much smaller diving population than the UKs begs the question: after the Scylla, just how many more old warships will the MoD donate to the wreck-diving cause
Just 100m from the Saskatchewan, the 11,270 ton Cape Breton points its bow at the bow of the destroyer. The Cape Breton was sunk in October 2001 amid an enormous pageant for which just about every small boat from Nanaimo and nearby ports turned out, with thousands of additional spectators piled onto one of the huge car ferries which cross from the mainland.
Visibility on the Cape Breton is less than I had experienced on the Saskatchewan. Above deck it isnt difficult to locate the engine-room ventilation hatches, but foreknowledge that the steam engine has been removed for display at a museum in Vancouver soon has me deciding that my limited bottom time will be better spent touring outside the wreck.
With less time to accumulate marine life, the Cape Breton is not a spectacular dive in the same way as the Saskatchewan is. Nevertheless, I am convinced that given time for the artificial reef to become established, Nanaimo has another winning wreck dive.
Its ironic that one of North Americas most prolific areas for artificial reefs hardly needs them, given the access it affords to spectacular scenic diving.
At Snake Island wall, just a few hundred metres from the Cape Breton but with Snake Island between them, I renew my quest for a Pacific giant octopus. There have been reports of such a monster on a sandy patch close to the mooring buoy. I find obvious debris left over from the octopuss dinner but, frustratingly, the octopus is not at home.
Once over the edge, sections of this wall are steep, deep and dark. Grey-brown rocks are decorated with the occasional football-sized dahlia anemone, grey elephant-ear sponge or clusters of man-eating plumose anemones.
That afternoon a storm blows in from the north-east and boat diving is curtailed. Making the most of the diving available, I team up with another photographer and we drive north for a shore dive at Seducers Cove.
We have been tipped off that we could find a wolf-eel, another of the local species that is a divers favourite, resembling something between our own wolf-fish and a conger eel.
Its another good dive, but despite finding Wolfies lair, we cant find Wolfie. As you might expect with a pair of photographers both hypnotised by our viewfinders, we soon become separated.
It is one of those cruel tricks of the photographic gods that my buddy is then mugged by a curious giant octopus. I have a lens capable of catching it, but I am not there. He has a macro lens and, even when he manages to get away from its tentacles, he cant get enough of it into the frame.
Even so, when he tells me afterwards, I would willingly have swapped places and circumstances with him.
Thats the trouble with winter diving, you just cant trust the weather. But everyone in Nanaimo seems simply to get on with it. Most guests in the Buccaneer Inn where I am staying are divers, taking advantage of the excellent heating to warm up, and the basement drying-room to get everything dry and toasty for the next days diving. Dave the owner isnt a diver, but he is president of the local diving business society.
Memories of my previous trip to Nanaimo are beginning to return. The site I most want to revisit is Dodd Narrows, a narrow channel inside Mudge Island with turbulent 12-knot currents and marine life to match.
I put in a request at Ocean Explorers, but the weather conspires against me and next day diving is limited to local sites.
Clark Rock develops into another wolf-eel photo hunt. Again I find a wolf-eels lair, but the owner is not at home. I use my film on a selection of fish, anemones and critters.
As I surface, the weather is deteriorating rapidly. For a second dive there is only one option - Jesse Island. Close to the dive centre and well-sheltered, Jesse is usually saved as a poor-weather fallback site, though its certainly not a second-division dive.
Even though my luck with wolf-eels and giant octopus is still out, Jesse Island has everything else, from humungous nudibranchs to a whole shoe-shopful of wellie-sized plumose anemones and everything in between. After the wrecks I would rate this as the best dive of the trip - apart, that is, from the elusive Dodd Narrows.
On my final morning, I gaze out of one of the inn windows at an encouraging bright blue sky, but one step outside and I can feel the wind building from the north. Dodd Narrows again looks marginal. Although the dive would be sheltered, getting there and back is dubious. It is the skippers decision - and he chooses to go for it.
With a few minutes to spare before slack water, I study the north-flowing current. A strong flow in the middle of the channel breaks into whirlpools and back eddies along both sides.
The current slacks and we drop in at the east side of the channel to visibility of just 7 or 8m, very poor by local standards but plenty good enough to enjoy the dive.
To get going, I have to swim hard down and northwards against one of the still swirling back-eddies, then I am in a gentle northward flow across a pebbled seabed.
A bull stella sea-lion cruises effortlessly past against the current, easily twice as big as the California sea-lions I have dived with at other locations. Intent on hunting fish, he gives a cursory glance and disappears into the gloom without getting into photo range.
Everything is covered in tight, encrusting yellow sponges and hydroids, except for the football-sized dahlia anemones. Then we hit the wall. The plumose anemones are perhaps just medium Doc Martins but this is more than made up for by the sheer quantity, a seemingly endless wall of millions.
The current is perverse. Having drifted a way north, I have to fight my way round an outcrop, then give up against a southward current that is a bit too strong.
Now retracing my route along a shallower part of the wall, I hurtle beneath a pair of divers drifting south at a more moderate pace, then work my way shallower again into a northward current that takes me screaming back above them.
By all calculations the middle of Dodd Narrows should now be flowing southwards at several knots. My northwards drift continues through a safety stop and tight up against the side of the channel. As I mentioned earlier, the eddies along the side of the channel are perverse.
Ascending at the side of the channel against the rocks is part of the dive briefing to which you have to pay special attention. During slack water, tugs tow freight barges and rafts of logs through the narrows with scant room to manoeuvre. Its not the sort of thing you would want to surface in the path of.
The journey back to Nanaimo into a building sea is not pleasant, but I can happily put up with it for a dive at Dodd Narrows. Its a magnificent end to a week of coldwater diving as good as it can get. I would just love to spend a few months here exploring the diving among the hundreds of islands.
|Inside the Cape Bretons wheelhouse |
|a lingcod at Clark Rock |
|Tracking radar with mast in the background on the Saskatchewan |
|a rockfish at Clark Rock |
GETTING THERE: Air Canada scheduled flight from Heathrow to Nanaimo via Vancouver. Once there a car is not vital, but as with anywhere on the North American continent life is much easier if you have one. Budget has rental desks at Nanaimo airport and in town, 001 250 7536611, www.bc.budget.com.
DIVING: Ocean Explorers, 001 250 7532055, www.oceanexplorersdiving.com. Nitrox is available and supplies for rebreathers can be arranged.
ACCOMMODATION: The Buccaneer Inn is 500m from Ocean Explorers, 001 250 7531216 www.thebuccaneerinn.com.
WHEN TO GO : The best overall conditions are from July to October and youll experience the best underwater visibility from November to March.
WATER TEMPERATURE: Similar to UK north-east. A drysuit is strongly recommended.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: There is something for all levels of coldwater diving experience. More experienced divers will get the most out of the diving available.
NON-DIVING ACTIVITIES: Just about everything outdoors you could ever want to do, from skiing to golf and anything to do with water except your standard beach holiday.
COST: An eight-day package from Scuba Discovery, flying with Air Canada, staying at the Buccaneer Inn and diving with Ocean Explorers, costs£1069 (0208 600 1659, www.scubadiscovery.com).
FURTHER INFORMATION: British Columbia Tourist Board www.britishcolumbia.com. Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, www.artificialreef.bc.ca. Cape Breton, www.hmcscapebreton.com. Guide books 101 Dives and 99 Dives in British Columbia by Betty Pratt-Johnson.
Start a Forum discussion on this topic