Diving in the Vancouver Island Region
|Diving in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island - Photo: Tourism Nanaimo|
From above their surfaces Vancouver Island’s many saltwater bays, backwaters, coves, inlets, sounds and seas are beautiful indeed—sparkling in gem colours, reflecting cornflower skies, backed by verdant forests, snowcapped peaks or even city lights. Their colours range from emerald to platinum, depending on the light, depth, background, angle of view and what lies beneath. Shallow water over sand is light emerald; deep water over offshore shelves, indigo. The entire inland area, usually called the Salish Sea, has also been labeled the “Emerald Sea.”
It’s what lies beneath—what those of us above only see in refraction, or through the prism of the crystal of the sea—that makes Island waters a paradise for those who venture there. Here are sea creatures far lesser known than those of tropical climes, but equally colourful and intriguing: pea green anemones, red and orange sunflower stars, delicate ivory nudibranchs, fish flashing as they pass.
Boaters may catch a glimpse in calm shallow waters, but to see these marvels in all their finery one must go beneath the surface and stay there. That means diving, an idea that often surprises those unfamiliar with the modern technologies of this sport. Our waters may be cold, but that’s no matter to divers utilizing full dry suits and lightweight 21st century gear that eases the challenges of underwater exploration. Once below, divers experience a diversity of marine life so amazing that Jacques Cousteau is said to have judged our area the world’s second best dive spot.
To lay people that seems puzzling—isn’t it tropical water that teems with fish and coral? Sure, but biologists have concluded that it’s really the colder waters of northern and southern latitudes, laden with oxygen and nutrients, that are home to more ocean life when measured by sheer mass. And though snorkeling and diving may be far more popular in tropical waters, that has more to do with human preferences than with the experience available. North or south, cold or warm, a trip beneath the sea surface is a marvelous adventure.
Here, especially in interior waters and the large sounds that lie along the Island’s West Coast, divers can see amazing creatures such as the North Pacific giant octopus, largest in the world, which reaches past 8 meters on occasion (yet is quite non-aggressive and poses no threat to admirers). Though the largest octopi are generally found at some depth where only advanced divers venture, they can be seen almost anywhere in the water column, and encountering one of these creates a lifetime memory for sure. The wolf eel, actually a fish that resembles an eel, lingers in crevices and rock walls, stretches past 2 meters, and is also a benign, rarely aggressive marine denizen, despite its ferocious, vaguely alien appearance.
Though they may not be as brilliantly coloured as in tropical reefs, Salish Sea fish are beautiful sights too—especially the spawning salmon that return to Island rivers in such great numbers in late summer and fall. Divers can also see sharks (non-aggressive ones!) such as blacktips, orange and yellow rockfish, brilliantly coloured seastars—some older specimens may have up to two dozen arms—crabs, swimming scallops, sea cucumbers and shrimp, among others. We even have colourful corals, though they are not the reef-building types found in warmer climes. All told, more than 7,000 species are found in our waters, ranging from tiny shrimp to massive Steller sea lions and orcas.
One of the many advantages to diving in our waters is clarity—visibility often reaches 300 meters, especially in fall and winter. That’s possible almost nowhere else in the world.
Here, too, we have numerous examples of an intriguing undersea attraction rare elsewhere—shipwrecks. The outer coast of the Island is one of the most wreck-strewn in the world; several other ships lie beneath inland waters; and, most interestingly, several ships that have been deliberately scuttled to form artificial reefs, such as the HMCS Columbia near Campbell River. Quickly taken over by sea creatures, shipwrecks offer novel shapes and structures for undersea life, and their upper deck cabins can often be safely explored by divers.
One need not even go far for excellent diving. One of the most fruitful and popular spots is Victoria’s Ogden Point, where a massive granite breakwater affords shelter for octopus, lingcod, seastars and rockfish. Just up the peninsula from the capital, Sidney is a popular dive locale, with two shipwrecks adding interest. Around the corner in Saanich Inlet, winter water clarity is often astounding, and colonies of cloud sponges create memorably alien viewscapes.
Barkley and Clayoquot Sounds, on the West Coast, offer innumerable wilderness dive locales amid their many islands, islets, skerries, inlets and coves. The Gulf Islands northeast of Victoria are riven with coves and inlets offering quiet dive locales. The Discovery Islands waters offshore Campbell River provide similar diving venues, with nearshore salmon viewing popular in late summer and autumn. Those who are not certified or interested in diving can pursue a companion sport here, cold-water snorkeling (clad in dry suits, of course) to watch thousands of brightly coloured salmon heading upriver to spawn—one of nature’s most impressive spectacles, seen as few humans ever experience.
For visitors, the best way to take part in this distinctive outdoor activity around our Island is to utilize the services of dive charter operators. Experienced companies are located in Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River, Tofino, Ucluelet and Port Hardy; rental equipment is available from most. There are even a few wilderness lodges whose key focus is diving—imagine simply stepping off the dock at a remote lodge into waters teeming with undersea life.
Our Island is defined in large part by the seas that surround us. They are beautiful, bountiful, colourful and much more welcoming than one may think. Above or below the surface, visitors can discover treasures they’ll remember forever. For more information, please visit our Island recreation guide at www.vancouverislandoutdoor.com.
Discovering Ucluelet, Vancouver Island
|Amphrite Lighthouse after sunset along the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet.|
Its nickname—“Ukee”—has a down-to-earth, working-world flavour that perfectly fits one of Vancouver Island’s most colorful and interesting communities, Ucluelet. Located at the end of the road at the southern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula on the West Coast, Ukee is an old time fishing and forest products town that used to be well off the travel radar, save for a few small inns and bargain hostels dotting quiet coves around the village. Local oysters were for sale at roadside stands; adventurous kayakers set off into the wilderness backwaters of Barkley Sound’s Broken Group Islands; fishing boats stole out of the harbour before dawn to seek halibut, salmon, crab and rockfish; residents gathered in no-nonsense coffee shops to enjoy hot java and cinnamon rolls. All the while, Pacific swells spent their power on the rocky headlands that highlight the town’s scenic topography.
All those facets still help define Ucluelet, but its character has burgeoned in many different directions, making Tofino’s smaller sister a 21st century magnet for travelers seeking a distinctive experience on the Pacific shoreline. Upscale accommodations such as the marvelous Black Rock Oceanfront Resort have vastly broadened the lodging options; local restaurants are building gourmet menus based on the town’s bountiful seafood; a new recreational trail affords shoreline and headland access to visitors and residents alike.
The latter, the Wild Pacific Trail, is a marvelous gravel path that wends its way past numerous viewpoints, including the picturesque Amphitrite Lighthouse, which guards the entrance into Barkley Sound. From here, one may see whales, fishing boats, shipping traffic or adventurous sailors and kayakers plying the complex waters of Barkley Sound. Other stretches of trail wind through distinctive shoreline woods whose gnarled firs, spruces and pines bear bent testimony to decades of storm battering; or dip down along sheltered pebble and shell beaches perfect for picnicking.
In town, along the placid harbour, the marvelous Ucluelet Aquarium seems, at first glance, to be like its many sister institutions around the world—display tanks provide visitors up-close views of the area’s many incredible saltwater creatures, ranging from delicately shaded nudibranchs to the amazing decorator crabs, which use ocean debris such as shell bits to disguise themselves, thereby turning their own bodies into artistic collages.
But the aquarium’s mode of operation is quite unlike that of virtually all other aquariums. Each spring, volunteers comb Ucluelet area waters to gather up the sea creatures that will be on display that summer. Each fall, the entire community gathers in a freedom festival during which the tanks are emptied and every denizen within is returned to its saltwater home—retired from their summer jobs.
Nearby the aquarium, tidy cafes and galleries offer savory seafood and locally made art and craftwork. One still finds hot, strong coffee and cinnamon rolls, too: Ucluelet has not lost its old working town identity. It’s simply expanded the scope of work, to the benefit of visitors and residents alike.
Rock Climbing in the Vancouver Island Region
|Rappelling down a rock face at the Horne Lake Adventure Camp|
As a piece of the planet thrust above the ocean surface and then skyward by tectonic forces not long ago in geologic terms, Vancouver Island is a place where stone and rock climb high—and so do those who savour the challenge of ascending such faces in exceptional locales.
The best-known area, with the most recognized faces and routes, is within Strathcona Provincial Park west of Campbell River. This vast preserve, BC’s oldest, harbours innumerable peaks and crags on which climbers can practice their sport. More than 100 recognized routes ascend the Crest Creek Crags, a series of small pinnacles in the northern section of the park reasonably close to the Gold Creek highway and thus easy to each. The area’s rock is largely volcanic in origin, and mostly stable for climbers. The ready access, quiet surroundings, lack of crowds and scenic setting all enhance the experience here.
Much harder to reach, but offering unparalleled wilderness experiences, are the Comox Glacier and Mount Golden Hinde, at 2,197 meters the Island’s highest summit. Both afford adventurers venues for climbing and mountaineering; as do faces around Mount Cain, our “secret” north Island ski area. Down south, near Sooke, faces can be found at Mount McDonald and Mount Wells, at East Sooke Park, and even in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park.
Aficionados call the climbing at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park some of the best in Western Canada—including the unique experience of climbing inside the caves. Visitors can avail themselves of a guided adventure that includes rappelling down a 7-story waterfall face inside one of the caves; for information visit www.hornelake.com.
Also notable are our near-neighbour Gulf Islands. Salt Spring, in particular, features the 600-meter-high Mount Maxwell, whose sheer faces and boulder fields offer both bouldering and route climbing for advanced climbers. The views from some of the routes on Maxwell’s bluffs, which include a 250-meter sheer face, are expansive, taking in much of the south Island and Victoria.
Numerous other lesser-known routes and faces are found throughout the Island, from rocky bluffs on seaside headlands to deep wilderness faces in our interior mountains. As one of the world’s most distinctive and dynamic expressions of geological forces, Vancouver Island is a wonderful and appropriate place to practice a sport literally based on rock.
- Chesterman Beach
- Miracle Beach
- Mystic Beach
- Side Bay
- Cox Bay
- San Josef Bay
- Florencia Bay
- Tribune Bay
- Transfer Beach
|Chesterman Beach, Tofino, Vancouver Island|
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My wife Wilma and I visisted Vancouver Island for the first time in July 2007. Although we had been to BC twice before this was the first time we had crossed to Vancouver Island and we had a superb time.
After landing from the Vancouver ferry we stopped off at Butchart Gardens on our way to Victoria and we just loved the beauty of these stunning gardens. We spent a couple of days in Victoria and the highlight was undeniably the visit to the BC Museum. The quality and range of the exhibits was staggering and enabled us to learn a lot about the history of the area.
We then drove to Tofino and were completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. We have fond memories of our days there including a magical whale watching voyage of several hours, an early morning rise to enable us to go on a very successful bear watching boat trip along the coast and a hike to Long Beach to walk these beautiful sands on the edge of the Pacific. Our hotel was right on the beach at Tofino and the climax of the whole visit was a sunset of such beauty that it will live in our memory for ever. Attached is only one of the many photographs I took on that magical evening.
Now six years later Wilma and I are returning to Vancouver Island in August as part of our 4-week Rockies/Alaska Cruise to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary - we cannot wait!
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