If you automatically think tropics when you plan a dive vacation, you’re missing out on one of the last true adventure scuba diving destinations.
Leveling off at 60 feet, I meticulously scanned Browning Wall’s carpeted ledges of pastel-pink soft corals, ghostly white plumose anemones and big clumps of encrusting sulfur sponge. While stalking one of the Emerald Sea’s more elusive critters, I marveled at the living tapestry of rainbow colors. Stuffed into every nook and cranny of this precipitous drop-off were sea anemones, feathery hydroids, deep purple hydrocorals, spiny red urchins, rock scallops and lacy basket stars. Traveling slowly over a rock festooned with orange social tunicates were several flame-tipped nudibranchs and one laila cockerelli nudibranch. Apart from Browning’s ubiquitous schools of widow rockfish, China rockfish and beautifully mottled red Irish lord sculpins had perched themselves on invertebrate encrusted outcroppings, seemingly expecting the ocean’s current to spoon-feed them their prey.
My quarry, a decorated warbonnet, peered out from behind some soft coral polyps. Skittish by nature, these eel-like fish were named after the prominent cirri crowning their skull, which resembles the feathers of a Plains Indian chief’s warbonnet. Measuring about one foot in length, these bizarre-looking fish rival any to be found at many of the worlds’ tropical diving hot spots. The water temperature was a balmy 49 Fº and I was adrift on underwater photographic bliss.
Browning Pass, a remote a current-swept channel situated off Vancouver Island’s Nigei Island, is one of British Columbia’s diving jewels. There are numerous current-swept dive sites within this channel that feature a diverse assortment of subsea terrain and unusual marine life. John deBoeck, a local dive operator who pioneered diving in Browning Pass, has proclaimed this waterway as having “the best temperate diving in the known the universe!” The constellation of sea life inhabiting Browning Passage’s inner space is out of this world. Seasonal upwellings, the movement of deep, nutrient rich ocean water to the surface, combined with extreme tidal movement produces an enriched planktonic broth that supports a lush assortment of exotic marine life outstanding in variety and abundance. British Columbia harbors approximately 7,000 marine species, or roughly four percent of the world’s total. Marine biodiversity experts believe this number could double once the province’s subsea terrain is fully explored.
Brandishing their amber fronds to the God-like shafts of sunlight flickering through the water column, swimming through the kelp forest at a dive site called, Eagle Rock, is akin to being an aquatic cathedral. Swarms of tiny jellyfish drifted aimlessly in the water column. Pausing briefly over a sandy ravine, I gazed at a large herring ball swirl like quicksilver beneath the kelp canopy. Whenever the herring swooped close to the sea floor, several lingcod would rocket skyward with their mouths agape leaving the water column flaked with silvery scales. Finning beyond the bull kelp’s sheltering sky, I came across two wolf eels out in the open. A short distance away from them, a giant Pacific Octopus emerged from its rocky den. Weighing between 20 to 50 pounds on average, with outstretched arm spans of up to 20 feet, these beguiling cephalopods are indeed behemoths. Though imposing in size, in reality they are shy, intelligent, gentle and harmless creatures.
A tiny islet called, Seven Tree Island is a remarkable dive site situated on the northwest rim of the pass. Along the eastern edge of the islet it is possible to descend deep as the steep wall cascades into the abyss, well beyond safe sport diving depths. Punctuated with red and pink clumps of soft corals, billowy white metridium anemones and large elongated dead man’s finger sponges, Seven Tree’s seascape presents an exceptionally scenic backdrop for underwater photography.
Sea life is also exceedingly lavish on Seven Tree’s western side where the bottom shallows out and the rocky substrate changes to powdery white sand and appears more tropical than some South Pacific reefs. Orange sea pens and a variety of sea stars dot the sandy plain. Finely speckled sand sole flee across the bottom like miniature magic carpets. Illuminating the nearby wall’s rocky face were the requisite soft corals, giant barnacles, octopus, candy-striped shrimp and anemones galore. Fist-sized orange peel nudibranchs seen foraging on soft coral polyps were plentiful. Current-swept dive sites within the pass like Seven Tree Island can only be dived during the calm respite of slack tide intervals, unless one prefers to do a drift dive along its wall. While it is possible to circumnavigate this squat islet during a one-tank dive, I prefer to focus my lens on smaller sections of Seven Tree’s fabulous reef topography.
Browning Passage and its environs support one of the planet’s highest concentrations of sea mammals. Orcas, dolphins, harbor seals, steller sea lions and seasonal migrants such as humpback and minke whales are all seen in the channel. In recent years, sea otters, have also taken up residence here and their population seems to be flourishing.
Browning Pass’s magical marine wilderness compares favorably to any of the world’s warm water diving destinations. While the ocean may be colder this far north of the equator, the subsea splendor is nothing less than tropical. Whether a recreational diver, tech diver or underwater photographer, discovery awaits those who are willing to take a dive on the wild side.
HOW TO DIVE IT
Conditions: Appropriate scuba equipment is essential to enjoying cold water dives. The first thing one requires is good thermal protection in the form of a neoprene or shell-style drysuit, or a ¼ inch wet suit. A cold water hood and dive gloves are required for diving comfort in summer or winter. BCD’s may need to fit larger than usual due to the thicker wet or drysuits. Additionally, warm water fins will likely not have large enough foot pockets when worn with a thicker dive suit. Check that everything fits before leaving home. Other handy items include an underwater compass and dive light.
Most sites in the pass are dived during slack water intervals and employ a “live boat” for water entries and pick-ups. Surface water temperatures range from 54º to 64º F, but temperatures hover around 40F at depths below 30 feet. Winter temperatures average 45º F. Underwater visibility between March to April, and September to December underwater visibility ranges 50 to 100 plus feet, and reduces to 20 to 70 feet during seasonal plankton blooms in the spring and fall.
GETTING THERE: To get to Browning Pass, you must fly or drive to Port Hardy, which is located four hours north of Nanaimo by car on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The dive operator picks divers up at the Government dock and transports guests by boat to the dive lodge whish is situated in secluded Clam Cove, just a short dive boat ride to Browning Pass dive sites. For B.C. Ferries schedules from Vancouver to Nanaimo, call B.C. Ferries at 1-888-223-3779 or 250-386-3461, or visit www.bcferries.bc.ca
DIVE OPERATORS: Browning Pass HideAway Dive Lodge (all inclusive dive packages), Port Hardy, BC Office: PO Box 866, Nanaimo BC V9R 5N2, Toll-free 1 (877) 725 2835 or 1 (250) 753 3751, Website: www.VancouverIslandDive.com, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org