MAKERS OF THE early IMAX films liked to stick their cameras in the nose of an airplane or hang glider, skim along at a low altitude, then freak their audiences by having the ground suddenly disappear into a yawning, bottomless canyon.
If you liked those contrasting sensations of a basement-bound stomach quickly replaced by an adrenaline-fuelled brain on a glide path to euphoria, then maybe scuba diving is a summer recreation you should consider.
Imagine cruising along horizontally above the ocean floor in light-dappled shallows when the bottom plunges precipitously down a 200-metre cliff face, the sun’s rays spiralling vertically into the greenish gloom. You are weightless, though, and continue to float peacefully forward with effortless flicks of your fins, like an eagle riding a thermal over the Fraser Valley.
There are thousands of people in the Lower Mainland who can dial up that experience with little effort this summer because they have taken a scuba-diving course and possess the credentials and know-how that enable them to shake hands with an octopus or gambol with sea lions.
Once certified, you can purchase or rent equipment, get air fills, gather dive buddies, and hit the popular dive spots that exist in profusion right on Vancouver’s doorstep.
BESIDES ITS REGULAR crowds of strolling nature enthusiasts, West Vancouver’s beautiful and rugged Whytecliff Park sees thousands of diver visits every year due to its proximity. It has become one of the most popular spots in the Lower Mainland for diving neophytes to log their first open-water ocean plunge, along with Howe Sound’s nearby Porteau Cove, which is situated in a provincial park along Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway.
“Whytecliff Park is my favourite local spot,” Greg McCracken tells the Georgia Straight. McCracken is a diving veteran of 20 years and co-owner of Burnaby’s Ocean Quest Dive Centre. “The bay itself is actually quite shallow, and there are some reefs in there as well.”
McCracken also trains diving instructors, and he says one of his favourite day trips is to a place called Tuwanek Spit, near Sechelt. “We dive Tuwanek every week; it has great visibility,” he says on the phone. “We see lots of wolf eels and octopuses.”
Porteau, Whytecliff, and Tuwanek all have a few things in common that make them such local faves: ease of access (close to roads, no boats needed), beautiful scenery, safe waters for beginners (along with challenges for veterans), and a profusion of ocean life, from sea stars, anemones, and jellies to seals, ling cod, and the aforementioned eight-armed recluses.
OH, AND ABOUT those wolf eels…
Snakelike, up to two-and-a-half metres long, with giant heads, powerful jaws, big teeth, and a face that looks like it should be storming a castle somewhere near Mordor, wolf eels are often described as the “ugly old man of the sea”.
The reality, though, is somewhat surprising. Wolf eels (which are fish, not true eels) are actually just homely homebodies, placid creatures that prefer to stick to their rocky caves or crevices and pop out to snap up crabs, sea urchins, clams, or mussels.
Also remarkable is the creatures’ behaviour around divers: they will take food offered by hand and will come out of their dens (which they often occupy with a faithful mate) upon divers’ arrival, and they seem to like being carefully held, stroked, and scratched under their “chins”.
“They seem to enjoy interacting with divers,” McCracken says. “Sometimes they come out and I’ve seen them play in the [divers’] bubbles. People kind of pet them.”
Sort of like puppies? “Very ugly ones, yes,” he says with a laugh. He recalls showing a “wolfie” to a freshwater diver from Manitoba years ago in the ocean off Victoria, another major metropolitan area with great, readily accessible diving spots. “When he saw the thing, I thought I was showing him the coolest thing in the world, but I found out later that he was crapping his pants. I didn’t know that he was scared of fish.”
Although he is fond of the larger examples of ocean life that can be seen by divers locally, McCracken relishes encountering the smaller and rarer specimens—like the Pacific spiny lumpsucker.
“The more you dive, the more you appreciate the smaller things,” he explains about the tiny fish. “In a way, they’re very comical. They look like little golf balls when they swim.”
MICHELLE BLAIS IS A diving instructor and manager of Granville Island’s Rowand’s Reef Scuba Shop. Blais, an experienced diver from Ontario recently transplanted to B.C., likes the little guys too.
“I’m a nudibranch freak,” she says of her preference for the small, squishy, and astonishingly variable mollusks sometimes called sea slugs. “They’re colourful, they’re cute, they’re small, and they’re not in your face, so you have to look for them.”
Blais had her first North Pacific dive earlier this year (although she is a veteran tropical-waters diver), and she saw her first wolf eel, albeit a juvenile. She found out that not all babies are cute: “Even the little guy was ugly.”
That dive, near Hornby Island, introduced her to her new favourite diving companion, though. “My first cold-water dive was out here in February—with sea lions!” she exclaims. “It was a complete riot! They’re like giant sea puppies, and they just want to play nonstop. It was so awesome.”
McCracken shares her feelings (although they both counselled caution in approaching the large sea mammals): “I don’t think there’s a more unique and exhilarating experience you can have diving, and that includes diving with dolphins,” he states.
So look up your local dive shop. After a small investment of money and time (a few weeks of lessons in a school or community-centre pool), you are certified for life, assuming you keep in training and upgrade your diving education as needs arise.
Even if you prefer to take your summer (or winter) vacation outside of B.C., heed the advice of Rowand’s Reef owner Jean-Michel Auzoux: “They should do it [get certified] here, so they can spend their vacation time diving instead of learning.”