Canada, BC - Liveaboard trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands by John Gulliver
The nutrient rich waters of British Columbia offer the world's best cold-water diving, according to the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Visibility in the Emerald Sea can be as good as 60 metres and is seldom less than 10-15 metres, and there is so much colour and life you would think you were diving on a tropical reef if it weren't for the cold water (about the same as in the UK). On a previous trip, we had spent a week at each of two dive centres on Vancouver Island (Rendezvous Dive Ventures, in Barkley Sound, on the west side of the island, and God's Pocket Resort, on Hurst Island, off the northern tip of Vancouver Island) and had a marvellous time. We had heard from American friends we met on that trip that the diving around the Queen Charlotte Islands was very special and that the best way to experience it was to join one of the two trips the Nautilus Explorer does to the islands every year. The cruise starts and ends at Steveston Landing, Vancouver. We flew to Vancouver direct from Heathrow with Air Canada.
The "Nautilus Explorer" is a large (116 foot) steel ship, purpose built as a diving liveaboard for operation in BC waters. She takes up to 24 divers, is comfortably fitted and there is plenty of room. She feels very safe even in rough seas, which we had on the crossing from the mainland - Hecate Sound is said to be one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world. There were four of us from Sweden on the boat, all experienced divers, the rest of the group being an approximately equal mix of Canadians and west coast Americans (from Washington, Oregon and California). The 12 m long dive boat is also purpose built and very well planned. It is quite stable in spite of having a shallow draught and is very fast. It is pulled up onto the aft deck of the mother ship when steaming and launched with a crane when it is time to dive. It is powered by 3 large outboard motors, one of which is of waterjet type. Only that motor is used when there are divers in the water.
The captain and owner, Mike Lever, is likeable and extremely competent, as are his crew. They are also very friendly and helpful. Mike's pre-dive briefings are excellent and the Divemasters provide help when needed without being obtrusive and marshal the dives efficiently and safely but it is made quite clear that you are responsible for your own safety. There are no depth limitations and nobody checks your computer. The only limitation is time, 50 minutes on some dives, 60 on others, depending on the state of the tide. Nitrox is available at extra cost. Facilities for photographers are good, with a special camera table, charging bench and dedicated rinsing tank on the dive deck and E6 processing on board.
The food was tasty and served buffet style. It was typically American/Canadian with a heavy Mexican influence but there were plenty of salads, vegetables and fruit, so it was quite possible to maintain a reasonably healthy diet, although most of us have probably gained a few pounds.
The Queen Charlotte Islands is indeed a unique place. There are only a couple of communities - the rest of the land is uninhabited and practically unspoilt. The population today is only 3000, almost all of them Haida indians, but in the 18th and 19th century between ten and twelve thousand people lived there. Then the white man came, with his contagious diseases, and a smallpox epidemic in the early 1860s decimated the population. Less than 600 people remained alive after this disaster. We were privileged to have the opportunity to visit the remains of a Haida village (Ninstins, or Skung Gwaii), guided by 4 very knowledgeable young Haida who had just come there on their annual visit to restore the remaining totem poles. They are so-called memorial totems, i.e. they have a burial chamber at the top in which the remains of an important chief were placed in a cedar box. The totem poles are naturally in a state of advanced decay after almost 200 years' exposure to wind and weather but it has been decided not to preserve them for the future but merely raise those that fell during the winter. You can still make out many of the skilfully carved animal figures (eagles, bears, killer whales etc). It seems a pity that all of this will be gone in a couple of decades but one has to understand that they are in fact graves and we in the western world don't normally preserve our graves either. However, many of the finest totem poles have been removed and taken to various museums (been stolen, according to the Haida), e.g. in Chicago, so there will still be some fine examples preserved in the future. We also visited Rose Bay, a former whaling station that was in operation up until the Second World War. The work was done almost entirely by Chinese and Japanese, who lived under slave-like conditions and often died at a young age. The station was closed in 1941, to no-one's regret.
Speaking of whales, we were fortunate enough to see a flock of at least a hundred humpbacks feeding on krill. Many of us tried unsuccessfully to snorkel with them but two of our group, who borrowed kayaks, succeeded in coming within 10 feet of them and were rewarded with fantastic photos. We also saw several black bears, many bald-headed eagles and a number of dolphins - fantastic experiences, all of them. The diving was consistently good but not quite as good as further south, around Vancouver Island (although I should add that we only saw the southernmost sites in the Queen Charlottes, partly due to the weather). You could actually see the rock here, whereas the walls around Vancouver Island are completely covered with anemones, sponges etc etc. However, we saw plenty of friendly wolf eels (a more elongated - up to 6 feet long - type of wolf fish that actually likes being petted and hugged), giant Pacific octopuses, large shoals of different kinds of rockfish, big lingcod, brightly coloured nudibranchs, some as large as a man's shoe etc etc. Another very enjoyable experience was when we dived at a small island with North America's largest sealion colony (Stellar sealions, which are larger and more aggressive than the California sealions we dived with on a previous trip to Mexico's Sea of Cortez). Towards the end of the dive we were closely inspected by a pup. It swam round us a couple of times and then disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. I should mention that diving here is subject to strong tides and must be planned for slack water. Our skipper did not always succeed with this and we sometimes found ourselves diving in strong currents, including troublesome and potentially dangerous upwelling. The water temperature was only 6-7 degrees in the whole water column, so the dives tended to be fairly short, about 40 minutes. The boat normally offers 3 dives a day but we did 2 dives most days, owing to other activities.
We did the first dive at Vancouver Island, before crossing to the QCI, on a wreck called the "Columbus", a Canadian destroyer sunk a few years ago as an artificial reef. It is a nice wreck and lots of fishes and other animals have made it their home. All the other dives were purely scenic. Perhaps the best dives we did were close to the town of Campbell River, on Vancouver Island, on the way back to Vancouver. We had not dived in that area before and decided we ought to spend a week there on some future trip. There are many fine sites in that area, better than those we saw in the Queen Charlottes. A very nice feature of the trip was that we had four marine biologists from Vancouver Aquarium with us on the boat. They dived with us and collected lots of fishes and other animals for the aquarium's displays. All four were great people and we learnt a lot from them as they presented their catch between dives and held interesting slide shows, as well as leading a couple of beach walks and showing us the interesting creatures that can be found in the intertidal zone.
The weather during the trip was about as expected - not for nothing are the Queen Charlotte Islands known as "the Misty Isles". It rains a lot and when it isn't raining it is mostly cloudy and chilly. However, the sun shone when we landed in Vancouver at the beginning of the trip and, luckily, also when we were whale watching. Otherwise it was mostly cloudy with lots of showers. The QCI is not the place to go if you want to sunbathe!
The total cost of the trip, including return flight from Gothenburg, Sweden, was approximately ?1750.
The web address to the Nautilus Explorer is http://www.nautilusexplorer.com
I am a PADI Divemaster and CMAS Nitrox Diver, have dived for 14 years and done 1,200 dives so far. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
All photographs are taken by Erik Frankenberg.