Canada – Vancouver Island by Richard & Jen Scarsbrook
This is a report on a 17-day diving holiday on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada which my wife Jen and I took in September 2007. We spent a few days in Vancouver at the start and end of the trip, five days diving at Hideaway at the north-east corner of VI, and three days diving at Rendezvous on the west side of VI, on Barkley Sound. It was an excellent holiday, with some world class cold water diving.
Trip reports are much more useful if you know where the author is coming from: you don't need to share the my tastes provided you can infer if, for example, "the dive guides were excellent" is likely to mean "we were closely supervised" or "they respected us and kept out of the way". We are both very experienced divers who have organised and managed many dive trips in our branch, in the UK and overseas. When on holiday as a couple, we want our dive operators to have a well-organised boat with a capable skipper, good local knowledge, effective surface cover, and to enable us to dive the best sites that the circumstances allow, unguided, with minimum interference. Ideally the skipper and dive manager are one and the same person. Nannying and poor dive management are big turn-offs. We are not fussy about spartan versus luxury and will use whatever is available, though we sometimes stay in nice hotels if there is a choice. Accommodation and food, if provided should be fit for purpose and good value for money but price is relatively unimportant, provided it's competitive.
We didn't use a travel agent: all the elements were booked separately over the internet, except the flights which were booked through Trailfinders.
Vancouver Island lies at the south west of Canada, near the border with the United States, just north of Seattle. The city of Vancouver is on the mainland, 20 miles to the east. VI is roughly 250 miles long and 50 miles wide, and lies NW/SE. It is about 50% bigger than Wales, with only a quarter of Wales' population. Most VI inhabitants live in the south, near the capital Victoria. The island has a central spine of mountains which rise to just over 2000 metres. Most of the land is covered by natural forest.
The climate is mild: it rarely freezes on the coast even in January. Maximum temperatures in summer average over 20°C. The west coast is considerably wetter than the east coast. Rainfall is heaviest in the autumn and winter, with Mediterranean-style summers. During our stay (late August/early September), it was mainly warm and sunny. We had one overcast day followed by a day of low cloud and heavy rain when we stayed at Mount Washington ski resort (mountain biking not diving). There was sea fog a couple of times at Barkley Sound, but the sun burnt it off by mid-morning. The water was surprisingly cold, 10°C or less, much like the UK in winter. Since VI lies at about 50°N we had expected temperatures akin to the English Channel in summer, forgetting that in the Eastern Pacific there is no equivalent of the Gulf Stream which warms our UK waters.
VI is separated from the mainland by the Queen Charlotte Strait in the north and the Strait of Georgia in the south. Both of these stretches of water are 10 to 20 miles wide. They are separated by a much narrower channel, the Johnstone Strait, which runs from Campbell River to Alert Bay, and is bounded on its mainland side by many islands with even smaller channels between them. This arrangement gives rise to some exceptionally strong and complex tides, and as a result abundant marine life. Although the tidal range is only two or three metres, the tidal streams exceed 16 knots at Nakwato Rapids, Sechelt Rapids and Seymour Narrows. The tides are semi-diurnal (two high waters a day) but at many locations successive tides vary substantially in height, so that there is a high high water followed by a low high water followed by the next high high water, and so on. The Canadian Hydrographic Service publishes tide and current tables which show the time and height of each high and low water, just like UK tide tables, but they also give current data in much greater detail than the tidal diamonds which are found on UK charts: the time of slack water, and the time and speed of the maximum flow is given for every tide at current stations (also unlike the UK, all this is available free on the internet). Tides on the west coast of VI are much weaker, on the whole, but still strong enough that some of the sites we visited in Barkley Sound can only be dived at slack water.
We flew with Air Canada economy Manchester/Toronto and Toronto/Vancouver. We chose this route specifically to avoid transit through Heathrow and US airports, which have become tedious and unpleasant places to travel through in recent years. Air Canada was OK: on time, baggage delivered promptly and undamaged, amiable cabin crew, and tolerable catering on the international flights. Three out of four aircraft were quite old, with antiquated entertainment systems: take your iPod. The baggage allowance was two 23kg bags per person; easily enough to take our diving gear including drysuits and pony cylinders. Other airlines fly similar routes, and offered cheaper fares, but were more expensive when baggage charges were taken into account. Toronto is an excellent modern airport, with hassle-free transit arrangements.
We rented a car for the whole of the stay except the first couple of days in Vancouver. There are plenty of rental companies, the car was fine, fuel is relatively cheap, the roads are good, and driving is easy. It might have been cheaper to use public transport because the car was parked for over half the trip while we were staying at dive resorts, but we preferred to pay for the convenience.
Travel between the mainland and Vancouver Island is by car ferry. You pay a booking fee of about $15 to book online, or you can just turn up. We booked ahead, but with hindsight it wasn't necessary.
An alternative mode of travel to car/ferry is to use a float plane. There are scheduled services between Vancouver and many destinations on VI, and private charters are possible. We hadn't thought about this before, but it looks quite a cool way to travel, which we might try on another occasion. The fares didn't seem that expensive, and you could probably save the difference by hiring your car for a shorter period.
The currency is the Canadian dollar, trading at about 2.12 to the pound when we travelled (but only 1.58 in January 2012). We paid the majority of our bills by credit card, some in advance and some while we were there. Fortunately we did not require much cash. We withdrew a few hundred dollars from an ATM at Vancouver airport on arrival, without any trouble. When we tried to draw more cash from ATMs in Port Alberni and Vancouver later in the trip, none of our many cards would work. As it happened we had just enough to get back to the airport. I was able to draw cash again from the ATM at the airport as we left, so obviously there was no problem with our accounts. Subsequently we discovered that this is a common problem at Canadian ATMs, which can be solved by drawing cash on your card at the counter in a bank.
Costs in Canada are broadly similar to the UK for meals, hotels, drinks, and other tourist items. Note that prices quoted in Canada often exclude local taxes which were around 10%.
We thought Hideaway was absolutely brilliant. The diving was superb, and we met some great people. The atmosphere was like being on a good club trip with your friends. Hideaway comprises a number of timber buildings on a large floating log platform, in the middle of a sheltered bay surrounded by forest. The bay is on an island at the north end of Browning Pass, a sheltered passage about two miles long between two islands which contains some of the best cold-water wall diving I have ever done. Some of the BBC Blue Planet material was filmed here. There are strong tides at times, and the tidal regime is unusual; on small neaps it ebbs all day.
The accommodation is basic but comfortable, and the food was good. Hideaway appears to be a stopping off point for adventurers passing through: various kayakers and boaters came and went: all interesting characters who added to the experience. Most of the diving was done with the boat kept mobile, so pickup was wherever you surfaced. On the surface wildlife was abundant with many close encounters with humpback whales, eagles, herons, etc.
Rock of Life 31m Pretty vertical wall covered with plumose anemones. vis 15m 1kt current
'Themis' on Cardigan Rocks 22m. Very smashed wreck - wolf eels, ling cod, giant orange sea pens.
Seven Tree Island 45m Beautiful wall, vertical and overhanging in places, covered in white metridium and orange/red alcyonium
Eagles Nest Pass 25m Pleasant gentle drift. Like Dun Chonuil at the Garvellachs south of Oban, with bigger anemones
Barry's Island 30m Drift along wall covered in life, including gorgonians. Sea lion, then orcas at the surface (from boat)
Browning Wall 24m & 38m Stunning hugely colourful wall all kinds of anemones and sponges, bright orange sea cucumbers, octopus, Puget Sound crab, tiny tubeworms, etc, etc. Dived once at twilight and once as a gentle drift with back eddies, during the day. Eagles soaring overhead at the surface.
Dillon Rock 20m Many wolf eels out swimming, giant octopus in lair, ratfish, many others. Rocky reef on main island.
Hunt Rock 48m Twin pinnacles topped by extensive bull kelp from 12m to the surface. Shoals of rockfish in the kelp, then tide swept gullies and wall to 70m.
Like Hideaway, Rendezvous is also accessible only by boat. The accommodation is smarter, and includes a hot tub on the deck. The food is good. We joined a friendly dive club from Alberta, who had a couple of spare places. The diving is less tidal, and most of the sites we dived were pinnacles. It was very nice, not as spectacular or demanding as the diving at Hideaway, but still well worth doing. We saw breaching humpback whales several times each day, including from our accommodation. We also spent an hour watching seals feeding on a large shoal of fish in a nearby harbour. Rendezvous' practice is to anchor the boat at the dive site rather than keep it mobile as is normal in the UK.
Kyen Point 30m Pleasant dive on double pinnacle. Murky top layer but 15m+ visibility at 25m. Ratfish, corynactis, zoanthus, etc. Like a good quality Scottish dive.
Jen's Jewel 30m Nice reef with many parazoanthus and fish hanging in a slight current.
Renate's Reef 38m Nice Scottish type of dive with 20m vis at depth but rather bare rock, with various fish. More encrusting life and fish in shallower water.
Sea Pool Rocks 24m Reef riven by gullies, further out towards the open sea. Slight tidal current. Similar to previous dives.
Tyler Rocks 22m Another pleasant reef. We spent the dive looking at small stuff. Lots of nudibranches.
Twin Peaks 26m Yet another pinnacle. Huge metridium, tiny crabs. 3m layer with <1m vis at the surface, but clear below. Said to be a good site for 6gill sharks, which come up from the depths, but nobody saw one when we were there.
Other dive places
Hideaway and Rendezvous were both recommended to us by people we know and whose judgment we trust. The same people also recommended Dynamike Dive Charters based at Quadra Island. Had they had space at the time we would have dived there as well.
At Nanaimo, which you pass through on the way from the Vancouver ferry to Port Hardy/Port Alberni, there are some easily accessible sunk-on-purpose wrecks.
God's Pocket is a resort in the same area as Hideaway. We looked at it, but it was twice the price for no obvious advantage.
There is wreck diving in the Great Lakes, which I would consider were I to visit Canada again.
VI has some magnificent diving, and every dive is good. Hideaway and Rendezvous are both worth visiting. The diving is suited to experienced, self-sufficient divers. VI would make a good place for a well-heeled club/group to visit, except that it's a long way to travel: not a 1-week trip, due to travel time and jet lag.
Richard Scarsbrook - First Class Diver/Advanced Instructor, RYA Yachtmaster (Coastal)
Jen Scarsbrook - BSAC Advanced Diver/Advanced Instructor