Browning Pass: Why BC diving is some of the best in the world

The diving in and around the Port Hardy region of Vancouver Island is nothing short of awe-inspiring. I had heard about it for years before I finally made it a priority. My only regret is that I didn’t get there sooner.

Many are shocked to learn that British Columbia has some of the world’s best scuba diving. And when you jump in the water around Vancouver, while it can be exciting and is home to plenty of marine life, it is easy to question what exactly the fuss is about. But when you jump in the water almost anywhere near northern Vancouver Island it becomes obvious how BC has earned its reputation. Every rock surface in this area is plastered with colour.

The world famous Browning Wall

My first dive in Browning Pass was on the world famous Browning Wall. This underwater rockface stretches out in rainbows of colour created by invertebrates such as sponges, soft corals, giant acorn barnacles, white metridium, et cetera. There are expanses of wall that are predominately pink or white or beige and sections that are a true representation of nature’s entire palette. Amongst this spectacular backdrop reside many more mobile animals: crabs of every shape and size, including the behemoth Puget Sound King Crab; octos; grunt sculpins; the photogenic decorated warbonnet; camouflaged Red Irish Lord; various nudibranchs, from the opalescent to the orange peel; and numerous sculpins. Browning Wall is a bustling aquatic metropolis, as active during the night as it is diurnally. Hanging just off this wall are schools of rockfish, including blacks, Puget Sounds, blues and others. Glance away from The Wall (if you can) and you may catch a glimpse of a sea lion or two. Soft coral extends all the way to the surface; it is intertidal here. This pink coral mingles with white metridium and leafy green seaweeds in the intertidal zone. The beauty of the wall is instantaneous and overwhelming. When I first descended onto this site the natural magnificence was so intense that it induced an actual physical ache. I know that sounds sort of corny and sort of exaggerated, but I think anyone that has seen this Wall in person can attest to the incomparable beauty.

The Wall is the site to do in the Pass, but it is certainly not the only site and if you ask those that have dived the Pass which is their favourite site you will likely get a variety of responses. I have resigned myself to the fact that my favourite site is whichever site in the area that I have dived most recently. I’ve done a couple hundred dives near Port Hardy and I’m still so awestruck after almost every dive, I cannot put it into words. The two sites that are undeniably amongst my favourites are Rock of Life and Croker Rock/Wreck of the Themis. These are two very different sites, but they are both spectacular in their own ways. Rock of Life has a bit of everything. It is a rocky pinnacle, with one side slopping off to a relatively shallow sandy bottom scattered with large sea pens and inhabited by hundreds or thousands of sand lancets.  On this side, covered in sea palms and other leafy seaweed, one is likely to find numerous massive orange peel nudibranchs, tritons and if you are very lucky and very patient, possibly an iridescent rock greenling. The other side is more noteworthy, however. One end is composed of boulders and a gradually descending rocky wall. This is an area that appeals to several species of rockfish, as well as possibly a wolf eel and definitely octos. Continue along the Rock and the wall drops off to a sheer cliff and becomes reminiscent of Browning Wall’s splendor. This site has it all. Croker Rock/Wreck of the Themis is what it sounds like. It is a rock outcropping that would undoubtedly be a decent dive site on its own, but in 1906 it interrupted the path of the cargo ship the SS Themis. The ship went down in moderately shallow water. Most of the wreck lies between about 50ft/15m – 90ft/27m. Obviously, after being down over 100 years there is not much of the wreck left in places. What is left has become home to marine life. The most popular residents are the numerous wolf eels (I think we counted 7 on a single dive), including Gumby, the sometimes friendly local favourite. These same spaces that wolf eels take advantage of also tend to house some alarmingly large giant pacific octopuses. In late summer this site is covered in a forest of giant kelp which is home to schools of rockfish and becomes a local hangout for juvenile stellar sea lions. These big, curious mammals gather in groups up to about 20 animals and are known to interact with divers underwater.

Other favourites include:

  • Hussar Point, an expansive site that is home to swarms of hooded nudibranchs throughout the winter.
  • Seven Tree Island, which is a always popular. It is as plastered in life, if not more so, than Browning Wall itself. It’s nothing short of magical when the sunlight streams through the crystal clear, turquoise water at 18m/60ft.
  • Eagle Rock, an island that actually always seems to boast a bald eagle or two in its trees. This is usually home to a gaggle of Puget Sound King Crabs. The cascading rocks are draped in white metridium, making you feel as though you are diving above clouds.
  • North Wall is a regular night dive and often home to several octos and huge decorated warbonnets.
  • Hunt Rock is a deep water pinnacle just outside of Browning Pass that is home to a few massive rockfish and several wolf eels. A considerable kelp forest grows off the triangular top of the rock which attracts several schools of fish and is home to a plethora of colourful invertebrates.

Traveling beyond the Pass

Traveling beyond the Pass the region offers other breathtaking dives. When the tides and weather align just right groups of very experienced divers may make the trek to Nawkwakto Rapids in Seymour Inlet. This world-renowned dive site offers a quick and dirty 30 minute dive of a life time. A captain that is extremely well-versed in the local area is necessary to do this dive safely and divers must follow time limits imposed by the tides. Diving along Turret Rock (affectionately nicknamed “Tremble Rock”) is thrilling, intense and beautiful. Underwater the island is blanketed in subtidal, red gooseneck barnacles. Gooseneck barnacles, typically white in colour) are found in abundance all over the exposed areas of the Pacific Northwest; however, the subtidal variety are only known to thrive in Nawkwakto Rapids. It is only here that they appear in their spectacular red variation. Even at slack tide one gets tumbled and tossed along on an epic drift, wondering how kelp greenlings manage to tuck themselves into crevasses and make their home here and marveling at the anemones, sponges, tunicates that not only survive, but flourish in this environment.

Dillon Rock is another favourite amongst divers. This island, located in Shushartie Bay north of Port Hardy is absolutely littered with wolf eels and giant pacific octopuses. It’s not unusual to be able to count at least a half dozen of each on a dive. The opportunistic China Rockfish that tend to hang out outside of the homes of wolf eels are evident here, as are several enigmatic ratfish. In summer months divers may encounter a number of dogfish in the area as well.

This region is one of the healthiest marine ecosystems in the world. We are exceptionally fortunate to be able to appreciate such an environment in our own backyard. Logging hundreds of dives in the area have not made it any less spectacular. In fact, inevitably, I think I am the most enthusiastic to get in the water on our annual trips, knowing what is in store for us. It always thrills me to talk to divers after their first dive(s) in the area because the reaction is never less than awe and excitement. Never do I worry about over-hyping the diving in and near Browning Pass, it never fails to exceed expectations, no matter what your previous diving experience. If you want to see for yourself why BC diving is considered the best cold water diving on Earth, there is nothing like Port Hardy.