Diving BC’s Browning Pass in Spring, an Easter trip experience

soft coralThere are no words I can write here to do justice to the vibrant, healthy marine habitat that is found just northeast of Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. The diving in the south of Queen Charlotte Straight, in between Nigei and Balaclava Islands is second to none. Delicate pink soft corals drape underwater cliffs, including Browning Wall, 7-Tree Island and Rock of Life. Significant tidal exchanges mean that even at slack many of the dives are drift dives, this can be disconcerting at first, but usually divers grow accustomed to watching the wall travel by them. It can become a very relaxing way to dive. Watching orange sponges, vermillion soft corals, white metridium and translucent tunicates whir by as you are carried through schools of blue and black rockfish, punctuated by segments of smaller, multicoloured Puget Sound rockfish is a kind of synaesthetic opulence that only Keats could imagine. To peer over your shoulder and find a massive, curious stellar sea lion watching you as you watch the underwater world go by is nothing short of surreal.

The anticipation of the dives ahead…

I am always excited to dive this region of BC. After hundreds of dives in the area, I still can’t quite believe it exists at all, let alone in our own backyard. Granted, when talking about BC, that’s a big backyard and the trek to the Pass is no small journey (for those traveling from the Lower Mainland, our day began with a 5:30am arrival at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal) but it is as worthwhile than any tropical dive getaway. Our temperate waters our home to spectacular amounts and varieties of marine life both large and small. Many of these animals are still a relative mystery to science. As excited as I get to explore Browning Pass and the surrounding marine environment, I am even more eager to share it with other cold water divers. If you make a habit of venturing into less than balmy waters for the joy of diving, then you probably deserve to witness the best our sometimes challenging northern Pacific waters have to offer. 2013 was no different in this respect, I knew that most of the divers also heading out on the trip had yet to experience BC’s best dives.

Friday’s early morning, long drive and hiccups traveling from Port Hardy to the lodge itself meant some tired, hungry divers arrived. We were fed a heaping, homecooked meal and the few of those that had any energy stores left headed out for a night dive.

The first dive

Most of us opted to start fresh-faced and bushy-tailed on Saturday morning. I know this can’t be said for everyone, but I sleep so well away from the city in complete darkness. The generator (one of the only ways to get power in the area) becomes white noise soon enough and once it is off for the evening the silence produces a sleep so deep that the city seems a distant memory upon waking. So, Saturday morning I was ready to hit the water, eager to revisit the diving that I have been missing for the last year. Our first dive was the Overhang, not far into the pass in a fairly sheltered little bay. Its a bit of a misnomer, as far as anyone in our group could tell, as there are several crevasses, but nothing producing the effect of any “overhang”. However, that is not to say that there was anything else lacking in this dive. A sandy bottom and a bit of a wall in an area protected from the current during a tidal exchange, the Overhang was a great little starter site for buddy teams to get to know each other and for divers to get gear, et cetera straightened out. I was grateful for the opportunity to test out my brand new custom cut DUI TLS 350, which arrived only a couple days before we departed. It fit and performed amazingly. Viz was great, anemones abundant, large nudibranchs stole the show, as did a little umbrella crab.


Croker Rock/The Wreck of the Themis

Our next dive was a slack dive at Croker Rock/The Wreck of the Themis. I find myself explaining to people that my favourite dive site ever is usually the last one I did in Browning Pass, but part of me suspects that it may be Croker Rock. This is a true wreck, though you may be hard pressed to distinguish wreckage from rocky reef at this point as the Themis went down on a stormy night more than a century ago. This site is quite exposed and gets socked in with dense kelp forest in the late summer/fall. It can only be enjoyed at slack tide, in very little wind. When we booked for Easter weekend this year, with it being so early in the season, I was unsure whether we would have the opportunity to visit sites like this. But, shockingly, sunshine and low winds prevailed throughout the weekend and, as the fog burned off, we made the quick boat ride to this reef. Divers descend down large stalks of bull kelp even this time of year into about 40 feet of water, from there, for me, it is down over thesoft coral side of the rocks and onto the sandy expanse flanking the wall at approximately 65 feet. I snoop around in the kelp and come across large nudibranchs and enjoy the scene of extensive schools of black rockfish swirling about us, the bolder of these fish coming within a foot or two of divers and looking rather disapproving of our noisy presence.

A Favourite Fish

Soon enough I find a familiar formation of wreckage, at this point in its decay, I don’t know what this structure is, but I tend to refer to it as ‘the wheelhouse’, likely that is incorrect. Regardless, it serves as a landmark and I know around the far side there will be some horizontal slats and in the 3rd one from the bottom, I will hopefully find my single favourite resident of BC’s waters: Gumby the wolf eel. Gumby has always been the star of the show in Browning Pass, since we first started to encounter him there in August 2008. I had been told that there were several wolf eels on the Themis, but this one in particular was always in the same easy to find den. His massive, gnarly head is distinctive and when he’s in the right mood, he can be rather affectionate. He was not home last year when we did the Pass and that was extremely disappointing, so this year, when I rounded ‘the Wheelhouse’ I was anxious. Sure enough, as I beelined it for his home, I spotted the tip of a grey nose poking out and as he saw me, he stuck his head all the way out to say hello. Unfortunately, this year he didn’t seem to be in the mood to come all the way out and get a proper tummy rub, but he did make a bit of an appearance for everyone. We spotted a couple more wolf eels along the wreck and one of my buddies found the most unusually coloured painted greenlings I have ever seen.

Browning Pass’s most famous sites

I will refrain from boring readers by waxing poetic so extensively for every other dive we did in the Pass, but Rock of Life, 7 Tree Island and Browning Wall all certainly deserve the same praise with cascades of pink, white, yellow and orange soft corals, sponges, giant acorn barnacles and anemones providing homes for a myriad of other invertebrate and vertebrate life. Comically large Puget Sound King Crabs and flamboyantly adorned decorator crabs were fixtures at pretty much every site to those with a keen eye. Sunday’s trip to Browning Wall easily provided divers with 80 feet of visibility or so and the sunlight streaming through sea palms on our safety stop. For photographers it would’ve been a dream if not so much of a drift dive even at slack. Nonetheless, plenty of good photos and videos were the result of the weekend’s endeavors.

Dawn at Hunt Rock

For those willing to forgo an extra hour of sleep on the final morning, Hunt Rock paid off exceptionally… by the sounds of it. This is another site that our group was fortunate to dive as it is even more exposed than Croker Rock, and is essentially an open water pinnacle dense with life. Those that made the effort to roll out of bed were rewarded: they encountered either wolf eels or octopuses, in the open, the highlights of BC’s marine life for divers. Once again schools of rockfish shrouded the site and the beginnings of what will be a rather dense kelp forest by autumn provided a natural ascent line.

We will return

I am already daydreaming about the next excursion, perhaps in slightly more luxury topside. And hopefully some large marine mammals, if we’re lucky. Keep tabs on our Vancouver dive shop‘s newsletter for upcoming dives and trips both locally (in and around the Lower Mainland) and throughout BC: https://diveidc.com/newsletter.