>Vancouver Island diving hotspots include Nanaimo on the island's eastern shore, Port Hardy on the north, Barkley Sound guarding the western flank and Victoria nestled in the south. Like multihued precious stones circling a crown, each sparkles a different color, and each has its own character and charm.
>Nicknamed "The Harbor City," Nanaimo is an ideal location for launching a diving expedition. You can drive (via ferry) or fly to Nanaimo; its numerous pubs and eateries, diver-friendly accommodations, entertainment and attractions promise a fun-filled stay. Of course, some of the best attractions are underwater.
>We target the forward guns for inspection. The once formidable weaponry now lies at 100 feet and is camouflaged in inverts. We fin along past primitive feather stars that feed atop railings and peach-painted tunicates stuck to the steel hull. My wide-angle lens pulls me upward through a cloud of glittering baitfish and toward the bridge at 65 feet. A rogue lingcod bursts forth from a window to charge past me. He's too fast for my trigger finger; I can only watch and wish as the brute, as big as my leg and probably 50 pounds, glides down into an open hatchway to vanish in the wreck's belly.
>We poke heads into compartments and cabins and then ascend to the radar platform at 45 feet. This great monolithic structure sits atop the main mast and has an interesting profile that, from a certain angle, reminds me of a submarine. It's a great photo op for the fisheye lens. All too soon our time is up. Following an ascent line back to the surface world, we pause to enjoy a mellow safety stop in the company of hundreds of tiny jellyfish that drift past on their way to somewhere.
>The Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia sank the Saskatchewan as part of an ambitious program, still alive today, that has downed six ships and a plane in the name of dive tourism. The warship rests in 130 feet off the east side of Snake Island just a few miles outside of Nanaimo's Departure Bay. I've visited there many times over the years, starting with the ship's 1997 baptism amid great pomp and circumstance. Hundreds of spectator craft floated nearby, and horns blared in celebration as the winner of an international "push the button" contest claimed the glory of sinking her. I must say the Saskatchewan is looking great as a teenager. She's easy to get to know, too. Divers generally find it easy to keep their bearings as they navigate the structure, and currents at the site are generally mild.
>Another popular option for a fun, two-splash, half-day combo is to satisfy one's shipwreck fix first and then go for a relaxing snorkel with the harbor seals that usually hang around in the shallows of Snake Island. Some of these plump pinnipeds may be overcome by curiosity and swim right up to nuzzle your camera or tug on your fins. Divers with a technical bent might choose to begin the day by observing the eerie, flowstonelike formations of deepwater cloud sponges below 130 feet along Snake Island's wall. Cream-colored assemblages of this rare glass sponge can grow to 8 feet in diameter and are thought to live for hundreds of years. Look closely among the convoluted branches and brainlike folds to find spindly-armed spider crabs and juvenile quillback rockfish. It's easy to go very deep along this precipice — mixed-gas rebreather divers stage 300-foot jumps here — so keep your wits about you.
>For those on a tight budget, there is some excellent shore diving in the Nanaimo area. Madrona Point, a scenic drive up the coast near Parksville, has a sloping rock wall favored by giant pacific octopuses. Though usually found wedged into nooks and crannies with just an eyeball or a bit of suckered tentacle visible, these super-sized cephalopods are occasionally sighted out and about, hunting for crabs. Orlebar Point, on Gabriola Island's northern tip, is a quick ferry ride and drive from Nanaimo proper. A compass heading of 20 degrees will take you past kelp gardens to an artfully sculpted sandstone wall dropping from 45 feet to beyond the century mark. Rockfish (black, quillback and even tiger varieties) and a healthy assemblage of encrusting invertebrates (anemones, hydrocoral, sponges, bryozoans, sea squirts, sponges) await. When I'm armed with a supermacro lens I search for candy-stripe shrimp on the snakelocks anemones.
>With the current quickly awakening, we ascend to 35 feet and tuck in behind a projecting buttress to gain a few more minutes for 60mm macro photos in the partially sheltered eddy. Quillback rockfish dart out from under a ledge whose ceiling is covered with scallops as big as Frisbees. Surfperches parade back and forth over a bed of green and purple aggregating anemones. Our exhaust bubbles swirl upward wildly, only to be obliterated into a frothy, aerated cloud as they meet with the current.
>The maelstrom is building. The fronds of bull kelp overhead are laid over and waving like streamers. We begin to surge to and fro as the current's unseen claws reach for us. It's time. Smiling at each other, we push off from the wall out into the jet stream, and the ride begins.
>How To Dive It
>Nanaimo's location on the eastern side of 300-mile-long Vancouver Island means it's largely protected from Pacific storms. Diving is possible year-round. Sea temperatures range from 45°F to 55°F, and visibility from 20 to 80 feet. In general, fall and winter deliver the best visibility, and summer and fall the best topside weather. With dozens of dive sites, there's something for divers of all skill levels.
>By ferry: BC Ferries has numerous sailings daily from Vancouver and Tsawwassen over to Nanaimo (www.bcferries.com).
>By air: Fly to Nanaimo (YCD) from Vancouver (YVR).
>Tourism Nanaimo: www.tourismnanaimo.com
>General Vancouver Island Info: www.hellobc.com/vancouver-island.aspx
>Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia: www.artificialreef.bc.ca
>The BC dive mantra is "Current is your friend, but dive on slack." Be thankful for the swift waters that nourish the Pacific Northwest's amazing fauna, but dive smart and schedule your submersions for slack tide, the period between flood (incoming) and ebb (outgoing) tides when water movement is at a minimum. This makes for safer, more enjoyable diving. Timing the tides can be tricky, so check current charts (www.tides.gc.ca/eng/find/region/1) and consult local experts — slack water can be difficult to predict using only a printed chart.
>© Alert Diver — Summer 2013