Diving in British Columbia
Although there is technically just one ocean on this planet, it encompasses almost infinitely different ecosystems and abiotic conditions. It’s a big, crazy world out there, and not just over hard land. Different areas of the ocean have different histories, different “cultures” composed of different characters, and different factors to deal with in everyday life. Some parts of the ocean are little cities, busy with interacting species of all shapes and sizes roaming about in all directions. Some parts are extremely rural with only few large beings wandering through occasionally. Some areas are extremely salty, and some have a large freshwater input. Some are warm and luxurious to dive in, and some are frigid and take a bunch more effort for humans to invade.
The difference between warm water diving and cold water diving can be almost overwhelming at first. All the preparation and extra gear can feel so foreign and cumbersome before you’re under the water. Then an entirely different world unfolds before you. It’s like you’re learning to dive all over again. I’ve done the transition in both directions and can tell you that they are both a bit shocking in their own way. I started diving in Vancouver, Canada during the winter, when the water and air were both about 4-7 degrees Celsius. There, I did my first 50 dives, floundering around more than your average student, trying to simultaneous stay warm and be able to bend my joints, and failing at both. I then moved to southern Madagascar where the water averaged about 20 degrees warmer. I went on to spend another 3 years in the tropics, completing probably 600 dives and working my way through dive instructor. So, by the time I came back to Canada in April this year, I was real cocky about how far my dive abilities had come and thought I knew what to expect with BC diving. Well, that was short lived. I had entirely adapted to the tropics and forgotten my roots.
Primarily, cold water diving just inherently requires so much more effort than warm water. For every single part of it. You really need to earn your dive. Even before the drysuit goes on, you need to layer up to protect against the cold. It’s super cool to get out of a dive and be mostly dry, but you also need a lot of warmth to protect against the 6 degree water surrounding you. If you’re me and coming from the tropics, you need a good 7 thick thermal layers. You quickly become the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and briefly debate terrorizing a city with your unbending gait and outstretched arms, but then decide that checking out a giant octopus under the water will be nicer. Then, you put on a thick neoprene hood that covers as much of your head while still allowing for the mask to seal to the face as is possible. Throw on your 17+ kilos of weight and gear and hike on down that large staircase. This all needs to happen before the gloves, because once those are on, you will have the dexterity of a newborn giraffe. You can either put on neoprene wet gloves that are about 7mm thick or put on a couple layers of regular winter gloves and then huge rubber gloves (reminiscent of kitchen dish gloves from the 50s) that fit onto a dry glove system. Your choice. Mobility remains the same either way.
Diving in British Columbia is very often shore diving. And since BC is known for its mountains, many of these shore dives require some form of hike up and down some pretty steep cliffs. Forget the gradual slopes of luxurious sandy beaches. Most sites require some form of scrambling over fallen trees or large rocks. Some even require using a chain to lower yourself down a sharp ledge. Either way you’re going to need to brave a bunch of slipper, uneven rocks to get to the water at low tide. BC diving is not for the feint of heart. It is also an incredible workout of every part of your body and a bonus cure for insomnia.
Once you actually get underwater, though. The views are completely foreign to those in tropical waters. With the cold water, everything grows slower, but tends to live longer. They get massive in comparison to their tropical counterparts. But everything is also more spread out. Instead of seeing 30 species on a square meter of coral reef, You can see a giant sponge with maybe 4 species living on it. But nearby will be a 3 meter long octopus, or a 20cm long nudibranch. You could also see 3m wolf eels, plumose anemones 45cm tall and with a 30cm circumference, and 1000 year old glass sponge all on that one dive. And if you’re mildly lucky, you could swim with one or more marine mammals. It’s not uncommon to hear tales of divers encountering seals, sea lions, porpoises, and even whales right off shore.
Instead of the hustle and bustle of tropical coral reefs, you encounter lazy rockfish. On the seagrass, you can see the world’s most adorable fish – the spiny lumpsucker – with their pectoral fins suction cupped to the blades. Tons of species of salmon in every stage of their lives are roaming around. There are even sturgeon and halibut which are easily 2m long. Sometimes off shore, basking shark can be seen benefiting from the summer sun and nutrient-rich waters.
Temperate corals, glass sponges, and gorgonians create reefs of bright reds, oranges, and whites, almost as colorful as some tropical reefs. Oysters, muscles, and chitons cling to the intertidal rocky shores. Kelp of all kinds create a forest to maneuver between. It’s like being on a different ocean planet. And a much darker one. With the sun not directly overhead, and a bottom composition of silty, easily stirred-up muck, it can be very difficult to see even a few feet below the surface, so dive lights are essential on even the most beautiful of land days. But, the dive light brings back all the color lost by the water, so everything looks brightly and vibrantly colourful, even at 30 meters.
Divers tend to run out of air much faster than on equivalent tropical dives due to drysuit and physiological issues. Dry suit buoyancy control is a horse of a much different color than BCD buoyancy control. And all the effort, plus the near freezing temperatures make bodies breath faster. So the dive must end. Then, the whole process of getting ready is reversed with equal or more effort, and mandatory hot chocolate or ice cream, depending on the season. But this time, it’s done with much more excitement and chatter about who spotted what or funny things that happened.
So maybe some parts of it take patients and practice, but it’s a big, big world out there, full of unimaginable sights and adventures. And diving, like life on land, is a cultural shift from each place to the next you can manage to see in this life. While the change between two very different systems can be a shock and a challenge, it’s so worth it to see all the ocean has to offer. It does comprise over 70% of the world after all, so it’s definitely worth a few steps outside of the comfort zone to see all the parts of it we infiltrate.
‘Diving in British Columbia’ was written by Roya
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Even as a little girl, I was obsessed with the oceans and wanted to become a marine biologist. So, I got into diving in 2011 as an aide for my Master’s research on cephalopod (squid, cuttlefish, octopus, etc) parasites. I completed my PADI Open Water course and continued with the CAUS Scientific Diver course in the cold cold waters around Vancouver BC. When time allowed, I would help with the Howe Sound Research Group of the Vancouver Aquarium monitoring the Sound. I’m sorry to say, but even after all that, I still haven’t quite come to love dry suit diving.
Once I moved to Madagascar as the Science Officer of a marine conservation NGO, I realized just how lovely diving in the tropics could be. There, I completed my DiveMaster and became addicted to daily diving. I had to find a way to continue! So I did my IDC in Bunaken, Indonesia, completing my MSDT course and learning the tricks of the trade on a few inaugural students.
Currently, I am a dive manager/reef ecologist in Sri Lanka and starting up a conservation and education program with my dive shop. Combining my love of the oceans with my love of science, I am thrilled to have found a way to bridge the two and teach others about this incredible ecosystem we still don’t know nearly enough about. There’s still lots more for me to learn, both about diving and about the marine world, and that is the beauty of it all!
PADI Specialty Instructor
CAUS Scientific Diver 1
Master of Science - Zoology
Dream Dive Locations:
Wreck Diving, Lake Michigan
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