Campbell River’s Discovery Passage
Where to go diving next is perhaps one of the most difficult questions scuba divers in British Columbia must ask themselves. In a province with more than 17,000 rugged miles of picturesque coastline to explore, this decision is seldom an easy one. One fascinating dive destination that for decades has garnered high praise from the local sport diving community is Campbell River’s Discovery Passage. An enchanted ocean realm where everything is real and there’s nothing to get hung about.
Salmon Fishing Capital of the World
Lying approximately 100 miles northeast of Vancouver, Discovery Passage is the deep navigable shipping lane separating scenic Quadra Island from the coastal town of Campbell River, situated on the northeastern shore of Vancouver Island. Celebrated as being the “Salmon Fishing Capital of the World” by sport fishers, the sheer abundance of marine life layering Discovery Passage’s current-swept seafloor is an irresistible lure for scuba divers. Named after Captain George Vancouver’s command vessel HMS Discovery in the summer of 1792, the astonishingly fast tidal waters here can churn and boil at velocities averaging seven to 16 knots.
“It seldom gets better than this,” I thought, as we were blissfully hovering 15 feet off the bottom of Steep Island’s precipitous undersea ledges. Exploring the depths just ten feet below me, my dive buddy was oblivious to the presence of an inquisitive harbor seal swimming up and down Steep Island’s magnificent invertebrate-encrusted wall. Plummeting to a depth of 130 feet, the drop-off is draped with flourishing bouquets of purple feather duster tubeworms adorned with a cornucopia of exotic marine life.
Taking me by complete surprise, a large cabezon suddenly rocketed skyward and thumped headfirst into my chest. My aggressive assailant scurried away in a seeming huff as I convulsed with laughter. We were swimming too far above the rocky shelf to know for sure, but I suspected this cabezon was dutifully defending its egg mass from a perceived threat. Some time after I had resumed taking pictures, I looked up and noticed the same cabezon feverishly giving chase to the harbor seal.
Over the past 25 years we have explored the colorful depths of Campbell River’s Discovery Passage countless times. Typically, the diving here revolves around two varying slack tide intervals that are approximately six hours apart due to formidable tidal currents that flood toward the south and ebb northward. Novice divers should encounter no difficulty as most dives are conducted during the brief respite of slack tide intervals, when the current slows and the water becomes still, before reversing in the following direction. Underwater visibility in the passage’s rapid flowing seas rarely falls below 30 feet due to constant upwellings of clear water. Plankton blooms only occur in the top 30 to 40 feet during the summer months and are quickly diluted by the strong tidal exchanges.
Several of Discovery Passage’s regularly visited dive sites have achieved legendary status in diving circles. Copper Cliff’s delirious 300-foot undersea cliff is punctuated with dense clumps of white plumose anemones, yellow sulfur sponge, sea squirts and orange cup corals. Everything underwater here appears to be super-sized. Schools of black rockfish, wolf eels, red snapper, mosshead warbonnets, nudibranchs and the occasional spiny dogfish frequent the cliff’s undersea terrain. Near the surface, tiny baitfish seem to swirl closer to the wall in order to avoid being eaten by passing salmon. Copper Cliff affords an excellent drift dive and routinely presents some of the passage’s trickiest currents. A short distance away, wreck divers can explore the 366-foot-long HMCS Columbia, a decommissioned naval destroyer escort ship that was purposely sunk as an artificial reef in 1996.
Row And Be Damned
Row and Be Damned is undoubtedly one of the coolest names ever for a dive site! A steep rock precipice slopes almost vertically beneath the waterline gradually gives way to gigantic boulders in 30 to 60 feet of water. These imposing monoliths are candy coated with pink strawberry anemones, bright purple sea stars, elegant flame-tipped nudibranchs and other encrusting marine invertebrates. Puget Sound king crabs measuring two feet across, gray tennis ball sponges and profuse concentrations of orange cup corals are scattered everywhere. The sea floor is embroidered with clumps of yellow sponge, swimming scallops, bunches of hydroids, and a verdant terrazzo of pink strawberry anemones. Moving in and out of Row and Be Damned’s jagged crevices are tiger rockfish, friendly kelp greenlings and some monster-sized lingcod. It is here where the infamous fish with kaleidoscope eyes, the red Irish lord, pose willingly for underwater photographers. Giant Pacific octopuses are sometimes not easy to spot amid the riot of color that exemplifies Row and Be Damned’s phantasmagoric seascape.
Descending through swaying fronds of bull kelp at Whiskey Point, we followed our compass bearings to a known wolf eel den. Whiskey Point’s playful wolf eels are simply amazing and the resident tiger rockfish and kelp greenlings here are extremely tame, a result from years of hand feeding by divers. Whiskey Point always seems to have the lushest pastel colonies of strawberry anemones, which for reasons still unknown, carpet the sea floor as far as one can see throughout much of Discovery Passage. Commonly bright red in color with transparent white bulbous-tipped tentacles, strawberry anemones look somewhat like coral, but lack a protective exoskeleton and they grow no larger than one inch in diameter. Although in Discovery Passage there are also large patches of strawberry anemones in varying hues of orange or pink. At one point we were busily taking pictures of an orange spotted nudibranch when I felt that sudden sensation that we were being watched. Looking up from my camera’s viewfinder, I was amazed to discover approximately one hundred curious-looking copper rockfish were indeed watching us!
Discovery Passage is one of British Columbia’s premier diving hot spots. Our many diving experiences here have resulted in a lifetime of happy memories and breath taking encounters with some of the most bizarre and iridescent sea life imaginable. Above all, nowhere else in British Columbia’s vast Emerald Sea are scuba divers guaranteed to see strawberry anemones forever.
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