Lower mainland, Vancouver Island and Sunshine Coast

Winter Diving in BC

Experience an underwater wonderland

by John Lee

Scuba diver encounters a giant pacific octopus, Photo courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo/Jeff Rotman

Snow sports aren’t the only reason to gear up and head outside during BC’s fleece-hugging winters. This is also the favoured season for dive fans to plunge beneath the regional waves.

But why exactly is this the best time to explore the local briny — and where should you go for your own epic undersea adventure?

“Winter has the best visibility for BC diving,” says Trisha Stovel, a Vancouver Island-based dive expert and co-founder of Beneath BC, an online video project showcasing the province’s sparkling underwater sites. “In spring, visibility is lessened by river run-off, and by summer, the algae blooms. But in winter, visibility can reach as far as 100 feet, making it the perfect season for diving.”

Stovel’s favourite winter spots start with the “eerily beautiful,” century-old SS Capilano wreck near her home-base of Comox. “The white plumose anemones make the ship’s outline glow, and there are also lots of rockfish, lingcod and the occasional octopus to see.”

It’s not her only recommendation, though. Near Powell River, Vivian Island has a steep wall dive with a profusion of glass sponges, sea lions and Puget Sound king crabs to view. And then there’s the ever-inviting coastline of northern Vancouver Island to explore.

“I’ve dived all over the world, but Seven Tree and Browning Wall near Port Hardy are among my all-time favourites,” says Stovel, noting the abundance of eye-popping marine life and the kaleidoscopic colours covering the area’s rock walls.

Male and female pair of mated wolf eels taken at Tuwanek Sechelt Inlet, Photo courtesy of Seaproof.tv

Stovel’s life and business partner, Russell Clark, also has a hotlist of must-do dives. “Near Sechelt, Tuwanek offers several amazing sites from one easy-access shoreline. There’s something for everyone here, including stunning underwater topography and amazing wolf eels, which look just like The Muppet Show’s grumpy old men.”

Diving at Whytecliff Park, Photo courtesy of Cindy Shi (Dec 4, 2016)

Accessibility, Clark adds, also makes Whytecliff Park — a 30-minute drive from downtown Vancouver — a highly popular spot. But more advanced practitioners should consider Race Rocks, a boat hop from Victoria. “There are sea lions as well as an amazing abundance of colourful marine life here,” says Clark.

Stovel adds that planning BC diving trips is relatively easy, with plenty of open-through-winter dive stores dotting the region’s coastline. “You can walk into a dive shop and join their regular dives, hire one of their guides or just continue your dive training — or simply get some good advice.”

Giving good winter diving advice is important to employees at The Diving Locker in Vancouver. Owner Greg Kocher has 40 years’ experience, but has never forgotten the magic of his first underwater sea lion encounter during an early winter dive at Race Rocks. “They were pulling at my arms, playing with my fins and no doubt trying to figure out what this strange creature was. I counted 25 of them, and they were just so quick and graceful.”

Giant Pacific octopus encounters can be equally memorable, he adds. “They usually hide during the day, but if you’re lucky you’ll catch one scavenging for its next meal. You can spot their dens by the pile of crab shells they leave scattered in the sand.”

Clown Nudibranch, Photo courtesy of Thinkstock/naturediver

Smaller critters can be equally enthralling for winter divers, Kocher says. “Nudibranchs are technically slugs, but they have beautiful shapes and colours and make great photos. And decorated warbonnets are an eel-like fish with huge eyes and lips and what looks like a tree branch growing from their forehead. If you’re quiet, they’ll peek and check you out.”

Like Clark and Stovel, Kocher has dived internationally but, he says, “nothing even comes close to BC’s coastline.”

Clark agrees — even in winter. “People think it must be cold here, but it’s like skiing: wear appropriate equipment and you’re toasty warm. With proper training, gear and advice, you’ll have the time of your life!”