British Columbia, Oct 2011Downey Duck







Click here for pics from Lawrence Tulissi

 and Click here for pics by Roland Hurks

On the Liveaboard Nautalis Swell out of Port Hardy, North Vancover Island

I was ready to jump into the water at a never-dived site. Our group of Canadian, American, and Dutch divers was aboard the Nautilus Swell, a 99 year old refitted tugboat based out of Port Hardy at the Northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. We had already dived several spots in the Browning Pass area and now we were ready to dive a totally new spot that Captain Al had been eyeing for a while. From the surface it looked like a bunch of kelp, but once I jumped in, it was like being inside a popcorn popper. Thousands of small crabs were moving everywhere, along with larger crabs, shrimp, nudibranchs, and fish of all sizes. My eyes were constantly in motion trying to keep up with all the activity. We all came up from the dive whooping and hollering. It was the only site we repeated during the week, and the second time was just as good as the first, with an added bonus of a giant Pacific octopus. When I gently reached out to it with an offered hand, he just looked at it and blew water in my direction, totally unconcerned; I was probably the first human he had ever encountered. This area is now aptly named Critter Corner.

Getting to Port Hardy can be time-consuming, but worth the effort. It’s possible to fly to Vancouver, Canada and then catch a small plane to Port Hardy, but we flew into Vancouver, spent a day hiking and touring the aquarium there, rented a vehicle, and spent another day riding the ferry and driving up the eastern coast of Vancouver Island to Port Hardy. Spending two nights at the Orange Tabby B&B, we explored the Port Hardy area; we found the best homemade soups and fish dinners at the Sporty Bar and Grill and the best ice cream at Supreme’s Convenience Store. While exploring, we spotted multiple eagles, a couple of otters, and a black bear mother and cub. We boarded the Nautilus Swell about 5:30pm, after paying $10 to park our rental vehicle for the week.

I picked a spot on the Swell’s roomy 38’ aluminum skiff that was used for all the diving. About half is under cover, good for rainy days. The rest is out in the open, good for gear rinsing when it rained, as everything remained salty until after the last dive. Many dives were timed for slack tides, which sometimes didn’t quite work out, as local tides didn’t always match the charts, such as my dive at Alex Rock when my buddy and I ran out of island before we ran out of time, unable to kick against the current. Other dives sites were in protected coves, such as Fishbowl, and our only night dive at Staples Cut, where the two foot orange sea pens’ bioluminescence is bright green when you stroke them in the dark.

Three dives a day were offered, plus the one night dive. Chef Mark and Hostess Meg kept us going with hot cocoa and freshly baked cookies and muffins between dives. If there was time, a pre-breakfast was offered; otherwise a full breakfast consisted, on different mornings, of cereal, oatmeal, pancakes, French toast, juice, toast, and coffee or tea. Lunch offerings might be tuna melt sandwiches, tacos, or rotini—there were always two choices, and there was always homemade soup. Breakfast and lunch were buffets; the sit-down dinners, served family-style, consisted of salad, meat, fish, or vegetarian choices, and dessert. The food ranged from very good to excellent. Mark cheerfully worked around food allergies and preferences. Left over cookies and muffins were individually wrapped and available for snacking, and coffee, tea, cocoa, and hot water were always available.

Our cabin felt smaller than usual because of all the cold-weather clothes and drysuit underwear we brought. Thank goodness for the two big drawers under the bed—each evening before crawling into bed we dropped everything into the drawers. The heater in the cabin was fantastic—we really cranked that up a few times to re-warm.

The salon had two tables, each handling 6 or 7 people. There was a flat screen TV and a serving area. Out back was a small area for hanging drysuits and three wicker couches for gearing up. Upstairs was the hot tub which we used a few times; it was a great way to pre-warm wet gloves and hoods before dives. Also upstairs was a two-tiered camera area, somewhat exposed to weather. There was one large plastic garbage can for cameras, nothing on the skiff,that could hold one large rig into at a time.

Since the water averaged 49 degrees, everyone was wearing drysuits, and most were wearing dry gloves. I started getting cold after about 40 minutes and was out of the water by 50 minutes. Thankfully, most skiff rides were short, as the air was about the same temperature as the water. During the dives, I saw lots of small crabs, fish, and nudibranchs. Giant sea stars were everywhere and strange looking anemones were abundant. The 18” orange peel nudibranchs are impressive, as are their egg masses. And the carapace of the Puget Sound King can be a foot across. On a Browning Pass dive, I saw one floating past me and tried to place him back on the wall, but he just pushed himself off again and I watched him plummet into the depths. At Seven Tree a sea lion fleetingly checked me out.

At Dillon Rock in Shushartie Bay Captain Al showed us a 4’ wolf eel. There was also an octopus with 1” suckers and a four foot lingcod. And at Hussar Point we dove specifically to see the dozens of hooded nudibranchs that look like an underwater venus fly trap.

Barri Island was another dive where the tide was supposed to go slack, but it just kept getting stronger. After flying down one side of the island, we hid in the lee amongst the kelp and a few sea lions came to visit. We quickly learned that kelp is your friend--find a thick stalk that goes to the surface and it’s an easy place to do a safety stop.

When I boarded the Nautilus Swell, being a warm water diver, I wasn’t sure how I would like diving where the water is 50 degrees and the air temperature is about the same, but with the great food, warm after-dive treats, interesting diving, and the heaters in the cabins, I more than survived; in fact their Alaska trip is now on my radar.