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April 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nautilus Swell, British Columbia

and next time, north to Alaska

from the April, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I was ready to jump into the 49-degree water at a never-dived site. Our group of Canadian, American and Dutch divers was aboard the Nautilus Swell, a 99-year-old converted tugboat (although refurbished in 2005 for more than $3 million) based out of Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. After diving several spots in the Browning Pass area, we had moved to a virgin kelp-covered spot that Captain Al had been eyeing. Once I jumped in, I felt like I was inside a popcorn popper. Thousands of small crabs were moving everywhere, as were larger crabs, shrimp, nudibranchs and myriad fish. My eyes darted around, trying to keep up with the activity. I surfaced, whooping and hollering. So good, it was the only site we repeated, with a bonus of a giant Pacific octopus on the second dive. When I offered it my hand, it just looked at it and blew water toward me, totally unconcerned.

One can fly to Vancouver, then catch a small plane to Port Hardy, but after my buddies and I flew into Vancouver, we spent a day hiking and touring the aquarium, then rented a van and, after a ferry ride, spent another day driving up the beautiful eastern coast of Vancouver Island. Spending two nights at the Orange Tabby B&B, we explored the Port Hardy area (note: the best homemade soups and fish dinners are at the Sporty Bar and Grill), and I observed many soaring eagles, a couple of otters and a black bear mother and cub. After paying $10 to park our vehicle for the week, we boarded the Nautilus Swell at 5:30 p.m.

Nautilus SwellThe Swell, 90 feet long with a 22-footwide beam, is fitted for 14 guests. Four bunk rooms are tiny; ok for one person but I can't imagine two people with heavy clothing and drysuit underwear sharing the small closets and two small drawers under the lower bunk. The larger cabins have double beds with two large drawers below, a small closet and a small four-drawer chest. There were a couple of hooks on the wall. The private bathrooms were decently sized, with plenty of hot water. Each cabin had heaters, and I always cranked mine up to rewarm after a dive. (Mike Lever, who owns this boat and the Nautilus Explorer, plans eventually to enlarge the cabins and refit them with a lower double bed and a single upper bunk).


Nautilus Swell, British ColumbiaFor every dive, we boarded the Swell's roomy 38-foot aluminum skiff. About half is covered, which is good for rainy days -- we had a few in early October, with blustery winds, so I wore my drysuit underwear even on land. The skiff's uncovered portion was good for gear rinsing when it rained. They timed many dives for slack tides, but occasionally we ran into strong tidal flows because local tides didn't always match the charts. At Alex Rock, my buddy and I kicked valiantly to keep the island in sight, but the current was too stiff, so we surfaced early. Other dive sites were in protected coves, such as Fishbowl. Our only night dive at Staples Cut highlighted two-foot-long orange sea pens with bright green bioluminescence appearing when I stroked them. The boat lacked a divemaster, out due to illness, so we did most dives on our own after thorough briefings from Captain Al, who joined a few dives to find wolf eels or octopus, and to see what we liked so much at Critter Corner. Al was very professional and friendly, not hiding out in the wheelhouse as some captains will. Karl, the tall, cheerful, always smiling and non-diving first mate, took over many of the surface duties. Due to the tides, the three daily dives were often two hours apart, especially on the first couple of days when the diving, which started at 8 a.m., was over by 4 p.m. I sometimes felt rushed gearing up in my layers of drysuit clothing but got used to it.

Mark, the new chef, and Meg, the hostess, kept us going with hot cocoa, cookies and muffins between dives. If there was time, a pre-breakfast was offered before the dive, then a full breakfast with pancakes or French toast. Lunch might be tuna melts, tacos or rotini, and homemade soup. Sit-down, family-style dinners consisted of salad, meat, fish, vegetarian choices and dessert. The food ranged from very good to excellent, and was tailored to guests' dietary needs. Leftover cookies and muffins were wrapped and available for snacking, and coffee, tea, cocoa, sodas and hot water were always available. Wine or beer you paid for.

The Swell's Aluminum SkiffThere's not much common area aboard the Swell. The salon had two tables, each handling seven people. There was a flat-screen TV and a serving area. Out back, often nippy in the wind, was a small area for hanging drysuits and three wicker couches for gearing up. The hot tub on the top deck was a fine place to warm up or just pre-warm wet gloves and hoods before dives. Nearby, a two-tiered camera area, somewhat exposed to weather, could handle half a dozen large camera rigs and several small cameras.

Everyone wore drysuits, and most wore dry gloves. Any time a diver didn't quite get a zipper fully zipped or a dry glove seal secure, it was amazing how fast he or she came out of the water for help. I started getting cold after 40 minutes and was out of the water by 50 minutes; our limit was 60 minutes. Thankfully, most skiff rides were short, as the air was about the same temperature as the water.

I saw plenty of small crabs, fish and nudibranchs on dives. Giant sea stars and strange-looking anemones were everywhere. The 18-inch-long orange peel nudibranchs are impressive, as are their egg masses. The carapace of the Puget Sound King can be a foot across. On a Browning Pass dive, I saw one floating past and tried to place him back on the wall but I was interfering with his will; he just pushed himself off again and plummeted into the depths.

Nautilus Swell, British ColumbiaI could have used a guide at Dillon Rock in Shushartie Bay. Captain Al hunted for wolf eels to show us. My buddy and I wandered around the rock walls, not sure where we were supposed to be, but eventually all the divers ended up in the same area right when Al showed up with a four-foot-long wolf eel. There was also an octopus with suckers an inch-and-a-half long, and a four-foot lingcod.

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 visited. I found a thick stalk of kelp to secure myself for a safety stop, helpful since air doesn't vent quickly from a drysuit.

At Hussar Point on the last day, we dove specifically to see the dozens of hooded nudibranchs that look like an underwater Venus fly trap. I got stuck at 40 feet with an excruciating reverse squeeze; it took me 10 minutes to manage an ascent. When I boarded the boat, I couldn't hear out of my right ear, which dripped blood. I guessed I had popped an eardrum and my diving was done, but back home my doctor reported it was a weird blood blister, and my eardrum was luckily intact.

Being a warm-water diver, I wasn't sure how I would like diving where both the air and the water are 50 degrees, if you're lucky. However, with the great food, warm after-dive treats, interesting diving and the heaters in the cabins, I more than survived; in fact, the Swell's Alaska trip is now on my radar.

-- J.D.

Nautilus Swell, British ColumbiaDivers Compass: I booked the seven-day, six-night trip directly through the Swell for $1,950 . . . Nitrox is available at additional cost, but it wasn't necessary with time and depth; steel 100 cu-ft. tanks were available for $32 for the week . . . The Swell spends winter weekends diving out of Vancouver, summers in Alaska, and spring and fall in British Columbia. . . . Our minivan rental was about $700 for the week . . . Don't forget, you now need a passport to travel to Canada . . . Website: www.nautilusswell.com

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