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February 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 28, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge, B.C., Canada

gourmet heaven for cold-water divers

from the February, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

This past summer, while at scenic Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge, I experienced a six-day gourmet feast. Good, occasionally great, cold-water diving in British Columbia served to whet my appetite. My first dive at tiny Thetis Island, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, was on a purposefully-sunk Boeing 737, a difficult project in which Peter Luckham, owner of the dive shop I used, played a large hand. Resting at 100 feet, both sides of its wings were covered in white and pink giant plumose anemone, their up or down orientation being of no consequence in the 49-degree waters. I was delighted to see so many wing-walking golden feather duster sea stars with feet fully exposed. Before the dive, Andy Lamb, the lodge proprietor and undersea expert, advised us to be alert for fried egg jellyfish being slowly drawn into the mouths of plumose anemone. I saw the first of many such fascinating life-death struggles in the first 10 minutes of my dive.

At site after site, I saw many of the fish and invertebrates I'm used to seeing when diving around Vancouver Island: big, photogenic lingcod, wary copper rockfish, lemon nudibranch, sunflower sea stars and several sculpin species. Orange sea cucumbers and painted greenlings were abundant. So many sharpspined red sea urchins carpeted the ledges at some sites that I needed to be extra-conscious of my buoyancy when positioning my camera. Photographing my first clown dorid nudibranch and an eel-like brilliant emerald green penpoint gunnel made me a happy camper, as did a tiny white, brittle Alaskan skeleton shrimp clinging to my hood. Alas, I saw no octopi or wolf eels. Peter and Andy lamented that overfishing was taking its toll.

The lodge is a single-story home perched on a rise overlooking the sheltered waters between Thetis and neighboring Kuper Island. Sailboats and motor yachts moor in the bay below, otters play in its freshwater pond. Set up as a B&B that serves dinner, the lodge holds six guests maximum in two bedrooms, each with its own private bath and shower, and nicely separated for privacy. One has two beds and an expansive water view. Mine was smaller, spotlessly clean and has a roomy closet. Its modest 260-square-foot size is dominated by a comfy king bed, nightstands and a chair. The high-beamed ceilings in the dining area/great room reminded me of Valhalla; a wide expanse of windows overlook the bay. Bookcases filled with tomes on diving and marine life surround the huge fireplace.

The ThemewulI came hoping I'd get to dive with Andy, whose mild mannered persona belies his knowledge of marine life. He is co-author of Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest and the wonderfully illustrated Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest. He was an underwater bloodhound during the dives he made with us. As soon as I finished photographing one thing he found, he'd be signaling for me to come over and look at another. After dinner, we would pop our SD cards into his wide-screen TV, and Andy identified everything in photo after photo. (For example, "That's a transparent tunicate, Corella willmeriana.")

Based on an island with some 350 residents, Peter Luckham's 49th Parallel Dive Charters has had its economic woes, and he has scaled down from a 37 footer to a Fat Cat Bay boat. Themewul, as it's named, is powered by a single 115-HP Yamaha four-stroke outboard, with room for just Peter and only four others. Though just 17 feet long, Themewul is covered, and has on-board oxygen and a radio. Its stability made our two-tank voyages fairly comfortable, and back rolling (perhaps a whole foot and a half) into the water was a breeze. For boarding, a decent ladder had plenty of hand holds, which was a good thing, because I always made the climb with my tank and 36 pounds of lead; bending my leg to lift it over the gunwale was the hardest part. Peter helped others take off their gear in the water. With the low freeboard, heading into wind and waves meant zipping back into drysuits. Laughing, we donned masks and snorkels as salt water off the bow blew back into our faces. Males could use the "outdoor" head; females could heed nature's call on one of the many islands. I kept lunches in a dry bag, and under-seat storage stayed fairly dry. With just three divers during my stay, there was room for Andy to act as guide and marine interpreter but unfortunately, he didn't join us for a couple of days.

Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge, B.C., CanadaDon't expect concierge diving services; there is no dive shop, no staff, just a trusty little boat and an experienced skipper. Peter humped tanks and weights down a walk of perhaps 200 feet to the dock from his vehicle. We changed over our own tanks. Each day we'd walk our own gear to the boat and back, rinse it at Andy's lodge and hang it to dry. Andy's services were thrown in as part of Peter's advertised package. Unfortunately, this benefit came at the expense of an apparently more cost-consciousness frame of mind that seemed to progressively dampen Peter's spirits toward week's end. Earlier, I mentioned the hard economic times for dive charters -- should you repeat my journey, you'll find that Peter is now charging for Andy's presence.

As decent as the diving was, Virginia Lamb's cuisine blew me away. She is the wonderful, rosy-cheeked chef at Cedar Beach, looking a bit like Santa's wife, Mrs. Claus, in her apron as she merrily stirs a sauté. By contrast, black-spectacled, white-bearded Andy Lamb is tall and lanky, looking a bit gawky washing dishes after meals. "I'm just the kitchen help," he declared.

I'd start the day with Belgian waffles topped with a choice of sautéed banana slices with real maple syrup or sweet strawberries with fresh whipped cream, a tender fried egg on the side. Breakfasts included eggs Benedict made with crab and prawn, home fries crisped in olive oil, and toast with a whiskey- laced orange marmalade. During surface intervals, I usually ate a hearty sandwich of sliced turkey, ham and Swiss cheese topped with lingonberry jam on a hearty golden-crusted roll. Dinners included a New York loin roast with grilled mushrooms, followed by the most delicious cheesecake, topped with rum peach, that I've ever eaten. Mid-week, Virginia carried in a dinner platter of Dungeness crabs in full shells, artfully arranged on a bed of fresh succulent prawns with lemon wedges and drawn butter. The homemade potato salad, corn on the cob and zucchini salad were followed by a homemade crème brulee. After-dive and between- meals snacks included hearty blueberry scones, chocolate cake and leftover peach cobbler. In my opinion, Virginia held her own with the renowned chef Gladys Howard at my beloved Pirates Point on Little Cayman.

Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge, B.C., CanadaDuring my last two days, Andy rejoined us as our guide and marine interpreter. At Tree Island, he demonstrated the quick reactive flight capabilities of the swimming anemone when confronted by a leather star. At Josef Point in Gabriola Passage, Peter perfectly timed the slack at this tight, high current-funneling channel. Andy pointed out some Vancouver Island "classics:" a cute little scalyhead sculpin; a placid, red Irish lord with big green eyes; a beautiful red, purple and orange tank-like Puget Sound king crab; a brown-spotted white leopard dorid; a shy little mosshead warbonnet; a wild-looking hairy crab and a delicate glassy plume hydroid. On the last day, Peter timed the slack perfectly at Boscowitz Rock, another potentially highcurrent zone, just off Race Point. Again, great visibility prevailed (well, maybe 30 feet), and Andy was off like a bloodhound on a hot scent. The visual feast included deep maroon-colored northern feather duster worms, sea scallops puffed up like crème-filled banana cakes, a tiny but striking Cockerell's nudibranch with fat, orange-tipped papillae, and a giant Pacific chiton resembling a stretched-out brown pancake gone fuzzy with mold. My last dive for the week was at Alcala Point, along Porlier Pass. A giant basket star unfurled on a ridge, its ghostly snake-like arms silhouetted against the inky black void, evoking an image of Medusa. Finding a beautiful red flabellina nudibranch topped off a great dive.

Saying our goodbyes to our dive companions and hosts, my non-diving spouse and I topped off our vacation with a stay at famed Wickaninnish Inn, on Vancouver Island's Pacific side. Highlights included watching the tide sweep in and out of the tidal pools below our room and hiking along the Wild Pacific Trail, where we watched whales breaching in the waters below. The new Ucluelet Aquarium was fantastic, featuring many open-tank, hands-on displays. I could pick up a sea cucumber or sea star as friendly, knowledgeable staff provided interesting descriptions. The night before our flight home, we stayed at the Wedgewood Inn in Vancouver, featured in the book 1000 Places To See Before You Die.

The Gulf Islands feature some high-voltage and interesting dive sites that a (small) group of experienced cold-water divers and photographers would enjoy, especially if accompanied by marine naturalist Andy Lamb. The best sites could be squeezed into a carefully planned two- or three-day trip. Non-divers can kayak, hike, and sightsee; Andy will accompany them on land-based nature walks, as well. And Virginia, of course, will turn your stay into a gourmet heaven for diving.

-- S.P.

Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge, B.C., CanadaDivers Compass: Lodge pricing was $100 per person per day, plus $125 a day for five two-tank days of diving; it cost me $2,100 for a diver and one non-diver after tax was added . . . I rented a car at the Vancouver airport for $50 a day; gas was $5.50 per gallon . . . The round-trip car ferry between Horseshoe Bay and Nanaimo is $96 and between Chemainus and Thetis Island, it costs $43; during the summer, make reservations to avoid being bumped ( www.BCFerries.com ) . . . Night dives are no extra charge, but whether they run depends on the tides and mood at the time . . . There was a variety of tanks to choose from, at no extra cost -- aluminum 80s and 90s, and even some sweet highpressure steel 100s . . . Nitrox is $10 per tank, $27 a day . . . Websites: 49th Parallel Diving - www.divemaster.ca ; Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge - www.cedar-beach.com (Virginia Lamb handles dive/lodge packages).

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