Dear Fellow Diver:
Everything came together on the third dive of my trip
to the Inside Passage. The Polartec pullover I'd added
under my rented dry suit staved off the chill of the 41
degree water. The two-pound weights I'd stuffed in each BC
pocket combined with the 34 pounds on my belt to adjust my
buoyancy perfectly, and the nearly slack current carried me
gently along the chute at Lucan Pass, off Port Hardy near
the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island.
Visibility was only 25 feet, but since I was drifting
alongside a wall teeming with life, who cared? I spotted
three-pound Puget Sound king crabs hiding their colorful
carapaces in dark little crevices; sea cucumbers the size of
my arm lolled about on rocks. A brilliant 3-foot orange sea
pen pulsed in the current like a neon sign at dusk.
With 1,000 psi left, I ascended to 15 feet where the
colors were brighter, and my buddy and I continued to drift.
There I came across bright yellow sea lemons so big I almost
expected to see signs reading "Home of the Foot-Long Nudi."
We surfaced with no one else in sight, but I was confident
that Mike Lever, owner and captain of the Nautilus Explorer,
would find us. So we inflated our BCs and laid back, enjoying
the solitude and watching a bald eagle soar through the
densely forested islands that surrounded us. In a few minutes
Mike pulled up beside us. Rhian, the deckhand, lowered
the side ladder, and I grabbed hold, lifting my feet so she
could pull off my fins. Then I climbed on board. The rain
-- or "liquid sunshine," as Mike calls it -- had stopped so
we had a pleasant 10-minute ride back to the mother ship.
I traveled to B.C. in April to see what Jean-Michel
Cousteau has called "the best place to dive in the world."
I booked a cabin on the 116-foot Nautilus Explorer, which Mike Lever designed and built
three years ago as an expedition
yacht. Lever's promotional literature
says: "These trips are
best suited for experienced
divers who are in good physical
condition and comfortable diving
in current and 'cold' water." He's not kidding. The clientele
ranged from middle-aged dive
shop owners and instructors to
an adolescent girl, but all had
prior dry suit experience.
Three of us from California had
recently been dry suit certified,
and we were clearly the
rookies of the trip.
I boarded the ship on a
Saturday night in Steveston, a
suburb of Vancouver. We spent
the first night -- 18 hours --
motoring to the Campbell River
area, halfway up the eastern
shore of Vancouver Island in the
Strait of Georgia. The Explorer
was designed to be a comfortable
"night runner" with a heavy,
stabilized steel hull, and
extensive soundproofing. At
times forgetting that we were
under way was easy. However,
the engine noise reverberating
through my cabin below decks did
keep me awake that first night.
I wish I had known about the ear
plugs left out in the lounge.
Those who'd been aboard
the boat previously (about half
the passengers), immediately set
up their equipment on the 38-foot
aluminum skiff on the ship's
sloping rear deck. Following
suit, I chose a station, set up
my regulator and BC on an aluminum 80, and stored my other gear below the bench. For
the rest of the trip, all gear except my dry suit remained on the skiff.
Mike explained that each dive would have a time limit, due to the tide-related
currents. Tides rise and fall as much as 15 feet in the Northwest Passage, creating
"rock 'n' roll" currents. So most dives are timed for slack water -- at least in
theory. Beyond that, we were free to dive our own profiles and to dive solo if we
chose. On deep dives, Lever recommended a safety stop at 60 feet, then another five
minute stop at 10 to 20 feet, with at least 500 psi to start.
Lever treated us like responsible adults and expected us to behave accordingly.
They offered Dive Alerts to those who didn't bring them, but they were only to be used in an emergency, so the crew would
drop everything if one were sounded.
We also had a life jacket drill, but
the flotation devices were stored in our
cabins, below decks. The drill was orderly
enough, but I could imagine the panic that
would result in a real emergency, with people
jamming into the companionway to retrieve
their vests. He stressed staying hydrated.
They have had unexplained DCS hits, which
dropped off since he began warning guests to
heavy up on water and juices while cutting
back on tea, coffee, and booze.
The Explorer's liability waiver is a
"short form" by most live-aboard standards,
but as usual it places the liability squarely
on the divers. If anyone was uncomfortable signing it, Lever offered to refund
the entire cost of the trip and pay that person's airfare home. When he said,
"You're on your own nickel once you leave the ship" to dive, hike on shore, or
kayak, there was no doubt he meant business. On the other hand, nobody checked my
C-card, although I was renting a dry suit from the Explorer.
Throughout the trip, Lever sought consensus on the types of diving we preferred.
He asked those with special needs such as limited mobility or medical conditions
to see him privately to arrange assistance. His forthright approach seemed
to encourage candid responses.
Even with the safety precautions, our checkout dive at Walt's Wall was a major
bust, especially for me. It started with a briefing in the ship's lounge, which
looked like a pajama party, with everyone dressed in their dry suit undergarments.
Lever told us he had timed the dive so we could follow the current's flow in one
direction until the tide turned, then have a leisurely ride back. But something
went wrong with his calculations.
Divemaster Kricket helped me squeeze into the Oceaner crushed neoprene dry
suit that Lever had reserved for me. It fit pretty well, considering it was "off
the rack" and I'm an odd size (42 short). Because the neck seal felt snug, I wore
just a Polartec skin underneath. After taking a giant stride from one of the gates,
I began drifting briskly past a virtual pygmy forest of white plumose anemones
(called metridiums in California). Visibility was 50 feet, and the invertebrate
life was more profuse and larger than in California waters. I soon felt cold, however,
even after inflating my suit. When I reached 1,500 psi I had to turn back,
but the tides didn't cooperate. Kicking into the current with my Scubapro Twin
Jets, I had difficulty keeping up with my buddy and his stiff-bladed Mares Quattros.
Chilly and winded, I soon got down to 500 psi and decided to rise from 71 feet to
safety stop level. But I couldn't vent air fast enough from the valve on my left
shoulder and made a barely controlled toes-up ascent, flaring as much as I could to
slow my progress. When I broke surface, I floated like a bathtub toy until I could
deflate the suit and get my feet under me. Lever spotted me and recommended that I
drop back to 10 feet until I used up my air. I descended to a nearby rock and hung
on for dear life, rising again with just enough air in my tank to inflate my BC. I
scrambled up the skiff's ladder somewhat sheepishly, feeling like I'd just had a
trial by ice water.
Lever suggested that I skip the night dive planned for the same spot, and I was glad I did. This time, the currents were stronger, and buddy teams became separated
in the dark. People surfaced in choppy waters and clung to rocks in hopes
that the skiff would find them. It sounded hairy, but the divers marveled at
Lever's skill in picking them up. Later, Mike apologized to everyone for the errant
currents, which he couldn't explain. No matter how careful the dive plan, these
were erratic waters, and it was up to each diver to adjust to the conditions.
The following morning I had a better dive thanks to gentler currents at
Plummer Rock. The shoal at 45 feet was drab and populated mostly by sea urchins.
But the wall was festooned with red soft coral and anemones. Lavender-tinted
encrusting hydrocorals reminded me of Monterey, California. Spooky white basket
stars stretched out like skeletal remains. Two beefy ling cod fought over a hole.This time I got to my safety stop all
right but struggled to remain at 15
feet. I needed to begin venting my dry
suit before ascending. Next time I
added another layer of Polartec for
After the dive, the skiff was
winched back on board. We rinsed our
dry suits under the shower on the dive
deck, and some folks threw their fleece
undergarments into the nearby dryer.
After changing into dry clothes, I dug
into breakfast: two different frittatas,
hot oatmeal or cold cereal,
fresh fruit, homemade bread, and the
usual breakfast beverages. All meals
were buffet; the dining salon easily accommodated all 22 passengers (two short of
the ship's full complement). Lunches might include pizza, sandwiches, or wraps, all
served with soup, salad, and fruit. Dinners ranged from Greek-style chicken with
spinach moussaka, pocket bread, and rice, to grilled salmon filets with asparagus.
Fresh-baked desserts completed each evening meal. Occasionally the cooks, Josie and
Kim, were late putting out salad dressings and desserts, but they were so cheerful
and accommodating, those little mistakes were easy to overlook. The food on the
Nautilus Explorer was among the best of any live-aboard I've taken.
Soft drinks were available any time from a tap, and beer, wine, and hard
liquor could be purchased at the Salty Dog Bar in the lounge next to the dining
salon. A local microbrew set me back $2.25. The comfortable lounge has been refurbished
and had a library of books, dive publications, and videos. Several nights we
watched old Sea Hunt reruns. In one episode, after Mike Nelson's abalone diving
buddy had supposedly been devoured by a bogus-looking killer whale, Mike ranted
something like "we ought to wipe them all out!" Hmmm.
While we cruised to the Port Hardy area, I marveled at Vancouver Island's
scenery, snow-capped mountain peaks shrouded by rain clouds. Thick stands of trees
came down to the waterline or to the tops of rocky cliffs. We passed a series of
smaller islands, also heavily wooded. Occasionally we saw small settlements with
names like Alert Bay.
Browning Pass is B.C.'s best-known dive site, and Mike briefed us on the octopuses
we could expect to see. Pacific octopuses are enormous -- 10 to 15 feet
across -- and I've been waiting to see one for decades. This time we started the
dive swimming into a stiff current along Browning Wall, then drifting back. The
invertebrate life was colorful, even in the low light of a 7 p.m. dive, but less
lush than other sites. And the octopuses? They lived up to their elusive reputation,
and no one saw any -- the closest thing was a plump eight-inch cushion star.
This trip was filled with gearheads. Most divers wore top-of-the line DUI
drysuits, with fleece undergarments in nylon shells to keep lint out of their dry
suit valves. Several had trouble with them. Some folks spent entire surface intervals
patching tears, but the major problem seemed to be with the seals of "dry"
gloves. I wore wet suit mitts and, while my fingers were chilled, I still had all
the dexterity I needed. One California diver actually switched back to his 7 mm wet
suit. Several used backplates with wing-style BCs. A Russian immigrant named
Yevgeny dove with a rebreather and warmed his dry suit with Argon. When a buckle
snapped on my Scubapro split fins, Yevgeny lent me his buddy's, since she was sitting out that dive. Kevin,
an instructor from B.C.,
later sold me a replacement
strap and buckle combination
he'd packed into his save-adive
kit. Pretty fortuitous,
considering how far we were
from the nearest dive shop.
Most photographers shot
digital, so between dives
they didn't fiddle with housings
and strobes much. After
a dinner of English-style
roast beef (translation: overdone),
one fellow treated us
to a complete PowerPoint presentation
of the day's diving
on his laptop. Easy, instant
gratification: the American
We had only three tidedependent
dives a day. So
between the hot tub, lounge,
and dining salon (where
snacks, juices, and soft
drinks were available all
day), there were plenty of
opportunities to socialize,
read, or nap. The Explorer has nine double staterooms
below decks, each with a separate
shower and head. A few
changes of clothing could be
stored in a couple of drawers,
and luggage went under the
bunks. There was just enough
room for two of us to dress
at once. An air-conditioning
vent over the door supplied
fresh air, but it got stuffy.
I could see the passing
scenery through a porthole
between the bunks, but it was
sealed tight, so there was no
fresh air. Two executive
suites on the upper deck are
near the hot tub and away from
the major traffic flow.
At Dillon Rock, we
encountered another icon of
B.C. diving: wolf eels.
These fierce-looking characters
are so docile we were
encouraged to take off our gloves and pet them. I tried it,
and my hand felt no colder with my
glove off than on. The wolf eel
felt slimy and squishy, even on the
top of his head. I also saw a 16-
inch octopus, 10 percent the breadth
of what I hoped for.
Mike put variety into the diving,
with a wreck dive on the
remains of a Civil War-era paddle
wheel gunboat and an old quarry by
the shore of Alert Bay, but most of
the time was spent on sheer walls or
pinnacles. Other than some dolphins
playing in our bow wake, we never
saw any marine mammals (although
Undercurrent reader Nikki Mahan from
Bellevue, Washington, reported an
amazing encounter with at least 15
stellar sea lions for more than 20
minutes a month after my trip).
A Puget Sound diver agreed
with the California contingent that
we hadn't seen anything in B.C.
that we couldn't have seen in
California or Puget Sound. However,
the size and profusion of the critters,
especially the invertebrates, were stunning. To me, the lure of this trip was
venturing into an unspoiled wilderness and diving unpredictable waters in sometimes
rugged conditions. That said, the Nautilus Explorer provided an extremely comfortable
platform, even luxurious by live-aboard standards. The crew was especially
helpful and friendly, though most were new and had little diving experience. And a
true camaraderie developed. By the end of the trip we had all swapped e-mail
addresses, and one passenger, Mike, set up a website so photographers could post
their digital images for everyone to share. With all these pluses, the diving was
just one part -- and not the highlight -- of a very memorable trip.
P.S.: In October and November 2004, the Explorer will move to La Paz, to dive
the Sea of Cortez. They will also take trips to the Revillagigedos Islands. It's a
super boat for these locations.
Diver's Compass: U.S. citizens need a current passport to enter
Canada. ... Steveston, where the Nautilus Explorer docks, is a
$20US cab ride from Vancouver International. ... Driving directions
are on the website: www.nautilusexplorer.com; toll-free number
is 888-434-8322. ... A six-night trip to Port Hardy runs
$975US for a stateroom, $1145 for an executive suite. ... Dorm
berths are available for very close friends. ... Bedding is provided
in the staterooms, but bring your own towels and soap. ...
Two kayaks are on board. ... My dry suit rental ran $120US for the trip. ... The
Explorer offers 32 percent Nitrox for conventional scuba and up to 40 percent for
rebreather bottles. ... Argon fills and rental setups are also available for insulating
dry suits. ... Besides the standard aluminum 80s, 100 cubic feet steel tanks
are available at an extra charge. ... Still and video cameras can be rented, but there's no onboard processing. ... With advance notice, the Explorer can usually
accommodate less experienced divers by providing a personal divemaster for an additional
fee. ... Late spring and fall are peak seasons in B.C. ... In the summer, the Explorer moves to Alaska and offers longer trips with less diving and more topside
exploring. ... The Nautilus Explorer sells a range of merchandise, and I bought a
fleece vest for $55. ... Air was consistently in the low 50s, with some rain on each
of our six days so the hot tub on the top deck was a popular destination.