We dropped into the dark water off Plumper Rock at the south end of western Canada's Queen Charlotte Strait and sank slowly. The first 70 feet were somewhat ho-hum and then, at 80 feet, it was as if someone flicked a switch. The vertical rock face suddenly turned into a protein carpet - a background shag of pink and white anemone spotted with yellow sponges, stalks of white plumose, blue and orange starfish and spidery-armed basket stars that were totally unfurled even though it was midday. Amid this wall of life, there was a red Irish lord, hanging vertically with its head down, wedged into a shallow crease. We each took turns coming over to look at the fish and take pictures. It, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to our presence. Its lack of concern reminded me of the Galapagos where the animals have evolved with no fear of humans and, therefore, couldn't care less if a person's eyeball is in their face. Our next dive, on the back side of Stubbs Island, was even better. At 85 feet, we caught a flash of silver as a small school of a dozen young salmon swam by. But it was life on the wall, as always, that took center stage. The cauliflower-like plumose formed a solid blanket of snow on the wall ... puffy mounds of white that extended as far as I could see. In one place, the plumose hung free in a curtain. I ducked behind it to find the most incredible garden of anemones; pink, orange and purple dahlias interwoven with yellow sponges, the occasional nudibranch, small blue starfish and fire-orange spidery cucumbers.UNDISCOVERED VARIETY After we surfaced, as our skiff headed back to the mother ship, an eagle soared overhead. Then a school of Dall's porpoises popped up, displaying a cluster of sharky-black fins that jutted from the flat, liquid-metal water. I began to understand why local divers put up with the general conditions in this part of the world. Diving off Canada's west coast is not a kinder, gentler experience so the rewards better be worth it. What kind of conditions? We're talking water temperatures in the 40s, plankton blooms that turn day into night, killer current and unpredictable weather. We're talking drysuits, 30-pound weight belts and dives that are so precisely timed, you don't have five minutes to waste getting into the water. Nervous novice divers need not apply. In return, you get color so intense it can make your eyeballs ache, fish lazing about in slow motion and gigantic critters. And you get cheap: shore deals where room, board, heavy equipment and two dives run under $100 U.S. per day, and live-aboard packages cost half of those in warmer climates. Because conditions can be so tough, British Columbia's Vancouver Island has remained one of the truly underappreciated dive regions of North America. As a result, the folks up here are busy reinventing the wheel - in the early stages of running decently comfortable live-aboards, guided dives and sinking artificial reefs. The Artificial Reef Foundation of Campbell River, halfway up the island, was so concerned about attracting divers to its newly sunk destroyer escort, the Columbia, that it salted a $4,000 diamond ring on the wreck. Honest, it's there (or, at least, a box is there with a note saying you can claim it), somewhere on the outside of the ship no deeper than 60 feet. On my particular trip, I was diving from the Nautilus VII, which operates out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and does multi-day trips up and down nearby Vancouver Island. Every person aboard was a local, which is typical since the area has yet to be really discovered by the outside. Northwest divers insist they get bored in tropical water. I remember jumping into this 200-foot visibility in the Caribbean and my first couple of dives, it was incredible, said Mike Lever, owner of the Nautilus VII. But after 10 dives, I felt every site basically looked the same. Same fish, same coral. Here, it's always different. Cloud sponges here, wolf eels there, plumose somewhere else. Believe me, Mike, there is variety in the tropics. But you've got a point about the diversity of the Northwest.WRECKS, WALLS AND OTHER THINGS Our first dive, into Anderson Cove off Texada Island, took us into colonies of cloud sponges. The stuff grows in clots 10 feet across and looks amazingly like cake batter oozing down the rock. Later that day, we hit the Columbia, the destroyer escort sunk just four weeks before off Quadra Island a bit north of Campbell River. It's a hulking thing, 366 feet long and 42 feet across. We floated to the guns, peered down the barrels and straddled them for photos. The wheelhouse was lined with shelves and banks of gauges and we poked around, spotting urinals, closets and really tacky linoleum in a dining area. The ship is a maze of tunneling passageways, including one nicknamed Burma Road that goes the entire length of the ship. Amazingly, the algae was already an inch thick, like green fur growing on walls and rails, and here and there we found thumb-size chunks of yellow sponge. Steep Island, off Quadra, is known for anemones, but you have to go below 70 feet to see the best of it. The anemones cover everything, laying down an iridescent flamingo color that looks like poured paint. Up close, the anemones are glistening, nickel-size creatures, each crowned with its own ring of tiny, lustrous tentacles like those pictures of a drop of milk caught in mid-splash. The carpet of anemones went on unbroken for the length of our swim. It was studded with the occasional starfish or nudibranch. Barnacles broke through, each with its own set of waving arms. A hermit crab peeked out. A blood-red sculpin floated in a crevice. But most of all, what I took away was the sense of pink. Not powder-pink. Not dainty rose, but a saturated, neon pink that etched itself into my brain. The dock by April Point, a fishing lodge on Quadra Island, has become a popular shark dive. The idea is to wander around near the pier, like just another scavenger, mingling with the dogfish. The stiff current blew us right past the dock, but as a consolation prize we got herring. Just as we headed up, the water burst into a field of twinkling lights. Thousands upon thousands of herring washed through, their 2-inch silver bodies turning in unison like so much Christmas tinsel. I swam into the middle of the river of bodies, and they folded around me, undulating in unison to outline my space in the ocean before whiplashing off into the gloom.CRITTERS, CURRENTS AND GOING DOWN Our other creature feature was the dolphins. We were actually on the way to dive Copper Cliffs, an anemone-carpeted wall of Quadra Island, and Mike had just pointed out the green streaks of copper in the towering rocks when someone yelled, Dolphins! We had all agreed earlier that if dolphins showed, we'd ditch whatever dive was planned. Mike gunned the engine so hard that we fell back into our seats, and 30 seconds later we were surrounded by dolphins. White-sided dolphins look a bit like faded, thin orcas. They have a light charcoal streak running down their sides atop a white stomach. We jumped in, and the dolphins started coming by in threes and fours. Their speed was amazing. If you blinked, you'd miss them. A pack would streak in, skim beneath us, swoop up and disappear. I was 10 feet from another diver when a single dolphin zoomed between us. He did this a couple of times, then started circling me, spiraling ever closer, sweeping by on his back while eyeing me. I could hear chirps and clicks as he fixed me with his sonar. We sank to 20 feet and the dolphins continued to dart by, over and under us. Finally, we had to leave. But the dolphins didn't. As the skiff headed back for the live-aboard, we could see at least 100 of them arcing and leaping in the twilight chop. Between dives, we'd sit in the ship's lounge and watch the scenery float by. This is the same fabled Inside Passage of Alaska cruise-ship fame, the one thousands of well-heeled tourists pay a mint to see with binoculars from the rail of a floating city. Instead, we were lazing along near shore in a yacht-size boat and we could sense the special feel of this place. We'd wander the islands, surrounded by bulbous walls of moss-covered rock with cedars, douglas firs and hemlocks so thick, it looked like fur. Tiny tugboats chugged by hauling huge loads of logs. Otters skittered down rock folds, tobogganing into the water, and seals would pop up, their shiny heads and liquid eyes reflecting off the water's surface. And for a bit of variety, one day we stopped by Robson Bight, where orcas come to rub on rocks along the beach. Fourteen whales hung in a tight pack, coming up together, breathing rhythmically for half a dozen breaths and then disappearing for three or four minutes. Mike said it looked like the pack was sleeping. One day, we got into a discussion about what makes the diving up here different from even the waters of California. The best diving in the Pacific is where you get upwellings of cold water bringing up nutrients for the invertebrates. What's different here is the upwellings in places like the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Port Hardy occur year-round, Mike said. As a result, the local sealife stuffs itself gleefully, growing to mind-boggling dimensions. Seven-foot wolf eels are common and the Northwest octopuses both here and around Seattle get downright scary. One record creature had an arm span of nearly 23 feet and weighed 150 pounds. Ten-foot critters are considered just average. It's exciting, but the diving here is also tough. Mike remembered reading a story about a dive in California. The people were very nervous and things were very quiet on the boat as they were getting ready to jump into a 1.5-knot current. We dive current-swept passes where the published current speed can be 16 to 18 knots with surges to 22. One of our places, the Nakwakto rapids, is in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest navigable waters in the world. Of course, dives are usually done on slack tide. But that in itself adds a bit of spice. You have to know the waters and understand the tide tables. In turn, that calls for discipline and competence on the part of divers, Mike added. We can't have folks dawdling. They have to be ready to go or we'll miss the dive. Then there are the downwellings. When we were playing with the dolphins, my ears popped. I glanced at my gauge and discovered I suddenly had been pulled from 15 to 30 feet. I kicked and watched, fascinated, as my gauge indicated I was still going down. I kicked harder, finally stopping my drop at about 45 feet. And then, suddenly, the thing let go and I found myself dumping air like mad to keep myself from popping up like a rocket-fueled cork. Welcome to the Northwest, one of the other divers said dryly after we were back aboard the boat.THE PRICE OF ADVENTURE These conditions breed a hardy, independent diver. I've been diving 30 years but among this bunch, I felt like a rookie. Even the novices could repair drysuits, and I got the impression they spent their evenings field stripping regulators blindfolded. I was also astonished to discover that nobody seems to dive together up here. Yes, there is the occasional buddy grouping, but by and large everyone hits the water and scatters. It was somewhat unsettling to go down with the group, turn around in pitch-black water at 100 feet and realize everybody was gone. The live-aboards up here reflect this ruggedness. In exchange for a rate that runs $130 a day, which is a third to half what tropical boats can cost, divers bring their own linens, make up their own cabins and handle their own gear without much crew help. I can just picture the Northwest crowd on a Peter Hughes live-aboard while a crew member hands out hot towels and terry robes. Mike, meanwhile, is proud of his boat's large enclosed, heated gear room. That means when it's 40 degrees and raining outside, you get to suit up in comfort. There are boats up here where all gear hangs outside. The vision of cracking ice off my drysuit and squeezing into it in beating rain or snow leaves something to be desired. But there is some truth to the concept of earned reward. The experience up here is more intense in both effort and payback. Take our dive on the Capilano. This is not an easy place to access. It's an old 120-foot coastal steamer that sank in 1911, the year before the Titanic, in the middle of the strait. Since there's no protection from nearby islands, the seas have to be virtually flat for a dive, a condition not all that common around these parts. The ship sits upright in 125 feet of water and its location has been known to divers for less than a decade. Fishermen still haven't found it so it's become an incredible aquarium. There are 15-foot quillbacks and 4-foot lingcods that may be 80 years old. We slid down the anchor chain while a single, large dogfish hung in sharky silhouette. The water went from emerald to olive to brown, then black. It was 10 a.m. and yet, at the bottom, it was dark as night. Slowly, the Capilano materialized out of the gloom. After 80-some years, the thing is ringed in plumose so what you see as you glide in is a ghost ship, outlined in puffy snow. Dozens upon dozens of China rock fish and quillback hung above the superstructure. In one hold, someone found one of those 4-foot granddaddy lingcods and the two hung face to face for nearly a minute. At the bow, the anchor davit had collapsed, leaving a half-circle of metal outlined with plumose. A single rockfish lay nestled in the middle, resting against the gnawed, weathered metal and framed in furry white. All too soon, I had to return to the anchor chain, and as I rose I glanced back to watch the entire ship shimmer and then, like some apparition in a sci-fi movie, just blank out and disappear. I was beginning to understand why locals spend so much of their lives here under water.
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