Sunday, October 19, 2014

2,000 Light Years From Home or 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

With approximately 1/2 of the world's population living near the ocean coastline (defined as being within 60 miles/100 kilometres of the shore) you would think we would be much more actively involved and interested in what goes on under water.  But we don't seem all that concerned and, in fact, we spend about 10 times as much doing research work in outer space as we do in trying to understand our planet's oceans. For some strange reason the stars and heavens seem more alluring and accessible to us than the seven seas.

Astronaut in full gear
Part of the problem of course is that it's easier to look up and see the stars than it is to look down into the ocean. But while the average person is never going to be an astronaut or even an aeroplane pilot the average person can certainly be a scuba diver, and that's all it takes to get a taste for what's under water and how equally exciting and challenging this parallel universe can be. Interestingly, scuba diving is also part of the training required for being able to function in outer space where dealing with weightlessness, cold, and a mechanical breathing system are all part of the deal.

Nelson in full scuba diving gear - photo by Junie Quiroga
The nearest space object to Earth is the Moon and that's 384,000 kilometres away whereas the deepest point in our ocean is less than 11 kilometres, but the design challenges for getting to either location are equally extreme and produce equally strange looking vehicles. James Cameron (of Titanic and Avatar fame) built his own research submersible that recently took him to a solo record breaking depth of 35,787 feet to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point on earth. This is equal to the average height a commercial aircraft flies, but with the complete opposite problem in terms of pressure. At 35,000 feet under water the pressure is 16,500 (psi) pounds per square inch.

Eagle lunar landing module

Deepsea Challenger submarine
Ever since Titanic James Cameron has been exploring the ocean for his films and documentaries and the next Avatar movie is rumoured to be set on a watery planet.  But he isn't the only one interested in deep sea adventures with Richard Branson also financing a submarine capable of matching the exploits of the Deepsea Challenger with his Virgin Oceanic Deepflight Challenger.  While it may appear the ocean depths are only for the super rich in their Jules Verne machines nothing could be further from the truth and, in fact, the best part of the ocean for exploring is no deeper than 100 feet, well within the range of recreational scuba diving.

Virgin Oceanic Deepflight Challenger
In order to start exploring the ocean the first step for anyone is to get their scuba diving certification with a local dive shop offering courses through PADI or a similarly recognized agency. In the Vancouver area there are quite a few established shops to choose from and they all use the local shore dive sites at Whytecliff Park or Porteau Cove to get you familiar with your gear and water conditions as well as give you a taste of the life you can expect to encounter in the "Emerald Sea" as this area is known.  But to really appreciate what the Northwest coast has to offer you have to get out on a boat charter with experienced guides who can show you the sites that are truly exceptional.

Sea Dragon hosts Kevin & Jan Breckman
For Howe Sound nothing beats the Sea Dragon folks who have been running charters in these waters for years. Conveniently based out of Horseshoe Bay they can take you to an astonishing variety of colourful dive sites featuring underwater pinnacles, walls, and reefs for your two dives and still have you back at the dock in time to have a nice lunch and share stories with other divers over a pint or two.  They also have a boat based out of Nanaimo that can take you to the key dive sites in that area with shipwrecks of course being the primary attraction.

Nelson and a wall of white plumose - photo by Michael Mehta
Hornby Island Diving hosts Amanda & Rob Zielinski
For a different experience, only a short drive up from Nanaimo, you can check into the lodge at Hornby Island for a weekend of diving.  Here the fabulous diving is only rivalled by the great food and cozy accommodations that are provided. One of the original research stations for the elusive 6 gill sharks that started to appear there regularly each summer, they are perhaps even more famous now for their annual sea lion dives in winter.

Nelson & sea lions off Hornby Island
But if you really want to take a walk on the wild side then you have to go over to the west coast of Vancouver Island where the folks from Rendezvous will meet you at the dock at Port Alberni and whisk you away to their secret hideaway in Barkley Sound. In addition to fantastic food and accomodations with a stunning view you will experience a weekend of exceptional diving where everything is super sized, super colourful, and super natural. It's also the go to place in summer for 6 gill shark encounters, the holy grail of Pacific NorthWest divers.

Rendezvous Dive Lodge - photo by Junie Quiroga

Rendezvous hosts Peter & Kathy Mieras

Nelson & 6 gill shark in Barkley Sound - photo by Peter Mieras
So much to see and experience, and so many great dive sites here in B.C. and around the world, and it's all so accessible and within a normal person's budget. How can anyone ever get tired of pretty fish, colourful invertebrates, and playful marine mammals? As fun as it is to look up at the stars and speculate how we might someday be living 2,000 light years away, for now I'm happy to go out in my little dinghy wherever I happen to be boating and explore the 20,000 leagues under the sea outside my own back door.

Nelson going dinghy diving - photo by Junie Quiroga