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Escaping winter ... underwater

A stiff winter wind is blowing at the Ogden Point Breakwater.

A stiff winter wind is blowing at the Ogden Point Breakwater.

A churning, grey, moody-looking ocean is lapping up against huge stacked granite and concrete blocks that anchor the 800-metre breakwater marking the entrance to Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

These are perfect conditions for a winter dive, an activity that seems to defy common sense but draws tourists to explore the rich undersea world on Canada’s West Coast.

Topside — the word divers use to describe everything above water — it may be rough and stormy, but down below it’s all splendour, light and full of life.

The clouds of plankton and algae that float through the water at other times of the year disappear as the water cools down slightly in winter, leaving divers with a better view of the undersea topography and wildlife, says Victoria dive shop manager Erin Bradley.

“The winter and summer water temperatures only vary about two to four degrees,” he said. “It might be snowing or raining or blowing, but underwater we’re still comfortable.”

Dry suits worn underneath the traditional diving wet suits keep out the cold, Bradley said.

Vancouver Island is recognized as one of the world’s top dive locations, said Bradley.

The Jacques Cousteau Society, named after the internationally recognized ocean explorer and environmentalist, ranked Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands as second only to the Red Sea for its clarity and diversity of marine life, he said.

Some of the West Coast’s most stunning undersea sights are located near the breakwater, which contributes to the area’s diving popularity, Bradley said. The breakwater, like many of Victoria’s dive sites, is easily accessible by vehicle and the dive site is mere metres away.

“There’s an amazing array of invertebrate life,” Bradley said. “One of the biggest attractions is the giant Pacific octopus. We’ve got 10 or 15 here on the wall at any given time.”

The octopuses can weigh up to 25 kilograms and their arms can be more than 10 metres long, said Bradley.

Another breakwater resident is the wolf eel, a huge creature he describes as sinister looking but a puppy dog at heart.

‘“We’ve got 13 resident wolf eels, which are very popular,’” said Bradley. ‘“The wolf eels look like a sort of evil animal, which means they really look intimidating and mean, when really they are probably one of the most trainable fish in the ocean.’”

‘“We go down and they actually come up and visit us and cuddle us and swim through our arms and legs, and are very social,’” he said. ‘“People visit the evil-looking, kind creature on the breakwater on a daily basis.’”

Topside adventures also draw divers to the Victoria area in the winter, said Dave Healy, who owns a dive shop in the city. Many travellers are intrigued by the opportunity to snowboard down a mountain one day and dive deep into the ocean the next, he said.

Historical
• Shipwrecks up to 85 years old can be found in Vancouver Island waters and there are at least five artificial reefs, most created by the sinking of old military and commercial vessels.

 
 
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