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Underwater Vancouver Island is considered by many to offer the best cold-water diving in the world. Without a doubt, there are only a handful of sites that come anywhere close to matching the sheer density of life that is found here.
Giant Pacific Octopus
Enteroctopus dofleini

Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island's North Coast, in particular, is truly a place unlike many others. (For an excellent article that really captures some of the magic of Port Hardy, check out Jett Britnell's article in Diver Magazine. The trip he describes is one we were on together in August, 1996.)

It's not that you tend to see a lot of aquatic life that can't be found in other locations throughout the region, it's simply that if a creature exists somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, chances are you'll encounter it on a regular basis in Port Hardy. I can't honestly think of a single creature that I've encountered anywhere in the Pacific Northwest that I haven't come into contact with here with the exception of Sixgill Sharks (Hexanchus griseus).

Anarrhichthys ocellatus

Not only can everything be found here, aquatic life in Port Hardy tends to be more -- more friendly as with the many Wolf-Eels (Anarrhichthys ocellatus) that reside at Hunt Rock, more profuse as with the density of life on a dive like Browning Wall, where the brilliant greens, reds, and oranges rival anything found in the tropics, or more magical, as with diving with the Pacific White-Sided Dolphins (Lagenorhychus obliquidens), one of the few species of wild dolphin that will play with scuba divers for extended periods of time.

The best time of the year to dive Port Hardy is from early-April to mid-May and again from mid-August to mid-October when visibility is generally 50+ feet and the topside weather is usually quite nice. Water temperature never gets above the mid to upper 40s, so a drysuit is a must. In addition to cold water, very strong currents are a staple of the area. Indeed, Nakwakto Rapids has the strongest currents in the world, measured at up to 21 knots! The primary dive site there, Turret Island, has been nicknamed "Tremble Rock" because it actually vibrates when currents are at their peak.

Candy Stripe Shrimp
Lebbeus grandimanus

The underwater rewards, however, certainly justify the cost of admission! In addition to the wolf-eels and dolphins, frequently encountered inhabitants of the area include the largest species of octopus in the world -- the Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), Puget Sound King Crabs (Lopholithodes mandtii), Decorated Warbonnets (Chirolophis decoratus), Grunt Sculpin (Rhamphocottus richardsoni), and transparent Candy Stripe Shrimp (Lebbeus grandimanus).

In place of the schooling reef fish that can be found in the tropics, Vancouver Island is known for having very large bottom dwellers such as the Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus), who has been known to surpass 5 ft. and the
Gooseneck Barnacles
Pollicipes polymerus
Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus) who often reaches 4 ft. Also found are masters of camouflage such as the Red Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus) and the C-O Sole (Pleuronichthys coenosus).

The variety and sheer number of anemones that can be found here is simply amazing. There are numerous sites that resemble giant snowballs because of the literally hundreds of thousands of White-Plumed Anenomes (Metridium giganteum) that cover virtually every square inch. On just about every wall dive, at least a half-dozen different species of anemones can be found within almost any given square yard. These include Crimson Anenomes (Cribrinopsis fernaldi), Sand-Rose Anenomes (Urticina columbiana), and Giant Green Anenomes (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), to name but a few.

Three Colored Polycera
Polycera tricolor

Although rarely encountered underwater, topside encounters with pods of Orca Whales (Orcinus orca) are probably what Vancouver Island is best known for. Cruising along with these graceful animals truly makes you appreciate just how amazing nature can be. They alone make a visit here worthwhile. While visiting Vancouver Island, I have also occasionally seen Grey Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and Humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) inclduing a very memorable encounter with a mother and her calf.

I often joke that if (excuse me, when) I win the lottery, I will shed my drysuit, 25 lb. weight belt, and 5mm gloves to spend the remainder of my days diving only tropical locations with 80+ degree water. That is, with the noted exception of a regular pilgramage to the Mecca of cold-water diving -- Port Hardy!