I’ve slept through a lot of things before. Freezing cold, gale force winds on a tent, the sounds of a septic truck pumping an outhouse just a few meters away from my sleeping pad. Slept through those like I was a trained professional. So when Friday morning came on the MV Mamro and people started awaking at the unholy hour of 5 am, I slept. When the generator was fired up around 6 am and gave a throaty rumble through the hull of the entire ship, I slept. When hatches were being opened and shut, the head was being used, the water pump kicked in, and booted feet were wandering around on the deck above me, I slept like I’d been tranquilized. But when Captain Dan Ferris started cooking bacon and sausage for breakfast, well that’s where I have to draw the line. I’m only human after all.
Refresh yourself; read Part 1 of the Adventure
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So that’s how my first morning on the Mamro began; to the olfactory symphony of sausage, bacon, and French toast. I was promised that I would put on weight on this dive trip, and things were certainly shaping up that way so far. Once the dive team had scarfed down a monster breakfast, everyone lent a hand to scrub the dishes. Because there’s nothing that promotes teamwork and icebreaking like hand washing and drying 6 men’s worth of dishes.
The skiff was scheduled to leave at 9:30 to catch the first slack of the morning. The first hours of daylight were a blur of gear assemblage, camera testing, underwater light charging, and hunting down missing wool socks. I jumped into my undergarments, pulled them snug in all the right places, and stepped out onto the back deck.
It was clear that the north island wasn’t going to give us a blue sky morning. Vast open skies had been replaced by clouds that hung low and pregnant with rain. The water was painted with a tight ripple from the morning’s breeze. The sounds of pounding surf carried from the mouth of the cove and washed over the silent Mamro. I climbed the ladder to the top deck and hoisted my drysuit off the rack. A few minutes later, when all divers had finished their costume change, we jumped aboard the skiff, which was rafted alongside the Mamro. Engines were fired up, and we were off.
The skiff is a study in practical function for a dive boat. Flat aluminum hulled, plank wood deck, tarp pulled tight overhead for cover, inboard engine with a cruising speed of a handful of knots. The skiff was wide and spacious by cold water diving standards. And with Captain Dan at the helm we motored out of Clam Cove and plunged into Browning Passage.
Our first dive of the day was 7 Tree Island, a rocky promontory jutting a few meters above sea level. From the surface it looked like a minor navigation hazard, but it held secrets you just can’t see without a face mask. Everyone shouldered their dive tanks, stepped into fins, and made final checks on their cameras. Dan pulled the skiff within spitting distance of 7 Tree, and we began tumbling over the sides into the crystalline waters.
The tidal current was in its last throes before slack tide, and we were gently tugged south along the curvature of the island. I exhausted air from my wing and flattened out like a skydiver. Scott was below me by 20 feet, tugging the strobes of his camera into firing position. I finned down to join him. Visibility was astounding, no less than 80 feet in all directions. Coming from diving in Victoria, where a great day of visibility is often less than half that, this was thrilling.
We plunged downwards along a dominating wall covered in snowy white anemones. We levelled off and drifted comfortably around 70 feet, the bottom of the arrow-straight wall completely out of sight beneath us. I flicked on my dive light and illuminated the invertebrate life covering every inch of rock. The wall was a psychedelic display of red soft corals, bone-white basket stars, and deep purple feather dusters. And it was alive, every plant in motion as they shuddered in the current or sent forth feeders to grab plankton. With the flat-white flash of Scott’s strobe illuminating my periphery, I was captivated by the immense eco-system we’d swum upon.
As we wrapped around the corner, the current finally emptied into slack tide, and we rounded the southern tip of 7 Tree Island. We ascended gently to 40 feet, and as we began to swim in and around the flawless rows of sea pens, we were pounced upon by sea lions. Arriving without warning or fear, the sea lions dove and whisked in between Scott and I, stopping just out of reach and staring at us through the curious eyes of a puppy. 2 brave ones began taking runs at Scott’s massive dome port on his camera, fascinated by their own reflection. One of them even decided to take a bite on it before swimming away with the speed of a torpedo.
We finished the dive in a mob of sea lion attention. Swimming with them feels like entering a dogfight in a soapbox with wings. As calm, cool, and collected as I can get underwater, a playful sea lion will put me to shame every time. Swimming around you in tight circles, bumping up against you when your head is turned, or just hovering in front of you doing slow-motion backflips in the liquid void. They’re like a cross between a torpedo, a puppy, and a 6 year old after eating a handful of pixie sticks.
We popped up into daylight and clambered back into the boat. In no time we’d assembled all the divers and were motoring under slate-grey skies back towards Clam Cove. Dan concocted a lunch of thick deli-style sandwiches and hearty mushroom soup, and in the time it took for us to eat everything in sight, and get our tanks topped up, we were back on the water.
Our second dive was at the world renowned Browning Wall. If you ever pick up a dive magazine that features an article about cold water diving in British Columbia, I’d bet you whatever’s in my wallet (usually about 5 bucks and 6 different coffee cards) that it will talk about Browning Wall. Essentially the crown jewel of Browning Passage, Browning Wall is a vertical collage of undersea life without limits. As Dan brought the skiff close to the tree-engulfed rock wall jutting out of the waves, the depth sounder indicated 300 or more feet beneath the keel. And there’s no exaggeration when I say I could have reached off the skiff and touched the island.
So with these figures in mind we plunged back into the ocean and sank towards the inviting depths beneath. As we levelled off around 90 feet I stopped to reflect upon the towering façade in front of me. From my perspective, a 6’3” human being, suspended in the crystalline void, staring up at the legendary Browning Wall, which disappeared in all directions, as brightly coloured as a Times Square marquee, I felt tiny. It’s easy to feel equal to the sea when you’re exploring small rock reefs, or chasing individual fish. But when you’re set next to a feature that dwarfs you in every way, feeling the firm tug and pull of the entire Pacific Ocean, knowing that you are just a guest in the underwater kingdom, it’s incredibly humbling.
The currents, despite being close to slack tide, moved with titanic strength. Like all things on the north coast, they were unpredictable and too immense to resist. In the space of a single breath we were pushed backwards, forwards, and tugged downwards. Doing my best to remain level and controlled, I scrambled to angle my body up and down to create lift from the rushing sea, while at the same time hurriedly dumping air from my wing, then filling it just as quickly when the tempestuous tides shifted their aim.
We were pulled with incessant urgency along the width of Browning Wall. We gradually drifted upwards as our no decompression limits approached their breaking point. Above, below, in front and behind us vast armies of invertebrate life covered their kingdom. Not a peek of rock protruded from behind the living billboard of Browning Wall. Basket stars, so rare in the south island, grew in ranks along the roughshod rocks. Hydroids of rainbow hues waved at our passing. Giant acorn barnacles pawed at the water column, snagging floating nutrients as they passed. Again we were assailed without warning by 2 playful sea lions, who gave us a quick Top Gun flyby and disappeared into the blue brine.
As we neared an hour underwater, Scott and I drifted into the top 10 feet of the sea. Here we floated swiftly past colonies of the emerald-coloured surf anemones. Legions of jellies bounced off us while we sailed by in the watery breeze, and finally we broke the surface. Dan picked us up promptly, and once again we motored back to our shelter in Clam Cove.
That night, after a belt-loosening dinner of chicken breasts, rice, and steamed veggies, I stood out on the back deck overlooking a pitch-dark Clam Cove. How adventurous it was, living aboard a 52 foot ship, anchored serenely in mirror-calm water, while not even a kilometer away, the treacherous Pacific Ocean played out its nightly lullaby of smashing waves and driving winds. That night as I lay curled up in my bunk, with my drysuit undergarments drying on the coat hook next to me, and a condensation wracked brass porthole my view to the outside world, I began to wonder if 4 days of diving would be enough.
Refresh yourself; read Part 1 of the Adventure
Skip ahead and read Part 3 of the Adventure