Emerald Sea Photography
That was always John DeBoeck’s answer to my daily question on which lens to use for the upcoming dives in Browning Pass. While his humorous response still makes me laugh, in truth the stunning sheer walls covered with vivid Red Soft Corals that make up Browning Wall are the perfect location for Wide Angle underwater photography.
Getting to Browning Pass often seems like you are traveling to the ends of the earth and in many ways that long journey to this very remote location is what keeps the area so pristine and puts the wild back in the wilderness. My buddy Bric left his home in Portland at 02:30 in the morning to pick me up and we arrived in Port Hardy, B.C. at about 6 PM, so plan on a very long day of driving, but it is definitely worth the effort.
The next morning, the Cape Scott Water Taxi ferried our group of eleven divers (along with our mountain of dive gear) out to Clam Cove on Negei Island to meet our host (John DeBoeck) at the Browning Pass Hideaway. The new floating accommodations are a vast improvement over the more “rustic” feel of the older cabins and the log rafts of the Hideaway are set in such a beautiful setting that you quickly feel right at home in this group of very unusual cabins. You will feel as though you are steeping back through time to an old logging or fishing camp.
The warm and hearty meals were outstanding and the crew at the Hideaway kept all the divers fat and happy, but it really is the exceptional diving that brings divers back again and again. The first time you back roll off the skiff onto one of walls in Browning Pass, I guarantee the stunning beauty and color will take your breath away. I have no idea how long I floated, motionless in the clear, cold water just drinking in the sheer splendor of the wall (and forgetting to breath) on my first dive here. I eventually remembered that I needed to breath, kick, control buoyancy, etc. To say that I was absolutely and utterly stunned would be an understatement. The dives here will blow you away!
Our group typically made about three dives per day with the times and sites depending on the currents. We were blessed with (good planning by John Rawlings) very small exchanges and at least one dive per day was another visit to the world famous Browning Wall. The good-natured groans on the dive skiff about, “Oh no, another dive on Browning Wall”, were a cover for the absolute glee and big smiles every time we hit this amazing dive site. The sheer vertical wall rises above the dive boat and drops below the surface to depths beyond 200’. Swimming with the current from one end of the wall to the other takes at least an hour and every square inch of the wall is covered with red soft corals, sponges, anemones and a vivid display of the most magnificent invertebrate life that I have ever seen.
Other stunning sites that we visited included the wreck of the steamship Themis (which sank in 1906), Eagle Rock, Rock of Life, Hussar Point and Seven Tree Island. However, it seems as though John may have been saving the best for last. The winter-like October weather had prevented us from crossing the Queen Charlotte Straits for days and was predicted to be blowing again on our last full day, but the wind held off long enough for the skiff to dash across the exposed waters to Slignsby Channel and the world famous Nakwakto Rapids at Turret Rock.
Nakwakto Rapids long held the Guinness book of world records as the fastest recorded tidal currents in the world, with maximum ebb of 16 knots that was reported to actually cause Turret Rock to tremble and shake. Recreational boaters rightfully fear these rapids, that they will be smashed on the rocks by the huge standing waves and boiling cauldrons of water, so we elected to go for a dive.
John’s short, but to the point dive briefing had us all a little worried, but we rolled into the water at 15 minutes before predicted slack and pushed our way into the diminishing currents. The walls and bottom were covered with a unique red-colored species of goose neck barnacle known as the Nakwakto Gooseneck barnacle. They are lovely and look like flowers growing on every hard surface. Kelp Greenlings fluttered about, sailing through goosenecks and sponges that painted the rocks along the bottom.
The channel is only about 60’ deep and we started our dive on the North side of Turret Rock, just at the end of the flood tide. As predicted, at about 15 minutes into the dive, the current reversed and began to ebb, fast. We swung around to the South side of the rock, where there is a large shelf of rock that is covered with tube worms and urchins along with a few hardy kelp stalks. At thirty minutes, we surfaced to find the waters around Turret Rock to already be seething and boiling, but we waited safely in the back-eddy for John to zip in and pick us up.
Diving Nakwakto Rapids is a rush of color and the only place in the world to find the Nakwakto Gooseneck Barnacles, which thrive in the high-oxygen currents of this very extreme environment. The barnacles have lost much of their sun-protective pigment so are a vivid bright red rather than the dark-purple of the more common intertidal gooseneck barnacle. They are definitely worth the price of admissions.
On the way back to the Hideaway, we stopped to watch a pair of Humpback whales breaching and cavorting in the emerald waters. One of the whales is known locally as “wheezy” for the wheezing sound he makes as he exhales through his blowhole. We also stopped at a very large (and very stinky) colony of Stellar Sea Lions who were entertaining. And moments after we arrived in Clam Cove, we headed back out to interact with a pod of Orcas that included at least two large males, several females and a calf that was delightful to watch as it splashed, flipped and tail-slapped around the skiff.
During the drive home the following day, I reflected on the stories that I had heard decades ago about the incredible diving to be found up in the Port Hardy area. I’d always considered it just too darn far to drive in the past so had never made the trip. Now that I’ve been there, I will be back. The trip is easy to do, just a long day of travel (but aren’t all travel days long). The diving in Browning Pass is truly the most spectacular diving I have ever witnessed and can be compared to such world-class diving as Darwin’s Arch in the Galapagos and the Blue Corner in Palau. I’m not the only diver to think the same, Bob Bailey describes the place as the “Holy Grail of cold water diving” and John Rawlings as “the best cold-water diving in the known universe.” You should put diving Browning Pass on your bucket list and dive it soon!
More photos can be found in our Browning Pass Photo