Walls, Wrecks & Wonderful Women – PADI Women’s Dive Day 2017

By Katie Gerstle |

Long, sunny day days spent on and under the water are exceptional, especially when surrounded by a bunch of bad-ass women who will gladly dive the cold waters of the BC coast (some of whom were even in wetsuits!!).

The eight of us ladies, plus the lovely Captain Mark, spent the majority of a sunny Saturday in, on, and beneath the waters of Howe Sound, the southernmost fjord in Canada. We set out from Horseshoe Bay with New World Dive charters bright and early. We met up with Mark on the docks, loaded up the boat, and were on the water by 9am. Was it early? Yes. Did I have coffee? No. This is usually a bad sign for me, but our boat only had a small marine head, and I have a notoriously small bladder. Plus, coldwater diving has a way of waking you up like nothing else.

Our first stop was the east wall of Boyer Island. After we got ourselves suited up and properly sweating, we were more than happy to drop down into the aqua-green water. The top layer was murky, as to be expected, but the visibility opened right up at 40ft. A chilly shift after the thermocline brought dark, but clear waters, and a beautiful wall dive adorned with critters. Lingcod, rockfish, nudibranchs, anemones, tube worms, decorator crabs, and sea stars greeted us as we swam by.

Jade, one of my dive buddies, pointed into the darkness away from the wall and placed her hand on top of her head, and then waved her hands back and forth in front of her. I had no idea what that second sign was, but as far as most divers know, a flat hand pointed upright on the head means “shark”. So, naturally, I looked as hard as I could into the inky abyss with no luck. She shrugged, and we continued on, but I kept a wary eye on the darkness to my left. When we surfaced, I asked her what was up with the funky shark-esque hand signals. Turns out she was trying to explain that she thought a seal had buzzed by us. Not quite a shark, but A for effort, kiddo (in her defence, a seal did pop its head out of the water a short ways off from us).

On the way to dive site number two, Mark handed around steaming cups of his wife’s homemade lentil soup. To say it was both delicious and soul-warming would be an understatement. With a boat full of happy campers, we took off towards Gambier Island, intending to dive the Halkett Bay wall, but we decided to step up our game and dive the HMCS Annapolis. Only our Divemaster Karen had explored the artificial reef before, so we were pretty excited.

When we jumped in at the marker buoy and descended down the line, I braced myself for the sight of a ghost ship. Slowly but surely, the top deck of the Annapolis came into view. She was beautiful; a massive, 366-foot destroyer that was laid to rest with impeccable precision on the floor of the bay. We had descended onto the roof of the hanger, and as I turned around, I saw Karen’s trail of bubbles lazily drifting over the edge of the roof. We followed her down, and into the cavern-like opening of the hanger. On the surface, we had decided not to penetrate the wreck, since not everyone had their wreck certification. However, that didn’t mean that we couldn’t explore a few cool overhanging spaces. Though worn, the insignia on the wall read “Welcome to Naval Air Station Annapolis”, emblazoned beneath a signature Canadian maple leaf. For the next forty minutes, we explored as much of the wreck as we could, dodging fried egg jellyfish (Phacellophora camtschatica) here and there, before our NDLs said it was time to go. It’s definitely safe to say that I got bitten by the wreck bug.

We headed back to the docks for lunch and a tank swap. A few ladies had to head out, but five of us stuck around for the third dive. Captain Mark gave us as much time as we wanted to relax, but we were eager to get back on the water. Our final stop was Ansell Point, a lovely dive site that is accessible from the mainland, but it comes at a high cost for your leg muscles. Several flights of stairs, a rough trail, and a rope swing of sorts await any daring diver who wants to get to the water’s edge. That is, unless you have a boat.

We descended along the wall. Sections of Ansell have a gentle slope, often dotted with small cloud sponges. Karen motioned frantically towards me, pointing at one such sponge. Tucked away safely inside was a small fish, the ever endearing grunt sculpin (Rhamphocottus richardsonii). As we made our way along the site, I saw another form resting on the ledge before me. From a distance, it looked like a large lingcod, but as I got closer, my air consumption instantly got worse because I realized what I was seeing – a wolf eel (Anarrhichthys ocellatus)! A big, gray, spot-covered, out-in-the-open wolf eel. I actually heard karen squeal underwater in excitement. I had never seen one on a dive before. It was very calm, resting on its ledge, and here I was, sucking through my air in excitement. Karen and I took turns with my GoPro to make sure we each got a picture with it. Karen had the camera facing herself when she took mine, so I motioned to turn the darn thing around as frantically as I could without disturbing the wolf eel. She figured it out, and I got a Karen selfie to go with my prized wolf eel photo.

We eventually ascended and Mark picked us up. Neither of us could get over how cool it was to see that wolf eel! Our return trip to Horseshoe Bay was brief, but I took advantage of the moment to stick my head out the side of the boat and breathe in all of the fresh sea-breeze air that I could. As we unloaded our gear at the docks, we gathered the attention of a few passers-by. As someone who has only dove in cold-water, I’ve noticed how often people look at us oddly-shaped Darth Vader breathers like we’re, well, something out of Star Wars, emerging from the ocean like Creatures from the Black Lagoon. Nonetheless, we flaunted it as best as we could – whatever “it” is.

We thanked Mark profusely for our day of adventuring, and promised to be back soon, on the condition that his wife would make us some more soup! He laughed and said that he would make sure of it. With our gear packed up, we headed back to the shop to unload and immediately made a beeline for the Cactus Club down the street. Beers, burgers, and about five glasses of water per person were in high order. It was a long day, but I think that all of us would do it all over again in a heartbeat. The only thing I would do differently would be to have more ladies join us, and we would all go away to an island for the new and improved annual event: PADI Women’s Dive Week.