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By Norm Wagenaar

You could spend a lifetime exploring the mid-island’s mountains, forests, meadows and beaches, and still miss some of its best scenery and most interesting plants and animals.

That’s because a lot of the good stuff is underwater. And it’s not just us saying so; famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau proclaimed the island’s coastal areas as some of the best for diving in the world.

Get below the surface of the Strait of Georgia—particularly in winter which is considered the best season for diving—and you’ll find clear water and a myriad of plant and animal species. Some are exotic, some are rare, and some are downright friendly. Humans have added to the attraction by strategically sinking warships and even a passenger aircraft to create artificial reefs and give divers more to explore.

The trick is getting there. Until about 50 years ago the three quarters of the planet beneath the oceans’ surface were off limits to any creature unable to metabolize oxygen from water or hold its breath for a very long time.

Jacques Cousteau, of course, changed all that. He and Emile Gagnan, a Frenchman who moved to Montreal to work with Canadian Liquid Air, are credited with developing the ‘Aqua-Lung’ – the forerunner of modern self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA).

Recreational scuba diving took off in the 1950s and now scuba is in the purview of everyman, a modestly-priced hobby accessible to anyone in good health and possessed of a sense of adventure. Your first stop should be a local dive store to learn about the equipment and, most importantly, the training you’ll need to safely enter the world of scuba.

At Nanaimo’s Sink or Swim Scuba, for instance, a one week course to get basic scuba certification for open water diving will set you back just $400. This includes equipment rental, instruction in and out of the water, and final ocean dives. If you’re unsure about whether diving is your sport or not, you can do as I did and opt for a $30 one evening ‘discover scuba’ session in which you’ll be fully fitted with gear and introduced to the life aquatic beneath the placid surface of the Beban Pool.

"The important thing is to breathe," says dive master Maisa Ferrero. That’s good advice for many of life’s situations, but rarely more so than when you’re underwater with a tank of compressed air on your back and a regulator mouthpiece between your teeth.

The good news is that the equipment is so well-designed that breathing underwater fairly quickly feels like a nearly normal thing to do. Even a brief introduction like a discover scuba session is enough to get past the initial oddness of the experience and be introduced to some of the basics, such as clearing water from your mask, taking out and reinserting your mouthpiece underwater, and achieving the ‘neutral buoyancy’ necessary to keep you from sinking to the bottom or bobbing to the surface.

"It’s fun to see the people, how they confront their fears," comments Maisa Ferrero.

By its very nature diving is a low-profile activity. It requires no expensive facilities, and literally takes place out of sight of everyone except for fellow divers. But there’s no doubting its popularity. Last year, for instance, Sink or Swim issued 100 certifications to Nanaimo and area divers.

If you decide that you want to join the list, a whole world awaits you in the Strait of Georgia.

Shelagh Richer, who co-owns Sink or Swim Scuba with her husband Ray, lists the factors that make our waters among the best in the world for diving. These include the health of local reefs, the quality of the water, and the abundance of marine life. A dive beneath the surface our local waters provides a chance to view soft corals, colourful anemones, and many varieties of fish including rockfish and lingcod. You could see an octopus, meet a wolf-eel, and come mask to face with an inquisitive seal.

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Good locations are just minutes away, as close as Neck Point Park where divers can pull into the parking lot, put on their gear, and start exploring right from shore. Other good locations are not much further. "We drive up to Nanoose and ten minutes later, you’re in the water," says Shelagh Richer. "People don’t expect that."

More adventure awaits those willing to charter a boat and go further afield. Just a few minutes outside of Departure Bay, off the point of Gabriola Island, is the uninhabited Snake Island, where divers with the right training can explore the hulls of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Saskatchewan and Cape Breton.

Both ships were put to the bottom by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, a non-profit organization organized to benefit marine habitat and promote diving by creating artificial reefs at home and around the world.

The HMCS Saskatchewan is a 366-foot destroyer escort sunk in 1997 by the winner of an international ‘push the button’ contest organized to raise funds to replace Cousteau’s famed Calypso which sank unexpectedly in Singapore two years earlier.

The World War II ‘Victory Ship’ Cape Breton is an even bigger vessel; at 440 feet long she’s the largest intentionally sunk artificial reef in the world. She was sent to the bottom in 2001. Divers who venture out for the two wrecks will also find opportunity to swim with Snake Island’s harbour seals, which have a reputation for friendliness.

Nanaimo’s third artificial reef is the RivTow Lion, a tug sunk in Departure Bay off Newcastle Island in 2005 by the Nanaimo Dive Association. Divers looking for a change of pace from Nanaimo and sunken ships can make a short journey to Chemainus, where there’s a Boeing 737 sent to the bottom by the Artificial Reef Society just four years ago.

Such sunken vessels of the sea and air provide recreational divers a chance to enjoy the experience of ‘wreck’ diving in relatively safe and controlled conditions. Over time, the hulls—carefully stripped of any environmental hazards before sinking—are colonized by marine life, adding to the already rich biodiversity of our waters.

New divers looking to explore the HMCS Saskatchewan or the Cape Breton should be aware that the two ships are deep, with much of their hull and deck area at 90 feet or more below the surface. This type of diving requires specialized training beyond a one week open water course. However, the RivTow Lion can be explored in only 50 feet of water and is suitable for a diver who has taken just the basic course.

Wherever you decide you might dive – whether it’s one of the big wrecks or from shore – it’s always a good idea to contact your local dive shop to learn about safety considerations, additional qualifications you might need, and opportunities to charter vessels. Dive shops are also good places to swap stories and connect with other divers to go safely exploring our local waters with. Then you too can enjoy the same undersea world that Jacques Cousteau helped discover.