When it comes to choosing a shoreline that is iconic to Eastern Canada, it’s hard to top Peggy’s Cove in the province of Nova Scotia. Situated on a rock-covered point of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean about 30 miles southwest of the city of Halifax, this beautiful quaint fishing village is a living post card. From the fishermen’s homes to the lobster boats and the old red-and-white lighthouse that is still in operation, Peggy’s Cove is a major tourist attraction. It is also a place to remember the 229 passengers and crew on Swissair Flight 111, who perished when their aircraft crashed into nearby St. Margaret’s Bay on September 2, 1998. Two memorials there pay tribute to their lives.
On a happier note, the shoreline in the vicinity of Peggy’s Cove is also one of dive instructor Andrea Skinner’s favorite places to dive. Andrea is a Lady Diver who runs a website devoted to Canadian women divers. Andrea along with her friend and fellow female instructor Shannon Gough, leads groups of predominantly women (but not exclusively) on diving excursions in the area. For the novice diver, Andrea likes a spot called Paddy’s Head, which is about a five- to ten minute drive west from Peggy’s Cove. “You can pull your car up to the site, get your gear on and walk right in. It’s an easy entry. There are no rough rocks, it’s nice and shallow and there is a lot to see.” There are lobsters, small rays, pollock and sea ravens, a red-colored fish that looks prehistoric.
Cranberry Cove, within sight of Peggy’s Cove, has lots of lobsters, and is Andrea’s favorite night dive spot. She says the sea life is more likely to come out at night and you will see many more lobsters than in daytime. Among the underwater sights at night are “gooseberries,” which are not a plant but a primitive animal, something like a jellyfish. When a diver shines their light on them they sparkle.
For intermediate or advanced divers, Andrea’s favorite daytime shore dive is at Birchy’s Head, which is farther west of Peggy’s Cove. “It’s a bit of a climb to get down from the highway and there’s a very rocky entry. It is unsteady footing at the best of times.” The reef goes down 40 to 60 feet and there are different types of fish to see. There’s a rip current at Birchy’s Head that goes out on one side of the cove and in on the other, giving the diver a free ride out to the deeper water and back in again when the dive is over.
For divers who enjoy exploring ship wrecks, Nova Scotia has the most wrecks per mile of coastline of any place in the world. Taking a boat west from Halifax harbor, some of them can be found out by Sambro Island. One of them is the steamer Daniel Steinman, which was wrecked there in fog on the night of April 3, 1884. Reports conflict on the death toll, ranging from 70 to more than 100.
Andrea’s first wreck dive was the Letitia, a First World War hospital ship that ran aground in heavy fog on rocky ledges on August 1, 1917. Thanks to prompt response from naval ships there was only one fatality, a crew member who was missed by rescuers and drowned trying to swim to shore. She says while you want to feel the history, when deaths are involved “there’s a sense of reverence and you want to be mindful of that. It’s important to me.”
To Andrea, the ease in access to good shore diving locations is a major asset for Halifax divers. “One summer I logged 50 dives. It’s so easy when you live here. You load up the car and you’re on the beach in 30 minutes.”
In the Canadian province of Ontario, much of the diving is concentrated in the Great Lakes, which include lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior and comprise 20 per cent of the world’s total fresh water. In Ontario, a popular diving spot is the small town of Tobermory, which is located on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, straddling Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. Tobermory’s attraction is the clarity of its water and the fact that its shipwrecks are generally well preserved because the cold water temperatures. At Tobermory Fathom Five National Marine Park there is diving to more than 20 shipwrecks and submerged geological formations such as cliffs, caves and overhangs.
Elsewhere in Ontario in the waters off Long Point there is a 25-mile-long sand spit on the north shore of Lake Erie which has at least 200 shipwrecks. This is explained by the fact that getting around the spit in a storm and into the protected waters of Long Point Bay provided refuge for ships. But often the ships, pushed by the high seas, ran aground on the spit. In the mid-1800’s a storm had opened a “cut” (since closed) in the sand spit through which ships could gain access to the safety of the bay without going around the point. To help them find the cut, a lighthouse was erected. However, legend has it some people resorted to “blackbirding,” which involved setting up fake lighthouses when the visibility was poor, causing ships to run aground. The ships were looted when the crew abandoned them.
British Columbia, on the Pacific coast and Canada’s most westerly province, is famous for its dive sites. In fact, Tourism B.C. notes on its website that Scuba Diving magazine ranks B.C. as having the best diving in North America. From walls to reefs, shipwrecks and ocean creatures, the province has it all.
One of the many popular dives in B.C. waters is at Race Rocks, southwest of Victoria (the provincial capital located on Vancouver Island) at the convergence of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. Investing in an organized dive with a local dive charter company is recommended here because of the tides and currents. Seals and sea lions are the stars of the show in these waters, but there are lots of fish species such as king crabs and even soft corals. Off Vancouver Island, Browning Pass is popular for its spectacular underwater scenery.
Among the wrecks to explore, is the GB Church, which first saw service as a Second World War supply ship. The ship was stripped and sunk in 1991 in the Princess Margaret Marine Park near Sydney, on Vancouver Island. Thus forming an artificial reef to attract divers.
No matter where you dive, for Andrea Skinner the sport is about more than just the dive itself. It’s also about bonding with fellow divers, . In Nova Scotia, Andrea often loads her hibachi into the car when she goes on night dives.
“Afterward, we take our gear off, get dressed and drag the hibachi onto the rocks and cook like crazy,” says Andrea.
“It is having that time to spend with friends who are like minded. It’s that bonding experience. It gets to the point where you don’t even have to say anything. You kind of understand each other.”