Four divers gearing up for an excursion in local waters at Kin Park in Chemainus attract considerable interest from other people around the park.
The divers are used to it and happy to oblige by answering questions. Just watching them put on all the necessary equipment is a source of fascination to many onlookers.
“We get a lot of questions,” said Philip Smith of Duncan. “It’s like ‘how long can you stay down for?’”
People also naturally want to know what the divers will be seeing. “You never know what you’re going to see,” said Smith. “That’s the beauty.”
On this day, Kathleen Fenner of Chemainus and Doug Biffard, a retired marine biologist who lives in North Cowichan, are doing recreational diving. Smith and partner Nancy Bremner are renowned for their technical diving that involves more training to allow deeper depths and overhead environments such as caves; thus, a corresponding heavier load of equipment.
Chemainus is well-known as a great diving location, although if you don’t catch them going into the water or coming out, you don’t know they’re there.
“Entering the water from Kin Beach boat launch you can access four wrecks, a reef and a healthy eel grass bed,” noted Fenner, who frequents the waters on a regular basis with partner Gord Bell. Biffard’s wife Bev is also a diver and the members of the group enjoy getting together whenever they can to see familiar sights and the unexpected below the surface.
“For these shore dives you can get detailed directions or local guides,” explained Fenner. “Nancy and Phil can be contacted through Pacific Water Sports or the Facebook group Pacific Water Sports-Saturday Divers. They lead shore dives every Saturday at no cost. They have thousands of local dives, are Professional Association of Diving Instructors professionals and trained technical divers. They frequently dive the four wrecks referred to as Barge 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the reef, commonly called the Chemainus Wall.”
It was more than 17 years ago now that thousands of people packed into Chemainus on Jan. 14, 2006 when B.C.’s first artificial reef from an aircraft was created through the efforts of Thetis Island’s Peter Luckham with the sinking of a 737.
“This 737 aircraft is an advanced recreational boat dive,” added Fenner. “The dive is done at a depth of 70 to 110 feet. The Boeing 737, named Xihwu Reef, sits on stands on the ocean floor. Tie onto mooring located at 48 degrees 56.46 by 123 degrees 43.080 and dive in. As you descend into the dark emerald green water, jellyfish of varying sizes and types will swim by and if you’re lucky you might see a school of forage fish. Suddenly out of the emerald green, the Xihwu Reef will greet you in all its greatness.”
On this day, the four divers had a perfect day with clear conditions under the water for a dive to the barges and “all four of us surfaced together,” Fenner noted.
Fenner has written an interesting detailed piece on the diving scene in Chemainus for the benefit of tourists and information many locals might not know. You can read that in the 2023 Courier Visitor Guide.
As for the barges, “it’s how they’ve deteriorated, it’s made a wonderful dive site,” said Fenner.
As for the plane reef, “I wouldn’t recommend for anybody if you aren’t fit and trained,” she indicated.
You also need a boat to access the plane reef site because it’s too far from shore.
Fenner, 63, had lived all over B.C. before coming to Chemainus from Penticton in 2005. She met Bell at a dive site in 2011 and they’ve been together ever since.
Fenner had always wanted to dive but didn’t start until she was in her 30s.
“My kids were finally at an age I thought it was OK to do something with a risk factor,” she said. “I learned in the Okanagan, but there wasn’t much to see.”
After being in Chemainus about a year, she was already living here to see the plane go down.
Bell got into diving because of his younger sister Bremner, now 61, and Fenner’s sister-in-law.
Bremner grew up in Calgary and has been on the Island since the age of 16. She started diving 20 years ago and her daughter got her into it.
“We did our own class together,” Bremner pointed out.
She now makes extensive diving adventures a frequent part of her life, including regular caving expeditions to Mexico with her partner, Smith. They’ll be going there again in November.
Smith, 60, saw a lot of cave diving during his time in the United Kingdom and finally took up scuba diving in 2012.
“I always wanted to do it,” he said. “I stayed away from it. When I got to 50, I thought, ‘I’m going to do it.’”
Smith has his own YouTube channel that you can check out at The Dive Smith. Among his many videos is one of the Boeing 737 in Chemainus.
Biffard, 63, grew up in Kelowna and diving has always been a focal point since he first got together with wife Bev in the mid-1970s.
“We both learned how to dive in Okanagan Lake,” he pointed out.
Biffard’s interest in diving came from an inspirational source. “Jacques Cousteau,” he said.
Cousteau actually visited the Island in the 1970s and returned another time years later for what Biffard said he described as some of the best temperate diving to be found anywhere.
There were also many active diving clubs in the 1970s and ’80s, Biffard pointed out.
For all the members of this informal club of its own of family and friends, there’s nothing quite like diving.
“Once you’ve become an experienced diver, you calm down,” said Biffard. “Fish come down right beside you. It’s an encounter with nature you can’t get on land at all.”
“It’s nice there’s diverse sites to go to and there’s diverse life and it changes all the time,” summed up Fenner. “It’s almost like you become friends with some fish.”