Booking the Best Diving at any Temperature – Browning Pass’ Quirky Dive Vendors

(updateded 14 May 2009)

You cannot oversell the diving in Browning Pass (BC, Canada). Divers who have been there, including Women’s Diving Hall of Famer Jill Heinerth, call this area the best diving in the world at any temperature. It has been regularly listed in Scuba Diving magazine as the best diving in North America. But these divers are saying it is even better than all of those superb tropical dive sites everyone is longing to dive. We listened to what they were saying. We heard the descriptions of life covering every inch of the walls and the brilliant colors. We trusted these people and we were excited to see it. To our amazement, and even with all that hype, it was much better than we imagined. Our dive buddy Katie Morgan says it simply, “my God, the beauty is humbling.” Browning Pass must be on your list of places dive before you die.

On top of all of that underwater spectacle, the surface beauty is equally humbling. Your accommodations are in the serene and remote wilderness of glacial cut Queen Charlotte Straits, which are lined with peaceful forests and packed with eagles and bears.

Because there are already dozens of articles out there that can make you salivate just thinking about diving this magnificent area, we have no doubt you will enjoy the diving. But even if you use a re-breather, you still have to spend a significant amount of time on the surface. We want to take a different approach with this article and focus on helping you make the important choice of who you pay to take care of you during that surface time.

Diving Browning Pass means you will likely be leaving from Port Hardy, BC on the northern end of Vancouver Island and staying nearby the multiple dive sites with one of the three regular vendors who cater to divers. None of the accommodations are luxury and the prices are relatively economical. At the low end, your ‘all inclusive’ price is much less than you would expect for dive trip to even a mediocre dive destination elsewhere in the world. Besides being a premier dive location, this may just be one of the best values in dive travel.

Now pay close attention: You need to choose your accommodations carefully. Do not choose just on price. The diving is stellar with all of them, but you need to determine what type traveler you are before choosing. We are going to try to help you understand the differences that you should consider before booking. We are going to express the negatives of each venue and help you set your expectations so that you can relax and enjoy the diving.

One of the options is land based and aptly named God’s Pocket http://www.godspocket.com/. Another is a float camp named the Browning Pass Hideaway http://www.vancouverislanddive.com/. The third is the Mamro Adventures, a live aboard converted fishing boat http://www.mamro.com/.

Both the Mamro and Browning Pass Hideaway are on the low edge of rustic. After seeing these we wondered, “Why don’t the owners fix them up just a bit more?” It seemed to us that it would be the obvious good business decision. When we questioned and dug into this query with them, we found two related hints. Both owners stated that they really liked the type of divers that they get and expressed a concern that a change in the venue would change the type of customers that come. The other factor is that these captains are both boldly passionate about showing divers a grand underwater experience. They put all of their energy into making sure there guests have great diving and great fun.

Mamro Adventures Live Aboard

EXAMPLE TRIP: Three days $825 Canadian/all inclusive (except bedding and nitrox)($670 US at time of writing) – 4 dives on full days 2 dives last day

The Mamro is a strong, wooden, 52-foot converted fishing boat built in 1937 and still resembles that origin in many ways. It provides simple accommodations for six divers and two crewmembers. It used to be a part of the Extasea Charters fleet and is equipped with two heads and a full shower.

A roomy skiff is towed by the Mamro, it’s used for stowing equipment and as a dive boat. Like the Mamro, the skiff is also very stable and has the ability to drop divers at the precise location of the dive site. It is kept live throughout the dive. A nice feature of the skiff is the cover that offers weather protection during travel. Water entry is via a back roll from the railing. Re-boarding is via a snap-on, open rung aluminum ladder. The ladder is fine, but then you have to make it over the railing at the top, which felt dangerous even in a moderate chop. You gear (kit) stays on the skiff the entire time. The crew gives excellent high pressure fills via long hoses from the Mamro with the gear in place.

Captain Dan Ferris and crew ‘Bill of All Trades’ Stewart took great care of us. They also went out of their way to make sure I had my tofu and other vegetarian options. This extra effort impressed me and, in my experience is rare even among five star resorts. Everyone agreed the food was good and there was plenty. Both Dan and Bill were laid back and flexible. Most of us had just met on the trip, all got along grandly in the tight quarters.

The Mamro offers the most stable of the three trips to the dive area. On the return trip we had a significant storm with gale force winds and ~8ft swells. It was evident that Captain Dan was doing everything possible to make sure we were safe. After a short time in rough conditions, it was clear we could both trust this captain and the boat. We saw a much larger boat passing that was having a tougher time than us. The only fear we did have is how the towed skiff would fair. It was not about the boat, but it was carrying all of our dive gear. It seemed to take the swells even better the Mamro. The Hideaway divers had to leave the day before to avoid the storm because their boat is much smaller.

Captain Dan said often when describing his boat, “if you love camping you will love the Mamro” That is a good jumping off point for deciding how you will like it. However, you have to make sure you also camping in small tents. Regular small boat dwellers will be fine, but for others you need to know that there is no privacy – no place to get away. If you are not happy with real closeness, you may think of grabbing a tank and hanging out under the boat for some privacy. The bunks are confining. There are two “double” bunks that are extremely tight for two people. The boat is not overly clean inside and out and needs to be painted. You bring you own sleeping bag, but the bunk and galley cushions need to be washed and really should be replaced. There were also junk appliances and parts laying around the top deck that should have been removed before the trip. Three of the divers had suit floods on our trip and the dryer on the Mamro was not working, which left them colder longer. But wait …. Just before publishing we received word from Dan Ferris with updates about the Mamro. He said he removed the junk appliances off of the top deck, fixed the dryer, and a repaired a problem with shower. He also promised a new paint job on the boat as soon as weather allows.

Living on the Mamro is truly an adventure. If you are prepared and comfortable with the above description, you will have a grand experience with them. It is a good price for the diving, food and fun you get. In fact, all three on our review team had a great time even though we were uncomfortable with the close quarters and condition of the boat. It should be noted that the Mamro, like the other venues, has a cadre of return customers. Again, if you choose with eyes open, the Mamro may be the choice for you. We hope they keep making the upgrades, because it would be fun to dive with Bill and Dan again.

The Mamro gives you the quickest trip of all three to the dive sites. But it moors only slightly closer than the Hideaway. If you’re staying at God’s Pocket, your five minute jaunt to Browning Pass can turn into a much longer and rougher trip to and from dives should the weather pick up.

One of the oddest experiences I have ever had on a dive boat was courtesy of Captain Dan. He has great night vision and wants to make sure he can see well to pick us up for the night dives. So to keep his eyes adjusted he pilots to the night dives in total darkness – no lights at all. In the Browning Pass night is really dark. Even after awhile you can just barely see the shadows of the islands and shoreline. It was very strange, but Dan has done it for years and to him it not much different than running in daylight.

One advantage that the Mamro offers over the fixed venues is flexibility to dive other great sites in the area and beyond. Dan is currently working on a 7 day wreck trip for late March 2010.

The Browning Pass Hideaway

EXAMPLE TRIP: Arrive Friday noon, Leave Monday Noon $625 Canadian all Inclusive and with kayaks (except nitrox @$10 each or $25 per day).

John deBoeck, captain and owner of the Hideaway, is also known as “Clavela John” from his years of running the well respected live-aboard boat, the Clavela. In general guests at the Hideaway have the option to the most diving of any of the choice here. He told me, “We dive until you tell us to stop.” They have been out until midnight on occasion. During the example trip listed above you would likely dive 2 dives Friday, 4 dives each day Saturday and Sunday, and one dive before returning on Monday.

Photo journalist and chief staff writer for Advanced Diving Magazine, John Rawlings (http://www.advanceddivermagazine.com) has been a repeat visitor to the Hideaway. He says that John (deBoeck) reminds him of an old fishing boat captain. Like an old fisherman knows where the fish are at any given time, John D. knows where the best diver conditions are at any time. There are no schedules at the Hideaway. “You will just be hanging out and John will say let’s go diving,” says Rawlings. He will also take as many or as few divers that want to go (if some are worn out). Like the other captains John D. brings many years of experience to the table.

The two dive boats are aluminum and customized by John D. He tunes the boats so that they are just right for diving. The focus is on function and diver pleasure and not esthetics.

Customers describe Clavela John as a dive character! He is eccentric and a few people cannot roll with him. But repeat customers love him. He mostly wants his customers to be satisfied and will do what it takes.

The accommodation level is simple and similar to the Mamro, but with much more space and has easy access to land. Sea kayaks are also available. Captain John says, “If you are thinking luxury don’t come here. It is about diving” It is best described as resembling “your uncle John’s hunting camp.” “It is not swank in any way,” says John Rawlings, “it is a floating shack.” The carpet in the group room is pure (and not retro) 70’s shag. The Hideaway can accommodate up to 16 guests in 3 private rooms, one four bed room and one six bed room and 3 bathrooms. There are two dive boats for 8-10 divers, but often take less. They have a staff of 2-4 depending on the group. The facilities include woodstove heat, a dryer, and hot showers. At 23:00 the generator is turned off and that is it for electricity for the night.

The food is reportedly fantastic and filling. The place is “clean in a rustic way,” others reported. All those interviewed reported feeling well taken care of.

God’s Pocket Resort

Example trip: 3 day package (4 nights) is $1118.64 plus tax per diver all inclusive. ($907 US at time of writing) They advertise 2-3 boat dives per day, and you can also do night dives from boat tied to the dock.

Katie Morgan reports this section. (UPDATED 14 May 2009)

The God’s Pocket experience can’t be touched and it’s priced accordingly.

In between diving the striking beauty of Browning Pass, Nakwakto Rapids and beyond, you’ll have time to hike through moss-laden trees to the next cove, or climb to the hilltop and look out. There’s room to spread out and places to gather.

Most of the rooms have two beds and a bathroom consisting of a shower, toilet, and sink. You’ll be sharing this space with a buddy. They’ve also added two new cabins designed with couples, and couples with kids, in mind. These cabins have all of the amenities above, but offer a queen bed on the main floor and two twin beds in the loft. All enjoy radiant floor heating. Daily cleaning service is done when you’re out on a dive.

The clubhouse has what you’d need to watch movies, play your UW video, set up cameras, play board games, relax and chat. Just outside they’ve expanded the deck and installed a fire pit. Adirondack chairs, chaise lounges and a picnic table draw crowds to lounge in the sun, or laugh and tell stories around the fire. Occasionally, there’s musical talent.

Up on the other side of the captain’s quarters and dining hall, tucked back in the trees, a hot tub awaits. On the way to or fro, the dining hall is always open with baked goods and hot beverages available. You’ll not go hungry.

Bill Weeks, your good-humored captain, will sketch out your dive in amazing detail on every briefing. There are no surprises. There’s plenty of room for gearing up, and the boat has one of the easiest ladders for getting back onboard. You’ll walk up fully geared, fins and all. They carry air on the boat for filling, so there’s no need to go back to the resort between dives. (Thank goodness this dive boat has a head.)
The 40’ Hurst Isle has been outfitted with new twin motors, she cruises at 25 to 30 kts (your comfort and conditions depending). Another new feature is a ‘flop-down’ boarding platform on the starboard side. This allows Annie to be at water level to handle any cameras or emergencies if they were to arise.

Hang out and catch the sights on the back deck or get out of the weather in the roomy cabin. Wet and drysuits are expected attire for either- it’s a true dive boat.

The other vendors will take you out as many times as you are willing and able to dive. Bill and Annie will err on the side of caution. 2-3 boat dives and a night dive in the cove is the norm.

Back at the dock, step off the boat in your drysuit and leave your tanks and other gear behind. There’s a freshwater rinse available, hangers for your suit just outside your room, and a heated room to dry your suits in overnight.

With all three choices the diving is incredible, the experience is up to you…”

Wrap up

With all three choices the diving is incredible; the experience is up to you. All of these vendors get stellar marks for food, fun, dive staff, and experienced captains. Every one we spoke with raved equally about the captain/owners John, Dan and Bill. Coming to the Pass is not about the lodging amenities. It’s about diving, diving, diving. It may not be a good trip to include non-diving partners.

The Browning Pass Hideaway offers the best combination of space, simple comfort and economy. With the diving your get for the price, it is one of the best values in multi-day dive travel.

Although still basic, God’s Pocket resort is the best for accommodations and amenities. If you can afford it and are use to good accommodations this your safest bet. It is not luxury but there are no real tradeoffs either. Also our reporter Katie just raves about that dive ladder.

If you want the historic (or at least old) fishing boat atmosphere, a live-aboard experience and love to be close (or confined) the Mamro is your adventure. The Mamro offers trips to other destinations besides Browning Pass. It is also the most stable boat if a storm comes up.

Since you simply must dive this area, carefully match your traveling style to one of the three dive vendors described above. You cannot go wrong diving Browning Pass.

Your comments about the changes you find when you travel to this area will help fellow divers.
The research and reporting team for this article included John McKenzie, Chaela Sumner and Katie Morgan.

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