If the thought of scuba diving conjures up images of blue Caribbean
waters Australia's colourful Great Barrier Reef, or Lloyd Bridges'
tanned physique in the popular 1960 show Sea Hunt - think again.
Quebec is home to some of the most pristine and vibrant dive sites in
the world, and many are within driving distance of Montreal. From the
Eastern Townships to the Saguenay local waters offer divers spectacular
contrasts in ecology and geology. If you're a certified diver or someone
who is interested in taking up the sport, one of the better ways to take
full-advantage of Quebec diving is to join a dive club.
The Aquadyne Scuba Club and Les Diables des Mers are two of
Montreal's oldest and better established dive clubs. The more recently
founded Club de Plongée Immersion started in 1995 after a group of
student divers at Collège Ahuntsic decided to form a club to make
diving more affordable. Immersion is now open to both students and
non-students. All of these clubs are bilingual and welcome all certified
There are many advantages to join a dive club, including organised,
affordable diving trips and increased safety since most members are
experienced divers. Beginners are strongly advised to join a club
because it will help them strengthen their diving skills and meet fellow
Anyone taking up the sport of scuba diving must take and pass a
training course given by a recognised agency, such as National
Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUl) or Professional Association
of Diving Instructors (PADI).
"I joined a club right after I got certified," said Cathy
Bonneville, a member of Aquadyne since 1986. "The club makes trips
more affordable, you trust the people you're with, and it's a great
place to make friends."
Before taking the plunge into Quebec's watery wilderness, there are a
few things you should be prepared for - mainly the cold. If it has to be
at least 30 degrees Celsius before you poke a tentative toe into your
backyard swimming pool, local diving is not for you. Even in mid to late
summer, the water temperature does not usually go above 20 degrees
Celsius. Although a dry suit, which prevents water from seeping through
to your skin, is not required for most local diving in summer,
experienced divers recommend one if you're planning to dive below 30 to
40 feet or at night.
Pollution no longer mars local diving since Canadian and U.S.
anti-pollution measures have improved conditions for underwater flora
and fauna. Zebra mussels also have helped to filter the water,
increasing the visibility in some spots from nearly nil to 50 feet.
"At Kingston, before zebra mussels, the visibility at 90 feet
was the length of the beam of your flashlight, " Aquadyner William
Schleihauf said. "Now, it can be 50 to 70 feet."
So, if you're ready to brave the cold, there are plenty of excellent
diving sites a short distance from the city.
Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships, a 120-kilometre drive
from Montreal, is a great spot for beginners. The visibility is
considered good and there are shallow areas to dive. The lake is teeming
with several species of fish, including bass, trout and pike.
Paul Crépeau, president of Les Diables des Mers, recommends diving
at this site at night when there are fewer fishermen and less boat
traffic. The fish also become friskier at night, he says, and often
allow divers to pet and play with them.
"They probably think we're fish just like them," Crépeau
said with a laugh.
If you do go night diving, you'll need a dive light to help you
navigate your way through the dark waters.
Lake Massawippi, just east of Lake Memphremagog, is known for its
marvellous underwater cliffs. The site is not recommended for beginners
because of depth (250 feet) and visibility which rarely surpasses 20
feet. Many divers often overlook this lake because its dive sites are
not easily accessible from shore - the only way to get there is by boat.
Renting a boat or bringing your own is necessary if you want to dive
To explore Massawippi's vertical drop, start near the village of
North Hatley. Heading about 3½ kilometres along the lake from North
Hatley; you'll reach Black Point, where the lake's west bank begins to
descend into a steep underwater slope. The cliff's intricate crevices
and walls, as well as its elaborate rock formations, are a fascinating
attraction for divers. There also are submerged dead trees but divers
must be careful not to get tangled in the gnarled branches and abandoned
A popular pastime among local divers is diving among wrecks.
Exploring the skeletons of sunken ships is like taking a trip back in
time, and the cold water has helped preserve many of the ships. Wrecks
are also a great place to see fish, which find the dark nooks and
crannies to be ideal hideaways.
On the east side of the Richelieu River, 70 kilometres south of
Montreal, is the town of Noyan. Shallow waters (30 feet) and good
visibility (between 12 and 30 feet depending on time of year and recent
rainfall) make the wrecks at Noyan ideal for beginners. At least three
wrecks and a sunken railroad bridge are located around a small island.
According to Schleihauf, who is also a naval historian, the wrecks
off Ash Island are probably 19th-century barges that carried cargoes of
Hundreds of large fish, like trout and pike, lurk in the wreckage of
the sunken railroad bridge. This site is quite busy with boat traffic
duringweekends, so don't forget your dive flag if you go. (A dive flag,
which is red with a white diagonal stripe, alerts boaters that there are
divers in the water)
The best wreck diving near Montreal is located along the St. Lawrenoe
River between Montreal and Kingston. Situated at the east end of Lake
Ontano, Kingston was a major shipbuilding centre. Schleihauf recommends
the wrecks of the Conestoga, a steamship that caught fire and sank in
1922 near Cardinal, and the Rothesay, a side-wheeler that sank near
Prescott when the boat collided with a tugboat about 125 years ago.
These two wrecks are suitable for all levels of divers because of the
shallow depth and easy accessibility from shore.
While in Kingston, ship buffs can also visit the Marine Museum of the
Great Lakes, which showcases the history of the Great Lakes.
The most dramatic wreck in Quebec is located just off Pointe-au-Père
near Rimouski. The Ernpress of Ireland, a luxury liner rivalling the
Titanic, was travelling between Liverpool, England, and Quebec in May
1914 when it collided with another ship during a heavy fog. The liner
sank in less than 15 minutes, killing 1,014 passengers and crew.
The depth of this wreck (100 to 140 feet), coupled with the extremely
cold temperature of the water, strong current and variable visibility
make this a very difficult dive. Schleihauf strongly cautions that only
very experienced wreck divers try this site.
Saltwater diving is also a possibility for local divers. The plant
and animal life in the ocean, even in the chilly North Allantic, is more
abundant and colourful than in fresh water. And Les Escoumins is
considered one of the best cold-water dive sites in the world.
Located one hour Northeast of the Saguenay River on the north shore
of the St. Lawrence, Les Escoumins' remarkable ecosystem rivals the
richness and vibrancy of southern dive sites. This spot is a must for
all local divers, who can explore anemones, sea urchins, soft coral and
sponges. During the summer months, the visibility at Les Escoumins
varies between 30 and 70 feet. If you're lucky you might even catch a
glimpse of a passing whale, which have been known to come within 70 feet
Although the marine life and vegetation at Les Escoumins is smaller
in size than what you might find in tropical waters, the colours are
much more vibrant and contrasting.
"The colours you get in cold waters are brilliant," said
Roger Lacasse, a member of the Fédération Québécoise des Activités
Subaquatiques (FQAS), a non-profit association that represents Quebec
divers and diving organizations. "You'll see really bright oranges,
purples and reds. The colours are a lot stronger than in tropical waters
because there is less light. It makes for really great pictures."
Visitors to Les Escoumins are required to pay a registration fee ($1
for non-divers, $6 for divers), which gives them access to the Centre
des Loisirs Marins des Escoumins. The centre offers divers a wide
variety of accommodations including changing rooms, showers and a scuba shop.