Diving in Cape Breton is based on three-Ws: warm water, wildlife and wrecks.
"The water temperatures are so fantastically warm this year," says Ken Jardine, owner of Scuba Tech Ltd. based in Sydney, Cape Breton.
Jardine launched Scuba Tech Ltd. in 1991. Since then, the company has offered recreational tours and instruction, commercial diving services and certification. Jardine also co-hosted Cape Breton Diver for seven years. It aired on local cable and nationally via Vision TV, from 1995-2002.
In the middle of Cape Breton Island lies the Bras D’Or Lakes, the largest inland sea in the world. "The warmest I ever remember getting was 74 degrees Fahrenheit on a digital gauge in the Bras D'Or Lakes. That was up around Long Island."
Normal temperatures often reach the high teens celsius. But this year, Jardine says, "If you're in any coves anywhere, you're up around 22 [degrees Celsius]."
Divers habitually "record everything," he says. The warmth is not a matter of conditioning over the years, or a figment of Jardine's imagination.
He takes water temperatures and measures other conditions as part of his work for Environment Canada. Scuba Tech Ltd. also conducts commercial dives for the shipping industry and the province's transportation department. "Nova Scotia was the last province to adopt the CSA - occupational standards - for occupational diving," Jardine says. "Scuba Tech Ltd. is fully compliant."
The company also gets called in for emergencies and recovery operations - once for a moose that fell through the ice and another time for a passenger bus that slid off the road and into the Baddeck River in February 2009.
"I had to go underneath the ice for that," Jardine says. The passengers and drivers escaped. "And at the same site it's 23 degrees right now, from minus three. We have the biggest temperature swing that I know of on the planet."
He routinely records ocean water temperatures in the high-50s, even at a depth of 60 feet, which he dove to recently at the Bird Islands. Off the end of Kelly's Mountain, the islands are a breeding ground for puffins, but sightings of other wildlife occur too. "We saw whales, seals, dolphins, got a feed of scallops," says Jardine.
"We get to dive here in the ocean in the summer with a thin hood, or no hood, and thin gloves you'd wear in the Caribbean. I can dive in the same stuff I'd wear down south. And then you go as close as Halifax and you can't do that."
So, is this an effect of global warming? Not at all, says Jardine, who lives on St. Andrew's Channel. "The Bras d'Or Lakes act like a big heat radiator for us and it keeps the waters in close to Cape Breton quite a bit warmer. And there's a bunch of currents that converge out off of us, between us and St. Paul's. It causes our waters around Cape Breton, for the most part, to stay, in the summer, much warmer than other places. It's a neat phenomenon."
The wildlife is phenomenal. Jardine has watched a couple hundred porpoises swim across his bow and leap from the water. When he was hosting his show, Cape Breton Diver, he filmed a Dove Key, a "cousin to the puffin. We got pictures - video - of it underwater. That's very rare." The fowl dive for fish and cover.
Last year, a couple from Texas, a pair of diving enthusiasts, came up to dive in Cape Breton. Jardine took them to various sites including the Bird Islands, where they went through three tanks each and were accompanied by 200-300 pound seals.
Curious, Jardine asked his American visitor: "Why aren't you down in the Caribbean somewhere? And he said, 'I'm sick of that. If I see one more bluefish, I'm going to throw up.' He said this was the most exotic thing he'd ever done."
Tourism that brought larger groups in search of simpler and less expensive dives has tapered off. "It's in a slump for sure. Guide travel in this neck of the woods is down. Some of the big events that used to be held aren't going on anymore."
Still, Scuba Tech Ltd. stays busy with the "diehards," the people for whom "diving is a big part of their life," as Jardine puts it.
A big draw for them are the "abundance of wrecks" within a short drive (45 minutes to an hour and a half from Sydney) in all directions from the Scuba Tech Ltd. shop.
"When ships wreck in our waters, they wreck in the shallows," explains Jardine. Vessels don't hit bottom and remain intact. "The ocean beats them to pieces. Over a very short order the ocean just tears them apart. But that way you get to see a lot of things you normally wouldn't see unless you penetrated it."
For example, the 300-foot metal vessel, Evelyn, rests - splayed open - in the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour. The big propeller from the coal-burning, steam-powered freighter is there. The boilers have collapsed. And there's big pieces of deck plating too. A massive drive shaft is visible. "The piston from a four-cylinder car could fit in the palm of your hand, but the piston that's there is the size of a four-cylinder car," says Jardine, laughing.
Already known for its amazing coastal views and scenery, Scuba Tech Ltd. proves that there’s also a lot to see under the sea.