The Skook: Diving the world’s fastest tidal rapids

Diving the Skook (Nirupam Nigam)
Diving the Skook (Nirupam Nigam)

An alarming tidal movement creates a daunting mixture of waves, whirlpools and currents in Canada’s Skookumchuck Narrows that can clock a speed of up to 16 knots. Underwater Photography Guide’s editor-in-chief NIRUPAM NIGAM experienced this thrilling flow to capture images of the prolific life beneath the surface of ‘the Skook’

Imagine this: a channel so narrow and shallow that a single tide can unleash an astonishing 750 billion litres of water, creating a tumultuous display of standing waves, whirlpools and currents surging at 16 knots. 

Such speeds might seem mild when driving a car, but the erratic water is a different ballgame. Skookumchuck Narrows is a contender for the title of the world’s fastest tidal rapids, rivalled only by Nakwakto Rapids further up the British Columbia coast.

The beautiful British Columbia coastline
The beautiful British Columbia coastline

It’s a hidden gem in the Salish Sea that boasts a unique spectacle – a tumultuous dance of tides and currents that draws adventurers and spectators from far and wide.

But there’s a twist – this aquatic battleground isn’t just for adrenaline seekers, because the Skook is an oasis for life beneath the waves. 

April 2023 marked a rare convergence of perfect conditions; a celestial alignment allowing divers to witness the Skook in all its glory. And who better to guide this daring expedition than Porpoise Bay Charters, a family-run venture led by the seasoned Kal Helyar and Ann Beardsell?

Gearing up in the snow to enter the Skookumchuck Narrows (Nirupam Nigam)
Gearing up in the snow to enter the Skookumchuck Narrows

Raging currents = Abundance of life

The allure lies not in the danger but in the vibrant marine ecosystem fuelled by the relentless currents. Ocean currents act as nature's turbochargers, transporting nutrients that transform places like Skookumchuck Narrows into underwater havens with colourful life thriving amidst the rocky terrain.

Vibrant marine ecosystem (Nirupam Nigam)
A vibrant marine ecosystem
A group of invertebrates protected from the fast current by a crevice; the rest of the rocks are sandblasted clean by the fast water (Nirupam Nigam)
Invertebrates protected from the fast current by a crevice; other rocks are sandblasted clean by the fast water

It’s important to debunk the myth that this is a reckless plunge into chaos. Diving the Skook is not about courting danger but choosing the right moment. At slack, when the tide turns, the water experiences minimal movement, and the currents are a mere 4-5 knots. 

Picture this: a scuba diver slipping gracefully between tidal changes, manoeuvring with precision as the water changes its course and gradually picks up speed. 

Timing is everything, and finding the rare dates when daylight piercing through the emerald-green water coincides with navigable water conditions is critical. April 2023 granted us a mere handful of these golden days of nature’s alignment for the first time in four years.

Painted anemones designed to grip the rocks and collect food flowing with the rapid currents (Nirupam Nigam)
Painted anemones designed to grip the rocks and collect food flowing with the rapid currents

Entering the abyss

As our vessel, under the watchful eye of Captain Kal, approached the infamous Skookumchuck Rapids, a tangible excitement filled the air. These coldwater adrenaline-filled dives are the scuba-diving equivalent of scaling Everest. 

The unpredictability of the Skook, where currents can whisk you in any direction, demanded respectful caution from our experienced salty crew.

Gearing up in the snow to enter the Skookumchuck Narrows (Nirupam Nigam)
Gearing up in the snow to enter the Skookumchuck Narrows

With a reassuring smile, Captain Kal dismissed the notion of a toilet-bowl experience, where divers are pulled in a circular direction by the currents as if flushed down a lavatory. He emphasised that they dived only during an easy drift in the current, which was hard to fathom possible in such treacherous waters. 

Approaching the narrowest section of the channel, where the current was fastest, Kal’s experienced eyes scanned for the tell-tale signs of slack tide. Tidal ripples slowed, and we entered the water in the few precious minutes when it would be possible to witness Skookumchuck in all its sunny glory.

The most impressive patch of painted anemones and metridiums in the Skook (Nirupam Nigam)
The most impressive patch of painted anemones and metridiums in the Skook

As we descended into the underwater world, a mysterious algal bloom cast a dark green haze, unveiling a breath-taking palette of colours below. Bright red and pink anemones, neon orange encrusting sponges, and deep purple ochre seastars adorned the rocky canvas, showcasing nature’s artistic prowess.

Life in Puget Sound (Nirupam Nigam)
Life in the tidal flow
Patches of vibrant life adorn the rocky surfaces (Nirupam Nigam)
Patches of vibrant life adorn the rocky surfaces

Surrendering to the sea

Descending further, we felt the force of the tide, like a river yet to subside. Gripping onto rock-holds and kicking into the current, we felt like underwater rock climbers. 

Adjusting our underwater camera settings and getting comfortable with the flow of the water, we marvelled at the transformation of the underwater landscape. Slabs of rock, once pounded by the current, now hosted a vibrant community of marine life.

Nudibranch (Nirupam Nigam)
Nudibranch
A Puget Sound king crab (Nirupam Nigam)
Puget Sound king crab

After a mesmerising 20 minutes of relatively gentle water, the current intensified, signalling the roller-coaster drop ahead.

We surrendered to neutrality, letting the current guide us along the wall. Boulders and back eddies added a touch of unpredictability; with trust in our abilities and Captain Kal’s promise of a safe pick-up, the thrill was exhilarating rather than menacing.

When the current picks up, you can only shine a light and watch the life as you drift by
When the current picks up, you can only shine a light and watch the life as you drift by

As the current ebbed, we found ourselves in a tranquil cove adorned with green sea urchins, marking the end of our underwater odyssey. The Skook had shown us its splendour; a delicate balance of chaos and life beneath the surface – leaving us with memories as vivid as the colours we witnessed.

All these photographs were captured by Nirupam Nigam using a Nikon Z6 in an Ikelite housing with Sea & Sea YS-D3 Mark II strobes.

authorheadshot 1

NIRUPAM NIGAM is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. He grew up in Los Angeles, pursuing underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. With degrees in aquatic & fisheries science and general biology and a minor in Arctic studies from the University of Washington, he worked as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, and became editor-in-chief of Underwater Photography Guide and president of Bluewater Photo. Check out more of his photography, and learn more about his overseas dive-tour business for US divers, Bluewater Travel

Also on Divernet: Tyre-trackers: the divers trashing '70s artificial reefs, Army divers crack risky ghost-net mission, 13th time lucky: tragic Gold Rush shipwreck located, Vancouver style, God's Pocket

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