From the surface, Dillon Rock, which lies off the northern tip of Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast, looks like nothing much. In fact at high tide, you can’t even see the thing, which is hardly 50 feet across.
Only a light beacon atop a concrete block pokes through the waves. Below water, though, the rock face drops 100 feet to a sand floor and is home to more wolf eels than you can imagine.
Yes, critters that look like something out of a Muppet show, with REALLY ugly, squashed-in faces, big teeth and impressively long tails.
No They Are Not Eels
Wolf eels, it turns out, are not eels at all. They are simply very long fish with extremely strong jaws that they use to eat their favorite food, which is sea urchins. They truly need those jaws since sea urchins have sharp spines and look like pin cushions with armor plating. Adult male wolf eels can grow to six feet. They are grayer in color and bigger than females and the two mate for life.
Wolfies, as locals tend to affectionately call them, quickly become used to divers. But they are still wild and they can be … well … jealous.
In Your Bucket Because….
- You like to interact with sea creatures
- You don’t mind really cold water and currents
- Good for: experienced divers who have done the tropics and want to try and see something new
I was on one of Nautilus Explorer’s live-aboard dive boats, which are like small cruise ships that take people on overnight scuba diving trips. We made many dives all up and down the Vancouver Island coast off British Columbia, but Dillon Rock was definitely my favorite.
What many divers don’t realize is cold water diving, especially here off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, is some of the finest diving on earth. Jacques Cousteau once called it one of the eight underwater wonders of the world, and with good reason. Colors can be far more vivid than in the tropics. Life moves more slowly, especially the fish. And that includes the wolf eels.
Where They Like to Live
What wolf eels like to live in, boat owner Mike Lever explained, is cracks that are small enough for protection but large enough for a wolf eel to get totally inside. Dillon Rock is perfect and, when we dove it, had at least eight wolf eels including one rather grumpy male that was leader of the pack.
In the world of diving, it’s rare and special to see one or two wolf eels. To see eight in one spot is almost unbelievable.
We slid down the anchor line to the bottom and fast discovered that Mike wasn’t kidding about finding eels. He had put us right in the middle of “Wolf Eel City.” I practically landed atop one as it floated two thirds the way out of a thin vertical crack.
As I settled to the sand at the base of the rock, a wolf eel came all the way out, stopped in front of my nose and hung there as if curious. I put out my hand and he floated his head in my palm, then he swam off, slithering between the rocks.
A minute later, he was back, swimming around me and another diver, stopping long enough to gently nibble on her camera’s strobe light cord. Suddenly, a huge male “wolfie,” the grumpy leader, knifed in and actually pushed the first wolf eel aside.
Mr. Big floated motionless while I softly ran a finger across the top of his head and down his side. He twisted around, positioning his head under my fingers for a second stroking. Then, out of nowhere, a third, smaller wolf eel showed up and floated just out of arm’s reach.
The five of us … two divers, three wolf eels … played out a slow motion ballet, turning and twisting, backing off and coming back in. We did this for the rest of our 40 minute dive until our air ran low.
- This is real cold water diving with water temperatures averaging in the low 40s. A dry suit is virtually a necessity. And since using a dry suit is a bit different from diving in a wetsuit, taking a course on drysuit diving is recommended.
- The Canadian trips are aboard the Nautilus Explorer company’s newest liveaboard, the Nautilus Swell.