Who would have thought that the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western hemisphere, second largest in the world, would be a top diving site in Canada‘s maritime provinces? I for one didn’t, and I have the ecstatic underwater selfie to prove it…
Located amid the ferocious tides of the Bay of Fundy, Deer Island New Brunswick is a disconcerting place for divers. Two times a day the largest tides in the world roar in and out of this bay, moving billions of gallons of water in and then back out to sea.
If that isn’t unsettling enough; the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere, second largest in the world, can be found just off the tip of Deer Island. The “Old Sow” is a name likely derived from the mispronunciation of “sough” (pronounced suff) which means “sucking noise” or “drain.”
It’s one thing to hear about this force of nature; it’s another to witness the whirlpool effect taking form before your very eyes. Just watching passing ships struggle with their engine on full throttle against the 6 knot (11 km/h) current is enough to turn some divers off.
A vast number of islands pepper the coastline between New Brunswick and Maine, each playing a part in creating the Old Sow’s dramatic demonstration of water power.
The Old Sow whirlpool phenomenon occurs thanks to the placement of landmass, the confluence of currents, and the bathymetry of the seafloor.
As the Fundy tide rises, ocean waters are rapidly pressed through the narrow straits between the Canadian and USA coastline. The rising tide passes on both sides of Indian Island, taking a sharp right to flood the Western Passage. Not only does Fundy’s tides take a wild ride on the surface, but along the peaks and trenches of the ocean floor as well. The water rises abruptly from 122 meters (400 feet) to 36 meters (119 feet), adding even more chaos to the seas.
While the tidal action of the Bay of Fundy does occur twice per day, that doesn’t always guarantee that the Old Sow will be a visitors spectacle. To catch this daily whirlpool, make sure you visit the area three hours before high tide.
If you are looking for even more action on the Bay of Fundy front, the Old Sow is at its best around the new and full moons. Because of the gravitational pull between the sun and moon, earth’s large water masses are stretched to their extremes at this time. This results in the Bay of Fundy tides hitting their maximum amplitude and being very intense.
For divers, it is essential to note that diving the Old Sow during the new and full moons should be avoided, as the tides are even stronger and exceedingly unpredictable during these times.
If Deer Island doesn’t fit your schedule, shore diving Saint John is a great substitute:
Shore diving around Saint John, New Brunswick is an easy and convenient alternative to scuba diving on Deer Island – especially if you aren’t familiar with the Bay of Fundy area.
Deer Island is a quiet and sparsely populated landmass on the Bay of Fundy. With a population of only about 850 people, it is the smallest of the Fundy Isles covering only 45 square kilometers.
Located in Passamaquoddy Bay between the province of New Brunswick and the state of Maine, Deer Island has a few ferries that travel to and from its landmass daily. During the summer months, a toll ferry goes back and forth between the island and Campobello, New Brunswick.
What’s even better, is that every half hour a FREE ferry runs from L’Etete (mainland New Brunswick) to Butler’s Point, Deer Island.
Due to the extreme tidal range of the Bay of Fundy, and more importantly Deer Island, there are certain times to dive specific sites on the island safely. It is strongly discouraged for a diver that is new to the area to attempt a dive without an experienced guide. One look at the ripping eddies and frothing water formed by the powerful current of the “Old Sow” and you will undoubtedly agree with me.
For anyone interested in diving Deer Island, it is important to note that all sites are considered to be advanced dive sites. There are several local scuba shops very knowledgeable with the Bay of Fundy region and offer guided dives upon request. They are always more than happy to show experienced diver the marvels of this ocean playground.
For divers planning on dipping into Fundy check out the tides specifics for Deer Island at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Deer Island, New Brunswick may not be big or well known, but this Bay of Fundy island sure packs quite the scuba diving punch. Here are the three dive sites to explore when visiting the region:
I could spend hours underwater studying every single little creature that lives along the wall at the Cancat Beach site. Every time we dive this site, I find a new and strange-looking critter and Joey has a ball videotaping the millions of creatures moving along the wall.
Located right near the entrance to the campground close to the customs office, Cancat Beach has a small “Cancat” sign and picnic table for divers to prep their gear. Typically dove at low slack tide, Cancat Beach dive time varies between 30 to 45 minutes.
Looking out from the beach, the dive site is situated to the left and a gently sloping underwater rock wall can be followed down to 18 meters (60 feet).
Cancat is an exceedingly interesting dive for marine enthusiasts and photographers alike. The diversity of species at this site is plentiful, and you are lucky if you can find a sliver of bare rock to put your pinky finger down for a stable picture.
Keep your eyes open because flora and fauna along this wall are utterly incredible. Lobsters, crabs, anemones, sponges, tunicates, urchins, nudibranchs and spiny lumpsuckers, are a shortlist of marine animals diver could have the opportunity to see. There also sea stars of every shape and size and the occasional grinning wolffish burrowed in the rock cracks.
How to Find Cancat Beach and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 44.929630, -66.986940
Address: 101 Deer Island Point Rd, Cummings Cove, NB E5V 1G4
Cancat beach is located outside Deer Island Point Park and has three parking spaces.
The Point is the shortest dive you will do on Deer Island because of its location and the strength of the tide.
The best time to dive The Point is at high slack tide for easy entry. To get to the site, divers can follow the marked path on the right side of the lighthouse, all the way to the water’s edge.
Once under the Bay of Fundy’s chilly waters, divers will notice that the bottom tapers into a wall, that drops straight out into the channel of the “Old Sow.” This wall can be followed and goes down to depths exceeding 61 meters (200 feet), therefore watch your gauge and make sure to stay within your certification limits.
The Point is a gorgeous dive, especially if you love anemones. Dozens of filter-feeding anemones can be spotted swaying to the rhythm of the worlds biggest tides. They come in hues of red, pink, green and white that sometimes rival a painters palette.
There is also a three-sectioned wall in which ascending divers can be surrounded on three sides by marine life. Rocks covered in sponges, sea stars, urchins, hermit crabs, tunicates, a rusty old anchor, there is no shortage of things you will see.
I’ve even heard that if you’re having a lucky dive day, you may get to see some spiny dogfish in the deeper and darker part of this site.
How to Find The Point and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 44.925593, -66.984839
Address: 195 Deer Island Point Rd, Cummings Cove, NB E5V 1V3
The Point is located inside Deer Island Point Park. Divers will need to pay an entry fee to dive here.
The Drift dive begins at the small pebbled beach area behind the Deer Island campground washrooms.
Once divers take to the water, they can follow the bouldery shoreline finishing the dive at a sandy beach just before the lighthouse, at the point of the island.
Though divers can descend deeper, the best depth to enjoy the Drift is between 15 and 18 meters (50 and 60 feet). The main reason to stay shallow is so you won’t miss the short sandy ledge that marks the exit of the Drift, onto the beach right before the “Old Sow.” Failing to get out at the beach would not be fun, as divers would continue straight into the whirlpool of the “Old Sow” and need to battle ripping currents or get rescued by a boat.
The Drift dive duration is about 30 minutes and should be done one to two hours before the high slack tide.
For marine fauna lovers; expect a bouldery and rocky bottom with lots of crevices that wolffish love to call home. You can also catch a glimpse of the occasional crab, tube anemone, sea star, and scallop if you’re looking hard.
How to Find The Drift and What to Look For
GPS Coordinates: 44.927669, -66.985114
Address: East Coast Ferries Ltd, PO Box 301 Rpo Main, Lords Cove, NB E5V 1W2
The Drift is located outside Deer Island Point Park at the ferry departure beach.
As seasoned maritime divers, Joey and I have been diving in a few different spots around the province of New Brunswick. But of all the places to head underwater in this province, I can assure you that Deer Island is a diamond in the rough. This lesser-known east coast diving location is one that will change your view on Canadian cold water diving.
Read more about scuba diving eastern Canada:
For more interesting spots to scuba dive on Canada’s east coast check out our Canadian Splash page and navigate through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland provinces.
The price to pay for diving on Deer Island is a little more expensive than your average warm water Caribbean dive. For equipment rental budget in around 75.00$/day or 100$ per weekend. This gear rental includes a two-piece 7mm wetsuit, gloves, boots, a hood, a regulator, a BCD, a dive computer, weights and two tanks (make sure to bring your own mask, fins, and snorkel).
If you are new to the area, guided dives are offered by the COJO dive shop. The minimum cost for a dive is 125.00$ unless you are three or more people than the rate is set at 60.00$ per diver to a maximum of 4 divers. It’s important to note that this fee does not include equipment rental.
Diving Deer Island is possible all year round but for obvious reasons during the summer time the water and the weather are the most enjoyable. The water temperatures range is from 10°C (50°F) in the summer to the low -1°C (30°F) in the winter months.
On top of the icy cold water, it is essential to know that during the spring tides (just after a new or full moon when the tide difference is the greatest), diving this location is not advisable.
Scuba diving on Deer Island is pretty serious business, it is not for the inexperienced diver. Dive shops in the area require a minimum Advanced Open water scuba certification before they will take you out. A drysuit certification is an added bonus because the water is awfully cold.
The scuba diving companies working out of New Brunswick, specifically the Deer Island region, are few and far between. On/near the island there are no full-service shops, only air refills and tank rentals through Dempsey’s Dive Supplies and Fundy Diving Equipment.
Slightly further away from Deer Island, in the cities of St-Andrews, St-John, and Fredericton, there are a few dive shops where you can rent cold water gear. Our personal favorite is COJO Diving.
Like the Old Sow, the big bad world has some pretty wild dive locations. What is the absolute craziest dive you have ever done? Share with us below so we can investigate further.
Writers Note: Parts of this scuba diving location were featured alongside Brockville’s shipwrecks in the DIVER Magazine: Two Ways to Make a Canadian Splash as a part of the January 2020 publication. A special thank you goes out to Bonny Perron for photographing and providing us with land-based images for this post. Want to explore more diving in New Brunswick? Take a look at Into the Tides of New Brunswick to discover more eastern Canada dive adventures.
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