Canada: Diving in the Bay of Fundy’s Whirlpool

The Second Largest Tidal Whirlpool in the World is on Deer Island and you can Dive it!

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 excited underwater selfie to prove it…

Joey's Underwater Scuba Selfie on Deer Island, Canada
 

The Old Sow: The Largest Tidal Whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere

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 Red Buoy Floating in the Bay of Fundy, Canada
 

What Makes the Old Sow go Round?

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.

This rare phenomenon occurs thanks to the placement of the landmass, 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 the Fundy tide take a wild ride on the surface but along the peaks and trenches of the ocean floor, the water rises abruptly from 122 meters (400 feet) to 36 meters (119 feet) adding even more chaos to the waters.

Deer Island Tide Diagram of the Old Sow Whirlpool, Canada
 

The Best Times to See the Old Sow in Action from Land

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 the moon, the Fundy tides are stretched to their extremes and the whirlpool formation is at its most intense.

For divers, it is important to note that diving during the new and full moons should be avoided as the tides are even stronger and exceedingly unpredictable during these times.

The Full Moon Above the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada
 

Some Deer Island Ferry Information

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.

A Kayaker Sitting on the Beach Near one of the Fundy Islands Close to the Old Sow, New Brunswick

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 on a daily basis. 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.

Know the Tides to Stay Safe when Diving 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, and 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.

The Chaotic Water Of The Bay Of Fundy Near Deer Island, Canada

For anyone interested in diving Deer Island it is important to note that all sites are considered to be advanced dive sites. COJO diving are a local scuba shop 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.

A Seal Floating in the Water of the Old Sow, Bay of Fundy
 

3 Deer Island Dive Sites:

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:

1. Cancat Beach (also known as Customs Beach):

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.

Red and Yellow Shrimp in the Bay of Fundy's Largest Tidal Whirlpool on Deer Island

A Purple Lumpsucker Swimming at the Cancat Scuba Diving Site, New Brunswick, Canada

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 the low slack tide, Cancat Beach dive time varies between 30 to 45 minutes.

Looking out from the beach the dive site is to the left and a gently sloping underwater rock wall can be followed down to 60 feet.

The Cancat Beach Dive Sign and Flag on Deer Island

Some Scuba Divers Entering the Bay of Fundy at Cancat Beach, Deer Island

Cancat is an exceedingly interesting dive for marine enthusiasts and photographers alike. The diversity of species at this site is so plentiful that you are lucky if you can find a small 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. Lobster, crabs, ocean pout, anemones, sea stars of every shape and size, sponges, tunicates, urchins, wolf fish, nudibranchs, lumpfish, spiny lumpsuckers and soft corals are a short list of some of the marine wonders you have the opportunity to see.

A Nudibranch on the Wall of Cancat Beach Dive Site at Deer Island, New Brunswick

A Translucent Sea Vase Seen While Scuba Diving in New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy

The Side Profile of a Spiny Lumpsucker in the Bay of Fundy, Deer Island, Canada
 

2. The Point:

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 a high slack tide for easy entry. To get to the site divers can follow the marked path to the right of the lighthouse all the way down to the water’s edge.

Dad, Joey and Ali Climbing the Hill after Diving the Point on Deer Island, New Brunswick

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 200 feet so 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 largest tides in hues of red, pink, green and white. 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.

Scuba Diving the Point with Some Plumose Anemones in New Brunswick, Canada

The Mouth of a Strawberry Anemone Underwater in the Bay of Fundy, Deer Island

A Nudibranch Climbing on a Rock at Deer Island, Canada

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.

3. The Drift:

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.

A Group of Scuba Divers Diving in the Bay of Fundy, Deer Island

Five Scuba Divers Exiting the Water at the End of Deer Island's Drift Dive

Though you can go deeper, the best depth to dive the Drift is between 50 and 60 feet, the reason being that you won’t miss the short sandy ledge that marks the exit 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 wolf fish 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.

A Rock Crab in the Sandy Bottom of the Drift Dive on Deer Island

A Burrowing Tube Anemone in the Mud of Deer Island, New Brunswick

Close Up of a Hermit Crab Hanging Out in the Rocks in the Bay of Fundy, Canada
 

In Conclusion

As much as scuba lovers come to Canada to try their hand at diving in British Columbia or Tobermory, New Brunswick has its fair share of spots that sport divers would really enjoy.

Joey and I may have been diving in a few different spots around the province of New Brunswick, but I can assure you that the three dive sites on Deer Island are a secret gem that will change your view on Canadian cold water diving.

Dust off that drysuit, strap on those fins and get your dive butt to the maritime provinces!

A Pink Anemone on the Wall of Deer Island, New Brunswick

An Orange Spiny Lumpsucker Near the Old Sow, Deer Island

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.

Practical Scuba Diver Information:

Cost: 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.

Seasonality: 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.

Restrictions: 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.

Companies: 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.

  • COJO Diving
  • Dive Shack
  • Surfn Scuba
  • Fundy Diving Equipment
  • Dempsey’s Dive Supplies
  • Navy Island Dive Co Ltd
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