Top 5 Canadian accessible diving destinations

Daryl Rock always wanted to scuba dive. And today he does. Many a vacation he spends in the world’s warm-water diving meccas, among walls of anemones, fish-teeming reefs. So where’s the story? In the missing detail: Rock is a quadriplegic. A 1983 car accident put him in a wheelchair just months before he was planning to get his scuba certification.

Today Rock doesn’t just dive — he talks up the sport. As president of Freedom at Depth Canada (Liberté en Profondeur Canada), a Quebec-based charitable organization that scuba-trains and certifies people with all kinds of disabilities, he opens folks up to what lies beneath, barrier- and gravity-free. “In effect you’re flying” Rock says of his own experience. “You can hear your bubbles. There’s a very deep serenity.”

Wait a sec: just how does a quadriplegic scuba dive? “It’s a cerebral sport — not necessarily a physically demanding sport,” says Rock. Think of the acquired skill as piloting a hot-air balloon rather than swimming. It’s about finding a perfect still point of neutral buoyancy — if you get your balance right there’s no need for macho exertion.

Freedom at Depth Canada is the brainchild of Hubert (“Hubie”) Chrétien who worked with an American named Jim Gatacre to develop a rigorous scuba-training course for people with disabilities north of the 49th parallel. Chrétien trained Rock and the two became friends, diving buddies and eventually associates.

In six years Freedom at Depth Canada has scuba-certified almost 900 people with disabilities — and trained dozens of dive instructors to teach the course. And so the pond ripples. In Hubie Chrétien’s case, that happens literally in the pool in his house in Quebec’s Gatineau region. When people with disabilities come here for the course, they often stay for a whole week and get the lessons done in a shot – staying either at a local hotel or in the fully accessible suite in Chrétien’s house.

As for Daryl Rock these days, he loves that every dive outing is a kind of teachable moment for a culture still figuring disabled issues out.

“I love when people say to me, ‘You scuba dive?’ Because maybe now they’re also thinking that somebody in a wheelchair can work, too.”

Top 5 Canadian diving destinations for people with disabilities:

If you have a disability, where you choose to go scuba diving will depend on, well, you. Legally blind? A tactile wreck dive may be the ticket. Paraplegics may yearn to dive among seals, or prehistoric six-gill sharks, or even flooded towns. Fortunately, Canada, home to some of the best temperate-water scuba diving in the world, offers all of these options and more.

The key is to pick a destination with great diving, good support, and a disabled-accessible hotel close by. (Within a few hours’ drive of a big city is ideal.) It’s sometimes easiest to tag along on a tour organized by a local dive shop, joining the able-bodied divers (though you may have to arrange separate accommodations). Some dive shops can handle this and even offer HSA certification. You just have to call around. Before trip planning, check out:

DIVE ONE: Shore dive, Whytecliff Park, near Horseshoe Bay on Vancouver, British Columbia‘s North Shore.

Canada’s first Marine Protected Area teems with more than 200 varieties of marine life (and a resident seal called “Pearl”). A ramp allows you to bring your chair right down onto the beach. Just 25 minutes from downtown Vancouver — one of the most accessible cities in North America. (If you’re planning on diving in British Columbia, your first call should be to the Pacific Northwest Scuba Challenge Association (PNSC) for information about the unique challenges of the area.)

DIVE TWO: Shark dive, Hornby Island, BC.

Hornby’s beautiful in its own right. So’s the diving. The tantalizing attraction is the six-gill sharks: huge, prehistoric (but benign) sharks that live in the area and occasionally swim up from the depths to meet divers. The dive shop here has hosted divers with disabilities, through the PNSC dive club, since the 1980s.

DIVE THREE: wreck dive, Cardinal, Ontario.

The steamship SS Conestoga caught fire and sank in 1922, and now lies, well-preserved, in shallow water very close to shore — one of about a dozen wrecks in the St. Lawrence Seaway you can dive to.

DIVE FOUR: Shore dive to “The Village that Couldn’t Swim” : Mille Roches, ON.

In the late 1950s a massive hydroelectric dam project basically flooded a whole town and diving down today you can see the Mille Roches power house, a generating station with water gates and turbines still clearly visible. Drift downriver at a speed of about one knot till you get to the end of the town, then come ashore.

DIVE FIVE : Seal dive, Forillon National Park, Quebec

This area, close to famous Percé Rock and Île Bonaventure (itself a great diving spot) on the tip of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, is home to a friendly and inquisitive seal population that comes right into the shallows. There are a number of dives here with shore access. Divers will of course, as always, require able-bodied buddies. For more information on diving with a disability in Quebec:

Article courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.