Eerily beautiful: Capturing images of the Salish Sea life

Latest update July 13, 2019 Started on July 1, 2019

Leaving the balmy tropical waters of my west Mexican home I travel to dive around Vancouver Island and capture images of its rich aquatic life. I am also carrying my Trident ROV hoping to explore some of the less accessible depths.

July 1, 2019
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In The Field


So how was the sponges dive? Deep, dark, short and utterly fascinating. Even though I somehow created a mental picture of what to expect, I hadn’t imagined all the surprises that awaited me.

What proved to be spot on was my expectation to be the rookie on this trip. The “Sponge charter” as today was unofficially labeled, was organized by Rockfish Divers - an outfit from Victoria, preferred by many experienced locals. As the participants started to converge on the pier, it was immediately evident that they knew their trade. If you see someone putting on all of their cold diving gear in 2 minutes flat, you know they are not new to this. Good thing I arrived first!

Once on board, the ride-in takes only a few minutes. Our destination - the north side of the Senanus Island in Saanich Inlet is less than 2 miles from the Angler’s anchorage, our point of departure. After a short briefing about the dive - mostly for my benefit - we are ready to go. I buddy up with Larry and follow him as the second diver overboard. Tyler, Rockfish owner and today also the captain of the vessel, passes me my camera rig. Larry makes the “Thumbs down” sign and we are ready to dive. Or .. that’s what I thought. I deflate my BCD and dry suit but sink only a few inches. Damn, I am too buoyant. How did that happen? I turn upside down and use my fins to propel myself downward. That works, but when I right myself I start going up again. Meanwhile, Larry has gone through the soupy cloudy water below and I cannot see him anymore. I try again with the same result. I bob up again. I am ready to ask Tyler for more lead, when Larry pops up next to me. “I am too light”, I explain. “I will give it one more try.” I do my flip again and Larry follows me down. Four feet below the surface he pushes my head down a few more inches. That works and I finally start to sink. We are on our way.

As we parachute down through clouds of plankton, I switch on my camera and flashes. My drysuit starts to squeeze as the pressure increases. I pump in some air. Then, quite suddenly the view opens. I see Larry hovering over a slope composed of smaller boulders and rocky outcrops. Eerie green light shrouds the scene and peters out to black below. I check my gauges. Ninety feet - we are deep already. I level off and follow Larry onward. A few kicks and there they are. The sponges. Quite frankly - I expected one or two clumps, but there are what seems to be dozens of fragile looking structures looming ghostly white in the dark water. I approach the one closest to me. I tweak my buoyancy as best I can. The sponge’s body is literally glass - built from silica stripped directly from the sea water. I need to be careful - they are bound to be fragile. I scan over the sponge in front of me. I tentatively identify it as the Cloud sponge (Aphrocallistes vastus). It is about 4 feet across, creamy white. Now I understand where its name comes from - the sponge with is many folds and smooth curves does look like a cloud. I snap a photo and move on to the next. Sponge reefs are islands of diversity on otherwise barren sea floor and I am looking for creatures that might be hiding in their folds. Sure enough - there is a small Copper rockfish (Sebastes caurinus) peeking out of its glass cave and I manage to take a shot before my lights scare it away (Photo 1).

I keep swimming over the reef taking pictures and fiddling with my suit valves trying to manage my body position more effectively. I know I will only be as good a photographer as I am a diver. Without a perfect buoyancy control it will be hard to take good shots. But, that’s why I am here. Such skills do not come from sitting at a desk.

I glance at my dive computer again. At 100 feet our bottom time is quickly running out. In a few minutes I will be bumping into my non deco limits. I wish to stay, but need to go up. Cresting the rocky slope above me I leave the sponges and emerge on a small plateau. I notice several of my fellow divers coming up from the depths, too. Physics apply to us all. The ascent buys me a few more minutes to explore so I look around for the next shot. I notice Larry making signs at me with his flashlight and as I come closer he casts the beam on a beautiful Swimming anemone (Stomphia didemon) perched in a perfect position on a small rocky crest. Although mostly sedentary, this anemone species can actually walk off on its stalk when threatened by predatory leather stars. This one however is mercifully still and gives me a chance to take an easy shot (Photo 2).

Then my computer reminds me the dive is over. The day has one more surprise in store for me though. As I approach the permanent anchor rope, marking our way back I look up and stare. Its entire length of at least 60 feet is covered with Giant plumose anemones (Metridium farcimen). A single Giant anemone is a beautiful sight, but an entire skyward ladder of them is simply stunning (Photo 3). I realize I could spend an entire tank just exploring the rope itself. Wow, I need to come back.

  • Petr Myska

Note: There are many worthy information sources related to what I write about. I will make sure to include links for those of you interested in finding out more.

PS: With a bit of hindsight we figured I caused my surface buoyancy issues by adding several new layers of clothing under my drysuit, which I didn’t wear on my previous dive. The price you pay for being a spoiled tropical-dwelling human :)

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We are on

Here I am, back in Canada - shivering body, chattering teeth, numb face masking my happy grin. I am bobbing on the surface after my first dive at Henderson Point, one of my favorite spots in Saanich Inlet.

My friend, guide and mentor Larry, floating next to me. I am trying to convey my excitement, but all I manage is a mumble. The 10°C water effectively paralyzed my face. No matter. This was a great first dive. We found a den of a Giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) with its inevitable cemetery of crab shells piled high up at its entrance, I had a staring contest with a good sized Ling cod (Ophiodon elongatus), Larry pointed out to me dozens of nudibranchs, crabs, sculpins and other creatures I came to visit and hopefully photograph.

It was a good test run for some of my gear too, since tomorrow we are heading out again and this time a bit deeper. The plan is to visit some Glass sponges. I have never seen those before. Can’t wait.

Stay tuned.

  • Petr Myska

Pioneers of underwater exploration

My father in law (left) - one of the early underwater explorers of the Salish Sea showing off his home built submarine in this Colonist 1959 photo. He was 15 at that time. No buoyancy control devices, no dive computers, dive suits made of latex-painted long underwear. These guys were tough to say the least!

  • Petr Myska
Expedition Background

More than a decade ago, I asked a Canadian friend if there was any good diving around Vancouver Island. First he gave me a “What’s wrong with you?” look, but then understood I was serious. His facial expression changed as he answered: “The best in the world!”
This stuck with me. But it wasn’t until last year, when I finally got the opportunity to see for myself. I was astounded. Granted, the water is cold! (around 10 Celsius) and diving in several layers of clothing and 36 pounds of lead on the belt, takes a bit of getting used to. The rewards are worth the effort though. Abundance of life, its variety, shapes and color, which most of us associate with tropical waters will surprise you around here.

I found the perfect dive buddy too. Larry Taylor is a Victorian who knows every cool spot underwater around here, has patience with cold-diving novices and loves to take photos to boot! Last summer we spent countless chilly hours together underwater, “parked” over rock piles teeming with life, snapping macros of nudibranchs, sculpins, tube dwelling anemones and other sea creatures.

In a few days I will be back in British Columbia. Gear is ready, plans are made. This time we will also travel north to explore the current swept reefs around Campbell River. Time to get wet, time to get cold, time to explore the eerie emerald Salish Sea.

  • Petr Myska
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