Eerily beautiful: Capturing images of the Salish Sea life

Latest update August 15, 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

Steep Island & Strawberry fields

The second day of our Campbell River trip greets us with mercifully convenient 9 AM first dive call. Plenty of time for a good sleep and a calorie-rich breakfast (seems to be the thing around here!). Five minute drive to marina, gear up during the short boat ride and we are in the water by ten.

After the first two dives yesterday I believe I know what to expect. - Wrong. As soon as we descend, I am stunned again by the color around me. Fields of Strawberry anemones (Corynactis californica) stretch out below me dotted white and yellow with several sponge species. Sea urchins and sea stars prowl around (Photo 2). We glide along the wall and I have several close quarter staring contests with good-sized Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) sitting patiently in the rocky crevasses (Photo 3). I am experiencing what happened to me several times in the past when exploring new waters. A certain form of a trance borne of a sensory overload and the purest form of wonder. I am having a hard time taking all this in on a conscious level. But I know the scenes unrolling around me in the beam of my flashlight will replay in my head many times over in the future. This is one of the things I love about diving. You do not experience the dives only once - they become a part of you and you can surf on their memories time and time again.

As our air starts running low and we slowly ascend I spot the largest nudibranch I have ever seen. A Sea lemon (Peltodoris nobilis), bright yellow, loaf of bread size chunk standing out against the reds and burgundy of the surrounding reef. I swoop down and take a quick shot (Photo 1).

A steep wall crawling with sea stars on our left leads us to a shallow ledge covered with kelp, where we spend our 3 minute safety stop admiring the scenery (Photo 4).

  • Petr Myska

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Hooded nudibranch (Melibe leonina)

Certainly one of the strangest ocean creatures I have encountered so far. I spotted this translucent sea slug floating in the water column during a recent safety spot. Constantly in motion and “insubstantial” it was hard to focus on and hit with my strobe at the same time, but after a few tries I managed the attached photo.

  • up to 7 inches long (18 cm)
  • predator of planktonic invertebrates
  • prey swallowed whole
  • produces a watermelon-like smelling secretion when disturbed
  • Hooded nudibranch

Tennis underwater?

Our second dive of the day turns out to be much less kinetic than the first. We drop to nice calm waters off the Whiskey Point at a shallow shelf covered with kelp. Earl paints a mental map of the dive for us again before we jump in. Once more he is spot on with his description. We trace along the route he recommended us to take knowing he will be following our every movement from the boat. Once at our target depth I notice a set of spheres sitting in a group on a rocky ledge, surrounded by a carpet of Strawberry anemones. Tennis balls! I have been expecting surprises, but certainly not in a form of sports equipment. The color of a well used ball is exact, their surface a short cropped fluff. They even show the wavy stitching pattern where it should be. As I come closer however I realize these cannot be tennis balls after all. They are too large and a bit short of perfectly round. Fascinated I snap a photo (Photo 1) for future reference. Later I find that I wasn’t too far off actually and certainly not the first to notice the similarities. These creatures are called Tennis ball sponges (Craniella spinosa) and I will eventually find them again regularly during our future dives. We continue on alongside the wall and eventually through the kelp forest itself. I find kelp very beautiful when seen from underneath with its soothing slow undulations. It also comes handy when current picks up at the end of our dive. Firmly attached to the rocky substrate, it provides a great anchor to hold on to during our safety stop.

We spend the rest of the dive gliding over a fairly shallow ledge among the Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) roots. (Photo 2). I have a great opportunity to observe first hand the interplay of kelp and sea urchin populations. Sea urchins prey on kelp and kelp is scarce where urchins abound (Photo 3).

  • Petr Myska

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Many firsts

The first day of our expedition to Campbell River we don’t waste any time. After a few hours drive and a quick lunch, we are at the Marina, ready to roll. A few loads of gear on top of a two wheel cart over a dangerously steep (low tide) entry ramp has given us a good warm up.

Our “ride” will be a sturdy looking aluminum dive boat (Photo 2), property of Abyssal Diving Charters. We find that we will have it all for ourselves for the next few days. With lots of space to spare we pile in with our gear and start preparations. A few minutes later, Earl, our captain and Abyssal owner appears and we shake hands. With several decades of local diving to his credit, he is just the guide you need when exploring “new” waters. He has a plan for us. In about an hour the tide conditions will be optimal at the Copper Cliffs, he says. We nod and start getting dressed as Earl gets the boat underway.

Twenty minutes later we are under the looming cliff side. Larry has dived here before, so Earl’s briefing is more for my benefit. As he starts explaining in detail depths, currents, walls, ledges and potential animal encounters I understand how intimately he knows the underwater world around here. While he speaks, he doesn’t stop watching the water. I can see his eyes read the current, eddies, ripples, the dance of underwater vegetation, always looking for subtle changes that will indicate it is time to get in. When the moment comes, Larry gives me a few last instructions. “If you get hit by the current, do not panic. Stop and look for a way to get out. Often you will need to move only a few feet to get into calmer water.” I will remember this soon enough!

We plunge in and descend quickly along the cliff walls that keep their sheer profile for another 100 feet below the water surface. Everything Earl told us to expect is there. Several clumps of Plumose anemones (Metridium farcimen), carpets of Strawberry anemones (Corynactis californica), Cloud sponges (Aphrocallistes vastus), a myriad of sea stars and sea urchins and another thousand different creatures to blow your mind. I follow Larry north along the wall. In a while we come across a rockfall and as we clear the wall we feel the current speeding up. I stop taking photos and grab on some rocks to steady myself. I look at Larry and read his hand gestures. “Up and closer to the wall on our right”, I understand. I climb rather than swim a few feet in the indicated direction. Sure enough, the current is much weaker here. Awesome. We ascend slowly following the rock strewn slope and enjoy the sights for the next few minutes.

Then we decide to level off and move further north along the next wall section. As we leave our sheltered location, the current speeds up again. Strong enough to ruin my chance for more photos, but still at a perfectly enjoyable sightseeing pace. This doesn’t last long though. Suddenly, everything is a whirl. I am very close to the wall now and lucky enough to quickly find a decent hand hold. That slows my progress and I see Larry slip past me and disappear. I hold on. I check my gauges. I am ok on air, but the prudent course of action is to go up. Easier said than done. As I let go of my handhold, I start moving fast along the wall again. I grab my camera rig to protect the wide angle dome from smashing against the rock wall and look for another place to grab on. I spot an overhang ahead and above me and steer to get to it. I happen to calculate well and in a few moments I am there. I spot a long crack in the wall on my right and put my hand into it anchor myself. That works, I stop. I check the depth. Six meters. Perfect. A good spot for a safety stop. As the compulsory 3 minutes tick by I hope Larry is ok too and not too worried about me.

When I surface, Earl’s boat is only a few meters away from me. He has eyes on me the moment I appear. I know he had known all along where we are at. I ask about Larry and he points out to a clump of bubbles not far from my location. All good then. A minute later, we are both on board. First dive in Campbell River. Check. First test by high current. Check.

  • Petr Myska

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I am overwhelmed

A few days ago we left the murky waters of Saanich Inlet behind and staged our base from Campbell River further up north on Vancouver Island. Thanks to very high currents, flushing the ocean tidal waters back and forth, squeezing through channels separating the many islands crammed in between the mainland and the main island, the sea life around here thrives. I knew this was one of the most renowned spots in the cold water diving. My excitement to explore it matched its fame. What I saw however, far exceeded my expectations.

I will need some time to fully assimilate the experience and process all images I have taken. But I will start by publishing several posts and photos dedicated to this fantastic place over the next few days here. Stay tuned.


Sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides)

Today, since I came armed with my wide angle dome again, I will be looking for something substantially big to fill my camera frame. We are back at Henderson Point - one of our favorite sites in the Inlet. As soon as we are in, I confirm that visibility continues to be an issue. The first 30 feet resembles a snow storm, such is the amount of suspended particles in the water column. We push deeper, but conditions improve only very slightly. What improves considerably though is my mood. I come across exactly what I have been hoping for. Advancing over a slanted rock in front of me is the Sunflower sea star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), the largest sea star species on the planet. That in itself would be impressive enough, but the list of peculiarities goes on. Just consider the following:

  • heaviest known star - up to 5 kgs
  • most arms of any star species (15 to 24)
  • longest arms of any star species - up to 40 cm
  • second fastest star species - up to 10 cm per second
  • can regrow lost arms, even entire new star if a lost arm includes part of the central disk
  • has up to 15,000 tube feet with suction cups

Sunflower sea stars are predators and will consume practically anything they can hunt down. Mussels, sea urchins, fish, crabs, barnacles, sea cucumbers, clams, gastropods, sand dollars, and occasionally algae and sponges.

I truly wonder who thought of giving them such a sunny name. Of course, the similarity in between their body shape and the famous flower is uncanny, but if it were up to me I would call them the Terminators.

  • Petr Myska

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The wolves of Sluggett

Today, we plan to be milling around The Sluggett Point in Saanich Inlet. A dive site new to me, but short distance both from Henderson and Willis, places I have visited before. We know the visibility in the inlet hasn’t been great recently, but I will take my chances with the suspended particles and swap my macro lens for a wide angle dome. I wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to take a shot of what would be my first Wolf eel. Larry found their den the other day and is confident he can find them again. I have seen his navigation skills underwater, many times in featureless, dim and murky circumstances and don’t doubt him for a second.

We park, prep, jump (ok, … walk) into the water. The entry is shallow for quite some distance and we navigate for a few minutes only 10 feet below the surface. Then we reach a rocky point and plunge into the shadows. I notice there is a lot of silt covering the bottom and do my best not to stir it up. No need to make the shooting conditions even more challenging. The visibility improves slightly as we go deeper, but is still quite poor. I will have to be very careful with my strobes. If I direct their beam to hit only what I need to illuminate I could keep backscatter at some manageable level. I decide to work with one light only and use a snoot to focus it. I take a trial shot and adjust the strobe position. I feel ready.

A few moments later Larry signals to me. He usually does that by bobbing his flashlight to draw my attention and then pointing to whatever he is trying to show me. I look at the rock pile he is shining on, but cannot see a thing. I start circling around, but Larry stops me with a hand signal and urges me to come the other way. As I swim around his back and finally see what he is shining on, I experience a brief “Oh boy” moment. There he is - my first Wolf eel. How exciting! Yet, I know right away that a decent shot will be hard to pull off. The “wolf”, well aware, is watching us from a den opening lined with boulders of all shapes and sizes. It will be nearly impossible to get my dome close enough and still have space to get my strobe in the correct position. But I am not here to complain about the perfect world or its lack thereof. I approach and stick my camera forward as close as the boulders allow me. I take a shot. The eel loyal to its curious nature sticks his head out a bit to check us out and … Surprise! There is a lady eel behind him! I aim again trying to get them both in and take another shot. Then I see Larry’s hand in my field of view. He is clutching a Red rock crab. Wolf eels are predators and although their favorite snack are sea urchins, this might just work. They often come out of their dens when offered something tasty. Sure enough, the eel slides out a foot and “sniffs” at the crab. Then he retreats back. All at once I notice - the crab’s body is limp, dead. We might have just insulted the Wolf eel, I think. Do we really expect a show for a dead, smelly crab? Larry tries to offer it again, but the eel doesn’t have any of this. With no tasty urchins around, we are out of options. But that’s OK. I will certainly not forget my first Wolf eel encounter. I have one photo to show for it. I will call it Mr & Mrs. Wolf.

I will keep on looking for another photo opportunity. The Wolf eels are impressive animals worthy of an impressive photo. I owe you one.

  • Petr Myska

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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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