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Beautiful British Columbia

by Brian Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 42 (Nov. 1991)

Canada

Vancouver Island in British Columbia is the largest Pacific island in North America. It stretches 450 kilometres (280 miles) along Canada's rugged western coastline. The island is a stark contrast of lake studded mountains, deep green forests, rolling farmland and soft sandy beaches. Warmed by the Japanese current, the climate is gentle but strikingly diverse due to the majestic range of peaks dividing the island into dense rain forest on the West Coast and well formed lowlands on the East Coast, lying in the rain shadow of the mountains. Off shore lie some of the world's finest fishing grounds, home to several species of Salmon, which make them natural feeding grounds for Killer Whales, Sea Lions, Seals and Dolphins.

ADVENTURE BOUND

I awoke at dawn to a magnificent sunrise as the generator spluttered into life. The tantalizing smell of breakfast wafted down from the galley as I washed and dressed ready for the first of seven days diving on Exta Sea Charters' 'Sea Venture'. The anchor was raised and skipper Bob Robinson nosed the 53' vessel, with its 285 HP Volvo Penta diesel engine, out of Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island. En route over breakfast we learned that we were bound for Staples Island for a check-out dive prior to heading further north to the Deserters.

The sea was calm and the sun shone down, warming us as we kitted up on deck that early October morning, the boat lying peacefully at anchor and surrounded by small cedar covered islets. Once into our dry suits we transferred to the dive support vessel' Dive B. C.', a 21' Campion Hull skiff with a 200 HP Yamaha outboard engine. The rest of our kit had been put on board the previous evening, each of the ten divers having his own seat locker for mask, fins, snorkel, weight belt and gauges and with his tank, BC and DV strapped behind the seat ready to go.

KALEIDOSCOPE OF COLOUR

Within minutes we were in Staples Island Cut and rolling over the side into the cold clear waters of British Columbia. The scene that met us was unbelievably rich in marine life. Below the sparse but massive floating fronds of Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) the wall gave way to a kaleidoscope of colour. Every available inch was covered, dominated by white and pink Plumose Anemones (Metridium senile), large yellow Bread Crumb Sponges (Halichondria panicea), soft fluffy Sea Strawberries (Gersemia rubiformis) and Giant Acorn Barnacles (Balanus nubilis). The ]edges were home to hundreds of Giant Red Sea Urchins (Strongylocentrus franciscanus) and massive Sunflower Starfish (Pycnopodes helianthoides) and Leather Starfish (Dermasterias imbricata). Plumose Anemones, two feet high, and vast Fish-Eating Anemones (Tealia piscivora), with deep red stems and green and white tentacles, stood erect in the gentle current on the rocky slopes above the sea bed where two and a half feet high orange Sea Pens (Ptilosarcus gurneyi) filtered the sparse plankton from the water.

Kelp greenlings (Hexagrammus decagrammus) peered inquisitively at us, the blue blotched males showing more bravado than the orange speckled females. Cabezons (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus), China Rock Fish (Sebastes nebulosa), and Quillback Rock Fish (Sebastes maliger) hugged the rocky slopes, whilst small camouflaged Sculpins (Cottidae) darted amongst the anemones on the walls, pausing frequently to avoid detection by predators. We found several Orange Peel Sea Slugs (Tochuma tetraqueta) six inches long and decorated with a lacy white fringe, a large foot high orange sea squirt known locally as a Sea Peach, a large moon snail (Polinices lewisi) and, more impressive still, a very large Puget Sound King Crab (Lipholithodes mandtii), which despite being more than a foot across the carapace allowed me to pick it up and reposition it for a photograph. We also saw Flat Worms, several different small pretty Sea Slugs, Top Shells (Calliostoma annulatum), Lined Chitons (Tonicella lineata), bright Orange Cup Corals (Balanophyllia elegans), Crabs (Decapoda) and Scallops (Chlamys spp.).

After an hour, our film exposed and our air on reserve, we surfaced to be picked up by Dive B. C. Having passed up our cameras we held onto a purpose built rail at the water line on the starboard quarter and laid flat on the surface whilst our weight belts and fins were removed prior to ascending the stern ladder, where our tanks were removed equally efficiently.

WOLF EELS

Over the following days we completed 20 dives including 2 at night. On every dive we were equally impressed by the marine life, which has to be the most colourful and diverse in temperate waters I have ever seen. In addition to Staples Island we visited the Deserter Islands, Nigei Island (including Browning Wall) and Hunt Rock. It was at the later site that we encountered five feet long Wolf Eels (Anarrhichthys ocellatus). A pair of these amazing predators have been regularly fed by divers with Giant Red Sea Urchins. As a result they are very tame, allowing themselves to be stroked and petted like domestic cats and to be positioned in just the right spot for a photograph.

DOLPHINS

On our second day out, as we headed for Hussar Point in the Deserter Islands watching the horizon for Killer Whales, I spotted a school of dolphins a mile off the stern. I alerted the skipper and he turned the boat towards them. As we closed on the school, one dolphin and then another and another headed towards us. Suddenly we were surrounded by several dozen, the swiftest racing to the ship's fore and riding the bow wave. Effortlessly they kept ahead, breaking the surface momentarily from time to time to rapidly exhale and inhale before submerging. As they tired, so they peeled off to one side, their place being taken by another.

The boat circled in a wide arc. The beautiful, graceful dolphins were leaping out of the water all around us. We donned our wet suits and transferred to the skiff. As soon as we were all ready, the skiff closed on the mother ship and dropped us among the school with instructions to stay together as a group at a maximum of 40' and swim and vocalize like a dolphin.

By the time I hit the water only one other diver was in sight. I joined him. By chance he didn't have a camera and was obviously concentrating on not exceeding 40'. Great, I could use him as a depth indicator and concentrate on watching and photographing any dolphins that came along. And come along they didl The light coloured fins and broad stripes on my companion's suit were visible from a considerable distance and for this reason I believe several of the dolphins seemed to find him irresistible and raced round the pair of us in twos, threes, fives and more. They came within inches, rolling on their brilliant white sides as they cruised past, peering inquisitively with bright intelligent eyes at us strange clumsy neoprene-clad humans. Periodically members of the group would race to the surface in ones and twos to replenish their air supply. Silhouetted against the pale green window of the surface, they made irresistible subjects for photography. They returned over and over again, sometimes from directly ahead, sometimes from the side and sometimes from below, but always slowing as they passed.

We spent forty unforgettable minutes in the water with these marvelous Pacific White-sided Dolphins before our air ran low and we were forced to rejoin the world above. Even as we bobbed along in the gentle swell waiting to be picked up, dolphins swam past us, under us and around us, only moving on when all of us were on board and heading away for the next dive.

SEA LIONS

Preparing for an afternoon's dive amongst Browning Islets we spotted the large brown muzzle of a Stellar Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) as it cruised leisurely through the Bull Kelp on the opposite side of the channel. Regarded as a threatened species by the U. S., Stellar sea lions range from Japan through the Soviet Union's Kuril Islands, the Okhotsk Sea, the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Maska down to southern California. Not expecting to encounter sea lions underwater, I concentrated on photographing Hooded Nudibranchs (Melibe leonina), which, anchored to the kelp, spread their large fringe-lined hood, like a fisherman casting a net, and then slowly retracted it, simultaneously closing the fringe, to surround and filter minute organisms from the water. Back on board after the dive, I learned that the sea lion we had seen on the surface was accompanied by two others and these had swam around to be captured on video.

REFLECTIONS

Apart from some amazing dives and unexpectedly pleasant weather, we enjoyed the genial company of two groups of Canadian and American guests and, thanks to Mike Cambell, more food than we could possibly eat. The second group of guests arrived complete with a barrel of beer, courtesy of Exta Sea.

GETTING THERE

To get to Port Hardy we took a direct 9 hour flight from London, Gatwick on Canadian Airlines to Vancouver. Canadian have their own check-in facility at Gatwick, set apart from the other some what crowded airlines. We flew across to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island with Pacific Coastal and then spent two nights in Beachcomber near Nanaimo before traveling the five hours by road to Port Hardy, although it is possible to fly direct from Vancouver to Port Hardy or to take a ferry to Nanaimo and then drive north to experience some of Vancouver's fine scenery. If excellent cold water diving appeals to you, then you can book a similar trip through Twicker's World.

Reproduced from in focus 42 (Nov. 1991)


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