Under a smooth sea with a modest groundswell we steam to an underwater pinnacle named Fantasy. It’s well-known for the wolf-eels that live in cracks and crevices at around 20m.
Brooding anemone on bull kelp.
As most of the wolf-eels are too large for macro, Ron and I select wide-angle set-ups, and are not disappointed. The visibility is good for the site, perhaps 15m, but the light level at depth is low beneath an overcast sky, contributing to an otherworldly shade of intense emerald in the nutrient-rich water.
I follow Ron to the bottom and take to shooting him as he is shooting close-focus, wide-angle subjects with his mini-dome rig. The dive is mesmerising, with rocks, walls and tables along the base of the pinnacle carpeted with seemingly millions of ghostly white short plumose anemones.
Then, like giant sentinels among the smaller, uniform short plumose minions, a few giant plumose anemones extend themselves, like living watchtowers above their smaller cousins.
Anemones abound, and so do the seastars. I count at least five species in the first 10 minutes on the bottom.
At the edge of the anemone fields, the open bottom is populated with slate-coloured mussels the size of my fist. A few unlucky ones are under assault by muscular seastars, their thick arms applying a constant pull that will eventually fatigue the mollusc and lead to its demise.
Real estate is at a premium on Fantasy, and every inch of surface is occupied by something vibrantly alive.
By now we are deep into our bottom-time, and I have completely forgotten the wolf-eels, even though they are among the most iconic animals found in coldwater diving. I have just signalled to Ron my intention to work up the slope when, above a rubble pile of empty mussel-shells, I find a female wolf-eel jutting out from her lair.
She lingers just long enough for me to snap a couple of quick frames before retreating back into her recess.
Back on the boat, our group is animated by the discoveries of the dive. Everyone other than Ron and me knows their animals, it seems, and we’re leaning on Jackie for identification support, woefully lacking the basic skills required to describe the new animals that we have encountered.
One of the divers asks if anyone has found a “GPO” – aka giant Pacific octopus – on the dive. The GPO is another iconic coldwater animal, and encounters are treasured. While the cephalopod eluded our group, everyone got their wolf-eel images.
During our extended surface interval awaiting the tide change at our next dive site, 7-Tree, Jackie spots more than a dozen bald eagles, mixed with gulls and diving ducks, diving-bombing a Pacific herring school in the middle of the passage.
Bill slowly motors closer, careful not to interrupt the feeding birds, while Jackie explains the interactive biology we were witnessing. The impressive experience is yet another reminder of how remote and pristine this slice of British Columbia remains.
Looks can be deceiving. There are assaults underway in this region, more global than local. In the past few years multi-armed sunflower stars, seemingly once as plentiful as the plumose anemones, have suffered an alarming, fatal infection known as wasting disease.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that climate-change may well be a stressor to the sunflower stars, making them much more susceptible to this affliction, The Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the USA and Canada has seen water temperatures rise in recent years, and certain animals may not adapt well to even minor environmental changes.
We saw few sunflower stars in our four days of diving, and most of those we did see were juveniles.
Had it not been for Jackie’s cautious if not sobering lessons on the subtle fragility of this eco-system, it would have gone unnoticed by a newcomer like me. At least for now, however, and despite the global climate-change ramifications, the eco-system appears to be quite diverse and vibrant.