Thousands upon thousands of bright pink and red strawberry anemones fill the underwater seascape, as clusters of giant, white cloud sponges protrude proudly off of the giant boulders that rest precariously upon a slope that wanders off into the abysmal depths. Above, a tinge of green light reminds us that there’s a world above and a curious Sea Lion darts to and fro, silhouetted by the backlit, emerald surface light. But, our adventures lead us deeper yet. Descending down to the limits of recreational diving, I spot a Puget Sound King Crab, hunkering down in its impenetrable armor, colored bright orange, yellow and royal blue. Next to it, a shy Mosshead Warbonnet peers out of a chimney sponge, and a beautiful rose anemone’s tentacles move meticulously as I drift by. My vision sharpens as I notice the shell littered bottom carpeted with humongous tube-dwelling anemones, because I know that their predator, the Giant Nudibranch, can’t be far off.
Just at the edge of a massive granite outcropping at approximately 150 feet beneath the surface, I get an ominous feeling that beyond this point lies the deep, dark unknown. I feel the slithering grip of nitrogen narcosis starting to exert its hold on me. I try to breathe deep, to slow my thoughts and to concentrate on maintaining my buoyancy and sharpness of mind. Here we find the sparse beginning of a forest of cold water corals known as Gorgonians. These vibrant orange creatures’ forms twist this way and that, and are vaguely reminiscent of the delicate blue and purple sea fans who inhabit warmer waters, far to the South. Yet these Gorgonians, banished the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, are thick and muscular, stiff and unfamiliar – as if human eyes have not peered upon them for aeons. They live a solitary existence in depths and latitudes rarely visited by even the most adventurous underwater explorers.
The first of these corals we come upon has its polyps out, feeding in the oceanic current that sweeps us along like an underwater gale-force wind. Attempting to fight a current of this strength is futile. I descend further, as the cold waters and darkness envelop me, holding on to my camera rig like a sail. We drift on deeper, until we reach a wall, near the bottom. My depth gauge groans in protest, as I see the numbers creeping upward: 160, 170, 180… finally, 190 feet below the surface. The arc of my light barely penetrates the darkness a dozen yards away, and a few moments later I see the behemoth appear out of the pitch black. Defiantly protruding well out beyond the safe confines of the rock wall and completely unmoved by the massive force of the same current that easily applies its will to us, the vermillion-orange Gorgonian beast and its skeletal, interlaced body springs out like a claw, cupping the current and its precious nutrients as a net traps its prey. Then, one-by-one, its titan-sized Gorgonian brethren begin to come into view – as we drift further along the wall. Each appearing larger than the last, in a myriad of alien shapes, reminiscent of the twisted formation of the cerebral cortex, yet at the same time delicate, as these creatures come to a single trunk, which anchors them steadfastly as their roots grasp tightly to the granite wall that suspends them effortlessly into the aquatic wind, seemingly without regard for time nor the presence of passerby.
Nootka Sound, BC
Where to find such rich, unspoiled environs and unlimited potential for cold water exploration and discovery? Nootka Sound, British Columbia. A group of friends and divers from Northwest Dive Club and I headed up to Tahsis, BC – a small village on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. Tahsis is about 4.5 hours by car from Nanaimo, BC – one of the major jumping-off points to Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. Though some believe Tahsis to be a fairly remote destination (it is), it’s surprisingly not very far from several major metro areas, notably Vancouver and Seattle. I made the journey between Seattle and Tahsis in just under 9 hours, including a 2 hour ferry crossing from Duke Point to Tsawwassen. In addition to the amazing sea life mentioned above, my dive buddy John Rawlings of Advanced Diver Magazine and I saw Giant Pacific Octopus, several species of Nudibranchs, many Kelp Greenlings, Red Octopus, Puget Sound Box Crab, various beautiful Anemones, an Elephant Seal, Sea Lions, Crinoids and more Hooded Nudibranchs than you can imagine (literally, tens of thousands).
The dive sites we hit were at the terminal end of Tahsis Inlet, meaning that they are fairly protected from destructive oceanic surf, yet benefit from the large tidal exchanges and ensuing fast currents that bring nutrient-rich waters into the inlet, much in the same way that most rich Puget Sound dive sites are situated. Thus, Tahsis Inlet is able to support a healthy, diverse marine ecosystem. Add to all of this the fact that the relative isolation of Tahsis from major population centers shields it from human impact and pollution, and the resulting dive sites are pristine and covered with life.
When to Go
The Summer months provide pleasant climate, but the town of Tahsis swells from a meagre population of around 350 to over 2,000 during the Summer, primarily as a result of the seasonal sport fishing influx. The best months for underwater visibility are in the late-Winter/early-Spring, and accommodation is fairly affordable from October through May.
Most of the known dive sites are a short, 15-minute boat ride from the public dock in Tahsis. Yet, there are undoubtedly tens if not hundreds of yet-undiscovered dive sites along Tahsis Inlet and beyond. We discovered one during our trip, and named it “Nudi Kung-Fu”, due to the abundance of Giant Nudibranchs (if disturbed, they swim through the water in movements akin to kung-fu) and the fact that it’s tradition to watch kung-fu movies on NWDC dive trips. The typical dive profile involves hitting the deeper areas of the walls and then ascending slowly and enjoying the different strata of life along the shallower depths. The deepest dive we did was to 192fsw (feet salt water), but if you know where to look, you can certainly find some Gorgonian corals at around 120fsw.
Some of my favorite dives sites:
- Mozino Point
- Boulder Alley
- Nudi Kung-Fu*
- Diane’s Drift
- The Zoo
Keep in mind, some of these dives sites run 300 yards wide, so there are many possible dive profiles to be done at each site. In addition, new dive sites are being discovered all the time. The currents can be extremely unpredictable in Tahsis Inlet, sometimes switching directions three times during a dive. So, it’s best to dive Nootka Sound aboard a dive charter run by an operator who is very familiar with the local waters and dive sites. Read along further for dive charter information.
Nootka Sound diving is heaven for the cold water photographer. The visibility in October ranged from 50′ to well over 100′ on some dives. Most of the dive sites have ground-shell bottoms as opposed to silt, and some of our favorite sites were composed of gigantic boulders that resulted from a rockslides off of the cliff faces above the water. Bring spare batteries and supplies. The nearest “town” to Tahsis is Gold River, where you won’t find much more than a gas station convenience store. Campbell River (3.5 hours from Tahsis) and Nanaimo (4.5 hours from Tahsis) are the next closest, large towns.
The most challenging part about diving and shooting the deep water Gorgonians is both the depth (the best ones I found are located at around 180fsw) and the fast current. Even while shooting with a wide-angle lens, it is extremely challenging to stabilize yourself against the current for long enough to frame a shot of a Gorgonian. Even though we attempted to hit Mozino Point deep during slack tide, it was still ripping down there. As the currents are unpredictable, please take extreme caution while diving deep there. You can always go back for another shoot if you’re unsuccessful the first time around.
Shooting macro is probably best done around the Boulder Alley dive site, in the 60-20fsw range. The boulders there allow you to pin yourself down for long enough to frame a macro shot, without being blown away by the currents. I shot a 60mm macro and 105mm super macro lens while there.
Topside Wilderness & Activities
Topside, one cannot tire of the wildlife spotting nor the charm of a village with just a few hundred inhabitants. During our first night, we ventured out to the only local pub and along the way spotted 3 black bears, running down the middle of the road. We’re not in Kansas, Dorothy. Among many other sightings, we saw deer, bald eagles, otters, sea lions and seals. It is not uncommon to come across evidence of mountain lions as well, though I’m rather glad we didn’t happen upon one within close proximity. Sea Kayaking, hiking and fishing are all in abundance in this area of Vancouver Island.
Vancouver Island in general is an untouched wilderness of beauty and escape. There are countless, pristine dive sites along both coasts, up North (Port Hardy) as well as the South Island around Victoria and Sidney.
From Seattle: take I-5 North to the USA/Canada border. Continue on CAN HWY-99 until you see signs for Tsawwassen. Take the ferry from Tsawwassen to Duke Point (Nanaimo). From there, head North to Campbell River and then head West to Gold River. Once you reach Gold River, Tahsis is about 45 minutes further down the road. The road between Gold River and Tahsis alternates between paved and dirt/gravel, so make sure you have traction tires in the Winter months.
From Vancouver: take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay, and then follow the directions from Nanaimo (above).
Last, but definitely not least, you’ll need the help of Scott and Jude from Tahtsa Dive Charters to embark on your adventures out in Nootka Sound. Tahtsa Dive Charters provides super-friendly, personal and professional service for doing boat dives in Tahsis Inlet. A husband and wife team, they are the only operation in town and provide some of the best service I’ve had, anywhere in the world. The dive shop is located right at the public pier in Tahsis where the dive boat embarks from. Scott and Jude not only arranged all of our diving and accommodation seamlessly and affordably, they provided end-to-end logistics and support, and cared for us in every aspect of our trip the entire time. I cannot say enough good things about this dive operator, nor Nootka Sound in general. If you are looking for something different than another run-of-the-mill dive trip to some warm, sunny place with fruity drinks and people hassling you to buy timeshares – consider booking a trip to a part of the world that is truly one of the last remaining, unspoiled underwater wilderness frontiers – Nootka Sound, Canada.
A special thank you to Scott & Jude from Tahtsa Dive Charters, for the hospitality and diving. Thank you to John Rawlings for being my CCR dive buddy, underwater paparazzi, for planning the trip and being a general inspiration. Thank you to Vel and Chuck, for showing us the way to the biggest, deep Gorgonians @ Mozino Point. A shout out and thanks to Matt Spiro (a.k.a. ‘Spatman’) and Tom Nicodemus – great dive buddies, NWDC Mods and fellow photographers. Thank you to Kim and Cindy for supporting our diving addiction, the sandwiches and sitting through all of those old kung-fu movies. Oh, and Rob the Bartender, thanks for the drinks and darts!
- Nootka Sound information & history
- Tahtsa Dive Charters web site
- BC Ferries ferry schedule
- Vancouver Island map
- Northwest Dive Club trip report
- John Rawlings Newsvine column
- Matt Spiro photography
- Tom Nicodemus photography
- Advanced Diver Magazine web site
- Gorgonian information
This article was originally published to CalvinTang.com