Great Bear Sea Winter Dive Expedition: Part I

Ashley Stocks is on a Pacific Wild diving expedition through the Great Bear Sea and will be uploading a three part blog series with new images and footage.

A quick remedy of tape around the neck cuff of Ian’s loaned oversized drysuit made the seal watertight against the numbing North Pacific. Equipped with lead weights, air tank, and gauges dragging along the bottom of our dinghy, I eagerly tied the bow line to the bough of a fallen cedar. In my bold reach and instability, I fell right out of the boat onto the rocks. My mask could not find a seal against my face and my feet had slipped out of the suit feet, leaving my flippers limply clinging to empty rubber. But eventually I descended, all sounds fell away into silence and I entered another world… through my blurry mask were thousands of hooded nudibranchs clinging to giant kelp, waiting for zooplankton to enter their fleshy nets.  Only moments ago, a group of mammal-eating orcas, celebrating a recent meal, glided under the twin hulls of our sailing vessel, slapping tail flukes and showing their white bellies as they vanished into the misty distance.

* * * *

It’s always exciting when seasons change on the coast, deciduous trees drop their leaves, the air cools and adopts the comforting scent of fir fire smoke, and humpback whales start their southbound migration. But perhaps most noticeably, salmon carcasses remain in rivers as essential nutrients, while fertilized eggs are left to over-winter in their frigid watery baths – the promise of a future for all species. Most of the larger predators have moved out of the valley bottoms and onto winter living, fat with salmon omegas, onto a life of minimal daylight and ruthless coastal storms. But today the coast is cold and quiet as we get ready to cast off on this underwater exploration.

There are always a few things to work through on the days leading up to a trip and this time our sailing vessel Habitat required minimal attention before charging into heavy seas and gleaming bays. More dire pre-departure agendas, at least for the Denny Island kids, were the Sunday soccer game and helping neighbours move engine blocks up a flight of stairs.

Through these dive surveys, Tavish and Ian hope to document in video and still imagery, the delicate workings of the seascape that are so rarely seen and reported. The aim is to collect unique observations, accounts, and behaviours of submarine creatures during a season that is largely unvisited along this highly threatened coastline.

I am closing in on my fifth year crewing on boats on the coast of B.C. now, and on this expedition, I’ve been tasked with keeping track of things on the surface: looking after the tender, crew nutrition, and watching the diver’s exhalations – boils and bubbles indicating their positions below.

* * * *

Launching our first dive at King Island, we get into the routine and testing of equipment. From my vantage point, I spot a belted kingfisher perched low over the water darting about and following Ian’s bubbles while Tavish brings up his first footage from depth, a psychedelic box crab, cruising the ocean bottom.

We continue south to Namu; a once thriving and bustling cannery (B.C. Packers) is now abandoned and vacant of a responsible land-owner. Perhaps a fault of the economy, or bad parenting, there is lacking desire to clean up the mess after boom and bust, and now Namu crumbles iconically leaching harmful waste into the mouth of a salmon bearing stream. The concern here is not the retroaction of the parties responsible, it is the adequacy in coping with modern messes, say, a V.L.C.C. gushing out barrels of bitumen into critical fin whale habitat and river estuaries.

A few miles down Fitz Hugh Sound, we set the hook at the mouth of the Koeye River. The clarity of the water here shows the divers’ bubbles climbing emerald green through the water column. I find comfort knowing they’re snapping away while I bravely keep guard, paddling around in the tender left to my thoughts -

An adventure but surely with a purpose – an expose of sub-tidal Great Bear Sea! Perhaps we do this for our children who will strive to make a life on this coast, or for the folks in Washington, D.C. who listen to the live feed of the audio from Pacific Wild’s remote cameras so they too can enjoy howling wolves from their office chairs. Or it’s because salmon swim every inch of the coastline feeding all nations – the towering spruce of valley bottoms and scarlet anemones.

* * * *

Casting my gaze towards Hakai Pass, a few remaining humpback whale spouts are spotted against the darkened shore, and a quick snorkel trip up the river reveals two juvenile grizzlies, searching for the last of the pinks in a late pulse up their natal stream.

Out here, the most influential agent of landscape change is fluids. Water carving and dissolving, wind throwing up great stands of forest and soil, and ice sculpting peaks and fjords, defining the geography of this coastline. The great mass of ice, 10,000 years ago, causing areas to bulge up, while others only miles away, were pushed deep into the ocean resulting in a staggering variability of sea level. You could imagine then, there might be a place where the land wasn’t depressed nor bulged (like that of the fulcrum of a teeter-totter), a unique attribute of the coast where sea level has been relatively constant.

Knowing this might change the way you look at the landscape. Ecological communities could be much older than once perceived and perhaps a more refined use of the coastal zone, would be common among all species that have resided here since the last glacial maximum. Perhaps Ian and Tavish are documenting ancient adaptations of the creatures here, in their quest for survival in the Great Bear Sea.

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  1. #1 by Teresa Porter on November 16, 2013 - 9:58 pm

    I just want to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog. I want everyone to know about this amazing and beautiful place, and that we must protect it at all costs.

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