Posts Tagged Diving

Great Bear Sea Winter Dive Expedition: Part II

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 twice daily flushing and filling of lagoons creates the dynamic environment that supports diversity, strengthening the fabric of the natural world here and the main ingredient that Ian and Tavish are searching for – strong tidal current!  We anchored up shortly before dark and Tavish was eager to get in the water.  Ian fielded media calls from the Habitat while I cooked up some dinner; back at Pacific Wild headquarters, international media are reporting on the amazing fishing wolf coverage their remote cameras are getting.  Tav emerged with stories of an overly curious octopus – apparently he’s a sucker for a good close up.

There’s a special time when ebb turns to flood and the only indication of current is the twisted up bull kelp laying battered on the surface.  This time of year you’re lucky if you have two slack tides in daylight, but we missed it.  Our first dive was about 0900, two hours before low slack, so Ian and Tav ducked into eddies out of the 12 knots of white water that was pouring out of the lagoon.  I tied the tender to an overhanging tree, finding solace in the low boughs like the belted kingfishers.  Peering over the side of the dinghy I got a taste of the beauty below, I could see green surf and plumose anemones and a few schooling striped sea perch, anticipating what Ian and Tav had captured in this challenging environment.

The following day, low slack was timed well; midday it was supposed to turn.  With enough time for a morning dive to get the kinks worked out, I drop the divers on the edge of the raging current.  It was a stunner of a morning: clear sky, great blue herons fishing the shore, cormorants and grebes pursuing the swift water, and a sea lion, investigative of the dual streams of bubbles rising up from below.

Back on Habitat, the crew busily set up for our window of stillness, lights were charged and air tanks were filled.  Ian and Tav donned their suits in giddy anticipation of such ideal conditions – slack tide, excellent visibility, no wind, a reliable tender to fetch them, and sunshine!

We arrived on scene with water still draining from the lagoon. With each diver set up in his chosen spot, I fastened the boat to a few stipes of kelp.  Above the water, everything went quiet and the stillness was enchanting.  It took only a minute for my kelp hitching post to go slack and slowly bow in the opposite direction, indicating the flood was on the way. Below the water, all types of fish came up from their bunkers and swam about freely, enjoying the brief relief from their windy existence.

Our time was spent well in the protection of these tidal lagoons and the divers’ spectacular images and footage will surely become part of the conservation agenda in the coming months, but for now it’s time to move on. The tender is hauled out and lashed in its cradle, air tanks are tied down, and the galley’s contents are stowed securely away as we work our way to the wave-beaten outer coast.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Hydrophone Scouting in the Great Bear

by Claire Hume, Pacific Wild intern

With herring season upon us, a small group of us here at Pacific Wild took advantage of a break in the weather and took a trip along the outside of the Great Bear.  Our mission was to identify new locations on the windswept and rugged outer coast for the next hydrophone and remote wildlife camera installations planned for Heiltsuk territory.

Little did I know that this one trip would introduce me to sea otters, humpback whales, signs of an outer coastal wolf pack, and the incredible sight of a group of transient whales surfing through breaking swells as they preyed on Stellar sea lions.

As we crossed miles of open ocean swells and entered a rocky outcropping of islets downwind, I was hit with the smell of 500 Stellar sea lions. They watched us curiously as we pulled the boat along shore. As we slowed to a stop, Ian and Tavish slipped into their diving gear, grabbed underwater cameras, and hopped into the water.  Finding a suitable underwater crack in the rock to lay the hydrophone cable is essential if we expect to keep the cable intact through the winter. The sea lions, comically sluggish and clumsy on land, clambered over their sleeping neighbours and grunted in each other’s faces. But the moment they hit the water, after dragging and wobbling their way to the rock’s edge, they moved easily with an incredible combination of power and grace. I wondered, as we bobbed around in the sunshine, what, exactly, our plan of action would be if the divers were met with a less than friendly response from the giant creatures swirling below. With no way of knowing how the underwater world was treating them, we just continued to bob and hope for the best.

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A short while later the divers resurfaced, all smiles. Swimming with the sea lions, they informed us, didn’t make them nervous at all. They compared it to visiting a gang of playful, albeit massive, dogs. It wasn’t until I saw their footage later that day that I really appreciated their analogy. The sea lions kept their distance as they calmly circled the divers, curious to see these strange new beings from all angles. Occasionally coming closer to blow bubbles at their masks or to look at their reflections in the camera, the sea lions came across as beautiful and inquisitive animals.

On our way back from diving, Max thought he spotted something up ahead. Eagerly scanning the horizon for a dorsal fin or spout, our concentration was interrupted by a killer whale breaching clear out of the water. A group of transient mammal-hunting whales was heading right for the sea lion rock.

We dropped the hydrophone overboard and listened as they called to one another and then fell silent, a sign that they were going into hunting mode. Turning the boat around, we raced back to the sea lion rock and waited, with a quiet engine and cameras ready, for the killer whales to come our way. Minutes later they arrived, six adults plus two calves, and began tearing back and forth through the surf as sea lions barked and bawled. The tension was incredible both on the island and on board as everyone scrambled to get ID photos and footage.

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Then, just as quickly as it had started, they were gone, moving south, most likely to the next sea lion haul out.

Back on solid ground we compared our whale pictures to DFO’s killer whale catalogue and identified the individuals we saw as members of the T55 Group. The largest male in the pod was born in 1972 and goes by the ID label of T54. Clearly the next location for a hydrophone station had been found – now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right weather window.

When the hydrophones and camera are installed this summer, Pacific Wild will transmit the audio and video streams live through their website, allowing people all over the world to monitor the behaviour of the animals in this incredible ecosystem and appreciate what a spectacular place this really is.

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Diving with Sea Lions in the Great Bear Rainforest

Ian McAllister being filmed photographing a playful group of sea lions along the proposed Enbridge and LNG tanker route in the Great Bear Rainforest. This group of sea lions lives less than one kilometer from an estimated 2000 tanker trips being proposed for the BC north coast. Footage supplied by Tavish Campbell 2013.

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