What to do if you as an underwater photographer have a month to pursue your passion somewhere? Travel to where? Egypt to the Red Sea? Sure, why not. Southeast Asia for great macro shots? Good too. Mexico with its caves or great deep-sea diving spots? Always a good choice. But my heart was beating for a completely different destination this summer: Canada. More specifically, the Emerald Sea near Vancouver Island on the west coast of the second largest country in the world.
Colours and shapes where the eye looks, crystal clear water and an abundance of different forms of life. This is a real dream destination for me. The only requirement: a drysuit. Because my journey goes to a world-class cold water area. Yes, Jaques Y. Cousteau has named it one of the 10 best dive sites ever. Nevertheless, the European diving community still does not give it the attention it deserves.
If you do a little research, you will soon realize that there are surprisingly few dive centres. At our destination, the Browning Pass in the north of the island, only two. Both of them are booked out for a long time in advance and sometimes difficult to contact. But we were lucky. In the Browning Pass Hideaway they remembered us and had free spots.
The Hideway is not a dive resort in the classical sense, but rather a diving camp with floating houses in a sheltered bay on Nigei Island. It is run by John de Boeck, a true diving legend who has been diving the north of Vancouver Island for 40 years and therefore knows it better than anyone else.
After a rather adventurous crossing from the small town of Port Hardy it soon becomes clear: Here you are far away from the shot. No internet, no mobile phone network, electricity only when the generator is running. Otherwise water, trees and abundant nature. For me, this means focusing on the essentials: diving and photography.
The first morning starts right away. Assemble the photo equipment, get into the drysuit and get on the boat. After only 15 minutes we are already at the first dive site “The Overhang”. And we were quite astonished: visibility between 20 and 30 meters. In the upper 10 meters of dense kelp vegetation, underneath colourful anemones and impressive rock formations. Here, John told us, we should look for the giant cephalopods in the crevices. Because they like to hide themselves in cracks and niches. We also call it the “cracktopus”. “One thing’s for sure,” John give us a few more words to say:”They’re down there. And they see you. But that doesn’t mean that you see them “.7
He’s supposed to be right. The camouflage artists remain hidden from our eyes. But instead we discover another amazing creature: The decorated warbonnet, one of the most extraordinary fish I’ve seen so far. An elongated, striped fish that looks like it has a whole Christmas flower arrangement on its head. One or two quick shots and he was gone again.
I’m not yet quite used to this bizarre appearance, so I’m already confronted with the next strange creature: a Puget Sound King Crab, a crab of massive dimensions, with bulky claws that gives no idea where there is the front or the back. But most impressive are the colours.
But what fascinates me most are the colours. The water is not blue or turquoise. It’s green. A wonderful, rich emerald green that submerges the world under water in a very special atmosphere. In general, the whole island seems to be green. Infinite coniferous forests on land, kelp forests in the sea and again and again this water.
The whole nature is like a single shade of green – if there wasn’t this sheer explosion of colour in the animal world. Anemones in white, orange, red and yellow. Starfish in blue and purple. Fish and nudibranchs in all imaginable patterns and shapes. It is difficult to escape this fascination. And for what? The photographer’s heart beats faster with every minute I spend in the water.
Hardly back to the surface, John surprises me with another discovery: wolves. A female animal and her puppies are patrolling the coast. About 250 of them live on Vancouver Island, an area one tenth the size of Germany. Although we are very quiet, the small family soon disappears again in the dense forest. Nevertheless, I have never had such an experience after diving anywhere else.
I learn to have a second camera with telephoto lens on board. There is much more to see here: American sea eagles are sitting in the trees and otters can appear on the water surface at any time.
Warmed up with coffee and hot chocolate, it goes back into the cold water. Our goal this time is the world-famous Browning Wall. This rock face is almost half a mile long and falls several hundred meters vertically into the depth. Over and over it is covered with anemones, which benefit from the partly strong tidal current with its rich food supply. At first sight I am both impressed and disappointed.
The sheer size of the wall is enormous. Only there is nothing to be seen of colour diversity. Apparently millions of white anemones give the whole thing a rather monotonous paint. My disillusionment leaves immediately as I approach the wall. It lives and moves everywhere. Hermit crabs, perfectly camouflaged shrimps and fish adapted to the anemones, everything here follows the eternal game of deception and camouflage. Only the master of optical confusion, the mollusk with its characteristic eight arms, is simply not to be found. What did John say? “They see you, but you don’t see them.”
Despite the thick clothes underneath, the cold does get to me finally. We return to the boat and make our way back to the warming hideaway. At least that’s the plan. Until one of John’s volunteers calls out:”Dorsal fin on 7 o’ clock”. Immediately the boat turns around. Everything is looking for the dorsal fin of a humpback whale. Shortly afterwards, we discover an unmistakable sign: the blow. But as we get closer, we see that the water vapour fountains do not come from baleen whales.
It is an Orca, these wonderful, intelligent creatures, to whom you do so terribly wrong with their second name Killer Whale. It doesn’t take long and we discover that a whole family of marine mammals are here. Organised in a chain of five animals, they patrol the waterway between the islands over their entire width. The telephoto lens is ready to hand this time and I’m getting hunting fever. After some shots we have to go back to our accommodation. It’s getting dark.
The next morning is full of wind. At least that’s what John says. We can hardly see any of it ourselves. The Browning Pass Hideaway is so well protected that the water appears to be mirror-smooth. Nevertheless we adapt our dive plan. We’re not going out on the Browning Pass. It doesn’t matter. There are plenty of dive sites in the area that are sheltered from the wind. But first we dedicate ourselves to a rich Canadian breakfast with pancakes, bacon and of course a lot of maple syrup. Then the preparation, which has almost become routine: prepare the camera, get several layers of underwear and then put yourself in the dry suit. It’s a comfort that the dive boat moors directly in front of our room!
Today I have planned macro shots. It’s not an easy decision to make. In addition to the enormous kelp, anemones and sea feathers, giant jellyfish and various species of rock fish are luring. In addition, a seal or sea lion can meet at any time. But nevertheless: In addition to various nudibranches, there are all kinds of creatures everywhere, which I would like to show them all in the right light. That’s why Snoot and Achromat are on the boat in addition to macro lens and planport. A slave flash must not be missing, of course.
As soon as we arrived at our dive site, we see that John was right. On the open sea you can see good waves. That wouldn’t have been a pleasant ride. But here everything is simple. So I jump with all my equipment into the Emerald Sea. The ground is rocky. It doesn’t take long either, and I find the first macro motives. So my choice of lenses was absolutely right. I hope there’s no giant octopus around the corner now. I wouldn’t be surprised!
I want to show up in less than an hour. We’ve barely travelled 50 meters. We find so many motifs in a small space. Since our other fellow divers have done a little bit more distance, we take some time to look into the” blue”water. Until John picks us up with the boat, there is still time for some shots close to the surface. Here, too, life is teeming with life: crabs, fish and jellyfish float past our masks and lenses.
The days go by fast, way too fast. We still haven’t found a Giant Pacific Octopus. I’m beginning to doubt whether this is a legend. But we’re not giving up. How could we? Again and again we are drawn into the water, the cold and the waves. And it’s as it always is: when you count on it the least, it finally succeeds. Actually, we wanted to photograph Melibe leonina or Hooded Nudibranches These are slugs with a large head, whose fins make the animals look a little like Dumbo the elephant. Once a year they appear here in large numbers in several bays and propagate in the kelp.
After this heart’s desire of my lifelong travel companion has come true, I dive a little bit at a nice anemone-covered section. I’m going to go around a corner, and then it’s sitting there. Like it was waiting for me. It’s not hiding in a crevice. No, it sits on some cracked shells, seems to have just finished his meal. Do I wonder if he saw me coming? I approach carefully and prepare my camera. Don’t make any hectic moves. With its repulsion organ an octopus can retreat in no time at all – in addition to that a big cloud of ink and I could forget my pictures.
But I’m lucky. The kraken looks suspiciously at me. But he doesn’t leave his feeding place. It raises its skin warty. This is a clear sign that the animal is not feeling well. So I’m hurrying. Align the flashes correctly, adjust exposure and shoot a short series. Then I’ll retire. The eight-footed creature visibly relaxes. So I approached carefully again. He’ll let me take a few more shots. Then I’ll go into tactical retreat again. Once again, I am allowed to approach. The cephalopod has had enough of it by now. He carefully evades to the side. A few more centimeters and then he swims away at amazing speed. Satisfied I let him go.