My very first open water dive—to demonstrate basic skills for YMCA scuba certification—was made many years ago in an abandoned quarry in upstate New York. The water temperature was 40°F (4.5°C) and visibility was less than three feet. My 7mm neoprene wetsuit, hood, and mitts did little to keep me warm and hampered me from moving freely, or even operate basic equipment.
For the next 15 years, I dived on tropical coral reefs in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific. Clear blue water, pastel soft corals and colorful reef fish allowed me to make many attractive photographs with fine detail. Occasionally, I came across published photographs that looked very different from my own. It seemed that many of these were taken in the chilly waters of British Columbia. The opportunity to photograph new and different marine life was too large of a temptation, despite the fact I’d have to return to my cold water roots.
Unlike “true” crabs, lithode crabs have just four pairs of visible limbs
Why British Columbia?
British Columbia is regarded by many as the best diving in North America, and perhaps the best cold water diving in the world. It is situated in the center of a major Eastern Pacific marine ecosystem—often called the Pacific Northwest by American divers—which extends from Northern California to the Gulf of Alaska. Much of the marine life in this vast area is endemic, meaning it is found nowhere else. Particularly notable in their diversity are several invertebrate groups, including lithode crabs, sea stars, anemones, nudibranchs and chitons.
More than 50 kinds of sea stars are found in the shallow coastal waters of British Columbia
Many marine animals and plants grow to surprisingly large size in the Pacific Northwest, when compared with their tropical counterparts. The world’s largest octopus, sea star, chiton, scallop and jellyfish are found in these waters, as are the largest sea lions, some of the largest nudibranchs and the tallest anemones. Two of the largest marine plants—giant kelp and bull kelp—are abundant throughout the Pacific Northwest and are hosts to a large number of fish and invertebrate species.
Steller sea lions are the largest in the world; males may weigh a ton or more
Cold Water Photography in British Columbia
Water temperature at depth in British Columbia (BC) varies only slightly with the seasons, and is typically in the 47–53°F (8–11°C) range. Good photography requires patience, and patience is difficult to exercise when you are not comfortable. Remaining comfortable during a 60-minute dive in BC waters requires a drysuit with suitable undergarments, a thick neoprene hood and neoprene mitts or dry gloves.
Given the dim ambient light in colder water, I use a small flashlight attached to my housing both day and night, to help me find small, cryptic subjects and to aid in focusing the camera. For this purpose I favor compact, wide-angle lights—such as the Sola lights from Light & Motion—and use them on the lowest available power setting to minimize the impact on my subjects.
A neutrally buoyant camera allows me to hold and shoot comfortably with one hand, leaving the other hand free to steady myself in BC’s infamous currents and surge. The floats also aid in making “split” (over/under) images. Among other benefits, split images with conifers—rather than tropical palm trees—help to establish a “sense of place” for photographs made in British Columbia.
Cormorants photographed near Browning Pass in British Columbia. Over/under images like this one help to establish a “sense of place” that is unique to cold, temperate waters
British Columbia Seas at Night
Before attempting to photograph British Columbia’s marine life, it is helpful to have done some research on the species you hope to photograph, since many of them can only be encountered at night. The Pacific bobtail squid—known locally as the “stubby squid”—remains buried in sand during the day but can be found out in the open at night.
The stubby squid remains buried under sand and hidden during the day
The 12-inch/30cm giant dendronotid nudibranch launches its dramatic attack on tube-dwelling anemones at night. When disturbed or threatened, it may launch itself off the bottom and swim to safety. Many secretive crustaceans can only be approached closely after dark. Once on a night dive I was able to capture rare images of a graceful crab (Cancer gracilis) working hard to open a clam; getting close enough to this shy crab for behavioral photographs during daylight hours would have been next to impossible.
This crab is using its powerful claws to break open the shell of a clam
The 12-inch giant dendronotid nudibranch can swim to evade a predator
Seasonal Timing in British Columbia
Hooded nudibranchs (Melibe leonina) possess an expandable “oral hood” with which to capture plankton. These unusual animals are especially photogenic when clinging to bull kelp in large numbers. Seasonal timing is critical, however, and September is usually the best month to photograph these nudibranchs in BC waters.
Meanwhile, reproductive behavior in many Pacific Northwest coastal fish may be observed in the late winter months. Male kelp and painted greenlings are easily approached for photography at this time, while guarding fertilized eggs attached to nearby rocks.
Hooded nudibranchs (Melibe leonina) use an expansile “oral hood” for capturing plankton
A male kelp greenling guards clusters of tiny, dark purple eggs attached to the rock just below his perch
Wide-angle “reefscape” photography is often best accomplished during fall and winter months, when underwater visibility may reach 15m/50ft or more. However, from April to August, plankton blooms tend to lower visibility to 4m/15ft or less.
Timing is also critical with regard to tides. Many of the very best sites, such as Browning Pass, Hunt Rock and Nakwakto Rapids, can be safely dived only at slack tide. Making use of a guide or dive operator who is familiar with the area is highly advisable.
- Dive Resorts and Charters in British Columbia
- Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest (Lamb & Hanby, 2005)
- Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest, 2nd edition (Lamb & Edgell, 2010)
Gooseneck barnacles, normally an intertidal species, can be found as deep as 100ft/30m at Nakwakto Rapids
Your Next Cold Water Dive Adventure
If you are a photographer who has been working exclusively in tropical water for a number of years and would like the opportunity to photograph something completely different, I recommend that you give British Columbia a try. A drysuit can be rented (including instruction in a pool) until you have made up your mind to buy one. Excellent dive services are readily available and the cost is quite reasonable. And, as an added bonus for U.S. and Canadian divers—particularly those on or near the West Coast—getting to British Columbia is easy and inexpensive when compared with many tropical destinations. So next trip, ditch the beach and tropical drinks for a dip into the cold.