Decorated warbonnets are skittish but a highly prized photo subject
Canada's western-most province, British Columbia, has 17,000 miles of ragged Pacific Ocean coastline. The cold, clean, emerald-colored seas fringing the shorelines and glacier-chiseled fjords offer up some spectacular diving attractions such as big marine animals, invertebrates, steep walls, ocean pinnacles and an underwater fleet of modern steel warships.
Widely regarded as having some of the best cold-water diving on the planet, British Columbia’s current-swept channels are flushed with luxuriant plankton-rich waters that support a diverse population of over 350 fish species, 500 marine plants, 300 species of sponges and thousands of marine invertebrates. No less than a dozen species of sea mammals including Steller sea lions, harbor seals, Pacific Whiteside dolphins, gray, minke and humpback whales, and a resident pod of killer whales frolic here.
An explosion of juvenile rockfish at Browning Passage
No matter whether you’re a recreational diver, tech diver, wreck diver or underwater photographer, there’s subsea adventure for divers of all experience levels. With a year-round diving season, underwater photographers can fill their lenses with lush cathedral-like kelp forests, psychedelic colored rockfish, military shipwrecks shrouded in white plumose anemones, invertebrate encrusted reefs, and a spectacular assortment of muck diving worthy critters. Some of the more iconic and beguiling critters for underwater photographers are up close interactions with the giant Pacific octopus and muppet-faced wolf eels.
British Columbia’s diving conditions are varied and exceedingly more challenging than those to be experienced at tropical destinations. The sea is chilly and tidal currents can really rip. In current-swept areas, diving is done during slack tide intervals. Apart from a few select inland fresh water dives sites, most of the scuba diving in British Columbia occurs in Vancouver’s Howe Sound or at many spectacular places on Vancouver Island. Other places to go for a splash include the Gulf Islands, Sunshine Coast, and numerous remote offshore islands in Queen Charlotte Strait.
All divers should be self-sufficient minded and be prepared to conduct their dives without a dive guide. That’s right, no sheep herding underwater here as you are given a pre-dive briefing about the site and then are expected to dive the plan. Proper buoyancy control is essential when diving in current-swept areas to avoid being swept away, and for wreck diving or muck diving, to prevent stirring up sediment or silt.
A wolf eel flashes a “smile” at another admiring photographer
Diving Wild in British Columbia
With literally hundreds of different dive sites in British Columbia to choose from, it is impossible to summarize every undersea photo op in the province. So what follows is a summary of dive sites we feel offer underwater photographers something unique in the way of attractions, overall diversity of exotic marine life, and dizzying subsea grandeur.
Skookumchuck Narrows, Sechelt Inlet, Sunshine Coast
Separating the Sechelt Peninsula from mainland British Columbia, Skookumchuck Narrows is hailed as being one of British Columbia’s fastest saltwater rapids. When the current turns in this narrow passage, the raging tidal flow can churn from zero to 16 knots within minutes! The Skookumchuck Rapids are quite literally a shallow rock-strewn bottleneck for the voluminous tides that ebb and flow daily between Sechelt Inlet and Jervis Inlet. It has been estimated that during 10-foot tidal exchanges, 200 billion gallons of salt water flushes through Skookumchuck Narrows. In turn, this mighty movement of water stirs up the nutrient-laden plankton broth that sustains Skookumchuck’s rich bounty of sea life.
“Skookumchuck” is a Chinook First Nations word meaning “turbulent water.” Yet despite the seething whirlpools, foaming eddies, and standing waves, a shimmering collage of sessile marine life stubbornly clings to the rocky substrate. Yellow and white encrusting sponge, purple sea stars, and a multicolored assortment of sea anemones covers the bottom. Mosshead warbonnets, scalyhead sculpins, calcareous tubeworms, giant barnacles and nudibranchs thrive in this seemingly inhospitable environment. The periods of slack water here may last anywhere from a few minutes to three quarters of an hour, depending upon the daily tidal exchanges. Hence, any diving here is conducted from a “live boat.”
An egg-yolk jellyfish with a two-foot bell and streaming tentacles around 12 feet long
The Coral, Agamemnon Channel, Sunshine Coast
Most people are unaware that British Columbia’s Emerald Sea has gorgonian coral fans. That’s understandable since you must descend to 160 feet in just the right places in Agamemnon Channel to see these fabulous brick-red gorgonian coral fans (Paragorgia arborea). When seen during a dive on a cold winter day, these majestic red sea fans (which closely resemble those seen in warm tropical oceans) tend to make our local waters feel that much warmer. The earliest known discovery of gorgonian coral in British Columbia occurred 100 years before when some fisherman snagged a branch with their nets in about 10 fathoms of water. An identical specimen of coral was retrieved from the Gulf of Alaska in 1915. Until then, this species of coral was only known to inhabit Norwegian fjords. For many years the precise location of the coral dive remained a relative secret amongst a few local divers. In part, this was due to the extreme depths at which this coral lives. Since this dive falls into the realm of a decompression dive, it is for advanced divers only.
Other photogenic subjects at this dive site are the cloud sponge formations interspersed with the coral fans beginning at depths of around 80 feet. These large prehistoric sponge formations are typically found only in deep, cold seas growing on sediment-free rocks. Their unique and fragile skeletal formation makes cloud sponges extremely sensitive to the slightest touch, sedimentation, and to physical disturbances from bottom trawling fishing activity.
Diver descending upon a cloud sponge at Agamemnon Channel
Race Rocks, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island
For over 157 years the distinctive black and white Race Rocks Lighthouse has stood as a beacon in the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Situated about four miles off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Race Rocks is a forbidden-looking group of nine current-ravaged islets, including the large main island, Great Race. Aptly named for the awesomely strong four to 10 knot riptides that sweep a perfect race around them, they are the stuff of local diving legend. Unpredictable and violent seas have driven numerous ships aground here over the last century and tales abound of divers who were swept away by the treacherous tidal flow. Which begs the question, “Why are so many people eager to dive here”?
The answer is simple: Race Rocks is a designated ecological reserve renowned for being one of the most exciting diving areas on the southern half of Vancouver Island. Be forewarned, there is a strict “no-touch” policy within the reserve’s entire 120-foot contour line boundary. There is also now a Rockfish Conservation Area in the zone around Race Rocks and Rosedale Reef within the 130-foot depth contour that prohibits all fishing.
A palette of natural wonder entices divers to brave Race Rocks during slack tide intervals. Places like West Race Wall are emblazoned with a flourishing array of marine invertebrates, including yellow sulfur sponge, lacy basket stars, deep purple and bright pink hydrocorals, softball-size barnacles, colonial ascidians, small clusters of pastel pink soft corals, king crabs, armies of red and green sea urchins, and over 65 species of hydroids. Sea anemones are quite plentiful and include painted tealia, crimson anemones, striped brooding anemones and sporadic patches of strawberry anemones. Divers are often entertained underwater by frolicking pinnipeds, since over 1,000 California and Steller sea lions congregate on the rugged rocky islets in the fall and several hundred harbor seals reside here year round.
Life grows upon life in the Emerald Sea
Row and Be Damned, Discovery Passage, Quadra Island
Possessing one of the coolest names ever for a dive site, Row and Be Damned is a steep rock precipice that slopes almost vertically into the current-scrubbed waters of Discovery Passage. Diving here is only possible from a live boat during the brief respite of a slack tide interval. The undersea terrain is embroidered with clumps of yellow sponge, scallops, colonies of hydroids, and a lush terrazzo of pink strawberry anemones. Moving in and out of Row and Be Damned’s jagged crevices are tiger rockfish, red Irish lord sculpins, sailfin sculpins, kelp greenlings and some imposingly large lingcod. Gigantic boulders in 40 to 70 feet of water are coated with pink strawberry anemones, sponge, and other forms of marine life. Giant Pacific octopus, wolf eels and Puget Sound king crabs and fish are also in abundance, though not always easy to spot amid the riot of color.
Mozino Point, Esperanza Inlet, Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island
Nootka Sound’s archipelago of scattered islands, hidden coves and unspoiled inlets lie approximately 45 miles north of Tofino. Those in the know consider Nootka Sound to be one of British Columbia’s best-kept diving secrets. Rich in history, the sound is an off-the-beaten-path paradise for scuba divers who want to venture somewhere that is a touch more isolated and undeveloped. The closest pockets of civilization in Nootka Sound include Tahsis to the north and Gold River to the southeast.
Mozino Point, in Esperanza Inlet, is one striking example of the high-quality diving experiences to be enjoyed here. Covering a wide expanse, it is possible to see pink and brick red gorgonian coral fans and clumps of delicate cloud sponges. This is also one the few places in British Columbia’s Emerald Sea where divers can observe patches of reef that are carpeted with strawberry anemones. Florid-like anemones, glossy orange tunicates, hydroids, crowds of barnacles, sea urchins, sea stars and gaudy-looking nudibranchs festoon the rock walls.
Nootka Sound has the largest sea otter population in the world so in the nearby kelp beds, you may see rafts of sea otters as they congregate in large numbers to sleep or groom. Though never guaranteed, prehistoric-looking six gill sharks are occasionally seen at certain times of the year in just 30 feet of water right off the town’s dock in Tahsis. If one wanted to discover an as-yet-undiscovered marine species, Nootka Sound is a prime place to start looking.
Red-eye medusa jellyfish are about the size of a quarter
Renate’s Reef, Barkley Sound, Vancouver Island
One of Barkley Sound's signature dive sites is a jagged peaked seamount called Renate’s Reef. Crested by two distinct ridges, this open-water pinnacle ascends from the abyssal depths of Imperial Eagle Channel to within 35 feet of the sunlit surface. The summit is criss-crossed with panoramic canyons and marred with crevices, ledges and open gullies that one can swim through easily. Peppering the reef’s rocky terrain are delicate hydrocorals, clusters of ghostly white plumose anemones, dinner-plate sized fish eating tealia anemones, blue ring topped snails, and a wide assortment of colorful nudibranchs.
Wolf eels are seen on just about every dive and the reef’s rocky terrain is peppered with thick clumps of yellow staghorn bryozoans. Underwater photographers are certain to capture some fish images here since Renate’s Reef is refuge to an exceptional variety of no less than 10 different species of rockfish. Descend deeper over the edge of the precipice and one never knows what one might see. In the sand channels that cut through Renate’s rock canyons, you may spot several ratfish patrolling the sea floor. At other dive sites within Barkley Sound, random encounters with prehistoric-looking six-gill sharks can, and do, occur.
Janolus fuscus nudibranch on bull kelp
British Columbia’s Sunken Navy
British Columbia has earned an enviable reputation for having the best shipwreck diving in North America. Since the 1980s, the Vancouver-based nonprofit Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC) has been making retired Canadian Forces naval ships diver-safe and sinking them to enhance the marine environment. Stripped of all dangerous and polluting components, these repurposed man-made structures provide a substrate to mimic natural reef settings and provide new habitats for marine life on an otherwise featureless and barren sea bottom.
As shipwrecks go, all are safe to dive. This is due in large part to the countless hours of extensive clean-up work provided by numerous volunteers who, under the direction of the ARSBC, extensively prepare these vessels for their watery tomb. Large entry and exit holes are cut into the ships at various points to permit easy entry and exit access points. To date, the ARSBC has sunk seven decommissioned Royal Canadian Navy ships and one decommissioned Air Canada passenger jet in our local waters:
- HMCS Annapolis, 377-foot Helicopter Carrying Destroyer, sunk in 2015 in Halkett Bay off Gambier Island
- Boeing 737, 100-foot Decommissioned Air Canada Passenger Jet, sunk in 2006 in Stuart Channel near Chemainus
- HMCS Cape Breton, 440-foot WWII Victory Ship, sunk in 2001 off Snake island, near Nanaimo
- HMCS Saskatchewan, 366-foot Destroyer Escort, sunk in 1997 off Snake Island near Nanaimo
- HMCS Columbia, 366-foot Destroyer Escort, sunk in 1996 off Maud Island, Discovery Passage
- HMCS Mackenzie, 366-foot Destroyer Escort, sunk in 1995 off Gooch Island, near Sidney
- HMCS Chaudière, 366-foot Destroyer Escort, sunk in 1992 off Kunechin Point, Sechelt Inlet
- MV G.B. Church, 175-foot Coastal Freighter, sunk in 1991 off Portland Island, Gulf Islands
Underwater photography on these shipwrecks is a breeze and it’s truly remarkable how lush the marine life growth becomes a short time after these vessels have been sunk. One must remember that despite these wrecks being made diver-friendly, these are still overhead environments. If you plan to photograph inside the wrecks, advanced diver certification and some wreck diving experience would be beneficial.
Got Muck Diving?
Yup, just about everywhere. Long before the phrase “muck diving” was ever coined, local scuba divers were plumbing the ocean depths over sandy bottoms here. Quite by accident, it was discovered you could photograph some bizarre-looking Lembeh-worthy critters that are never seen out on British Columbia’s invertebrate-encrusted reefs and walls. Night diving is particularly revealing on muck dives, as one may see stubby squid, giant nudibranchs, crescent gunnels, hooded nudibranchs, big skate, ratfish and numerous species of shrimp—to name just a few. All an underwater photographer needs is a good spotting light.
Red gilled aeolid nudibranchs are not uncommon
Norris Rocks, Strait of Georgia, Hornby Island
During the colder winter months, Steller sea lions rule the roost when they haul out in large herds on some barren rocky islets called Norris Rocks, situated just south of Hornby Island, on the eastern edge of Vancouver Island. Sea lions are here to dine on the large shoals of herring gathering to spawn. The male, or bull, Steller sea lion is a huge thick-maned animal eleven feet in length and weighing almost 2,500 pounds. The females, or cows, are about a third as large and may grow to nine feet in length and tip the scales at between 750 to 1,000 pounds.
Playtime to these inquisitive and mischievous pinnipeds usually entails slowly approaching divers to stare curiously into the diver’s mask, or mischievously nipping on a diver’s flippers. At Norris Rocks, the sea lions love to interact with divers and obviously enjoy mimicking our behavior and giving playful bumps. Steller sea lions can linger underwater for as long as 15 to 20 minutes on a single breath before they must resurface for air—offering plenty of time to make underwater pictures of these magnificent sea mammals.
Get up close with steller sea lions at Norris Rocks
Dodd Narrows, between Cedar and Mudge Island (Near Nanaimo)
Although there are several exhilarating dive sites in Vancouver Island’s Gulf Islands, Dodd Narrows remains one of my personal favorites. Every few hours this picturesque channel is assaulted by eight- to 10-knot tidal currents. Due to these intimidating currents, Dodd Narrows can only be dived from a live boat during a slack interval. Only 180 feet wide at the narrowest point, with a maximum depth of 110 feet, this marvelous channel creates a fertile environment for a countless assortment of marine invertebrates. It’s possible to see Puget Sound king crab, ochre sea stars, rockfish, and even the occasional California or Steller sea lion.
Dodd Narrows’ most vivid denizens are its dense intertidal congregations of aggregating anemones. Profuse colonies of these pastel emerald and mauve anemones drape the walls and emblazon the chiseled ledges in the pass. Just beneath their hot pink to lavender-tipped tentacles is a ring of knobs that contain stinging cells. Underwater shooters will find no difficulty filling a camera memory card here in a single dive.
Aggregate anemones at Dodd Narrows
Heber River, Gold River, Vancouver Island
Canyon diving is a thing! When I first saw some images that my friend, and talented underwater photographer, Eiko Jones, had posted about some exploratory dives he had made in the Heber River a few years ago, I was totally down for diving the Heber. It was something about the water clarity, river-carved rock formations and not to mention the pink salmon milling around that was intoxicating. Diving here is totally relaxing from an underwater photography standpoint. However, as you explore the varied rock terrain lit by flickering shafts of sunlight, the photo ops quite literally scream at you. This site can be either snorkeled or done on scuba. Totally off the charts on the fun meter!
Where the river meets the sky at Heber River
Seven Tree Island, Browning Passage, Nigei Island
On a sunny day, this expanse of Seven Tree’s subsea terrain often appears more tropical than some of the South Pacific reefs I have explored. Nestled off Nigei Island’s western shoreline, at the northern edge of Browning Passage, Seven Tree Island is one of those truly magnificent dive sites that Queen Charlotte Strait is famous for. Crowned with scrub brush and curiously more than seven weathered trees, Seven Tree’s squat-looking islet appears on the surface to be rather nondescript. However, as anyone who has dived here knows, topside appearances are deceiving. Seven Tree Island’s liquid splendor lies just below the waterline.
Harboring a rich assortment of marine invertebrates, Seven Tree’s bountiful feast of undersea shapes, textures, and colors provides a visually stunning backdrop for underwater photographers and videographers. All the creatures that flourish here have somehow either adapted to or stubbornly defy the swift tidal flow that assails Seven Tree Island daily. Another thrilling aspect of making a dive at Seven Tree is that during the incoming and outgoing currents, it is often possible to circumnavigate the entire island underwater. Feathery orange sea pens and several species of sea stars festoon Seven Tree’s sandy plain. Finely speckled sand sole flee across the sandy sea floor like tiny magic carpets to avoid approaching divers.
Seven Tree’s precipitous eastern wall plummets vertically to well beyond 100 feet. The tapestry of life to be found here is brimming to overflow with beautiful clumps of pastel pink soft corals, yellow finger sponge formations, pink coral-like hydrocorals, and dense clusters of plumose and crimson anemones. Kelp greenlings and bizarre-looking red Irish lords perch themselves on the sponge as if waiting for the current to deliver their meals to them. Schools of black rockfish drift idly by through the forest-like stand of bull kelp that dominates the islet’s shoaling southern reef structure. Brilliantly marked purple ring-topped snails and prehistoric-looking kelp crabs cling to the bull kelp’s leathery stipe. Giant octopuses are often seen out in the open here as they make their dens beneath the rubble of boulders that are armored with spiny red sea urchins. Crimson anemones jam every nook and cranny at Seven Tree’s far northern end.
Giant Pacific octopuses are often encountered out in the open
Nakwakto Rapids, Slingsby Channel, Central Coast
Located 200 miles northwest of Vancouver on far-flung corner of British Columbia’s mainland coast, Nakwakto Rapids’ diminutive 1,000-foot wide channel is one of the world’s most thrilling dive sites. Swirling whirlpools capable of swallowing a 15-foot Boston Whaler underwater, only to regurgitate it approximately 300 feet downstream, are the stuff of legend here. As at other high-current areas in British Columbia, Nakwakto’s treacherous currents nourish a lush and fertile subsea habitat for marine life.
Standing defiantly in the middle of the channel is the squat, steep-sided, island named Turret Rock. Scores of boaters and dive groups have nailed makeshift signs to the evergreen trees that crown this 80-foot high pillar of rock. Graffiti-like wooden placards provide proof to the world that one has joined “the club" of vessels and divers who have dared these surging tidal rapids. Local folklore purports this tiny islet actually vibrates in the fast-flowing currents, giving rise to its more-common nickname, “Tremble Island.”
Down below, life grows upon life. Swaying rope-sized strands of bull kelp brandish their amber fronds toward the surface. Fish life is abundant, yielding sightings of large quillback rockfish, China rockfish, and red Irish lords. Dense thickets of pillow-sized feather duster tube worms, their robust shrub-like stalks freckled with pink brooding anemones, punctuate the rocky substrate. Fist-sized clumps of day-glow pink soft corals, flame-tipped sea slugs, ochre sea stars, mustard-yellow sponge and several different species of sea anemones are just a snippet of Nakwakto’s vast assortment of stalwart reef dwellers.
Bordering Turret Rock’s underwater perimeter is a biological treasure: an immense population of red-lipped gooseneck barnacles. The discovery of these at depths of 80 feet confounded marine biologists who previously believed these barnacles were restricted solely to the intertidal zone. Each clump of these pearly-shelled barnacles contain hundreds of individuals that filter-feed nutrients from the plankton-rich sea. Underwater photographers must work quickly here as at this depth you can actually see the tide turning in the water column, signaling it is time to ascend to the dive skiff.
The juvenile color phase of a China rockfish
Browning Wall, Browning Passage, Nigei Island
Situated off the north end of Vancouver Island, this popular wall dive will completely change any negative thoughts anyone may harbor about cold-water diving. Nothing can ever fully prepare you for your first jaw-gaping glimpse of Browning’s pink soft coral and mustard yellow sulfur sponge studded wall. Indeed, Browning’s sheer drop-off is a living kaleidoscope of varying shape, texture and color.
A dense canopy of bull kelp crowns Browning Wall’s top 16 feet of shoreline. Beneath this amber awning, the light show of riotous color begins. Seemingly jammed into every nook and cranny of Browning’s precipitous rock face are feathery hydroids, deep purple hydrocorals, lacy basket stars, various different species of sea anemones, red urchins and rock scallops. Flame-tipped and orange peel nudibranchs are also quite common. Schools of widow rockfish swim casually in the open water column. Kelp greenlings, yellow and black China rockfish and the beautifully mottled red Irish lord sculpin sedately perch themselves on sponge covered outcroppings. It almost appears as if they are waiting for the current to spoon-feed them their next tender morsel. Most species of rockfish common to the West Coast can be seen here as well as voracious-looking lingcod, grunt sculpins, and the more elusive decorated warbonnets. On a day with 100-foot-plus visibility underwater, I would stack Browning Wall up against any other wall dive on this watery blue planet!
Underwater Photography in British Columbia
While you can shoot macro life year round in any type of underwater visibility, wide-angle photography can be less accommodating. It can be done, but during a seasonal plankton bloom, the task is extremely challenging. However, when undersea conditions are optimal, there is no shortage of wide-angle subjects to be found on British Columbia’s colorful reefs, walls, seamounts, shipwrecks and even beneath docks:
- Giant Pacific octopus
- Wolf eels
- Steller sea lions and harbor seals
- Rockfish: red snapper, China, tiger, yellowtail, copper, quillback, vermilion, canary, yelloweye
- Six-gill sharks and dogfish
- Egg yolk jellyfish
- Salmon: sockeye, chum, pink
- Giant and longnose skate
- Kelp forests
- Gorgonian corals
- Cetaceans: orcas, humpback whales and pacific whiteside dolphins
Sockeye salmon at Adams River
Indeed, there is no shortage of macro subjects in the Emerald Sea either. Some critters such as the grunt sculpin and decorated warbonnets can be maddeningly elusive but are highly prized photo subjects for underwater photographers. Red Irish lord sculpins are easily approached and tolerant of strobe light and exhaust bubbles. Not unlike other places in the ocean realm, photographers can capture with ease unique behavior or distinctive shots of exotic cold-water fish species:
- Sculpins: red Irish lord, grunt, scalyhead, and sailfin
- Warbonnets: decorated, mosshead
- Anemones: painted, fish-eating tealia, crimson, swimming, aggregate, crimson, and brooding
- Crabs: Puget Sound king, decorator, red rock, Dungeness
- Shrimp: more than 85 species
- Nudibranchs: alabaster, giant, Limacia cockerelli, opalescent, gold dirona, lemon peel, and red gilled aeolid
- Gooseneck barnacles
A red Irish lord sculpin trying to look inconspicuous
Juvenile Puget Sound king crab
Sea life is by no means all there is to see in British Columbia. Topside photo opportunities abound during surface intervals in coastal areas. A longer zoom lens that racks out to 300mm, or 400mm, will come in very handy. Also, a waterproof camera bag or hard-sided waterproof case is a must-have.
- Orcas, whales and dolphins
- Seals and sea lions
- Bald eagles and seabirds
- Black bears
- Sea otters and river otters
Underwater Photography Equipment for British Columbia
Whether you shoot with a DSLR, mirrorless, or compact “point-and-shoot” camera system, the amazing photographic subjects here give you every chance to produce jaw-dropping images. In some cases, compact camera systems even have the upper hand, as it’s easier to squeeze into tighter spaces for compositions that you simply couldn’t achieve with a bulkier DSLR system. For wide-angle work with a compact camera system, a supplementary wet, or dry lens, is needed to achieve a wider angle with the camera’s built-in lens.
The workhorse lenses with my Nikon DSLR system are the 16mm full-frame fisheye and the 60mm macro lens. On occasion, I have used a 105mm macro lens that zooms down to 1:1, but mostly for skittish fish such as black-eye gobies or decorated warbonnets, which are less tolerant of an underwater photographer moving in too close. Most fish here tolerate being approached more closely than tropical fish; hence, the 60mm macro lens works like a charm.
In British Columbia, there are some situations where shooting only with available light is possible, but in general you’ll need one or preferably two strobes, or continuous video light sources.
Male and female saddleback gunnels in a beer bottle photographed beneath a dock
Underwater Photo Tips for British Columbia
- Get close, then get closer to your subject: Water absorbs light very quickly, especially in cold water. Lower light levels at depth and limited visibility make working close to your subject critical. The goal is to minimize the amount of water between your camera’s lens and your subject in order to minimize backscatter in your images from suspended detritus and plankton floating in the water column.
- White balance: Auto white balance works just fine. Do not use “Cloudy Day” as a white balance preset as it looks too muddy in green water. If you shoot RAW, you can adjust an image’s white balance in Adobe Lightroom or other image editing software.
- ISO and shutter speed: Cold, green water absorbs more light than tropical blue water. For wide-angle shots of sedentary subjects, I recommend shutter speeds of 1/30s or slower. This does not affect the strobe light striking the primary subject in the foreground but can change the background from black to light green. The other way to get more ambient light in the background without overexposing strobe-lit foregrounds is to combine wider apertures with a lower strobe power setting. If greater depth of field is still required, going to a higher ISO is an option.
- Focusing in low light: As cameras get more advanced, autofocusing increasingly works better in lower light conditions; however, it is prudent to have a modeling light somewhere on your camera rig. When your autofocus is hunting, switch to manual focusing, provided of course your lenses are equipped with focus gears.
- Seeing red: Ideally, use a focus light whose beam can be switched from white to red. It’s long been known that some marine life species cannot see the red light spectrum and so it follows that a red focus light is less likely to spook your subject.
Tiger rockfish at Row and Be Damned
Other Underwater Photography Tips
- Drysuit diving requires wearing far more weight than with tropical wetsuits. Compensating for wearing that extra weight at depth takes some adjustment. To take some weight off your hips, consider spreading some weight between an over shoulder weight belt harness and your BCD. Your lower back will thank you, and being more comfortable will likely help you focus on getting great images.
- Underwater photographers should practice adjusting their f-stop and shutter speed setting camera buttons and knobs with thick gloves on. It takes some getting used to, but is easy once you get the hang of it. If wearing a drysuit, I recommend using dry gloves over wet gloves. Both work fine, but dry gloves are far easier on your hands when cold-water diving over several days in a row.
- Strobe batteries sometimes do not perform as well in cold water. A simple and inexpensive solution is to make, or purchase, a neoprene wrap for the strobe housing.
Lemon peel nudibranch foraging on pink soft corals
Planning Your Underwater Photography Trip to British Columbia
How to Get There: Numerous international airlines connect to Vancouver International Airport (YVR). From there, one can make connecting flights to Vancouver Island.
When to Go: Diving in British Columbia is year round. Summer ocean temperatures range from 54–64°F (12–18°C) and in winter, it varies from 46–50°F (4–8°C).
Where to Stay and Dive: Diving operators in British Columbia either provide overnight accommodations as part of their charter, or they can recommend nearby places to stay. Shore-based dive operators include: Browning Pass HideAway Dive Resort, Gordon Island Chain; God’s Pocket Resort, Hurst Island; Hornby Island Diving, Hornby Island; Abyssal Diving Charters & Lodge, Quadra Island; Heber River Canyon Diving, Campbell River; Sundown Diving, Nanaimo; Cedar Beach Ocean Lodge, Thetis Island; Pacific Pro Dive & Marine Adventures, Courtenay; U.B. Diving, Courtenay; Salish Sea Dive, Powell River; Rendezvous Dive Adventures, Rainy Bay; Tahtsa Dive Charters, Tahsis; Strong Water Retreat, Egmont; and Sea Dragon Charters, Horseshoe Bay. Surprisingly, there are presently no dedicated liveaboard dive operators in British Columbia.
Underwater Visibility: Water clarity is optimal from October through early March when visibility can reach 40 feet with local highs of 100 feet or more. Seasonal plankton blooms that occur during spring, summer, and fall along with river runoff from heavy rain can negatively affect visibility. Generally, visibility from late March through June can prove most challenging for wide-angle photography. Shooting macro, however, is acceptable year round.
Dive Gear: For thermal protection, local divers either wear neoprene or shell-style drysuit or custom-fitted ¼-inch (7mm) neoprene wetsuits with thermal underwear, cold-water hoods and gloves. Appropriate scuba equipment is essential to enjoying cold-water dives. Another consideration is your tropical BCD may not cut it. You will need a BCD that fits larger than usual due to the thicker wetsuit or drysuit. Additionally, warm water fins will likely not have large enough foot pockets when worn with a thicker dive suit. Be sure to check that everything fits before leaving home. Other handy items include an underwater compass and dive light.
Electricity: All outlets are 110V outlets and use US-style plugs.
Tipping: It is customary in North America to leave a gratuity if your experience was enhanced due to the efforts of the dive staff. Tips (anywhere from 10% to 20% of the trip cost), while not expected, are graciously accepted.
Entry Requirements: U.S. citizens entering Canada must carry a valid U.S. passport. Visitors from other countries should visit the Government of Canada’s official website for current entry requirements by country as they may have to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) to fly or transit through a Canadian airport.
A longnose skate photographed during a night dive
About the Author: Jett Britnell is a professional underwater photographer and dive travel writer based in Vancouver, Canada, who owns and operates Jett Britnell Photographics. In 2016, he was named one of “122 Inspiring Shooters You Should Know” by Scuba Diver Ocean Planet magazine. A member of the esteemed Ocean Artists Society, Jett is also a Fellow in three explorer societies: the world-renowned Explorers Club, the prestigious Royal Geographical Society in London, and Canada’s center for exploration, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Jett has over 50 magazine cover shots to his credit, and his images and editorial have been published internationally in a number of magazines, websites and blogs.