“Scuba Diving Magazine”
I was walking in the footsteps of a giant. As my boat slipped between the dark forest-covered mountains of Barkley Sound, I believed that I was about to experience a connection with Jacques Cousteau—the man who’d inspired me to start diving more than thirty years ago. He’d apparently described Barkley Sound as the second best place in the world to dive. Now, I was about to spend two days finding out why.
Day One: Over breakfast at Rendezvous Dive Lodge, I’d brazenly thrown out the statement, “Show me what Cousteau thought was so special about this place.” Peter Mieras, the owner, happily accepted the challenge. Clear skies and calm water made it a perfect day to head to the mouth of Barkley Sound on the open Pacific. Swells sometimes make the mouth of the Sound a little rough as a dive spot. As we puttered towards the first location, we were treated to the sight of humpback whales and harbor porpoises playing in the water. Eventually we dropped anchor on Christie Reef. In a heartbeat I was in the water. A quick okay to my dive buddy and I sank beneath the “Emerald Sea.”
West Coast Diving Stories
While I’ve done a fair amount of diving off the West Coast, I’ve only written a couple of articles. That’s something I hope to remedy shortly. This is the first installment.
Initially, my heart sank--bad visibility. But at around twenty feet I broke through the upper layer of plankton into clear water and a stunning sight. Intense primary colors were everywhere: neon orange fish-eating anemones, bright pink-striped sun stars, lemon yellow nudibranchs covered lilac and purple-colored rocks. If the B-52s rock band had been asked to design an alien world for a retro science fiction movie, they might have come up with Barkley Sound and called it Planet Claire. As I came to a rest a few feet above the bottom, I turned my head in the other direction and spotted a two-foot long, copper and gold-colored sea cucumber nestled in a field of Giant Plumose Anemones—each of them pure white and nearly two feet high. I swear if I hadn’t had a regulator in my mouth my jaw would have hit the reef. A slight motion caught my eye. I turned my head to see a burst of color. It just didn’t compute. Cold water fish weren’t supposed to be like this—this was tropical. And yet I was staring at a black and orange Tiger Rockfish as intensely colored as anything I’d ever seen on a reef. Just beyond it, another showstopper--this time a China Rockfish-- with neon yellow stripes along its sides. All too soon it was time to head to the ascent line. On my way back-- another surprise. I ran into a creature that looked vaguely like a dinosaur. A mottled fish with a massive plated-looking head and two horns. It was about two feet long and had pectoral fins that resembled scaly hands. It was all I could do to climb back on the boat before I started yammering questions. The “dinosaur” was in fact “a Cabezon,” an unusual form of sculpin, I kept up a steady barrage of questions. Not surprised, Peter smiled and said, “I haven’t discovered another place on earth that offers me something new on every dive the way this place does.”
For our second dive of the day we moved into more sheltered waters to Renate’s Reef. We sank down to about eighty feet and within moments spotted a massive, purplish-grey head that lolled out of a small cave. I’d heard about wolf eels. Once I’d even glimpsed a shadow of one shyly disappearing. But this one stared back at us unconcerned. And then, as if to say “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” the wolf eel emerged slowly from its den and completed a graceful, leisurely circle around us. It was about five feet long. It circled a second time and then cruised off into the distance taking up residence in another cave. We continued to make our way along the reef, our lights playing across Staghorn Bryozoan that grew everywhere in thick clumps. Amazing. I’d spent a lot of time on coral reefs that couldn’t hold a candle to this place for richness and diversity of fish life.
On the way back to the lodge, Peter casually asked me if I was interested in seeing his backyard-- Rendezvous’ house reef. Within minutes of arriving at the dock I suited up and along with Peter stepped off the dock. We dropped down to about 30 feet. The entire length of the “house reef” was a world in miniature: pale translucent Variable Dendronotids, bright white and orange Clown Dorids, shaggy-looking Opalescent Nudibranchs and, every once in a while, an intense spark of color—an Orange Peel Nudibranch. The entire dive covered only a matter of yards—a universe in a bottle.
We spent a pleasant night at the lodge filling our faces with Kathy Johnson’s home cooked roast with all the fixings. A glass of wine, about ten minutes of reading and I slept like the dead.
The wind had picked up on day two as we pulled away from the dock. Peter was unperturbed. “We’ll just tuck in behind a couple of islands,” he said. Within twenty minutes, we were anchored at a site called Tyler Rock: yet another well-populated reef, but this time with something almost magical to offer. We swam to the entrance of a small underwater canyon. I pulled up and stared. The canyon was lined from top to bottom with hundreds of pure white Giant Plumose Anemones. It looked like one large, living organism. Our lights played across the undulating surface and we decided to swim through. As we finned through the mass it felt as if we were swimming inside a giant living underwater cloud: a unique moment.
Chuck Point was our second dive of the day. Two pinnacles sitting in about 60 feet displaying an amazing selection of anemones: bright green Surf Anemones, massive clusters of Strawberry Anemones and, once again, the intensely orange Fish-Eating Anemones. The water was also crowded with purple Northern Sunstars and bright orange Cushion Stars, but for me the final piece-de-resistance appeared towards the end of the dive. We had moved into the shallow water next to the shore to start a longish safety stop. A large field of bull kelp floated above. I lay there looking up towards the gently waving canopy, watching the filtered light play off the schools of fish. It was a simple, yet perfect end to a superb weekend of diving. Regrettably, I had a plane to catch. We returned to the lodge, packed and loaded into the boat for the two hour trip back to Port Alberni. I’d finally dived Barkley Sound. I was leaving two days, five dives later with a feeling that Cousteau was absolutely right.