Approximately 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, vast glaciers molded and shaped the contours of what is now North America. As the great ice sheets receded water levels rose and what had once been deep slices carved by the glaciers became bays and inlets fed by the waters of the Northern Pacific. One such area affected was the southeastern corner of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Sheltered by both the mountains of the central island and those of the neighboring Olympic Peninsula in Washington, the area receives far less rain than does the western coast of the island and also receives the warmth provided by the Japanese current. This gives it a pleasant, almost Mediterranean-like climate that has attracted peoples from a variety of cultures over the intervening centuries. Now known as "Cowichan", a word meaning "Land Warmed by the Sun" in the language of the local First Nations tribes, it is also commonly referred to as "The Warm Land". I, however, will forever remember it as the "Land of the Clouds".
My interest in diving the Cowichan area sprang from meeting an enthusiastic young couple, Nicole and Steve Paras-Charlton, who raved about the diving opportunities in their "neck of the woods". Located north of the city of Victoria, dive sites in Cowichan Bay, Sansum Narrows and Saanich Inlet open up like an expanding fan. Dozens of phone calls and e-mails followed and soon arrangements for the trip north had been made. My buddy on this trip was Joe Militello, well known throughout the Pacific Northwest for his underwater video productions. Our primary mission on this trip was diving Saanich Inlet and photographing the beautiful cloud sponges to be found there. In the past I have seen small isolated clumps of these sponges, but the conglomeration of cloud sponges in Saanich Inlet is world famous and both Joe and I were eager to film them.
Cloud sponges, Aphrocallistes vastus, are "glass" sponges, a class of sponge typically found only in deep water. They are referred to as glass sponges because they have extremely sharp glass-like spicules made of silica that support the sponge structure. These silica spicules are sharp as glass and can be extremely irritating to the skin. Like fine glass, however, the spicules are extremely fragile and can be easily damaged with the slightest touch or careless kick of a fin.
Cloud sponges can be found from the Bering Sea to Mexico, usually in extremely deep water. In the waters of British Columbia, however, they can be found at shallower depths, beginning at some sites around 80 FSW. The species is typically found in areas of minimal current, such as inlets, although I personally have found examples on wrecks and walls out in the Strait of Georgia. They take their common name from their cloud-like appearance. Puffy and convoluted, they often display huge tubular branches protruding in all directions from within a cluster, almost like the "nest" from the 70's science-fiction film, "Alien", only FAR more benevolent and friendly! Their favored habitat is steep rock walls and ledges and in such locations they can be found in huge assemblages. The color of these sponges ranges from "white as fresh snow" up through "jack-o-lantern orange", with every color variation in between. Smaller, young sponge clusters will often abound, and appear to have an extremely fast growth rate, while older large clusters can be found that approach the size of a Volkswagen Beetle! The large sponge clusters are thought to be hundreds of years old and the myriad shapes they have assumed defy description.
Our first dive in Saanich Inlet was at a site called Christmas Point, and as we tied off on the mooring buoy I looked at the line descending into the water – it was clearly going to be a good day for visibility! Mooring buoys have been placed at several sites throughout the inlet so that boats can be tied off without fear of dragging an anchor or line through the delicate cloud sponges far below, a disaster that has occurred in the past.
After quick verification of camera equipment each of the team members strode off the stern of Steve's boat and began the descent into the bright green depths below. The moment my mask dipped below water I gasped in astonishment – I could literally see our first team member, Mike Kalina, descending the line over 60 feet below me. The water itself was as clear as glass with only thousands of tiny jellies marring the view. The jellies disappeared as we dropped downward, however, and the visibility was astonishing as we fell past the vertical rock walls. Within seconds I noticed a huge ledge jutting out that appeared to have a group of ghostly shapes standing on it as if in formation. Descending further, I soon realized that this was a spot that Steve and Mike had told us about, called "the balcony". A flat rocky surface spanning dozens of square yards, the "balcony" hosts a number of large cloud sponge clusters that from a distance had appeared like ghostly apparitions.
Grinning into my mouthpiece, I slowly drifted over the clusters of cloud sponges, taking care not to touch them or kick in their vicinity. My "trigger-finger" worked as fast as my strobe would recycle, image after image taking its place first in my mind, next in my viewfinder, and finally on film. From out of the corner of my eye I could see Joe gliding over a series of sponges, the eagerness glinting in his eyes and his video lights dancing off their surfaces. Mike worked his way from cluster to cluster, seeming to greet each one as if he was encountering an old friend not seen for a long, long time. Taking it all in from slightly above us, Steve watched from afar so as not to intrude, the serenity of the scene was such that he told me later that the sponges themselves became almost an afterthought. I dropped over the far edge of the balcony and slowly sank down the vertical wall past still more sponge clusters that appeared like ghosts until touched with the beam of my light. Looking upward from 140 FSW I could still silhouette the sponges with the bright green of the sunshine filtering down from above, adding intense color to the scene. Slowly moving upward, I was astonished that from 100 FSW I could see the boat hull on the surface above, amazing for a dive in the Pacific Northwest. During my stops I had strong feelings that I had just passed through a spiritual presence of some kind…..of which I had been a part……yet not a part.
The engines of the dive boat rumbled as we turned northward, the excited conversations of the divers pulsating almost as loudly throughout the vessel. Passing a small islet, I noticed that it was covered with Harbor Seals, many pausing in their naps to look up sleepily as we passed. The rays of the sun glistened off the water as we motored past and slowly the seals' heads sank back down into their dreamy sleep….the loud humans were gone and serenity once again ruled this portion of the inlet.
Farther north in the inlet, we arrived at McCurdy Point for our second wall dive of the day. Again, we were delighted when the visibility here proved to be around 70 FSW. Colorful cup corals, nudibranchs and sea stars dotted the rocky walls and rockfish and perch began to follow us about. As Mike and I drifted along, each of us taking shots of opportunity as they arose, we noticed that Joe was no longer with us. Scanning around, we saw a stream of bubbles launching themselves over a lip of a wall crag that we had not yet looked over. With a few short kicks we were over the edge and looking down at Joe, grinning like a fiend and filming a gorgeous collection of cloud sponges pointing outward from the wall like inflated fat fingers. Discovering this group of sponges well into our dive made for a short stay, however, and it seemed far too soon when we began our slow ascent to the surface. Upon climbing aboard the boat and waiting for Mike to complete his final stop, I noticed an otter slipping into the water from shore and pausing to dance in Mike's bubbles….an interlude that faded away even as he surfaced, the otter disappearing as if he had never been.
The following day we dived at another site in the inlet known for cloud sponges – Senanus Island. It was here, especially, that we saw another aspect of the sponges – they host a huge variety of other species that live in, on and around the sponges themselves. Our team was joined by another local diver, James Dranchuk, and together he and Mike lead us to two different levels of the same rocky reef. On previous dives we had seen other species associated with the cloud sponges, but it was here that this relationship stood out. Juvenile and adult Quillback rockfish, Sebastes maliger, were everywhere – here a pair would be hovering near the base of a sponge, there a single adult would be nestled at the top of a sponge as if on a throne, and over there a juvenile quillback would peer out at us from inside one of the tubes as if seeking sanctuary. Decorator crabs abounded, their long thin legs walking gracefully across the surface of the sponges seeking nooks and crannies to escape from the glare of our lights. On one sponge James found a small group of Spiny Lithode Crabs, Acantholithodes hispidus. These crabs, also known as "Red Fur Crabs" have what appear to be a furry body and possess bright red claws. They, also, scurried here and there to avoid us but refused to leave the body of their host, eventually finding a spot within two tubes and wedging into it to escape our unwanted attention. Later, as James and I hung on our last deco stop, I entertained myself with images of these colorful crabs scurrying around the protruding tubes of the delicate sponges.