In mid to late summer of 1787 (the exact date is lost) Captain Charles William Barkley sailed into a huge, previously undocumented sound on the west coast of what is now Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in search of Sea Otter pelts. Although British, Barkley was sailing under the Austrian flag as a ruse in order to trade for furs in the area despite the fact that he had no legal authorization to do so from the East India and South Seas Companies. He had been successfully trading for furs in Nootka Sound, further north, when the discovery of his subterfuge caused him to sail southward in an attempt to avoid problems with other captains and ships that were legally trading there. Finding the new area to be rich in both furs and timber, the Captain chose to name it "Barkley's Sound" after himself as well as naming numerous bays, coves, island and peaks within it after family members and members of his crew. Thinking only in terms of the financial aspects of the fur-trade and able to see only what was visible on the surface of the sound, Barkley and his crew were completely unaware of the true treasures that would someday be found beneath it's deep green waters.
Today, Barkley Sound is a cold-water dive destination whose underwater beauty rivals that of any location on Earth. Numerous pinnacles and rocky reefs grace the bottom of the sound, each of them literally enshrouded in color and an abundance of life both large and small. Within seconds of arrival on the bottom, a photographer realizes that the problem lies not in finding subjects to photograph, but in fact lies in the need to be selective due to the sheer quantity of photo opportunities available.
At the beginning of June, 2002, I traveled to Barkley Sound as part of a group of 10 friends, the majority of whom were underwater photographers. Only a few in the group had been to Barkley Sound before, and they had convinced the rest of us to sign on with tales of wonderful marine vistas and superb conditions for both wide-angle and macro photography. Traveling northward from the Seattle area, we crossed the Canadian border and caught one of the huge ferries between the cities of Vancouver on the mainland and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. From there we drove to the logging and fishing town of Port Alberni at the head of the long saltwater Alberni Inlet. It was at Port Alberni that we were collected by our host for our trip into Barkley Sound, Dave Christie of Rendezvous Dive Ventures, Ltd. As Dave pointed the bow of the boat up Alberni Inlet westward toward Barkley Sound the signs of human occupation and activity were left behind and we began to get a sense of the marvelous isolation that awaited us.
Steep walls covered in dense fir trees climbed toward the sky from the shore and cold green waters of the inlet as we motored along, entertained by Dave's stories about the sound told in a deep Scottish brogue. Bald Eagles cruised overhead, constantly watching for fishing opportunities in waters that at the time held a large run of Sockeye Salmon surging in from the Pacific. Hours after our departure we finally turned into a spot known as Rainy Bay and caught our first glimpse of Rendezvous Lodge, which would be our "home away from home" for the next few days. Built lovingly by hand, picturesque in its isolation and surrounded by seemingly unending miles of wilderness, the lodge would prove to be a fitting location to return to each day after we had tasted the colorful and wild underwater wonders of Barkley Sound.
The next morning our first dive found us at a site known as Kyen Point - two rocky pinnacles with a small "valley" in between them. Visibility proved to be around 30 feet and as my buddy, Steve Martino, and I dropped down into the chilly emerald waters (47 degrees at depth) we grinned into our mouthpieces as the puffy white clouds of giant Plumose Anemones literally burst into view. The rest of the team scattered in all directions, each seeking subjects to record forever on film. Both Steve and I had set up our systems for macro, and it wasn't long before we stumbled upon the "mother-lode" – a huge wall covered with gorgeous, tiny "Strawberry" Anemones. Delicate and as bright red as their namesake, Strawberry Anemones make beautiful subjects all by themselves, but as an added benefit they attract a host of other tiny creatures custom made by God for the macro photographer. The majority of our film was shot on this dive within a 20 foot radius, yet we both surfaced with wide grins on our faces. The others arrived at the stern of the boat with tales of Octopus, Wolf-Eels, monster Ling Cod, and stunning numbers of Rockfish, Greenling and Anemones of all hues and stripes. My first dive in Barkley Sound had produced memories that will remain forever embedded in my mind.
Over the next few days the experience only got better as we experienced many other dive sites, each with its own unique personality and photographic offerings. My favorite location, however, proved to be a rocky reef that Dave had named after his charming wife, Renate. "Renate's Reef" proved, like her, to be a classic. Nowhere have I seen more color and more life of all shapes and sizes – fluorescent pink algae enshrouded the rocks, and was in turn covered with layer upon layer of hydrocorals, sponges, snails, urchins, tunicates, and hundreds of anemones of all shapes, colors and sizes. Naturally curious, hoards of Rockfish of various species darted in and out of the openings in the rock and between the stalks of the largest anemones, the beautiful black and yellow China Rockfish being especially colorful and a popular subject for photography. Massive predatory Sunflower Stars stalked their way across the seascape, sending smaller creatures in waves in front of them as they scurried to escape the grasp of the multi-armed hunters. On this dive I happened to be diving with another photographer, Dennus Baum, and together we came across a female Wolf-Eel coiled on the bottom. At our appearance, she turned and swam across the rocky reef with Dennus on one side and I on the other, hastily snapping pictures as her long sinewy body flowed toward a hidden sanctuary beneath an outcrop. As she disappeared beneath the rock, I turned to make my way toward the anchor line only to have two other members of our team beckon me over to a small depression between two rocks. There, I saw a mass of tentacles curled around a beautiful tan, horned mantle, completely framed by the colors of the surrounding anemones – a Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) was nestled in the depression feasting on a Leather Star and perfectly willing to remain in place posing for photographs. My shutter finger working as fast as my strobe would recycle, it took only a few minutes before the last frame of my film was gone and it was time to ascend. As I slowly followed the anchor line upward toward the waiting surface I kept glancing down……wanting one more view of the marvel that is "Renate's Reef".
That afternoon, as the boat turned eastward to return us to the world of freeways, jobs and cell-phones, each of us could be caught from time to time shooting a furtive glance back toward Barkley Sound and the tranquility that we had come to both cherish and respect. Before the first foot touched the dock back at Port Alberni dreams had already begun to take shape and tentative plans were coursing through the air – I won't be a bit surprised if the same group finds itself once again winding down the long inlet next year, seeking the underwater treasure that is Captain Barkley's Sound.
Author's note: Since I first wrote this article for Advanced Diver Magazine in 2002 there have been many changes. I returned several times to Barkley Sound and each time it was magical. My dear friends Dave and Renate Christie finally decided to retire to travel the world together and enjoy the company of family and friends. Sadly, it was not to be. Within months of selling Rendezvous Lodge Dave was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer and faded quickly. Since then Renate has rebuilt a good life, and I am enormously happy for her, but I shall always cherish the times that I spent with the two of them watching the whales play in Rainy Bay and always, always preparing for that magical next dive.
New owners have taken the helm and the magic still remains. Go taste the wonder while you still can....