"Are you guys ready?" the gruff voice shouted over the engines, "you need to go when I say go!" Glancing toward my right I could see my burly friend, Earl Lowe, hanging on to the wheel with one hand while he peered at his watch on his other wrist, his bushy beard slightly parting in the wind. Every now and then he would glance at the water, checking its condition. Its condition had MY full attention because the current was streaming past like a flooding river! The only things keeping us next to the rocks of Steep Island were the twin outboards howling next to me. Behind me my buddy, Sparky, stoopd on the other side, also staring at the boiling water with wide eyes. "What are we DOING?!" I muttered to myself as once again I was forced to consider my sanity. Suddenly there was a perceptible change….the water seemed somehow different….slower…..the roar of the engines began to die as Earl eased them back. Slack had arrived. He hollered "Go, Go, GO!" and the two of us strode off the sides into the still foaming water.
We had planned an immediate descent but as I plummeted downward into the green darkness I felt out of control. The current that had previously been racing past our boat was now racing downward, carrying us with it. I inflated my wing in measured bursts and gradually began to feel myself slowing. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Sparky doing the same. Eventually at around 90 FSW we halted and turned to face each other, hooting and hollering into our regulators. Spark's eyes seemed to fill his mask….it'd been one HELL of a ride! Still, something seemed odd and out of place. Sparky hit on it before me and pointed to our bubbles. It suddenly dawned on me - our bubbles were still heading downward about 20 feet below us with the current, then flowed horizontally for about 50 or 60 feet before finally being released to head upward. I've never seen that before….I've not seen it since.
Turning, we headed toward our goal – Steep Island Wall – and with a few kicks a gorgeous panorama appeared. We entered a forest – the likes of which few will ever see. Thousands of Northern Feather Duster tube worms, Eudistylia vancouveri, stretched off into the distance as far as we could see. They were the largest I had ever seen, approaching two feet in length. Their burgundy red and blue hues glistened as our lights darted over them, the "feather-dusters" instantly darting back into their long tubes at the slightest touch. Earl had timed it so that we could spend a few minutes photographing these wonderful creatures before the tidal currents once again took control, so I hurriedly began snapping shots as fast as I could, Sparky occasionally moving into the viewfinder at my signal to provide "finesse" to some of the shots.
Almost imperceptibly I could feel my body being tugged across the face of the wall – our time was up - the current had shifted. Letting it take us, we began to pass living swatches of colors splashed onto the great wall at random. Dozens of species of sponges of all shapes, sizes and colors were interspaced with thousands of multi-colored anemones, the gaps between them highlighted with brilliant pink encrusting hydrocorals and algae. Again, my trigger-finger worked overtime and the shots began to add up. Bright red and purple sea urchins were everywhere, haphazardly tossed about like spiny baseballs around a batting cage. Various species of Rockfish stared at us from their favorite perches atop ledges or sponges, each a gorgeous scene begging to be photographed. The current continued to increase and we moved faster and faster through the water column – the rainbow of colors seeming to dart past. Approaching a ledge sticking out from the wall Sparky saw a huge Puget Sound King Crab and pointed it out to me. Clinging to the wall with one hand I attempted a shot, only to have the force of the current tug at my camera and mask. Letting go, I was swept down-current, spotting several more of the huge crabs on the ledge just above the one we had seen. Giggling like fiends we flew across the face of the wall like superman, the occasional dogfish shark coming in to check us out then darting past us. Occasionally a lone juvenile rockfish would make the mistake of getting too far out from the rock and would be swept briefly along – inevitably a predatory ling cod would suddenly fly up from the bottom, swallow it whole and then drop back down….the cycle of life and death at high speed! As we sped past the panorama of the wall the bright colors seemed to flash by us like cards being shuffled. Our planned bottom time coming to an end, we began our ascent, still flying at a rapid pace. Tremendously excited, we struck the surface screaming "Woo Hoo!" and found Earl calmly waiting for us on the drifting boat, having followed along behind our stream of bubbles. Such was our welcome to Quadra Island.
Quadra Island is located off north-central Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, directly across from the town of Campbell River. Famous for its good visibility coupled with astonishing and colorful marine life, the area is an underwater photographer's dreamland, the colors rivaling anything found anywhere else in the world. Earl Lowe and Deb Seymour have operated Abyssal Diving and Lodge since 2000, with Earl handling the diving end of the business while Deb handles the lodge, although both are trained chefs with a passion for feeding their guests well. Not a luxury hotel, the lodge is more like the comfortable wilderness home of a good friend – a home to which you have been invited. That is the overall ambience of the place – a warm welcome to good friends whose passion just happens to be diving. Located within minutes of the ferry landing at Quathiaskli Cove and facing the famous Discovery Passage, the location provides ready access to some of the finest diving the area has to offer. Earl likes to say that "our invertebrates are force-fed" and that is not far from the truth – the currents in Discovery Passage and Seymour Narrows constantly providing a never-ending stream of nutrients. This has caused a vast array of multi-colored invertebrate life that blankets the region underwater, covering virtually every square inch of rock. Sometimes I stare at some of the photographs that I have taken off Quadra Island and am astonished that I simply cannot find ANYTHING in the photo that is not a living creature.
Earl has a gift – an almost uncanny ability to judge water and current conditions as if he can sense what is about to happen. I've never known him to be wrong and his skills have led us to some extraordinary dives. There are literally dozens of dive sites in the Quadra Island/Campbell River area – each one with its own "personality". Some are perfectly suited for newer divers while others are strictly for highly experienced or technical divers, the nuances altered by the vagaries of the tidal currents. Each time we dive off Quadra Island we experience unique sealife interactions and amazing beauty, but over time some of the sites have become my favorites. One of the most beautiful sites has the mind-boggling name Row and be Damned, and has gained a reputation amongst photographers for unparalleled opportunities sparkling with life and color. The first thing that catches your eye here are carpets of gorgeous Strawberry Anemones – tiny and glistening brilliant red like their namesake, these small colonial anemones dominate the walls and rocks. Interspaced with bright yellow sponges, various species of Rockfish make use of these lush "carpets" to softly perch on them as if on a throne. Puget Sound King Crabs (Lopholithodes mandtii) of enormous size also dwell here, their fluorescent blue and orange colors flashing out like beacons when struck by a diver's light as the huge crabs scuttle about on their rocky ledges. Isolated and territorial Tiger Rockfish, (Sebastes nigrocinctus), named for the dramatic tiger-like stripes on their bodies, will peer at you from their favorite cleft or ledge. Huge purple and red sea urchins abound, their sharp spines giving one pause about touching the bottom Occasionally a giant predatory Sunflower Seastar will encounter an urchin while hunting, its multiple legs recoiling backward when encountering the needle-like spines.
Another site that I find to be literally amazing is known as Copper Cliff. A sheer cliff wall emblazoned with geologic colors, it plunges 300 feet down to the water and then extends over 100 feet below the surface to a field of boulders at its base. Black Cormorants cling to the wall like spiders, staining the rock below them, while a golden brown forest of bull kelp hugs the wall at the water's surface. Starkly smooth like a wall in your home, the wall is enshrouded with giant Plumose Anemones, looking like colossal mounds of cotton balls as they gather nutrients from the passing current. Orange cup corals are also present here in huge numbers, appearing like scattered gems. Deeper on the wall, one finds majestic Cloud Sponges, Aphrocallistes vastus, in various shades of white and gold, looking like the skeletal remains of an alien in a sci-fi movie. Long sinewy wolf-eels can be found amongst the rocky rubble at the base, often peering out of their lairs as if waiting to interact with a passing diver, or maybe even to be fed a tasty urchin. Hoards of Spiny Dogfish Sharks (Squalus acanthias) will often follow divers, interested in all that you do and often darting in like arrows past your heads as if playing with your minds. I always surface from this dive feeling amazed, and there are dozens more!
Abyssal has two dive boats, both Aluminum and designed to handle the tidal currents as well as easily dealing with the occasional encounter with floating logs – a common occurrence where logging is a major industry along with huge tidal changes. The 37-foot "Tantalus" is used for larger groups or in colder weather and has a full cabin with ample space. The 26-foot "Most Outrageous" is a custom dive-tender with twin Yamaha outboards. Nitrox is available at the Lodge, as is Argon. Helium is also on hand and Trimix is currently partial pressure blended. Due to their reputation and fine location, Abyssal has been doing extremely well and planned expansion is on the horizon. Part of this expansion includes the acquisition of a compressor dedicated to Trimix as early as next year. It always feels good to see a friend's well-earned success, and as word spreads that success will continue to grow. I know, however, that no matter how many divers make the trek to Quadra Island that Earl and Deb will be there to greet me – another old friend returning once again to have his breath taken away.
Abyssal Dive Charters: www.abyssal.com
It is surprisingly easy to reach Quadra Island from the mainland of BC utilizing British Columbia's fine ferry system. BC Ferries' fleet serves a diverse range of communities along the coast of British Columbia. Reservations are available on many routes making things even easier. More information can be found on their website, www.bcferries.com