Aboard Akhlut - Episode 6: Below the Surface - Part 02
We glide past forests of giant plumose anemones dancing in their subaqueous environment. Their lacey crowns open, gathering food as the water carries it past their place on the rocks. A few bold quillback rockfish dart in and out of the rugged wall, while other species, like the China rockfish with its bright yellow lateral stripe, hide safely in the shadows.
I continue with a few easy fin-kicks and drop down a couple more meters, finding myself amidst a school of black rockfish. At first, they are a little wary. Still, it only takes a moment before they gather around me once more and a few bold individuals swim right up to my goggles. We remain poised there for what seems like minutes, staring at each other. I wonder if they think they have found other good-looking rockfish friends in the reflection of my mask or if they are trying to guess what kind of awkward species I might be.
It is my innate curiosity that drives me forward further along the wall, peering into crevices and closely examining all the new creatures that come into view. Between these moments of pure wonder and awe, all I can think is, I wish I knew more about my new surroundings.
In what seems like no time at all Conlee and I are signaling to each other that we’re almost out of air and it’s time to go up. We allow ourselves to float skyward while regulating the air expanding in our BCDs and suits. At 15 feet we pause, indicating to each other to start our three-minute safety stop. The rock beside us and the water around us seems darker than the place we just left. I can glimpse the light of day at the surface, beckoning us back towards the familiar.
The dinghy ride back to the sailboat is a mix of long pondering silences and excited discussion about what we thought we saw in our time below the surface. We know a few of the easily identifiable species we’ve learned while sailing the BC coast, but most of what we have seen remains a mystery. We are out of the service area and have no way of positively identifying the marine life with which we have just spent the last hour.
The next time we have Wi-Fi, I order Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, a hardcover, beautifully photographed identification guide published locally on the Sunshine Coast. It’s highly recommended by marine biologist friends we have met en route. After receiving it, Conlee and I spend hours flipping through the pages and discussing all the species our curiosity hasn’t let us forget. There are a few aha moments and a few ‘friendly’ debates.
Our excitement is mounting—we can’t wait to go below again. We each discover multiple species we’d love to see, such as the cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus), one of the largest sculpin species native to the North Pacific coast. These 'scorpion fish'—a direct translation—are found throughout various habitats anywhere from 0-200m of depth. And the elusive pacific red octopus (Octopus rubescens)—deemed to be the first invertebrate to demonstrate individual personalities, they are masters of camouflage with a paramount talent for stealth.
It’s not long until we’re back in the water, dropping down into the depths of a new site, our recently acquired knowledge ready for application. This time we chose a shallower spot with a substrate of rocky boulders gradually descending towards a light sand bottom.
Atop the boulders, forests of kelp sway with each surge of emerald green water, while striped seaperch (Embiotoca lateralis) and black rockfish (Sebastes melanops) dart in and out of the canopy. As far as my eyes can see, the boulders and cobbles are dotted with spiney purple and red urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus and S. franciscanus), bat stars (Asterina miniata), and giant sea cucumbers (Parastichopus califonicus). Each nook and cranny house a red sea cucumber (Cucumaria miniata), and black-eyed gobies (Rhinogobiops nicholsii) take shelters along the border where stone meets the sand.
Suddenly, I feel an urgent tug on my fin. I turn around to see Conlee pointing wildly at the boulder beside him and then motioning the size of the creature he sees with both hands. There, lying flat on the rock, is a giant cabezon! I excitedly gurgle, “CABEZON,” to him through my bubbles. There will be no post-dive debate about this one!