Day 2: Diving Under the Great Bear Rainforest
Diving into one of the narrow inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest isn't easy — but it's more than worth it.
The hard part? After we tug on our wetsuits — a process akin to putting on an Elizabethan corset — we find ourselves sweating and freezing and suffocating all at the same time. Each of us is encased in close to 100 lbs of gear and wear, including 30 plus pounds of weights just to sink us with all this rubber.
Getting into the dark cold water is actually buoyant relief. And then we open our eyes.
Though I've been to the Great Bear Rainforest many times, I have treated these inlets as just routes to the heart of the forest (and for an occasional quick bath). I've always looked up and out — at the wolves, bears, trees and eagles chittering in the clouds.
But the Great Bear is bisected by fjords, inlets, and rivers, stretching into the land like interstitial fingers. And this underwater coast is teeming with fascinating life, according to Ross Wilson, our Heiltsuk diving guide from the little village of Bella Bella.
Ross is one of only a handful of divers who have explored this coast as well as a passionate marine conservationist — the Cousteau of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Today, he's introducing us to some of his favorite dive spots to show us why the Great Bear Rainforest Project is as much a marine conservation effort as it is a terrestrial one.
"Half the land is water," Ross says of the Great Bear. And it's the frigid half — about 50 degrees. Ross helpfully suggests we pour hot water into our gloves to keep our fingers moving during the dive.
This is the first time Conservancy people have taken these dives since we began working with First Nations communities to sustainably protect the Great Bear Rainforest. It's like rummaging through the treasure-laden basement of an old, inherited, house.
Our dives for the day last about 50 minutes. The underwater view looks exactly like the giant kelp tank in the middle of the Monterey Bay Aquarium — thick and green. We lose one another often in its opaqueness.
Giant bull kelp tower like palm trees above us — reaching from the rocky floor 50 and 60 feet below to the surface, where they spread like coils of green snakes. Kelp crabs hang on the fronds like window washers on skyscrapers, waving their claws as you approach.
Down below, the sandy bottom is covered in eelgrass, and the rocky bits are full of sponges and bits of cold water coral. Scallops are wedged tight in the cracks, and abalone shells (plundered by sea otters) shine in piles like silver dinner plates.
Though there are fish to be seen (lingcod, greenling, brown rockfish, sculpins), shellfish and other invertebrates rule these cold temperate waters.
So much life dots the inlet floor — sea urchins, sea pens, turban snails, gum-boot chitons, crabs, shrimp, sea stars three feet in diameter, and sea cucumbers the size of award-winning squash.
Most delightful of all are the sea hares — nudibranchs (Gastropods) — colorful and spectacular invertebrates that swim through the water column or inch along the rocks.
It's so colorful that we have a hard time leaving — leaving the creamy and translucent Lion’s Mane Nudibranch, the porcupine such as Frosted Nudibranchs , and the Sea Lemons, which are like hothouse flowers. If Teletubbies could have swimming babies, this is what I think they would look like.
While we are looking around, Ross does a couple of experiments. He's interested in abalone, which have been hit hard along the Pacific Coast — first by commercial exploitation, and recently by severe poaching.
This is one of the few places on Earth where abalone are still plentiful. One of its natural enemies is the starfish. So sensitive is this mollusk to starfish that, as soon as it's lightly brushed with a star fish arm, it scoots off as fast as it can, away from the deadly predator.
Ross demonstrates. We watch the abalone glide away about as fast as a computer cursor can travel under the tapping of a proficient typist. It’s the first time I have seen abalone move, and I can’t resist trying the experiment for myself.
Back in the cabin of our ship, Columbia III, the cold now just a delicious memory, we all now fully appreciate why Ross is so keen on extending the protective blanket of the Great Bear Rainforest Project deep into the water.
The forests are just an extension of what we have seen on the ocean floor, the life and wonder no less spectacular. If this place were anywhere else in the world, it would be at the head of a world-class marine conservation effort. But our terrestrial prejudices and the wandering bears have stolen the show.
For Ross Wilson, though, the Great Bear Rainforest is best viewed upside down. In time, I think we will come to see things his way.
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