Nootka Sound

Tahtsa Dive Charters

I was asked to do a trip report of our dive trip to Nootka Sound for my new dive club newsletter. I’m not through writing about Japan and the National Parks road trip yet but this will serve as a good blog post in the interim!

Nootka Sound

In remote Tahsis B.C., a November morning is a quiet, misty and grey affair. We got our first view of town on a Saturday so all the boats were still in their driveways and there was no one about but us divers. As we gathered at the dock to wait for the boat we watched the faintest sliver of pink emerge over the mountains but otherwise the grey dock was reflected in the grey inlet and grey as far as the eye good see. We didn’t yet realize the amazing array of colours that awaited us just a little ways down the inlet and down into the water.

Nudibranch

There were four of us from Marker Buoy; Carl Baird, Bruce Brown, Ken Gatherum and myself – so new to the group that this was one of the first outings I had seen posted. We had met the day before to load up the truck with our gear (at least 15 tanks and I don’t know how many cameras plus bags and suitcases) before starting the long drive north. Tahsis is on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, not such a bad trek as the crow flies but our route took us through Tsawwassen ferry terminal, by boat to Nanaimo, up island to Campbell River then east to Gold River where both the pavement and the cell phone towers ran out. I had plenty of time to get to know my new friends and we finally pulled up at Tahtsa Dive Charters HQ around 6 PM, tired and hungry.

Tahsis is a tiny blip of a town, so small that in winter there are only 2 restaurants with limited hours. On Halloween both were closed because there were hot dogs and fireworks at the local school so we settled into our rooms at Nootka Gold B&B and got ready for diving. Most people in town have more than one job; Jude from Tahtsa Dive Charters is also the mayor while husband and Captain Scott Schooner works at the fire department and ambulance. Our host at Nootka Gold B&B, Silvie Keen, also runs the Tahsis Time Grill restaurant and the other restaurant in town is also the gas station and grocery store. I really liked the vibe. It’s a town that can’t support slackers – everyone has to pitch in and be kind and decent.

Anemone

The Nootka Sound area is huge with a complex system of deep inlets popular with sport fishermen in the summer, as well as kayakers and hikers. The sound also has historical importance. It’s known as “the Birthplace of British Columbia” because this is where Captain James Cook first came ashore in March 1778. To his relief, the Mowachaht First Nations people wanted to trade and not attack so the site was named Friendly Cove.

It’s possible to go by boat to explore the landing area (and I think I would like to come back to do this) but our group headed up Espinosa Inlet to “The Gardens” instead, the place Little Espinosa Inlet empties into the larger Espinosa. It’s a relatively narrow passage and that means lots of life. Captain Scott clearly knows the area very well and the visibility was excellent. We saw swimming scallops, Noble Sea Lemon nudibranchs, a Giant Dendrenotid nudibranch, huge rock scallops and a wolf eel dotted across a carpeting of pink strawberry anemones. The pink was startling at first, like coming across a girl’s birthday party, but then there was the yellow of the sea lemon nudibranchs, orange golden dirona nudibranchs, giant purple sea cucumbers, blue bat stars…all the colours of the rainbow. At one point Bruce and I came across an egg yolk jelly that appeared to be stuck to the wall but as I look back at my photos I think the strawberry anemones were actually eating it, very very slowly.

Nootka Sound

Topside again we made our way out to “Double Island” mouth of Esperanza inlet. It’s unsheltered and there was a bit of current and chop that made the dive a bit rough. I was having gear issues and by the time I was finished dealing with them decided to sit this dive out. I was lucky, the weather was in our favour and so I bobbed about in the sunshine with Scott, watching sea otters and diver bubbles.

Wold Eel

I wasn’t the only one who was appreciative of the sunshine. Tahtsa’s dive boat is fast enough to get out to the open sea and back in a day but the sacrifice is that it is a pretty bare-bones vessel. There is no cover or windbreak on the boat, which had caused us a bit of trepidation in the grey dawn, although it seems that there are many closer dive sites for wetter days. There are also no bins or dry areas so plan to bring your own dry bag and containers if that’s a need. Finally, there is no head on the boat either so Captain Scott kept his eyes out for beaches where we could make a pit stop between dives.

It all worked out and our trip back up the inlet was gorgeous; evergreen covered islands dropping right into sea, rocky outcrops full of tide pools and otters, sea lions and eagles making an appearance at regular intervals. When we stopped for fuel the caretaker told us that his dogs had cornered a bear under one of the cabins the night before. This place is teeming with life.

Cloud Sponge

Our third dive of the day (and where we stayed for the rest of the trip), was Mozino Point. This is the darling of Nootka Sound, close enough to Tahsis that a boat can get there in ten minutes but diverse enough to serve up a different dive every time. Mozino Point is the site of the lighthouse at the junction of Tahsis Inlet and Tahsis Narrows, an area that sees a huge interchange of water and is hundreds of feet deep. Captain Scott told us that 90% of the time the tide is flowing out to sea but on our afternoon dive it had got itself turned around and was heading into town. There was a bit of confusion underwater and then the consensus was to go with the flow.

The colours at Mozino Point are even more spectacular than the Gardens. Pink and red strawberry anemones start of the splendour, decorating rocks, barnacles, scallops without prejudice. Nudibranchs all of kinds and colours lay around languidly. Then we arrive at the cloud sponges, eggshell white and just as fragile, surrounded by several kinds of rockfish and tunicates and a few white reticulated sponges thrown in for good measure. Farther below this are the rare and fragile Gorgonian corals which we would see the next day.

Gorgonian Coral

The dive boat comes out of the water at night and although it seems safe enough to leave all the gear on it (Scott told us that many homes don’t even have keys), he was going out with a group of hikers before us in the morning and needed room for them. The late departure combined with the daylight savings fall back meant that we had much more time to kill in the morning than I’m used to on a dive trip – and frankly more than made me comfortable, considering our 12 hour journey home – but we were organized and at the dive site in no time. From the lighthouse it was down 140 feet or so to get a look at the rare Gorgonian corals. These are lurid pink fan-shaped corals, some fuzzy with polyps out feeding and some closed up, looking dormant and stony. I saw one that had an orange peel nudibranch draped over several coral protrusions. Sea pens seem to grow in abundance in the area so we saw a lot of those near them and from there we made our way back up through the cloud sponges, checking in each of them for any critters that might be hiding out. Then into the strawberry (anemone) fields for more pink, more scallops the size of dinner plates, huge barnacles fishing, swimming scallops chattering like false teeth through the water, and decorator crabs in all the latest fashions. Coming up towards our safety stop I realized we had covered quite a bit of distance and the scenery had changed again. Here was ribbony kelp, purple sea urchins,  and some perch. A few feet below the surface Bruce pointed out a small jelly to me and we realized at the same time that there was a smack of them, all around us. I surfaced laughing and ready to do the whole thing again. A five star dive, to be sure.

Nudibranch

We waited only as long as we had to before getting back in the water again but we passed the time eating granola bars and watching the sea lions hunting not far from the boat. He wasn’t bothered by us at all but as soon as we entered the water he cruised by us to take a look. This dive was similar in features to the previous day, substituting the deep Gorgonians for the inclusion of a huge China rockfish and a wolf eel but it was equally delightful and made me wish that this amazing site was not quite so far away.

As always, there are more photos on flickr.

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