Beneath the northern sea

A Flabellina verrucosa nudibranch slowly makes its way across a rocky wall, seeking its next meal. (John Rawlings Photo)

Becoming friends with John Rawlings made me remember my childhood fascination with life beneath the sea.

I tell stories about life at sea, or by the sea. Stories of ships and shipwrecks, lighthouses, sailors, and coastal people who risk their lives at sea. Through these eyes what lay beneath the sea became, in my mind, a horrifying thing. It was cold and dark. It conjured images of death.

It wasn’t always that way. As a kid I devoured books about sunken treasure and life beneath the sea. It started with Captain Haddock and Tintin, and progressed through Edward Ellsberg and Jacques Cousteau and Edward Roe Snow.

The way this played in my imagination had long faded by the time I met John. In words and pictures John described a world I didn’t know but should. It was almost just outside the harbour. I’ve passed back and forth over these waters in all sorts of boats. I’d never truly imagined what lay beneath me.

Its bright blue color in vivid contrast with surrounding orange anemones, a male kelp greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus), stares back at the camera lens as John floats by in the current. (John Rawlings Photo)

The moment I put my face into the water, I knew that we were in for a wondrous dive—even near the surface the rocky face of the wall was literally coated with color and life. As we descended the wall, the invertebrate life became thicker and thicker—almost seeming to be in layers. Giant acorn barnacles were present in large numbers, their tendrils fanning out into the now fading current. Huge swaths of bright orange plumose anemones appeared like giant strips between patches of their fluorescent white “cousins”—reminding us of the patterns seen in the orange/white creamsicles we enjoyed as children. Yellow, red, orange, and white patches of encrusting sponge covered the rocks, making the scene look like a haphazard quilt. Through all of this “stationary” color darted tiny hermit crabs and shrimps of various species, their rapid scurrying movements catching my eye as we slowly descended down the wall and moved further up the Narrows, the slight current sweeping us along. As my eyes swept the ledges, the bright fluorescent red, orange and blue colors of a Puget Sound king crab suddenly burst into view when the beam of my light touched it. I managed to get off a quick portrait shot of it before the current carried me away.

John Rawlings, Advanced Diver Magazine

John is Chief Staff Writer at Advanced Diver Magazine. Talking to a diver that experienced, one who has truly explored the oceans of the world, I was surprised by his passion for the undersea life just beyond my doorstep. I suppose that I’ve always thought of those things being somewhere else, far away from my familiar world.

John started diving because of an accident. After two tours of duty in the Korean DMZ, he was back in the US at Fort Lewis when he was seriously hurt in a truck accident that killed two of his fellow soldiers. “I was in the Madigan Army Medical Center, learning how to walk again,” John told me, “and as part of the treatment they had me swimming –which bored me to no end. Then one of the guys in my infantry unit put up a sign that said, ‘If you want to learn how to dive, 25 bucks.’ That sounds cheap now, but it was a lot of money back then. But I did it, in Gig Harbor by Tacoma, and I knew as soon as I put my mask in the water that this was it.”

John was certified as a diver in 1975. He’s been diving all over the world, but his passion is the Pacific Northwest. That’s why Prince Rupert caught his attention.

“I was attracted to Prince Rupert because so much of it has not been dived,” John says. “In most places around that area, if it’s been dived at all it’s been by commercial divers looking for sea cucumbers, or sea urchins, or whatever, and they go down 40 or 50 feet to get what they’re after and that’d be it. So I was looking for what we call virgin dive sites. And what we got was just mind-blowing. One place, Watts Narrows, is a very narrow channel between two small islands. The tide normally runs through there at about four or five knots, so you have to dive at slack tide, but once we were in there we were just blown away by life and colour. And there must be hundreds if not thousands of places just like that waiting for divers around Prince Rupert. In my opinion diving is a major untapped resource for Prince Rupert.”

John visited Prince Rupert with dive partner Josh Smith, spent several days with Mike and Almudena Miles at Oceanwild Nature Expeditions, and his six-page story “Gateway to the Wilderness: Prince Rupert Expedition” appeared in Issue #32 of Advanced Diver last fall.

John’s amazing photos, and the passion for undersea life that ebbed through a series of great meals and long conversations, opened a window onto a new world. Because of that old fascination, it created one of the rare moments when I truly remember the feeling of a child’s sense of discovery.

This is what John calls a “salad shot.” At lower left, a crimson or “dreadlock” anemone (Cribrinopsis fernaldi); from top to bottom the larger anemones are painted or "Christmas” anemones (Urticia crassicornis). The smaller anemones throughout the photo are brooding anemones (Epiactis lisbethae), which are named for their ability to spring forth young from their stalks. At center left is a clump of red soft coral, aka "Sea Strawberry" (Gersemia rubiformis). Directly beneath the large anemone at top right is a graceful decorator crab (Oregonia gracilis) that has stuck a couple of clumps of red sponge onto its shell. The entire scene is also enshrouded by yellow and white encrusting sponges. Almost hidden at the centre of the photo is a tiny gray and white scalyhead sculpin (Artedius harringtoni), a beautiful little fish that can adapt its colour to its surroundings. (John Rawlings Photo)

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.