Article and Photos by John Rawlings

s I sit on the gunwale of the dive boat pre-breathing my CCR in anticipation of our dive, I casually look off toward the West. The red and white beacon of a reef marker stands isolated atop a barnacle-encrusted rock, and the first signs of a Springtime matt of bull-kelp are beginning to show on the surface of the water between that beacon and our boat. A perfectly blue sky with only a whisper of small cotton-like clouds seems to meld into the darker blue waters of the Sound, interspersed with clusters of small islands. Each of these tiny island jewels is covered with bright green fir trees and their shorelines are blanketed with a scattering of light grey driftwood. Turning slightly, I gaze back toward the East, my eyes soaking up the sight of seemingly endless forests with bright sunlight glistening off snow-capped peaks in the distance – the “spine” of Vancouver Island. It’s day number one of my first trip ever to Clayoquot Sound on the Western shore of Vancouver Island - I’m already convinced that I’ve waited FAR too damn long to do this….and we have yet to even peek below the surface of the waters.

Clumsily shambling toward the stern, I gingerly poke one fin at a time through the transom out onto the swim-step. I can feel the sun shining down onto my neoprene hood and drysuit as the heat builds up beneath them and a bead of sweat trickles down toward the tip of my nose – the cold water is going to feel amazingly good! Heaving one leg forward in a giant-stride I lunge outward and with a loud splash I feel the chill suddenly lash against my bare face – one of the finest feelings on Earth! Moments later, I hear a similar splash and know that my dive buddy, Josh Smith, has entered the water behind me. After a quick gear check of our equipment, he signals me and the two of us begin our descent, sinking slowly into the rich, emerald green waters of the Sound. All I can hear is the slow, methodical sound of my breathing into and out of the mouthpiece of my Closed-Circuit Rebreather – otherwise all is still. It being Springtime as well as a week with large tidal exchanges, the visibility is relatively poor for photography.

Above: Surrounded by a field of Strawberry Anemones, Giant Acorn Barnacles thrust their cirri into the current to capture passing nutrients on which the barnacles feed.
Below: A Maroon Hermit Crab, Pagurus hemphilli, scuttles along an underwater ledge. It's distinctive black eyes with yellow rings give this hermit crab the nickname, "crazy eyes".
Thousands of tiny animals – denizens of the planktonic “soup” that is the North Pacific Ocean – drift by the faceplate of my mask, fascinating to look at but a hindrance to wide-angle photography. I’m glad that I made the choice to shoot macro on these dives. That happiness expands as we slowly approach a massive underwater wall, literally painted with marine invertebrate life. Clearly, I shall have no lack of photo subjects on this dive! Easing closer, I see dozens of tiny hermit crabs swarming about between cotton-like anemones and feeding giant barnacles. Focusing my eyes in on a tiny Pygmy Rock Crab peering out at me from within an old abandoned barnacle shell, I raise my viewfinder to my mask and move in for the shot…the first of many.


Clayoquot Sound takes its name from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations band, part of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples that live to this day in the area surrounding the Sound. Tla-o-qui-aht is usually translated as meaning, “different people,” or “different place”. However, that is not precise, as it means much more than just that – it specifically identifies their location in the Southern portion of the Sound. The word, aht, means “people”, and tla-o-qui is a location within Clayoquot Sound now known as Clayoqua. Thus, Tla-o-qui-aht can be loosely translated as the “people from Clayoqua.” It is believed that First Nations peoples have inhabited this portion of the West coast of Vancouver Island for around 9,000 years. The oldest known locations for the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples have been carbon-dated at between 4,200 and 5,000 years, but it is believed that far older sites have been lost due to the rise in sea levels as the great glaciers receded.

During the 1700’s European and American explorers and traders began to arrive in large numbers, spurred on by the fur trade, particularly the demand for Sea-Otter pelts. Clayoquot Sound itself was explored and mapped by a Spanish expedition led by Francisco de Eliza, who met and apparently developed a warm friendship with Wickaninnish, the primary chieftain at the time of the Tla-o-qui-aht people. In fact, it was during this time frame, in 1792, that the site of Tofino was named after a Spanish hydrographer, Don Vincente Tofino.

Above: A small cluster of Red-Trumpet Calcareous Tubeworms, Serpula columbiana, protrudes from a rocky cleft to gather food from the passing currents.
Below: As in its early days, the town of Tofino is still a working port, with tugboats and fishing vessels being common sights alongside its quays.
Above: A bull Steller Sealion with his "harem" of females basks in the sun. The largest of the eared seals, Steller Sealions are common in Clayoquot Sound and along the coast. The large bulls can weigh up to 2,500 pounds.
These good relations with the explorers and fur traders were not to last, however, and by the early 1800’s the formerly friendly dealings were nearing their end. In June of 1811, Captain Jonathan Thorn sailed the American bark, Tonquin, into Clayoquot Sound and began trading with the Tla-o-qui-aht people. There are many different versions told of the events that followed, but each version agrees that chief Wickaninnish was deeply insulted by Thorn’s behavior during the trading, and his warriors returned to the ship the following day to take revenge. Apparently, most of the Tonquin’s crew was slaughtered during the attack, but one wounded crewman somehow managed to set off the ship’s powder magazine, blowing the vessel apart and hurling parts of the ship, furs, trading goods, and hundreds of the native attackers in all directions. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 100 and 200 of the attackers appear to have been killed in the battle and the subsequent explosion. Needless to say, trade relationships significantly “soured” after this episode.


The original small island settlement at Tofino eventually grew until the need for expansion caused it to be relocated from the island to the peninsula around the beginning of the 20th century. The settlement functioned as a maritime trading location until a logging road from Port Alberni finally reached it in the 1950’s. That initial logging road from Port Alberni saw the small beginnings of what would prove to ultimately be Tofino’s major attraction – tourism. At one time used only for logging, the road is now Canada’s only paved road to the open Pacific Ocean and is known simply as Highway 4 – literally hundreds of thousands of people using it every year. One of the major attractions is Pacific Rim National Park, which was established in 1971, attracting visitors from around the world. Meares Island was declared a Tribal Park in 1984 by the Nuu-chah-nulth people after they fended off proposed clear-cutting efforts by several logging companies in the courts. Tofino and Clayoquot Sound were suddenly thrust onto the World’s attention in 1993 when environmental protests against clear-cutting by logging interests led to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history with nearly a thousand protestors being arrested. Since then, the United Nations has recognized Clayoquot Sound as a “World Biosphere Reserve”, a source of great local pride, and residents can often be heard jokingly referring to Tofino as “the Tree Hugging Capital of the World”.

Above: A tiny Grunt Sculpin, Rhamphocottus richardsonii, peers out at the camera lens from an old abandoned barnacle shell. Also known as a "pigfish" because of its snout, this fish has physically adapted so that its face resembles a closed barnacle when the fish is hidden inside such a shell.
Below: A Golden Dirona nudibranch, Dirona pellucida, slowly glides along a rock face encrusted with pink hydrocoral. The white-encrusted "leafy" structures are its gills.
Driving through the small town of Tofino can be a fascinating wilderness cultural study in and of itself – Whale watching (over 20,000 Gray Whales migrate through the area annually) and surfing are easily the biggest draws, with bear and bird watching and wilderness expeditions on foot or by kayak making steady gains in popularity. In addition to “Tree Hugging”, to our surprise we discovered that Tofino is also known as the Surfing capital of Canada! When someone says the word “surfing” to me, I immediately conjure up mental images of Hawaii or California, but the tiny town of Tofino was named as the “Best Surf Town” in all of North America in Outside Magazine's 2010 Editors' Choice Awards. We can now add to this list of outdoor activities the latest “adventure sport” in Clayoquot Sound – Scuba Diving.

Ocean Planet Adventures…

In 2007, Andy and Christine Edwards opened the doors of “Ocean Planet Adventures”, a dive shop and dive charter operation with the professed goal of opening up the waters of Clayoquot Sound to yet another group of outdoor enthusiasts – divers. The Edwards are convinced that Clayoquot Sound and its southern neighbor, Barkley Sound, are world-class dive destinations and their goal is to prove that to as many divers as they can. A former commercial diver/instructor, Andy is also an instructor for P.A.D.I. and has dived and taught around the world on every continent except Africa. He is also a licensed float-plane pilot and is currently working on plans to enter that aspect of his skills into the overall scheme of things within Ocean Planet Adventures. A small family operation, they have set their sights on being “Better First”, and “Bigger Second”, which will come with time. They are prepared to host divers at all levels of skill and training, from the complete novice up through highly experienced technical and CCR divers, and they take a great deal of pride in providing personalized service based on the needs of the individual diver or group. Heck, from what we experienced they will do everything but kick your fins and breathe for you! With our team, our needs were basically to take us to great dive sites, then get out of our way and wait until we come up….and that’s precisely how it worked out!

Above: A brightly colored Copper Rockfish, Sebastes caurinus, glides past a small patch of bright red Strawberry Anemones.
Below: A Diamondback Tritonia nudibranch, Tritonia festiva, preparing to strike at its prey, in this case a large Orange Sea-Pen, Ptilosarcus gurneyi. The strike of the predator is extremely fast and resembles that of a snake.
Underwater visibility can vary by season: Summer will be typically around 30 feet, Fall typically between 50 and 60 feet, Winter typically between 60 and 80 feet, with Spring being problematic and varying between 10 and 80 feet, dependant on conditions. As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, we had chosen to come in the Spring at a time of both a plankton bloom and large tidal exchanges. Andy quickly adapted to our needs and the existing conditions, and took us to some fine sites – my personal favorite being the Maltby Islets. We dived that site on a day with a crystal-clear blue sky and snow-capped peaks looking down at us as we struggled into our gear and prepared to descend.

A dive of wonder…

At first glance, the Maltby Islets look like a just another pair of rocks sticking above the surface, but their large, angular slopes underwater tell a different story. Completely encrusted with invertebrate life, each side of the islets appears to have a completely different “cast of characters” due to the fact that the prevailing currents will influence each side differently from the others. One side might have cloud-like billowy white Plumose Anemones as the primary species, another might have Giant Acorn Barnacles or colonies of Zoanthids in abundance, while still another will be adorned with a blanket of tiny, bright red Strawberry Anemones. Being on Closed-Circuit Rebreathers, we were able to circumvent the islets, seeing the almost startling species changes as we rounded each corner. Amongst all of this “attached” life scurried and slithered other invertebrates – Nudibranchs and Hermit Crabs – in their never-ending quest for food.

Slowly swimming alongside the rocky base of the islets, I am once again struck by the shear abundance of invertebrate life. As the beams of my canister lights dart across the wall like sabers, their glow highlights thousands of tiny animals going about their daily business.

Above: This photo clearly showing the rationale behind its name, the White-Spotted Rose Anemone, Urticina lofotensis, is one of the most beautiful invertebrates that can be recorded by an underwater photographer.
Below: Over 20,000 Gray Whales pass by and through Clayoquot Sound each year, and whale-watching has become one of the most popular tourist attractions. Gray Whales feed by plowing up the bottom with their lower jaw and filtering the mud through their baleen for invertebrates, so they remain near the coast in shallow water. This particular whale is feeding near the edge of a Bull-Kelp bed.
Startled by the sudden beam of light, a tiny Grunt Sculpin no bigger than my thumbnail darts behind a small brown cup coral and freezes – a perfect subject for my macro lens that I am quick to take advantage of. Casting my eyes farther afield, several different species of Nudibranchs (sea slugs) come within my vision and between shots I admire their colorful and almost velvety appearance. One species in particular attracts my attention – a Diamondback Nudibranch – which I find slithering along on the sand and shell bottom in search of its primary prey – “Sea Pens”. A bright yet ghostly white, this nudibranch can be absolutely fascinating to watch as it hunts, being many times smaller than its prey species. I sink to the bottom and lay there, completely mesmerized as I watch the drama unfold. The particular nudibranch that I am watching has selected a huge orange Sea Pen as its target and inches closer to it, completely undetected. Now within striking range, the nudibranch slowly rears back in a manner similar to that of a snake about to strike. The attack itself takes place in the blink of an eye – astonishing that a “slug” can move so quickly – the nudibranch taking a bite out of its prey and the Sea Pen recoiling into the sand to avoid its predator. Looking at the screen on the back of my camera, I see that I have been able to catch at least part of the action and, well pleased, I continue my slow swim along the base of the wall.

Popping past a large rocky edge jutting out into the water column, we surprise a hoard of Hermit Crabs and they scatter in surprise at my sudden arrival, scrambling this way and that across the face of the rock. Some of them appear to be connected, and I realize that these are male and female pairs waiting for their “nuptials”. Like all crabs, mating can only take place when the female has molted and has a soft shell. When a male hermit crab discovers a female about to molt, he will immediately latch onto her shell and drag her about with him until the “blessed event” can take place. I grin into the mouthpiece of my CCR as I happily record one such “honeymooning” couple before turning away to continue my search for more tiny subjects.
Above: Though not the commercial mainstay that fishing once was, commercial fishing boats are still common in Tofino, often sharing the piers and wharves with whale-watching vessels.
Below: Black Bears are common around Clayoquot Sound and the forests surrounding it, and can often be seen searching for food amongst the rocks and logs along the shoreline.
Above: A male Greenmark Hermit Crab, Pagurus caurinus, clings to a female in anticipation of mating. Like all crabs, mating can only take place when the female has molted and has a soft shell. When a male hermit crab discovers a female about to molt, he will immediately latch onto her shell and drag her about with him.
Within moments, I discover one – a rich and beautifully colored “Golden Dirona” Nudibranch slowly moving across a rocky area coated with glowing pink encrusting algae. The bright pink of the algae and the golden brown of the nudibranch contrast sharply with each other, but together they appear quite dazzling in my viewfinder and I spend several minutes on this subject alone, taking shots at various angles. Moving on, we round a rocky corner and find ourselves in a marvelous field of wonder – brightly colored Strawberry anemones covering the rocks like a thick red blanket. Slowly beginning our ascent across this seascape of pink and red, I begin to detect subtle movements and peer intently to see what they are – giant acorn barnacles, themselves covered with strawberry anemones and therefore hidden, are beginning to open up and feed in the freshening current. Their skeleton-like tendrils lash out into the water, ensnaring tiny nutrients that are passing by and pulling them quickly into the barnacle’s maw. Fascinated, I snap off a few more photos as we continue our ascent toward the surface, passing the stems of bull kelp as we go, most of them with their resident Kelp-Crabs glowering at me as I pass by.

The greenish glow of the sunlight upon the surface of the water seems to burst as our team breaks the surface. A bright golden sun and solid blue skies greet us. There’s nothing quite like emerging from a beautiful dive in the Pacific Northwest and being surrounded by sunshine and snow-capped mountains….like you’ve suddenly become part of a photograph yourself. Swimming on my back toward the dive boat and looking up at the sky I can hear Andy shout out to me, “How was it?” Grinning to myself, I know that mere words will not suffice….but with a camera full of images I will soon be able to show him!

Divers interested in diving the pristine waters of Clayoquot Sound should contact Andy or Christine Edwards at Ocean Planet Adventures at 1-888-725-2220, or through their website at

Other extremely useful websites for divers planning a trip to the area:

Vancouver Island and British Columbia Tourism:

Information on Tofino:

British Columbia Ferry System:

Wonderful accomodations can be found at the Weigh West Marine Resort:
Above: A colony of Orange Zoanthids, Epizoanthus scotinus. Many divers mistakenly think that these creatures are anemones. This colonial animal prefers vertical rock walls with slight currents and will often form large mat-like colonies.
Below: Another photo of a Diamondback Tritonia nudibranch. The pinkish color shown on this specimen indicates the color of its latest meal.