The very first time anyone dives with me they quickly understand something: I am a “Critter Guy.” From the moment I enter the water, I am “on-scan,” and an unusual or rare species will turn an ordinary dive into a treasure for me. My long-suffering dive buddy and best friend, “Sparky” Campbell, has spent many a dive hovering nearby while I happily spend most of our bottom time photographing some tiny creature that caught my eye. My bookshelves quite literally groan with marine mammal, fish, and invertebrate identification books, most of them dog-eared from years of constant use. Two of my absolute favorites are Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest, and Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, both co-authored by Andy Lamb.

A self-described marine naturalist, Andy began his career while majoring in Zoology at the University of British Columbia. Working at the Vancouver Aquarium, he managed to “weasel” his way into the back where the fish were cared for…his love affair with the denizens of the undersea world was well on its way. While still a student, he dived, fished, and trawled all over the Pacific Northwest gathering specimens for the aquarium, gaining valuable knowledge that would serve him well throughout his career. Earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and Life Sciences, Andy was hired as a “Fish Culturalist” for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a position he held for 22 years. He began teaching a 10-week marine identification course out of his home – a hugely popular course. The interest from divers led to a book, and in 1986 Andy and underwater photographer Phil Edgell published Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest, which has since sold over 40,000 copies.

In 1996 downsizing struck, and Andy found himself 50 years old and unemployed. Returning to his “roots,” he was hired as a School Program Coordinator specializing in marine invertebrates at the Vancouver Aquarium, where he spent the next decade in a position that he loved. In 2005, a new book appeared - Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, co-authored with his friend Bernie Hanby. This book was the project of a lifetime. Originally intended to cover only invertebrates, it instead evolved into the “ultimate” book covering everything from seaweed to fishes. The first and second printings sold out quickly, and a third is planned. The moment I laid eyes on it, I knew I had to have a copy. 2005 was also the year that Andy bid farewell to the Vancouver Aquarium. 

In early 2007, I heard that Andy had retired to the Canadian Gulf Islands in British Columbia. The Canadian Gulf Islands lie like a gleaming necklace of green emeralds alongside the east coast of Vancouver Island. With over a dozen large islands and hundreds of smaller islets, the diving around them can be absolutely superb. Together with his wife, Virginia, Andy had opened the Cedar Beach Resort, a small island bed-and-breakfast on Thetis Island -- specially catering to critter-loving divers! I was on the telephone that very day arranging a six-dive weekend trip!

Three weeks later, Sparky and I were crossing the Canadian border and heading to the first of our ferry rides across to Vancouver Island, the truck heaped with scuba gear and camera equipment. We caught the ferry at Tsawwassen on the British Columbia mainland, and traveled west for several hours across the Strait of Georgia, finally disembarking at Nanaimo on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. From Nanaimo, we drove south to catch our next ferry at Chemainus, a friendly little town facing the chain known as the Gulf Islands. A small ferry, befitting its tiny destination, then took us across to Thetis Island.

Above: Rossia pacifica, poses for my camera lens. This is one of my absolute favorite tiny sea creatures due to their intelligence and almost comedic appearance. Divers quite often mistake “Stubbies” for juvenile octopuses. Like other species of squid, the Stubby uses color variation and light as means of communication and a photographer can often get a beautiful series of different colored shots of the same individual. The Stubby Squid is most often seen at night.

Thetis Island is a tiny, emerald green jewel – a perfect location for getting away from it all as well as diving! The island was named after H.M.S. Thetis, a British 36-gun frigate that surveyed the area between 1851 and 1853. Appropriately, “Thetis” was originally the name of a sea goddess from Greek mythology. Only around 350 permanent residents live on Thetis, all of them intensely proud of their island and the friendly community they have built together – one in which doors are never locked, fresh eggs are delivered in your mailbox, and children attend classes in a one-room school house. We loved it at first sight.

Andy has a partnership with a gentleman named Peter Luckham…the kind that isn’t a written agreement but based on a handshake and the trust between two friends. Peter has lived on Thetis Island for about 20 years, and owns 49th Parallel Dive Charters. Andy and Virginia spoil visiting divers ashore while Peter spoils them afloat – together they make a fine team. Peter is constantly searching for new dive sites, and knows the underwater contours of the area like the back of his own hand, locating dozens of dive sites over the years. He has a particular love for historical shipwrecks (we will be returning to dive a few with him!), while also working hard with the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia to bring new wrecks to the area. Peter spent a year of his life working tirelessly toward getting a Boeing 737 aircraft sunk off Chemainus – a massive undertaking. Sparky and I had seen and photographed the aircraft when it was being prepped on the mainland two years before, and we now had the opportunity to dive the airliner to see for ourselves how much has been claimed by the sea.

Our first day on the water dawned clear and cold, the sun glinting off the surface like diamonds, and a radiant blue sky stretching off past the horizon with only a whisper of clouds. After a deep sleep and a marvelous breakfast at Cedar Beach, we were well rested, the camera gear was prepared, and we were ready to dive! Peter collected us at the public pier with his 37-foot dive boat Xihwu (pronounced like “key-kwah”), which is the local Coast Salish dialect’s word for the Red Sea Urchin. The Xihwu is a spacious dive boat – I’m 6’ 4” tall, yet I found myself easily able to stand up inside the cabin.

Our first dive site was the Active Point Pinnacle in Stuart Channel, a long rock formation set in mid-channel like a spine. Gazing into the water from the stern, the visibility looked like it was going to be superb and our excitement built. I chose to dive with my AF-S Nikkor 12–24 lens, thinking that the visibility at depth would be conducive to wide-angle photography. That proved to be an error. My enthusiasm had taken us to the islands in the spring – not the best time of year to dive the Pacific Northwest due to the heightened chance of plankton blooms and subsequent low visibility. (Fall and winter are the best times of year for diving, when at times visibility can approach 100 feet and rival the tropics.)

Horizontal visibility for the first 15 feet from the surface was superb, but then we entered what can only be politely described as a layer of snot. This layer was a plankton bloom typical of spring in the Pacific Northwest...a little disappointment after our initial euphoria. We dropped beneath the bottom of the plankton layer at around 50 FSW and entered a darkened realm, virtually all light from the surface blocked by the thick layer above. Visibility was around 15 feet at best, and there was a lot of particulate matter in the water. 

Above: An abundant and intensely predatory species of sea star, a Sunflower Star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, encounters a Red Sea Urchin, Strongylocentrotus fanciscanus, while hunting. Receiving a spiny reception from the urchin, the Sunflower Star’s arms recoil back from the contact. Valued for its roe, the Spiny Red Sea Urchin is collected commercially up and down the West coast of North America

I stewed over my decision to shoot wide-angle, took a few test shots, grimaced at the results, and promptly shifted over to shooting wide-angle/close-up shots of the variety of animals abounding on the long rocky reef, the Tube-Dwelling Anemones (Pachycerianthus fimbriatus) in particular attracting my eye. Despite the disappointing visibility, we emerged after the dive with some fine photos, grinning broadly at Andy and Peter while the former thrust bowls of hot clam chowder into our hands to warm our souls as we eagerly chatted with him about some of the species we had seen.

Another dive on the first day was Xihwa Reef – home of the sunken Boeing 737. Ever since we had first seen the plane perched on huge blocks near Vancouver, we had wondered where she would end up. We eagerly strode off the stern, dropping into the rich emerald green water. Plunging down the line through the soupy plankton layer, the outline of the huge aircraft slowly began to take shape, a few bright white Plumose Anemones on the fuselage becoming visible before anything else.

Perched above the bottom on huge metal stands, the plane sits as if flying and divers can swim both beneath her and into the interior. Fascinated by the marine growth on the exterior, I photographed several species now making the plane their home, while Sparky entered an open hatchway and proceeded to the cockpit to ham it up for the camera. The plane has been down for just over a year and already there is a lot of life on her – she will become increasingly impressive in years to come.

A sloping rocky wall adjoins the plane, home to wolf eels, massive sunflower sea stars, and invertebrates of all kind. Heading back to shore at the end of the day, slurping down more of Virginia Lamb’s delicious homemade chowder, we grinned at each other…it had been a good day.

The next day dawned with Peter collecting us directly from the rocks in front of Cedar Beach, and shooting over toward Galiano Island, where the first dive of the day would be on Spanish Hills Wall. Andy had told us that the wall was covered with life of all kinds, and I grinned in anticipation as we slowly sank down into the deep green depths alongside its rocky face.

Above: One of the most common sculpins on the West coast, the tiny Scalyhead Sculpin, Artedius herringtoni, is also one of the most varied in terms of colors. Often assuming the color schemes of its immediate surroundings, Scalyheads can be found in various shades of brown, tan, blue, green or even bright red. In addition to the color variations, shape patterns on the skin of this tiny fish are also highly variable, leading some divers to mistakenly believe that they are seeing different species during a dive.
I had set up my system for macro photography using my AF Micro Nikkor 60mm lens, and within seconds of leaving the surface I was delightedly aware that the choice had been a good one. Creatures of all kinds scuttled or swam about while the often garish colors of stationary invertebrates looked as though I were peering through a kaleidoscope. Looking like plants but actually extremely active animals, Feather Stars, Florometra serratissima, remained stationary until touched and then waved their arms about in an excited flurry. Sparky actually found one hitching a ride, attached to the carapace of a large Puget Sound King Crab. Bright red Slipper Sea Cucumbers, Psolus chitonoides, dotted the wall – resembling bright red Christmas tree lights whenever the spotting lights from my DS-125 strobes happened to chance upon them. Tiny Scalyhead Sculpins with their starburst eyes darted here and there while the larger Copper Rockfish, Kelp Greenlings, and the occasional Lingcod perched haphazardly on ledges, waiting until our approach to show alarm and then dart away into the murk.
Above: A Rhinoceros Crab, Rhinolithodes wosnessenskii, clings to a rocky ledge on Spanish Hills Wall, its hairy legs acting as
superb camouflage and making it almost invisible. A member of the Lithodidae family, the Rhinoceros Crab is extremely
slow moving. Considered rare and unusual, this crab may in fact be far more common than is generally assumed, not being
noticed by passing divers due to its blending in perfectly with its environment. Only a slight movement by this crab caught my attention, and I was able to take a series of photographs.

Above: A fairly typical shoreline seen in the Gulf Islands showing a small Black Cormorant colony on a Cliffside.

Below: ADM Team Member, John “Sparky” Campbell, left, discusses potential dive locations with Marine Naturalist, Andy Lamb, right.


The creatures I shall remember most, however, were the crabs…they were everywhere...huge fluorescent Puget Sound King Crabs, large spider-like Tanner Crabs, the physically bizarre Rhinoceros Crabs and Heart Crabs, and hundreds upon hundreds of tiny colorful Hermit Crabs of various species. There were so many crabs that sometimes the wall seemed to “move” with their scurrying. Had I been using film and limited to 36 shots, I would have been frustrated; but, due to the wonders of digital technology, I surfaced with well over 100 shots from this one dive alone. Until Andy and Peter point me toward something even better, Spanish Hills Wall will remain etched in my mind as the dive site to remember from this trip.

Returning to shore at the close of the day’s diving, Sparky and I each went in different directions as we prepared to bid farewell to this magical location. He took off in a sea kayak, exploring across the bay, while I sat on shore with my laptop going through photos from the dives. It wasn’t ALL work for me, though! I was later to be found taking advantage of the aromatic cedar sauna down by the cove, and sipping on a glass of wine while watching an otter play along the shore. Just more pleasant memories of a place that I’m certain I will return to again and again.  

Above: The bizarre heart-shape on its carapace indicating how it received its common name, the red eyes of a Heart Crab, Phyllolithodes papillosus, glare back at the camera lens. As with many lithode crabs, the Heart Crab is naturally camouflaged and often overlooked by divers. The Northern Pacific has more different species from the Lithodidae family than any other region on Earth, which strongly suggests that the family may have evolved in this area.