Tahsis - British Columbia

Article by John Rawlings

Photography by Curt Bowen, John Rawlings, Bob Bailey and Bruce Yates


Within mere minutes of our departure from my driveway for the long trek north, the team realized that an absolutely critical mistake had been made…each vehicle had a two-way walkie-talkie radio, and we had foolishly allowed Curt Bowen to have one to play with. Suddenly each of us had acquired new nick-names – “Black Bear Bob”, “Badger Bruce”, “Jackrabbit John” and “Chipmunk Curt”–and we were to be hearing those nicknames for the next several straight hours as Curt kept himself entertained with his new communications link...aka “toy”. The lone team member to avoid this loathsome fate was Valerie Lyttle, who had departed a day earlier to meet up with family on Vancouver Island. Simultaneously grinning with mirth and cursing our misfortune, we plunged up Interstate 5 in the utter blackness of the early morning toward the Canadian border and our ultimate destination – the raw wilderness of Nootka Sound and some of the finest cold-water diving in the world. It was going to be an amazing adventure….and, thanks to Curt and his radio, a very long trip - “Black Bear Bob”…“Badger Bruce”…what’s your twenty, over?”

I had collected Curt Bowen from SeaTac International Airport the previous night after he had arrived from Florida, and the springs of our vehicle were heavily weighted down with photo and dive gear. Crossing the border in the dark at Blaine, the ADM team caught the 7:45 AM ferry at Tsawwassen and spent the majority of the two hour crossing to Vancouver Island on the upper deck with our cameras and zoom lenses, each of us seeking the photo opportunities that always seem to magically appear for passengers on the BC Ferry system. Our team consisted of ADM Publisher Curt Bowen, ADM Photojournalist John Rawlings, and three noted Pacific Northwest underwater photographers – Valerie Lyttle, Bob Bailey, and Bruce Yates. Each of us was excited to reach our destination and piling up some new images in our portfolios. Landing at the picturesque port City of Nanaimo on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, we turned our vehicles northward and proceeded up-island toward our destination – the tiny and isolated Village of Tahsis on the west coast of the island and at the inland tip of Nootka Sound.

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Nootka Sound is known historically as “the Birthplace of British Columbia”, as it was here where Captain James Cook first landed during his third incredible voyage of discovery in March of 1778. Warmly greeted by Maquinna, the chief of the Mowachaht First Nations peoples, Cook’s glowing reports of the friendly welcome and abundant natural resources launched massive trading efforts designed to feed the lust for sleek furs in both Europe and Asia, and the “modern history” of what is now known as Vancouver Island and British Columbia began. To this day, the location of the village where Cook landed is known as “Friendly Cove”. Over two centuries have passed since that first exciting meeting between Cook and Maquinna. I was originally attracted to the area because of this history, but from day one of my very first visit to Nootka Sound years ago it has also been firmly established in my mind as one of my favorite locations on Earth for diving.

When Captain Cook and the other early traders and explorers arrived, they were absolutely astonished at the raw beauty of the endless forests and the bountiful resources, but as they walked upon their wooden decks staring out at nature’s bounty, they little suspected the absolutely incredible beauty that existed beneath the waves. Such discoveries awaited the advent of modern diving equipment and photography. An additional and special attraction for me has also been friendship. From the moment that we first met, Scott and Jude Schooner of Tahtsa Dive Charters have built a warm place in my heart based on their kindness, honesty and decency – a dive trip with them is like a trip with a beloved family – something that I have come to cherish. Located at the foot of the government dock in the village of Tahsis, Tahtsa Dive Charters supports divers and sea-kayakers year-round and they know the best locations within the Sound for adventure and photography, both below and afloat. “Tahtsa” is a Cheslatta T’en (First Nations) word meaning “Waters Far Off”, a name extremely applicable to the location!

Our team arrived at Tahsis in the late afternoon, just in time to see the majestic rays of the sunset dance along the slopes of the mountain peaks surrounding the harbor – a superb welcome! After unpacking our gear, we made our way to the local Pub, (an absolute shocker, I know!), where we were greeted with warm smiles and the comment – “you folks must be the divers!” During the peak summer fishing season, Tahsis grows to approximately 1,500 souls, but in the “off-season”, it shrinks back down to 300 residents and absolutely everyone knows everyone else. Newcomers to the village, such as our team, are immediately noticed and welcomed, and each of us felt the friendliness of the community throughout the entire week.

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The week prior to our arrival had seen some pretty intense rainfall accompanied by some flooding of the rivers and streams. A couple of the roads had been literally washed out in places. As a result, we had some worries regarding underwater visibility due to run-off. Another concern was that we wanted the first dive to be a “shakedown” to make certain that all of our equipment had managed to survive the journey and that there would be no major gear surprises during the week. Sizing up our needs, the following morning Scott took us to a site known as “Boulder Alley”, a location named for massive clusters of large boulders – some as large as houses – that had fallen into the water from an adjacent cliffside eons ago. As you approach this site from the water you can see massive holes in the cliffside where the boulders once were, giving you a fairly good idea of the structure you will encounter during the dive. The boulders extend from just below the surface down past 150 FSW and attract large schools of fish, larger predators such as Lingcod, and frequently adult Puget Sound King Crabs. In addition to providing photo opportunities, divers can also easily use the huge boulders to escape troublesome currents. Curt was diving with his Armadillo sidemount system and two steel 119 tanks, while I was diving with my Classic KISS CCR – it was obvious that we would have the most bottom time on the dive, so it was decided that we would enter the water first. I was vastly entertained by watching Curt waddle toward the side with those two 119s – it was like watching the hunchback, Quasimodo, prancing around in Paris with a pair of cathedral bells! With an absolutely enormous splash, Curt hit the water and Scott handed down his camera. I followed a couple of minutes later and, after collecting my camera, together we began to sink downward into the emerald green murk. That “murk” only lasted briefly, though – it was a fresh-water halocline caused by the river run-off and beneath it the visibility suddenly opened up marvelously! Our concerns for the visibility had proven to be unfounded and we would be blessed all week with visibility ranging from good to superb. We descended the slope slowly moving from boulder to boulder. Each one seemed to have its own “personality” – some being completely covered with Featherstars or orange Zoanthids, others hosted clusters of Chimney sponges, while still others had congregations of Sea Cucumbers, Sunflower Stars or other invertebrates. I found the Chimney sponges in particular to be excellent photo subjects, as they frequently had resident Warbonnets, crabs, shrimps or Rockfish peering out at the world from within the spout of the “chimney”. Emerging from the water at the end of the dive with a collection of new images and the reassurance of having tested out our equipment, the team eagerly looked forward to our future dives.

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Our second dive that day was at the showcase site – located at the narrows of Mozino Point. A vast current-swept area hundreds of feet in length and extending below 200 feet in depth, divers can easily hit this site on several days in a row and never see the same spot twice. The first aspect of the site that immediately draws your attention as you descend down through the jumble of rocks on a gradual slope is that virtually everything is completely covered with a literal blanket of brilliant red and pink Strawberry anemones, making Mozino Point one of the most amazingly colorful dives to be found anywhere. Starting around 70 FSW the first of the Cloud sponges make their dramatic appearance and completely rivet the diver’s attention with their unusual cloud-like shapes. Ranging from the purest of white to pale yellow, the Cloud Sponges of Mozino Point are startlingly highlighted by the surrounding carpet of pink Strawberry Anemones – producing dramatic subjects for underwater photographers looking for color and contrast. These sponges are constructed of silica - commonly being referred to as “glass sponges” - and are extraordinarily delicate. The size and bizarre appearance of these sponges increases with depth and by the time that you pass 100 FSW many of them are of almost monstrous proportions. One of our team members, Bob Bailey, described the largest ones as “almost requiring license plates”! A diver can often discover dozens of them within view simply by casting about the beams of your lights. Past 100 FSW divers will also begin to find smaller examples of bright orange and pink deep-water Gorgonian corals, also steadily increasing in size with depth in addition to assuming bizarre fan-like shapes. As the wall at Mozino Point plunges downward, these corals become increasingly prolific until they almost appear to form an incredible orange forest. Dwelling in complete darkness, each coral colony establishes its own feeding schedule, and it is common to find one colony with its polyps extended and actively gathering food from the passing current while the colony next to it has all of its polyps retracted and appears to be completely dormant. In such cases the two colonies will almost appear to be completely separate species. Few divers in the world have experienced such a delightful combination of species such as this, and photographing the Cloud sponges and Gorgonian corals at Mozino Point is an absolutely stunning experience.

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Though I am a frequent visitor to Tahsis, our second day was something new for me – a site known as “the Gardens” due to its vast amount of colorful marine life. Located further out the inlet almost to the point where Esperanza Inlet meets the open Pacific, I had never dived out there before and I was eagerly looking forward to the experience. Scott and Jude had been keeping this site in their back pocket as a surprise. On our way to the Gardens we encountered Sea Otters, Steller Sealions and Humpback Whales, which I, at least, interpreted as outstanding omens for the dives to come! Unfortunately for me, if they had been omens, they were bad ones! My camera system decided to play games with me once I was underwater and I discovered to my dismay that photography was suddenly out of the question – my dome port having a huge patch of condensation right at dead center. At places, the Gardens had almost gin-clear visibility and large numbers of Rockfish of many different species abounded. Frustrated at my inability to photograph such a wonderful site, I followed around behind Curt at the very base of the wall, cursing loudly to myself into my rebreather mouthpiece. At one point, I discovered a large Giant Pacific Octopus in its den between two rocks and excitedly beckoned Curt over for him to try to get a photo. Being from Florida and not realizing the absolutely colossal physical capability of these animals, when he found that the cleft was too small for him to get a good shot, he calmly signaled me to reach in and pull the octopus out! My response was also calm….but it involved the use of only one finger! The fish population was simply huge – at one point in time, I rounded one of the larger boulders and found an absolute cloud of Rockfish sheltered from the current behind it…there was at least six and probably seven different species in that cloud. I was still cursing my bad luck with my camera when I hit the surface with absolutely no useable images from a marvelous dive. Between dives, we again encountered a small pod of Humpback Whales as well as a group of rocks covered with both Harbor and Fur seals, making for an exciting surface interval. I spent the next dive topside - tinkering with my camera system while the others dived another site that had not ever been dived before – Garden Point, on the south side of Esperanza Inlet, about six miles south of “the Gardens”. They emerged at the end of the dive to tell me that there had been so many fish on the wall that it had been “like diving in an aquarium”! My disappointment was tempered, however, as we were able to watch the antics of several Black Bears on shore, including a mother and cub, as we headed back in to Tahsis.

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A couple of commercial tuna boats had tied up to the dock, seeking shelter from stormy weather out at sea, and were selling whole Tuna at $2.00 a pound. The morning of the third day, Curt had bought an Albacore Tuna from them, extracting a promise from Susan Limatainen, the cook at the local Pub to prepare tuna steaks for us all that night. Drooling in anticipation, we headed off on the morning of our third day to continue the diving…

We had decided that day three of our adventure was going to be dedicated to the deep-water corals, so with the boat pointed back toward Mozino Point, the team actively began to don the gear needed for such a dive and lining up the appropriate deco and bail-out bottles of gas. Arriving at Mozino Point, we discovered that there was a strong surface current. After a quick exploratory dive by Scott, as well as some discussion and deliberation, we agreed to give it a go despite the current. As each one of us strode into the water, we were almost immediately swept past the small light marker at the entry point and had to drop down into the boulders and proceed back to it hand-over-hand. Finding a large cleft in the wall that enabled us to descend at least partially out of the current, we found that the flow dropped dramatically with increasing depth – finally petering out at approximately 150 FSW. Not pausing to photograph the corals to either side of us as we descended, (there would be time enough for them during the ascent), we dropped downward like stones alongside the steep wall, the beams of our canister lights lashing out into the inky blackness like light sabers. Staring downward intently, the bottom seemed to rush up at me and I leveled off at 209 FSW, just above the mud and with the base of the wall to my left absolutely covered with bright orange Gorgonians. Curt slowly eased around to my right and I began to snap off images of him next to some of the corals, grateful for his red and blue Otter drysuit that shows up so well in my darkened viewfinder. We didn’t remain long at the base of the wall, and began our ascent through the colonies of corals – their branches looking almost glowingly fluorescent in our light beams. Hoards of Yellowtail Rockfish were also passing through the corals, and I was pleased to get a couple of good shots of them doing so – the individual coral colonies looking like something from another planet. Both of us used the opportunities presented by our deep stops to fire off some more shots, and before long we found ourselves suddenly out of the “realm” of the corals and back into the territory of the Cloud Sponges. The current was still present and increasing as we ascended, so we used clefts in the rocks to shield us from its force when we were on a decompression stop – it worked marvelously! Emerging from this dive we had plenty of images and were all grins…especially me, since my camera system was back to working in exactly the manner it was supposed to…whatever had mysteriously caused the dome port condensation the day before had not reared its ugly head again.

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The second dive of the day was at a location known as “Shark Point”, because at one point it was at the site of an old fish processing factory and Blue sharks in their hundreds had been attracted to the factory’s effluent. Absolutely no physical trace of the factory now remains, and the Blue sharks have also long since disappeared, but the name of the point remains. It is now known for its colossal invertebrate population and the marvelous macro photography opportunities to be found there. Members of the team would return to this site again later in the week to take further advantage of those opportunities.

As for the Tuna…well, let me relate that it’s an incredibly marvelous feeling to be sitting down in a traditional small-town Pub, tired from a solid day’s worth of diving, drinking and swapping tales of derring-do with good friends, while eating a freshly prepared Tuna steak the size of a human foot! I’d have to search deep into my memory to find a better night!

The team decided to split the following morning, with part of it hitting Shark Point again for more macro work, while Curt and I decided to hit a new site for us called “Vel’s Wall”. Stunning in both its geology and structure, this huge wall plunges downward to around 130 FSW, upon which the sandy/mud bottom tapers off at an angle down to approximately 160 FSW before leveling off. Covered with a variety of tunicates and patches of Featherstars, though interesting, the wall was nowhere near as fascinating and colorful as Mozino Point or the Gardens, and we filed it away as a “been there/done that” dive. Emerging from this dive, we found the rest of the team already aboard smiling over their macro shots from Shark Point, and Scott headed the boat back toward Tahsis for the next portion of our adventure…believe it or not, one involving snorkels!

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After passing through the village, the Tahsis River empties directly into the inlet, and Salmon in their hundreds were moving upstream to reach their birthplace to spawn and launch a new generation. Our team drove to a location just outside the village and walked down through the woods to the banks of the river, where we could easily see dozens of Salmon clustered in large pools between stretches of shallow rapids. Borrowing snorkels from Scott (none of the Tec divers had even given a passing thought to bringing one!) one by one each of us slipped into the shallow water and let the current sweep us down like large sticks of wood through the rocks to where the Salmon clustered in the pools. Popping past the last few shallow rocks, we would rocket out into the crystal-clear pool, sending Salmon darting off in a panic in all directions like silver rockets! We would then clamber out of the river and make our way back upstream to the entry point to make the run again. This was something that none of us had ever done before, and it wasn’t long before each of us was experiencing and feeling the results of our complete ignorance! Use strobes or available light? Shoot in auto or manual? Shutter speed? What level of wide-angle lens to use? How much weight to wear, if any? Shoot still photography or video? Suffice it to say that literally hundreds of photos were taken, but very, very few ended up worthy of being kept! At one point, I was walking back upstream for another run and Scott quietly pointed out that there was a big old Black Bear boar walking along the bank of the river in the opposite direction directly at me! I believe that the terms Scott used were, “he’s big enough to run on diesel!” Both the bear and I decided that discretion was the better part of valor – keeping his eye on me, he crossed the river to the other side while I kept my eye on him and entered the water to float away downstream! Definitely NOT your typical dive, but exciting in all aspects nonetheless!


So far we had been blessed with absolutely marvelous weather, the sunshine making our surface intervals things of both joy and warmth! We had expected a couple of rainy days based on both the previous week and the forecast, but our team somehow managed to luck out. On our last day while boarding the boat, we were completely surrounded by dense fog, but in the Pacific Northwest, that is usually a sure sign of sunshine to come, and so it proved to be. For our final day of diving we decided to hit the “repeat button” in terms of dive sites – some of us wanting more macro opportunities while others wanted to return deep to the corals. The solutions to the dilemma were Mozino Point for the first dive of the day and a return to “Boulder Alley” for the second dive. Each of us clambered back up the ladder into the dive boat with dozens of new images to sort through later and “oooh and aaah” over – a most fitting ending to a marvelous week of diving! The rain began to drizzle down as we headed back in. Clearly, the “weather gods” had the decency to wait until we were finished!

Both the author and ADM Publisher Curt Bowen would like to give special thanks to Scott and Jude Schooner of Tahtsa Dive Charters for their support and friendship, along with Boswell, their happy dog who was always ready to happily lick a face! Special thanks also go to the villagers of Tahsis, who warmly welcomed a bunch of strangers into their little bit of Heaven.

ADM interview with Tahtsa Dive Charter owner Scott Schooner. Scott speaks about how his wife, Jude and he arrived at Tahsis and what amazing adventures they can provide for those adventurous at heart.
The ADM crew float down a crystal clear glacier river teaming with spawning salmon and the black bears trying to catch their dinner.