WHEN THE INVITATION CAME to dive in British Columbia, I jumped at it. The offer was a simple one - travelling expenses from my small Channel Island, Sark, to Bowen, a slightly larger island in Howe Sound off Vancouver, would be covered.
In exchange, I was to give two presentations to the Bowen Island Conservation Group, one on the natural history and life in general in Sark, and a second, at the end of two weeks underwater photography, on the marine life encountered around Bowen.
The best part of the deal was that the cold, deep waters of the Canadian west coast are home to the Pacific giant octopus, a creature with which I had long dreamt of diving.
Like millions of others, Id been transfixed by images of Victoria Stone wrapped in eight huge red tentacles in Devilfish, a natural history film on the giant octopus. I watched in awe as she calmly retrieved her regulator from one tentacle, only to have it gently removed by another. This was a chance for a devilfish encounter of my own.

I ARRIVED IN BOWEN in darkness, so it wasnt until the next morning that I realised just what a beautiful part of the world I was in. Sheer mountains and clear blue skies were reflected in the mirror-calm waters of Howe Sound, with its pine forests clinging on all the way to the waters edge.
Other islands lay scattered in all directions, and the peace was disturbed only by the occasional floatplane whirring overhead, or the throaty call of a heron.
I met my dive guide for the fortnight, retired marine biology professor Dr Brian Hartwick. Not only is Brian an expert on diving in British Columbia, but he has also spent years studying the giant octopus. Just as importantly on an island with no dive centre, he has plenty of diving friends with boats, and access to Bowens single compressor.
As we kitted up in warm sunshine, I wondered if Id need both layers of thermals under my drysuit. When
we jumped into the water, at a very pleasant 18°, I thought that my wetsuit would have been a better bet.
Warm it may have been, but clear it wasnt. Huge blobs of plankton and silt drifted by in the gentle current
and, looking at the pea soup around me, I understood why this was called the Emerald Sea. A devilfish encounter in these conditions could perhaps be a little too exciting.
Expecting better vis, Id chosen my wide-angle lens for this dive. As I lifted it optimistically towards a vast lions mane jellyfish, I thought that the camera too could have been left at home, along with my drysuit, hood and thick gloves.
The camera failed to focus in the blizzard of bits and, dropping a little deeper, I too struggled to see straight. We had hit a thermocline. Within a couple of metres, the temperature plummeted to 10°, and the cold stung my face.
With the sudden change of temperature came a vast improvement in the visibility. I could see more than 10m along the wall, where a horizontal band of rich purple stretched into the turquoise-green haze in either direction.
Closer inspection revealed hundreds of hand-sized purple starfish feeding on the mussels that smothered the rock. Slightly lower down, the purple starfish were replaced by thousands of enormous sunflower stars in every shade of red, orange, purple and pink.
With up to 26 arms, and growing to 1m across, these giants are the largest starfish on the planet. For anyone with a phobia of such things, the scene before me would cause nightmares for years.
In places the sunflower stars were so deeply piled that the rock beneath was totally obscured by their writhing, striped arms and plumped-up bodies.
As the Canadians would say, the view was awesome.
At this site the wall petered out about 15m down, replaced by a series of undulating ridges and piles of boulders. Foot-high sea-pens bloomed from the sediment, and fat, spiky sea cucumbers grazed the rocks. Anemones and yet more starfish added vivid splashes of colour, and in places the seabed was a mass of delicately banded brittlestars.
Some of the marine life was vaguely familiar from home, but almost without exception it was much, much larger, particularly the huge, pale-coloured plumose anemones, which seemed to glow in the greeny half-light.
I was in underwater-photography heaven, taking pictures as fast as my flashguns would let me, when Brian gestured excitedly to a cave beneath a boulder. In front was an arc of debris, empty shells and broken-up pieces of crab - a sure sign of an octopus den.
Brian pointed to the back of the crevice. I peered under it from a distance, braced to meet a giant.
Instead, right at the back of the cave, my torch beam revealed a small red tentacle with tiny suckers coyly shielding an equally small eye, its pupil a black, horizontal stripe.
The little creature flinched in the sudden light, blanched pink and oozed out of sight. It wasnt quite the encounter Id hoped for, but I consoled myself with the thought that even giant octopus have to start somewhere, and this was just the first dive.

THE NEXT DAY, in the local village hall, I gave my first presentation to an audience of around two dozen pensioners, young mums and toddlers
(I gave a talk once at which only two people showed up, so I always think more than that is a good result!).
There was some polite interest in my pictures of British marine life, but plenty of questions about life in Sark, including the top two: What do you do in winter and What happens when someone has a baby
The comparisons between island life there and here were fascinating, especially all-too-familiar issues surrounding development versus conservation. I ended with the few shots of local marine life I had taken on my first dive. These went down well, which meant that the pressure was on to take a good selection of photographs for the big finale at the end of the trip.
For the next two weeks I did a mixture of boat dives in Howe Sound and shore dives from Bowen. Most were on walls, often very sheer, and all involved a descent through the murky, mild surface water to the cold, clear stuff below.
One of my favourites was a boat dive at Pam Rocks, a bird reserve north of Bowen where seals watched us as we kitted up. We didnt see any under water, although they were almost certainly watching us, but the highlight of the dive was coming face to face with an enormous ling-cod.
A valuable commercial fish, the under-slung jaw and general dont-mess-with-me demeanour of this metre-long beastie reminded me of a pike.
There were plenty of other fish to see on every dive. British Columbia is home to an endless variety of sculpins, including the bizarre, bulbous-headed buffalo sculpin, which sits motionless on the seabed, making an easy, but not beautiful, photographic subject.
There were also many different greenlings, the loveliest of which was the elaborately striped and tasselled painted greenling. Most boulders were guarded by a territorial copper rockfish on top, and a battalion of bright yellow blackeye gobies underneath.
My absolute favourite, however, was also the smallest, the grunt sculpin. Its known as a pigfish, the perfect name for a creature with a remarkably porky-looking snout. Propped up on its large front fins and posing beautifully for the camera, I lost my heart to the pigfish, all 7cm of it.
When the day came for my talk on the marine life around Bowen Island, I had a good selection of images but, five minutes before the show was due to begin at the local school, the audience was thin on the ground.
From then on, however, more and more people trickled in, until around 50 crammed the classroom. Ive never spoken to such an interested and appreciative audience, nor heard the word awesome so many times.
Giving the talks gave my trip an extra sense of purpose and, at their request, I left a set of the best images with the school. Perhaps theyll inspire the divers and marine biologists of the future

DIVING WITH LOCALS rather than through a dive centre left me feeling that Id learnt more about this place than anywhere Ive dived before. The pride that Brian and his diving friends feel in their marine life was obvious, and the same as I feel for mine at home.
And what of my hunt for the giant octopus I spotted a couple of small ones out in the open, and became quite adept at finding their dens. All were either empty, or home to youngsters.
Until the last dive, that is. My buddy had found a den, and side by side we crammed ourselves into the entrance. Our torch beams revealed a tangle of huge red tentacles, a pulsing siphon and an eye that looked slowly from one of us to the other. Not only was the octopus close, but the suckers on its tentacles were about 5cm in diameter, indicating, alarmingly, that this was no baby.
We backed out, very quickly and very carefully. While I may have gone to British Columbia in search of giants, I was just as happy to find pigfish.

GETTING THERE: Sue Daly flew to Vancouver with Thomas Cook Airlines, which offers an extra 10kg of baggage allowance for dive gear for £40 return long haul, in addition to its standard fee for 20kg of hold luggage, book.flythomascook.com
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: There is no dive centre on Bowen Island, but there are at least two dive operators in Vancouver that run day-boats and liveaboards to Howe Sound - BC Dive and Kayak Adventures (www.bcdive.com) and Sea Dragon Charters (seadragoncharters.com). Twenty-four miles north of Vancouver at Porteau Cove Marine Park is a whole bay dedicated to shore-divers, with a mixture of deliberately sunk wrecks and other artificial reef structures.
MONEY: Canadian dollar
WHEN TO GO: Summer is the best time to visit, though visibility may be better in winter.
PRICES: Flights from around £550. Sea Dragon Charters charges around £60 for two boat-dives.
TOURIST INFORMATION: 0906 871 5000, www.travelcanada.ca