|A raven pecks at the eye of a dying salmon, then cocks its head and looks at us. To the Tanana and Tlingit Indians of North America, the raven was an important god; he created the world, and later, for his amusement, mankind. People called the raven-god Chulyen, and painted no pretty picture of him.
Like this bird dining on the dying, here in a quiet cove near Juneau, Alaska, the raven persistently pecked at everybodys weaknesses; his steadfast purpose: to eat their soft parts. Chulyen was a lot like Alaska.
Any bears here I ask as I fasten my weightbelt.
Oh, yeah! says John Lechelt, owner of Juneaus Channel Dive Shop, who brings a lot of people to this site, called the Shrine. What do you think Its a bear fast-food restaurant.
In minutes, I am swimming toward the sanctuary of deep water. The stone of the little spit on which the Shrines hand-built Christian chapel sits is sliced like a staggered loaf with glacial striations that disappear into the trough of Lynn Canal. The ice field that carved south-eastern Alaskas Inner Passage withdrew after the last Ice Age, but only as far as the outskirts of town. It broods 1220m above Juneau, as if planning a return.
Once the rugged gateway to the Alaskan frontier, Juneau is now an affluent, comfy town of cosy shops and snug Victorian houses. Still, its a speck of calm amid explosive, titanic forces: the vertical Chilcat mountain faces soaring above it, the crumpled blue blocks of the Mendenhall ice field bulging between peaks, the gales that come howling from the west to beat the water against the land.
I follow photographer Alex Kirkbride and Lechelt down a gentle incline of sand and pebbles to 9m, where the canal wall looms over the black depths of the famed Inner Passage shipping lanes. As Chulyen the Raven probably knows, this is my maiden drysuit dive, and for a little while I am kept busy chasing the air in the suit from my feet to my head, but pretty soon I corral it around my midriff and achieve trim.
In the classroom segment of the cold-water orientation course we have just finished, John Lechelt promised that I would be toasty warm; in fact, I am refreshingly cool in the astringent (7*C) water, and about to be bewitched beyond noticing by the barnacle-bejewelled wall.
The shells of these cirripedia are as big as my neoprene-mittened fist, and the critters are reminiscent, in feeding, of the Addams Familys handy friend Thing. Theyre big enough to hand-feed. Hell, theyre big enough and dextrous enough to dial out for pizza. There are thousands of them in this colony, fringed fronds deftly rotating, catching hanks of detritus like fans at a ballgame snagging bags of peanuts.
We have come to Alaska in late summer, a fecund time of salmon spawns and plankton blooms, and fair-to-poor visibility. The first hard freeze will kill off the obscuring planktonic sea-snow and open the view to the winter average of 30m.
But right now were in the soup, the basic building broth that anchors the food chain of Alaskas mega-fauna, looking out for whatever prodigiously fattened apex predators we might blunder into: pods of killer whales, a dozen other species of whale, halibut the size of flattened Holstein steers, 900kg Stellar sea-lion bulls that like to come flashing out of the gloom and fin to a halt inches from your mask, growling and blowing bubbles back at you.
The last 30 bar we reserve for milling with the siege of salmon in around 1m of water. Like a herd of newly captured wild horses, several hundred mature silvers ceaselessly circle the narrow stream mouth, waiting for the urge or the courage to throw themselves onto fresh water trickling through the slippery stones. They take no note of us in their obsession, bumping us, turning gloweringly aside. The metre-long males, humpbacked and hook-jawed, are gnarled masks of naked concupiscence, already rotting with lust like aquatic portraits of Dorian Gray.
The Indians of Alaska believed everyone is born with a joncha, a secret animal identity. Lechelts joncha, I have decided, is the bear, because he eats so well. A big, hearty, round-shouldered guy full of bonhomie, Lechelt is never more bearish than when he talks about seafood. You can hear the crab shells cracking as the gourmand summons up a perfect Juneau day: a leisurely morning of skiing at Eagle Crest, followed by an afternoon of drysuit seafood shopping, finished off with scalded one-metre-long king-crab legs and sauteed scallops the size of hockey pucks.
Lechelts other passion is maritime history and the applied science of wreck diving. There are 60 catalogued wrecks within an hours boat ride of Juneau; over 700 registered in Alaskan waters, ranging from Japanese junks to 19th-century whalers to World War Two mine tenders, and countless others awaiting discovery. On board the Shelby Ann with captain Bud Storkel, Lechelt unrolls a plan of the Princess Kathleen, which collided with the mainland one foggy September morning in 1952. Everyone on board simply walked off into the trees, but the ship slid off the rocks later in the day and settled with her bow at 12m and her props down around 43m.
Theres a story that a salvage diver recovered, and then dropped, an emerald and gold crucifix that was an heirloom of a priest, Lechelt tells us. Also reputed to be in the hold are 40 cases of scotch - and a fortune in gold.
Twenty minutes out of harbour, Captain Bud nails the anchorage, and we follow the line down to the Kathleens bow. What you wont believe, Lechelt told us earlier, is the sheer magnitude of this ship. When she comes into view at 9m, in an eerie green light, it is hard to grasp that we are looking at the work of man and not some natural feature of the channel.
We follow the starboard rail down to 24m; the listing hull, encrusted with tube worms and heavily foliated with elephant ear kelp, plummets into darker, colder water.
There is plenty of room to swim down inside her curved exhaust stacks, habitats now for clown nudibranchs and large, beady-eyed prawns. I follow a school of rock bass into an open hatch and come upon the captains head - that is, his bathroom. The commode is askew but intact, and so is the black and white mosaic tile floor. I polish a little section with my glove and it gleams bright as new.
The Princess Kathleen, made to order in Scotland for the Canadian Pacific Railway, once boasted two stained glass dome solariums, hammered brass ornaments and carved hardwood detailing, all in native American motifs. She was a party ship, and a match in elegance for anything built in the Roaring 20s. With Lechelts detailed map we could launch a search for the Scotch hidden deep in the ships bowels, but with the shaky viz and the weird green light, I am already spooked.
I am thinking of the story Lechelt told us about the Kathleens sister ship, the Princess Sophia, which rests in 30m just 16km farther north along Lynn Canal. Making the seasons last run from Skagway to Vancouver, the Princess Sophia was carrying an overload of passengers, many of whom were leaving Alaska and the Yukon for good, carrying their fortunes.
After she ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef during a driving snowstorm on 24 October, 1918, rescue vessels circled her in a gale for a night and a day, unable to offload anyone in the pounding seas. Some time during the second night she slipped off the reef and went down, killing all aboard - 353 passengers and crew, and some 60 horses. It was the twilight of the gold rush, Chulyens last laugh.
We ascend through a ghostly flotilla of moon jellies. Throughout the wreck dive we have been shadowed by thousands of coelenterates, drifting by like a slow hail of souls. Some are the size of a little fingernail, some the size of a human head, with tendrils 12m long.
A large moon jelly has become entangled in the Kathleens forward mast and streams helplessly in the five-knot current. With my drysuit mitts I gather up a ropy bundle of tendrils and loose the beast into the stream, storing up good karma for dives to come.
Robert Service, the poet laureate of the frozen North, wrote that God was tired when he made Alaska. Certainly, the 10,000km Alaskan coastline seems randomly intricate, convoluted like chaos itself. We are out in the Gulf of Alaska, off Kodiak Island, which is composed of dozens of islands and hundreds of peninsulas, the whole as busily crenellated with coves and pinnacles as one of its shaggy reef creatures.
Under windless, overcast conditions, with pale clouds boiling down from pyramidal peaks to snag on towering Sitka spruces, divemaster Verlin Thurson pilots the 7.5m cabin cruiser The Shaman past abandoned World War Two gun emplacements on the rugged cliffs of Kodiaks Long Island as we head for one of his favourite pinnacle dives.
The pinnacle is really several peaks, beginning at 9m and dropping to 24m at their bases. The crevasses between peaks are plush with forests of enormous white anemones.
To swim between these walls is to experience what tiny tropical fish must feel when they nestle in the anemones stinging cells. We make pass after pass, mesmerised, as if strolling through mountain meadows of giant albino broccoli, more beautifully other-worldly than the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz.
We are dealing with the same 9m viz as around Juneau, which is fine for atmospheric wide-angle photography and outstanding for the macro observation this fabulously rich cold-water habitat deserves. Wherever you look, a thousand eyes look back at you. Wherever you place a hand, striped shrimp flick free between your fingers, and hermit crabs trundle out from under your palm.
Every other rock turns out to be a tattered Irish lord, a toad-faced sculpin, or a decorator crab, its shell festooned with scraps of seaweed.
Down at the pinnacle base lurks a 1m-long ling, all teeth and bad disposition. On the sandy bottom sunflower starfish the size of manhole covers sprawl over the pits they dig for clams. These shaggy, 18-legged brutes have the texture of stomped-on doormats, in decorator shades of green, pink and blue. On closer inspection the dishevelled fuzziness reveals order - symmetrically clustered stipples as fine as otter fur. I watch a pair as they copulate in their clam pit; its slow and languorous love, 36 thighs intertwining, a million naked points of contact. The god who made these starfish wasnt tired, but maybe just a bit mad.
I find the perfect airplane book for the turbulent flight to Homer: Alaskan folklorist Larry Kanuits Cheating Death, 18 true-life stories of Frozen Dooms near-misses. This is the old Alaska of Chulyen the raven, with modern machinery added. There is a tale or two set in Kachemak Bay, on Cook Inlet, where our plane is headed. My favourite is a tasty yarn about a small boat, engine failure, and 6m seas from a calving glacier.
It is something to keep in mind as we motor out around the Homer spit. Our guides, Cecil and Corrine Cheatwood, owners of C&C Aquatics, laugh when I mention Larry Kanuits Cheating Death. The Cheatwoods have their own death-defying stories. C&C Aquatics was the first on the scene to assess damage in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Cecil dived under 1m of oil slick, in and out of the wounded Valdez in zero viz.
Then there was the time when an ice sheet drifted over them during a winter recreational dive....
There is plenty of time for storytelling as we wait for slack tide. In Homer, life revolves around the swift and dynamic tide, and those who do not respect its power keep C&C very busy with a constant supply of shipwrecks and lost or shattered gear.
Puttering about in the middle of Kachemak Bay, we sight a raft of some 20 sea otters. Otters hug one another as we approach, slip with well-oiled ease beneath the surface, pop up on the other side of the boat and return our curious stares. The sea otter is decidedly the Cheatwoods joncha, because they are clever salvagers, both agile and tidily-built, and Cecil admits he has a reputation for playing with large octopuses.
Slack tide arrives at 8pm - still plenty of daylight left - and we drop anchor on Corrines Reef, so-named because Corrine likes this dive spot, and there is nobody else here to call it differently. Back-rolling, we land in kelp and follow the swaying stalks down 6m to a flattened rock bed worn smooth by the tides. The sides of the reef are bushy with those enormous white anemones; one has captured a jellyfish and is slowly dismembering it.
Down at 18m on the clamshell-strewn bottom, it doesnt take long for Cecil to find an octopus. He gives chase over open terrain until the furiously backpedalling cephalopod inks him and slips away.
The viz here is a downright creepy 3m, and the water feels colder than Kodiaks (its 9*C) - probably a function of my paranoia about the tides. I am determined to stick close to Alex and Cecil, at least until I cross over a small canyon and see what looks like a sea cucumber the size of a man. It is warty and wrinkled and tubular, whatever it is, and as I come closer to investigate it backs under a ledge.
I gulp down about 15 bar coming to grips with the sight: nothing that ugly should be allowed to move. Peering cautiously into the cave, I see two horror masks glaring back at me. They are wolf eels - and big ones - as grotesque as any mediaeval gargoyle.
Cecil and Alex have disappeared. I am lost in deadly waters and suddenly its Halloween. But I cannot tear myself away from the wolf eels until its time to come up.
Boating back to Homer, the Cheatwoods regale us with more Kachemak tall tales - of dives when the bottom is literally carpeted with halibut (Homer is the self-proclaimed Halibut Capital of the World); of the 200-pounder Corrine landed (we gaffed it, harpooned it and shot it, she says); of pods of killer whales 20-strong, hunting just outside the harbour.
It is 9:30pm by now and still daylight, but an awesome bank of black clouds is slipping in over the Kenai Mountains, about to close down the sunset over Cook Inlet - a promise of the grandeur and danger of the weather, and a foretaste of the coming winter.
We meet Captain Dave in the Anchor Inn bar in the very weird town of Whittier. Everything about Whittier strikes me as strange. To get there you drive your car onto a railway carriage, and ride in your car on the train into tunnels blasted through a mountain range until the track dead-ends alongside a stunning fiord fed by plunging waterfalls.
During World War Two, the US Army built a secret multi-storey barracks in the remote finger of Prince William Sound as a kind of Fortress of Solitude where they could stash President Roosevelt if the Allies lost the war. Abandoned now, the ruin sets the tone for the town.
The population here is 50 per cent born-again Christian and 50 per cent devout alcoholic, Don Moore, our Anchorage-based guide, tells us. Alex and I cast our lot with the latter at the Anchor Inn, looking for a reliable boat with a functioning captain. When Moore asks the bar at large if anyone here can charter us for the day, everybody turns towards us and answers: Yes!.
We hire Captain Dave because he happens to be sitting next to Moore and because we can charter him by the hour, the half-day, the day or the week; we can even buy the boat outright - and for a very reasonable price.
Captain Dave was chartering here during the Exxon Valdez disaster; he made over a hundred grand in a couple of months, and he relates to us Whittiers take on the spill. We were like: come on oil! Come on in to Whittier! Well take our settlement money and move to South America.
But the wind blew the oil south, away from town, and others got slicked, and then got rich. That, too, was part of the damage - the hangover from big oil money.
In the morning we set out with Captain Dave on a true adventure dive: nobody knows where we are going or what we will find. Well shoot sonar at the bottom and dive whatever virgin structures appear promising. An hour out of port we pick up on a cone-shaped protuberance rising steeply from more than 100m to less than 10m. We drop anchor and then plunge into the weird unknown.
For the first 6m we are pushing through a nearly opaque band of very cold vanilla-coloured water, followed by a zone of azure. Its like diving through a slice of Neapolitan ice cream. Then the viz opens up on a blue-green dreamscape: a gently sloping hill planted with life forms by a farmer from Mars. Every metre a translucent plant-thing sprouts, a metre or so tall and slender as a buggy-whip, regularly interspersed with stubbier intelligent ferns, gathering information about our planet, for all I know.
We follow the slope down to 36m, but thats all there is: a vast desert biculture of underwater R2D2s and C3POs.
Surfacing after this final dive in Alaska, I feel pretty cocky for having survived. I hand my 18kg weightbelt to Captain Dave. He hoists it up and then curses as he crushes a thumbnail between lead plates.
Look out! Moore shouts.
I duck and the weights whiz by my head, disappearing down into what will become known as Buckys Reef, because I leave something of myself back there.
As for Moore, his joncha, obviously, is the eagle, for his watchful eye. And Captain Dave That near miss was Chulyens work, and his boat is called The Raven.
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