Plankton Ride!

Taking her chances in the powerful, nutrient-rich coastal currents of British Columbia, Evelyn Seeger enjoys an exhilarating sweep through a world of metre-wide starfish, titanic octopuses and giant bull kelp.

British Columbias cold, nutrient-rich water flows fast through the channel that separates Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland. Currents in Queen Charlotte Strait, which have been known to run at 22 knots, are some of the fastest in the world.
In such a heavy current, only by manoeuvring behind a boulder do I find any respite from the battering. Between white, glowing sea anemones poses a red Irish lord, rolling his eyes. Close by, a Puget Sound king crab, bright red and orange, crawls by. After a short breather, I move back into the current. Invisible hands carry me away, so I relax and enjoy the speed.
The race stops in a small kelp forest. I surface through the canopy. Just 20m away, I can make out two heads - the boat cover. I can hear them laugh as they shout: Had a good ride
Bull kelp dominates the scenery - sometimes rising up from 40m. Gas-filled floats as big as a hand buoy the fronds that grow towards the sunlight. These vast kelp jungles are a magnificent attraction for marine animals. A little deeper than 10m, velvety mounds of soft coral, sponges, tunicates and moss animals are densely packed together.
The ocean swell presses a thick plankton soup into the fjords and channels in the area, forming a base for an impressive array of underwater life forms. More than 450 fish species and over 4000 invertebrates can be found here.
Rich and colourful life covers drop-offs and rocky reefs. Fluffy white sea anemones have settled in large patches reminiscent of snowy seascapes. Acorn barnacles swing their hairy legs, trapping tiny food particles. Sunflower starfishes, the biggest in the world at 1m across, hunt crabs. These scavengers use their 24 arms and 15,000 tube feet to cross boulders rapidly. Their back skin is strewn with little pincers that seize bits of flesh when attacking a sea cucumber.
In surge channels, tealia anemones flatten themselves against the rock to withstand swirling currents. There is almost no place in the channel that has not been overrun by marine organisms. On the sandy floor dozens of yellow flowers sway in the current. They are orange sea pens. If attacked, this animal quickly disappears into the sand by expelling water from its inflated body.
Creatures here find an abundance of food. This is due to strong tides carrying goodie-laden water to them. As a result, anemones and finger sponges reach enormous sizes. Basket stars, which in tropical waters work at night, filter nutrients out of the Pacific even during daytime. Like wide fans they sit on the branches of white and pink gorgonian corals.
Giant is a word that is used to describe many marine species in British Columbian water. Divers regularly have to face up to Goliaths of all sorts - including giant nudibranchs and giant barnacles. Octopuses here are also titanic - sometimes spanning up to 8m.
Nutrient-rich waters that nourish algal growth cause an explosion of plankton bloom in summer, reducing visibility to a few metres. A hand lamp is essential in the green water, where light disappears quickly. In December, with cold ocean streams flowing in, the plankton curtain lifts and the winter water is crystal clear. Living under water in the turbulent seas of British Columbia means thriving on hardship. Mussels, for instance, hold themselves tight to the ocean floor using strong threads. Barnacles glue themselves head down to the spot to resist the water surge. They can be removed only with a chisel. Those who cannot cope with their surroundings retreat to caves and crannies to avoid the direct flow of the rushing water.
In the calmer waters of fjords and sounds, the seascape turns sparse, with invertebrates at greater depths. On protected rocky reef sites lives a fish the face of which only a mother could love - the wolf eel. The eel-like fish, which can reach a length of 2m, is closely related to the blenny. Although frightful-looking, it is a rather amicable fellow.
Empty mollusc shells are a tell-tale sign. With the aid of a lure meal - a red spiny sea urchin - the grey wolf fishs face pokes out to investigate a possible lunch within seconds. He wriggles out, takes the urchin between his iron jaws and makes mincemeat of its spines. The grinding sound attracts his partner.
The female wolf eel winds around her spouse, pushing him roughly aside. Now I am faced with two begging snouts, greedily waiting for the next dish. But there is nothing else to cadge and the couple retreats back into its lair.
In these seas, where temperatures hardly exceed 8C, another animal attracts divers in their throngs. They come to meet Octopus dofleini - the giant octopus. Unlike the good-natured wolf eel, this shy titan is less than co-operative. Usually, it is only possible to get hold of him when there are no rocks nearby in which he may find shelter. The eight-armed creature may grow as big as 6m. Some adult octopuses are thought to have the power of three men.
With its remarkable camouflage, the Pacific octopus blends perfectly with its surrounding, undergoing amazing changes of colour: brown, red and white. Experts believe that colour flashes indicate the octopuss emotion.
Though octopuses are of timid nature, they are also highly curious. On one occasion, I managed to bring one out from a crevice by pulling off one glove and petting the soft skin between its eyes with my bare hand. It must have been my body temperature to which it reacted.
All of a sudden my arm was enveloped. My buddy swam over to help me put the glove back on as my hand was getting ice-cold. At the same time, the creature, to our displeasure, surged towards the underwater camera. Thoughts of octopus pictures faded, with the encounter ending in a mess of dangling octopus arms trying to attach themselves to my buddys mask and regulator hose. As I peeled off the sucker discs, the octopus withdrew and escaped dramatically in clouds of dark ink. In the heat of the moment we had forgotten our environment and bottom time. It was slack tide when we left the boat. We dived the reef against the current; on our return, half an hour later, we met a counter current, and had to be picked up by a chase boat. Queen Charlotte Strait had turned into a cauldron.

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