Yesterday I went snorkelling for the first time it almost a month. Because I had to be in the south part of Victoria anyway, I went to the Ogden Point Breakwater. I had been there enough times over the past 37 years to know that it is one of the very best places at the south end of Vancouver Island to see marine life. Even on an average day, there is usually more to see there than at most other nearby locations that are accessible from shore. Still, I try to moderate my expectations by just surrendering to whatever nature presents me with.
The session began with a minor technical complication because I was testing a new combination of surface float and anchor/tow line but that did not take too long to sort out.
The day improved when I spotted a nice white nudibranch about 2 metres below the surface. It was a familiar Frosted dirona (Alabaster nudibranch, White-lined nudibranch) but last Saturday someone in one of my cold-water swimming groups was asking about nudibranchs in general so I made a few awkwardly shallow breath-hold dives to get enough content for this short video.
After that, I swam out into deeper water to test my dive reel because the gadget had presented some difficulties when I first used it back in October. Since then, I have removed about 1/3 of the line, still leaving me with far more length than I ever expect to need. Yesterday, the reel did not jam during any of the times I used it to reel in the small anchor weight so I concluded that I had removed enough of the bulk that has to fit within the wider.
Up to that point it had been a fairly routine snorkelling session for a cloudy autumn day. With the main goals accomplished I then went back to the breakwater to just swim beside it while looking for anything unusual or photogenic.
As often happens, I fleetingly mused “Why is it that other people always find the good stuff?” Within seconds of that minor lament I thought I saw a pyramidal pile of rubble. Had I been anywhere else I would probably have dismissed it and kept on swimming but, being familiar with the site, I knew I had never before seen any intertidal piles of rubble on the tops of the large blocks of quarried rock that form part of the structure so I took a closer look at the feature.
Then it moved.
Up to that point, on those rare occasions when I had seen an octopus in the wild it had only ever been parts of the animal, typically the distinctive suckers on the undersides of the arms, deep within a crevice. I had never before seen one out in the open, relying solely on its camouflage ability to remain inconspicuous.
Fortunately, ever since buying an underwater camera, the fear of missing something has caused me to bring it along every time I have donned a dive mask. I have never succumbed to that nagging inner voice that whispers “You’re carrying too much stuff.”
Photographing the animal was not easy as it should have been. The surface of the block the octopus was resting on was only about a metre deep. That meant that I could photograph it while floating on the surface, giving me much more time to work with than if I had been limited to an average of about 30 seconds during each of a sequence of shallow breath-hold dives.
The sea conditions, though, were a complication. The water was a bit choppier than what I normally go out in, not enough to be a hazard but rough enough to make photography from the surface difficult. The problem was that, as I bobbed up and down, the distance between the camera and the subject oscillated with every passing wave. The camera’s auto-focus mechanism could not keep up so, in the resulting videos, the octopus cycles between looking fairly sharp and being quite blurry. It helps to pause the video when it snaps into focus.
It didn’t help that I had the camera in macro mode the whole time. Even on a good day, the underwater visibility in the Salish Sea is poor when compared to the clarity that people expect to find at popular tropical snorkelling destinations. The most efficient way to get descent images of marine life around here is to concentrate on small subjects within about 50 cm of the camera. Bringing along an external source of artificial light also helps. To be prepared, I always keep my camera in macro mode with optimized settings so that I do not have to mess with small buttons and knobs while hoping that a photogenic animal does not retract into itself or swim away. That works most of the time but, for the yesterday’s octopus, I think the camera would have been able to focus more rapidly if I had had it in a wider-angle mode. Of course I could have changed the settings but I tend not to think clearly when I get excited about a rare and transient photographic opportunity.
The octopus was so big and I was so close that it was difficult to keep in the frame, even when zoomed out all the way, so I wanted to back away from the animal. In calm water it is fairly easy to use slow, gentle movements to swim backward a short distance but that did not work because the waves kept pushing me toward the octopus. Of course, I could have just turned around and swam away to a more convenient distance but I did not want to risk spooking the creature with sudden movements and did not want to risk bumping it with the long freediving fins I happened to be using. Up to that point he or she had been quite patient or curious or tolerant so I did not want to spoil the mood with a swift kick in the mantle.
Eventually the octopus seemed to get bored with me and moved out over the edge of the course of blocks and disappeared into a crevice between two blocks one level deeper down. That starts about 3/4 of the way through the video.
By that time I had been in the 8 degree C water for about 35 minutes and, not yet having eaten that day, was already feeling very cold in my full open-cell wetsuit so I swam to my exit point, thinking the whole time about nothing other than how frustrating it would be if the camera had not recorded anything.
- Do take the camera.
- There is more to Salish Sea underwater photography than marco mode.
- Stop being envious of what other people see.