Monday, February 3, 2014

Hornby Island Sea Lions 01/02/2014

I was very excited about this! Jim Dixon arranged via GUE-BC a trip to visit the Hornby Island sea lions, with Sean of UB Diving. Neither Heather or myself had done this dive before, and had heard a lot about it. We had seen sea lions occasionally, most notably at Egmont last October, where Francois took some great photos. However, these sea lion encounters were pretty far away, and you would be very lucky to get even a little close to them. For this trip, we just squeaked on. There was one slot left, but Jim talked to Sean and was able to squeeze both of us on. Whew!

Prior to the trip, we viewed some video of what to expect, and talked to those who had done it before. When we were talking after the trip, we agreed that neither of us were truly prepared for the experience. It was amazing, but a bit overwhelming! The shear number of sea lions and how interactive they were was a lot to take in. You really needed to be relaxed, and in control of yourself. We enjoyed ourselves immensely however, and Sean was a great Captain, with a great boat. We would definitely go out with him again.

Without further ado, the video!

Along with the video, there was a good collection of photos as well:

We stayed overnight at the Tigh-Na-Mara resort in Parksville, so we were quite close to the meeting place, which was near the Fanny Bay ferry. Dennis and Alison came over on the ferry, so they had to get up much earlier. I'm glad it wasn't us! When we arrived, this was a view of the dock:

The people who came along were Jim, Alison, Dennis, Mark, Anton, Ksenia, Diane, myself and Heather, and a non-diver, Logan (Jim's son). It took me until part-way through the day to make the connection that Logan was the son that Jim had told me about before. Oops, sorry Logan and Jim!

When we arrived at the dock, we were greeted by a cacophony of sea lion barking. It was almost deafening. We joked that we could just do the sea lion dive at the dock. Our first look at the sea lions was a bit sobering. They sure were big!

It didn't take long to get the boat loaded and underway. I had not met Sean before, and he was a great skipper. He had planned to dive with us, but realized he had forgotten his undergarment so he was relegated to captain only on this trip. Too bad!

On the ride out, Sean explained how the channel narrowed and amplified the swells. He wasn't kidding. Many of us had our teeth rattled and spines compressed, even though he was going extremely slow. Sean also talked a bit about the geoduck farming he did sometimes. Later, on the way back, he told us about a dive site nearby that he would do in bad weather called Wolf Eel Alley. There was a particularly friendly wolf eel that lived there that Sean had helped nurse back to health, going out and feeding him periodically after it suffered an injury. This lighthouse was a cool landmark on the way, situated on Chrome Island.

The sea lion dive wasn't actually on Hornby Island, it was on Norris Rock that was very near by, and not far past the lighthouse. When we arrived, there was already a dive boat there, and Sean cruised past to give everyone a good view of the colony on the way to our anchor point. There were so many sea lions! You could get an idea just how many from the start of the video above and from the pictures. The smell was quite something as well!

When we were cruising by, hordes of sea lions jumped into the water immediately and started following us. Clearly they were very excited! I started to get a feeling for just what we were in for at that point. Sean had a tough time getting a good anchor point as the current and wind were not cooperating. We did finally get into a good position, and he gave a dive briefing.

The dive itself was very simple, and very shallow. Our average depth didn't go much more than 30 feet. Sean gave us one tip if we were mobbed by the sea lions, to pick up a rock and bash it on the bottom. It sounded like a good idea, but I'd soon find out that it only worked once, and for not very long!

It was dive time, and the sea lions were waiting. We did a back-roll entry off the boat which was always fun! Heather took this photo of me on the descent.

Then very quickly this was the next picture.

Followed by a view something like this!

It was incredible just how quickly you got dog-piled by the excited sea lions. For much of the dive, your view was something like this:

Like I had mentioned, nothing could really prepare you for just how interactive, curious, and down-right pushy the sea lions were. They would indeed bite you, but it was more like the way a child would explore things with their mouth. Lacking hands, that's all they had! While it didn't really hurt (much), it definitely could be uncomfortable. The worst was when they would bite your head. I had that happen to me several times, as did Heather. Even with dry suit hoods, it hurt! There was a particularly large male sea lion that Jim named "Cut-throat". You could identify him by his large size, lighter coloration and large scar around his neck. He must have been trapped in a piece of fishing net or line or plastic at one time. The Vancouver Aquarium had a video of the constant battle they had freeing these poor creatures from human carelessness. Cut-throat was a bit of a bully, and when he bit you, you felt it! He was particularly fond of your calf. Back to what I had mentioned about banging the rocks. I tried it once at the beginning of the dive, and yes, the sea lions scattered. But they were back seconds later, and from then on just ignored it. Not much help! Better to just keep calm and get near the bottom.

Even though we did our best to make sure that all our gear was secured properly, the sea lions still managed to undo Heather's waist buckle, as well as untie one of her drysuit boots. They certainly were mischievous! Here is one trying his best to undo some tank buckles.

Even though we were there for sea lions, eventually they did leave us alone and we got a chance to see some other critters too. Heather got some great photos, some of which are here.

A baby puget sound king crab:

A bigger, adult puget sound king crab. We thought to pick him up and put him somewhere more photogenic, but decided against it with all the sea lions around. I didn't think sea lions ate crabs, but better to be safe!

Some kind of limpet, which looked like a miniature ufo landed:

A leopard nudibranch.

An interesting picture of a red sea urchin (they were everywhere):

And finally a "green" nudibranch! Well, no, not a green nudibranch, but an anemone closed up. On the boat, Alison told a story about how she had seen a green nudibranch. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure this is what she saw instead, because I had never seen such a thing in the marine identification books. Sorry Alison!

There were too many good pictures from the trip, but here are a few of my favorites. Check out the album that has them all at the top of the page. Despite this being only her second dive with her new underwater camera, Heather got some great ones.

My newest dive-buddy!

Nom nom nom!

This was a great group shot of the sea lions.

All in all, it was one of the best dive experiences I've been on in a long time. I would highly recommend diving with sea lions to anyone. Just make sure you don't have anything dangling, are relaxed, and are ready to let the sea lions be in charge! Going out again with Sean and UB Diving was definitely in the cards as well.

One thing I forgot to mention. When we arrived back at the dock, and were taking stuff off the boat, Jim's hood fell overboard. Not a big deal because it would float, but then I noticed his mask was inside it. That definitely did not float and I watched it sink into the depths. Fortunately, we were divers! Since I had my drysuit on still, I slipped into my gear and did a quick recovery dive. Problem solved! The mask was sitting right on the bottom just under the boat.