The mighty Rocky Mountains greet you as you wind your way north to Port Hardy, where black bears, deer and bald eagles flow by on the highway. Port Hardy is a small fishing port, but it is the gateway to some of the world’s best cold water diving. The islands around Port Hardy are flooded twice daily, hidden underneath powerful tides that provide vital nutrients to the walls and reefs.
With so much life, the walls provide little room to find a finger hold to steady your camera while shooting to your heart’s content. But the action doesn’t stop when you surface — Stellar sea lions come up to arriving boats, bald eagles perched on the trees search for salmon, harbor seals sing from the rocks, and lucky visitors may be treated to humpbacks and Pacific white sided dolphins, or a pod of resident orcas making their way through one of the passages.
The walls are unimaginably colorful and the subject matter is both miniature and large. The world’s largest octopus, the giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), resides on these walls along with nudibranchs the size of dinner plates. One of your toughest decisions each dive is which lens to set your camera up with because you know opportunities for both wide-angle and macro always present themselves.
Getting to Port Hardy is just as much a part of the adventure. Start your trip from the south of the island in British Columbia’s capital city of Victoria—where artificial reefs of sunken warships— and Race Rocks, are a must if you need an adrenaline boost. Further north, consider saving a few days to view grizzly bears up close in the wild along with whales, seals, sea lions and eagles en route to Knight’s Inlet.
A crowd favorite fish, the decorated warbonnet, hides on Port Hardy’s walls, using its set of antlers to blend in with the rest of the reef. The grunt sculpin has adapted its body shape to mimic the giant barnacles clinging to the reef walls. The grunt’s nose looks like a closed barnacle, while the tail represents the barnacle in feeding mode. Rarely, the grunt abandons the empty barnacle shell and sifts through the reef for food, flitting about the reef ledge on its pectoral fins.
Numerous brilliant nudibranchs tile the reef wall while fish of all the colors of the spectrum provide great subjects for the camera, and tend to be more open to a close approach as they sit on the walls. Red Irish lords sit motionless, as if you cannot see them, eyes flecked with red specs that reflect the light like stars in the night. Smaller varieties of sculpins, with brilliant eyes, always warrant an image. The crab and shrimp life is abundant all over the reefs but the star of the show is the candy stripe shrimp on its host anemone. But don’t rule out the many other decorators and hermit crabs. Various varieties are found throughout the reef, so don’t forget to look in the swaying kelp while on your safety stop.
With your head stuck in the viewfinder, it is very possible you are being watched and visited by a sea lions or seal without even knowing it. Make sure to pick your head up from the camera every once in a while to see if any furry friends are about.
There are some challenges to shooting successfully in Port Hardy. Bulky drysuits make it harder to maneuver, low light can push the limits of digital noise, particulates in the water light up with bad strobe positioning, and ripping currents can make the challenge as great as the reward.
It’s very important to stick with the dive schedule—slack tides have to be timed to the minute. Enter too late or early, and you may finish your dive in Alaska. Staying down beyond the suggested dive time could throw off the schedule for the next dive. So listen to the briefing, follow instructions and be ready to go when the time is right!
Low light, especially at depth, makes exposing moving subjects a challenge. Boosting ISO, as not to sacrifice motion blur or depth of field, can be a great way to brighten up images with the low noise ability of the newer digital cameras.
During certain times of the year, particulate in the water poses a problem to photographers. The quick solution when visibility decreases is to rely on shooting macro, which in Port Hardy is as equally productive as wide-angle. Focus lights are a must. A trick I use for shooting wide-angle is to limit your artificial lights to the foreground, keeping the strobes aimed down and inwards. Try to light as little of the water column as possible.
Wide-angle zoom lenses are popular in Port Hardy, as they allow the photographer to shoot a diverse array of large subjects. By filling most of the frame with the subject and concentrating the strobe light on the foreground, the ambient light in the rest of the scene brings out the rich green water in the background.
Typically, the divemaster will be focused on your safety and getting the divers in and out of the water, so photographers are on their own for subject hunting. Go slow and take your time. Work a small area. Wait for movement. A mosshead warbonett may be right in front of you, blending in with its surroundings. The reefs and walls are full of subjects and a good light is helpful.
When the dive is over, use the bull kelp to help with your safety stop. The current can pick up with no notice and it’s a great way to have a relaxed stop. Back on the boat, try to get warmed up again. Layers help and it’s time for a cup of hot chocolate as you give thanks for the abundance of critters, frisky sea lions, and – above all – disposable toe warmers.
Taken from Scubadiver Australasia Issue 02/2012