Article and photos by ADM Chief Photojournalist John Rawlings
As a history buff, Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island has always intrigued me. Ever since Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy first landed there in 1778, it has been considered the “birthplace” of modern British Columbia. As a diver and underwater photographer the area also has been a real lure for me in the endless quest to find and photograph amazing and unique cold-water species. One species that is among the most beautiful and amazing to be found in Nootka Sound is the Cloud sponge.

Cloud sponges can be found from the Bering Sea southward to Mexico, usually in extremely deep water. In the waters of British Columbia, however, they can frequently be found at shallower depths, beginning at some sites around 80 FSW and appearing in denser numbers as the diver goes deeper.

The species is typically found in areas of minimal current, such as inlets, although I personally have found examples on wrecks in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Cloud sponges take their common name from their cloud-like appearance. Unique, puffy and convoluted, they often display huge tubular branches protruding in all directions from within a cluster. Their favored habitat is steep rock walls and ledges, and in such locations they can be found in huge assemblages. The color of these sponges ranges from white as fresh snow up through “jack-o-lantern orange”, with every color variation in between. Smaller, young sponges often abound, and appear to have an extremely fast growth rate, while older large clusters can be found that approach the size of a small car! The large sponge clusters are thought to be hundreds of years old and the myriad shapes they have assumed can positively defy description.

Additional Cloud Sponge Images by John Rawlings
Above: This melding of two photos clearly shows the raw beauty of Nootka Sound, both above and below the surface. The stunning snow-capped peaks high above are rivaled by the gorgeous snow-colored cloud sponges deep below. A Hairy-Spined Crab, Acantholithodes hispidus, can just be seen peering out from the large opening on a branch of the sponge.
Nootka Sound is on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and trips there from the U.S. involve crossing the US/Canadian border and catching a ferry from Vancouver on the mainland across to Nanaimo on the east coast of the island itself. There are three options for reaching Nootka Sound from the east Coast of Vancouver Island – by seaplane - by ship, (the Uchuck III, a small freighter that serves the coastal communities), or by driving the length of the island and cutting across the mountains to the village of Tahsis on long, winding roads. Divers traveling with the extensive amount of gear necessary for cold water diving as well as underwater photography most often choose the driving route. No matter which method of travel selected, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking and at a level that will be remembered forever.

The tiny village of Tahsis is located at the northern end of Tahsis Inlet – a long, fjord-like body of emerald-green water stretching off to the south into Nootka Sound, surrounded by rocky cliffs and dense forest. Tahtsa Dive Charters is the only dive charter operator in the village, and owners Scott and Jude Schooner run an excellent operation. Tahtsa is a Cheslatta T’en (First Nations) word meaning “Waters Far Off”, a name very applicable to their location! They run a full service dive shop providing both air and Nitrox, (Trimix is planned for the future), know the local waters well, and have a great deal of experience working with recreational, technical and CCR divers.

Tahtsa Dive Charters has two dive boats available, the 30 foot Notorious and a small 18 foot runabout used for individual divers or small groups. With a large open forward deck, the Notorious was the one for us, and it seemed as though the excessive amount of dive gear and camera equipment brought by the ADM team filled her forward area. As we pulled away from the dock I found myself gazing around at the mountainous peaks around me, only briefly appearing through the ever-present fog and mist. Some of the taller peaks had a whisper of snow on them already, and the beauty of our surroundings was breathtaking. As Scott steered Notorious into the Tahsis Narrows, a channel leading to Esperanza Inlet, a small unmanned light beacon came into view on shore. This marked our destination – Mozino Point – a site well known for a large and healthy population of Cloud sponges.

Above: Cloud sponges, Aphrocallistes vastus, are “glass” sponges, a class of sponge typically found only in deep water. They are referred to as glass sponges because they have extremely sharp glass-like spicules made of silica that support the sponge structure. These silica spicules are as sharp as glass and can be extremely irritating to the skin. Exactly like fine glass, however, the spicules are extremely fragile and can be easily damaged with the slightest touch or careless kick of a fin. Frequently Cloud sponges are also damaged by carelessly dropped anchors and deep water fishing or shellfish equipment.
Once again, I found myself grinning in anticipation at the thought of what we were about to see and of the images I intended to get from these dives. After gearing up each of us strode off the side of the Notorious and splashed into the rich green water, the sound of the wind coursing through the Narrows the only other sound. Scott handed my heavy camera system down to me, and after a quick equipment check on the surface, our team began our descent. A steep rocky wall plunged downward and we followed its contours past dense clouds of Yellowtail Rockfish. Plunging deeper downslope into the clear emerald waters, our lights slashed out into the darkness like sabers and I again found myself astonished at the gorgeous colors that were on display before us. Much of the rocky surface was covered with a coating of absolutely gorgeous bright red and pink Strawberry Anemones resembling a thick, fuzzy pink blanket. They gave me a mental sense of warmth even though we were immersed in water that grew colder with each foot we descended. Giant rock scallops seemed to be everywhere in clumps, each of them as large as a dinner plates, and hundreds of bright red and purple sea urchins clung to the rocky wall, their fluorescent colors in stark contrast to the soft pink of the blanketing strawberry anemones.

As we approached 100 FSW, I began to see large bright “clumps” materializing beneath me…..almost ghost-like. I knew what I was seeing – Cloud Sponges – and lots of them. Both beautiful and incredibly fragile, as they grow Cloud sponges can assume extremely bizarre shapes, some specimens almost seeming to resemble the skeletons of whales or mythical beasts. At Mozino Point we were astonished to see not just one or two of these beautiful sponges, but dozens upon dozens of them – from tiny sponges obviously just getting started to huge clusters possibly hundreds of years old. At one point I think that I probably had 20 to 25 of them in view, their pale yellow colors and shapes seeming to dance in the beam of my light. The size of the specimens appeared to increase with depth.

Happily humming to myself, I slowly drifted over the clusters of cloud sponges, taking care not to touch them or even to kick in their vicinity. My shutter-finger worked as fast as I could line up each shot, my Ikelite DS-125 strobes recycling each second and the images
Above: A colony of Orange Zoanthids, Epizoanthus scotinus, coats an undercut wall near Mozino Point. The currents present here lead to an endless variety of species thriving in the nutrient-rich waters.
piled up – each one appearing first in my mind, next in my viewfinder, and finally within the memory card of my Nikon d-SLR camera. From out of the corner of my eye I could see ADM Team members Valerie Lyttle and Vel Wilson gliding over a series of sponges. Valerie especially had eagerness glinting in her eyes as her camera also recorded the beautiful scenes all around us.

Many other species can be found associated with Cloud sponges, often making their homes among the intricate shapes. Juvenile and adult rockfish of various species swim around the sponges continuously, and can often be seen contentedly resting inside the folds or tube of a sponge. One particular species, the Quillback rockfish, Sebastes maliger, is especially noted for this habit. Here a pair would be hovering near the base of a sponge, there a single adult would be nestled at the top of a sponge as if on a throne, and over there a juvenile quillback would peer out at us from inside one of the tubes as if seeking sanctuary. Decorator crabs also abounded, their long thin legs walking gracefully across the surface of the sponges seeking nooks and crannies to escape from the glare of our lights. On many of the sponges we found Spiny Lithode Crabs, Acantholithodes hispidus. These crabs, also known as “Red Fur Crabs” have what appear to be a furry body and possess bright red claws. They also scurried here and there to avoid the glare of our lights but refused to leave the body of their host, eventually finding a spot they could wedge themselves into to escape our unwanted attentions. Trying to get photos of these crabs, we found ourselves laughing at their antics.

As always, all too often our series of dives at Mozino Point came to an end and we found ourselves heading back toward Tahsis and an evening spent downloading images and diner with good friends. The engine of the Notorious rumbled beneath our feet as we turned northward up the inlet, its sound intruding on the silence of the wilderness around us. I noticed a Harbor Seal resting on shore near the base of the beacon, irritated at the disturbance and looking up sleepily as we passed. The rays of the departing sun glistened off the water as we rumbled past and slowly the seal’s head sank back down into a dreamy sleep….the loud humans were
leaving and serenity once again
ruled this portion of the
inlet… us, his day
had ended well.

Information on diving in Nootka Sound can be found by visiting the following websites:

Tahtsa Dive Charters

Tourism Vancouver Island

Just getting to Nootka Sound can be half the adventure! Here are some links that will provide useful travel information:

British Columbia Ferry System

Nootka Sound Service, Ltd.

Additionally, there are several seaplane companies that fly directly into Tahsis from points in both British Columbia and Washington.

Above: Mist dances across the face of the green forest beyond as the light beacon at Mozino Point stands its lonely sentinal duty.
Photo by Valerie Lyttle