Above: Deep on the wall at Mozino Point, the author approaches a massive Pink Gorgonian Coral for a photo. The polyps on this specimen are fully extended to gather food from the passing current. Photo by Calvin Tang.
Above: A large Pink Gorgonian Coral with all of its polyps retracted. The colonies are slightly pliable to the touch, feeling similar to the hard rubber of the popular ”KONG” dog toys sold in pet stores.
Above: ADM Team member Calvin Tang next to a beautiful medium-sized specimen. Other corals can be seen in the background, with dozens of others obscured by the blackness.
Mention the word “coral” to someone anywhere in the world and they will immediately conjure up a mental image of shallow tropical reefs covered with a huge variety of brain, leaf and staghorn corals in lovely gin-clear turquoise water, bathed in the bright sun. A beautiful image, to be sure, but few people realize that in reality the majority of corals on Earth actually dwell in cold, deep water far from the sun and hidden from the view of even most divers. Corals live and thrive in ALL the world’s oceans, even in the Arctic and at the Poles, and when viewed collectively their 3-dimensional structure probably represents the largest structural habitat type on our planet.

As virtually any diver can tell you, corals are in fact huge colonies of thousands of tiny animals uniting together to form large structures – all coral formations are similar in this regard. The corals found in the tropics contain photosynthetic algae that produces energy from the rays of the sun though the process of photosynthesis. As a result, they are not found in deep or brackish water where sunlight cannot penetrate. The corals found in cold water, however, are not dependant at all on such algae or on photosynthesis, instead feeding on rich nutrients brought to them by currents. Like their tropical cousins, cold-water corals attach themselves to exposed bedrock, steep rocky walls or rock and cobble-covered portions of the sea floor, requiring an absolutely firm base for stability. Once established, multiple colonies of corals can eventually form large coral “gardens”, which act as highly desirable habitat for an incredible array of both fish and invertebrates. Individual coral colonies and large “gardens” have been found beginning around 80 to 90 FSW as well as some species being documented thousands of feet below the surface. Although these are not true coral reefs like those found in the tropics, they have similar effects in that they form rigid frameworks, alter the bottom topography and form habitats that attract a wide variety of species.
Above: A cluster of Pink Gorgonian Corals on a vertical wall. The streaming tentacles of a nearby sea anemone testify to the currents that nourish the coral colonies. A Longhorn Decorator Crab scrambles across the coral's branches - just one of many species that make the deep coral gardens their home.
Above: A large coral specimen shown with its polyps just beginning to open near its base. Unlike their tropical cousins, the corals found in deep, cold water are not dependant at all on photosynthesis, instead exclusively feeding on rich nutrients brought to them by currents.
British Columbia, Canada, is blessed with several locations at which divers can reach such coral gardens. The primary species found there is Paragorgia pacifica, often commonly referred to as “Pink Candelabrum Gorgonian” or "Kamchatka Coral”. Highly similar to its cousin, Paragorgia arborea, which is found in Atlantic waters, P. pacifica has thick branches and is most commonly found in concave fan-shaped colonies, the shape apparently formed as a result of prevailing currents. Scientists have noted that the typical height of each colony appears to be related to the size of the boulder the colony is attached to – it seems that once a colony exceeds a certain height the strength of the current will cause the boulder to overturn, leaving the coral “face-down” on the bottom. This is a clear indication of the overall strength of the coral structure. The corals have adapted completely to their current-swept, deep-water environment and the available food sources. As filter-feeding animals, in order to capture enough food these corals need a large volume of water to pass through the branches of the colony within a given time. They therefore are only found in areas with persistent and constant current flows. Unlike the hard and stiff colonies of warm-water corals, P. pacifica colonies are slightly pliable to the touch, feeling similar to the hard rubber of the popular ”KONG” dog toys sold in pet stores. This is most likely an evolutionary development based upon eons of adaptation to surviving in strong currents - the basic functions of the coral “skeleton” being to both provide for the efficient ensnaring of food and to withstand the force of the currents. Little data is available on the age and growth rate of P. pacifica, but studies of its Atlantic cousin, P. arborea, indicate that these corals can be well over one hundred years old. Growth rates are difficult to verify, as different locations have conditions that can and will provide localized incentives (or disincentives) for growth.

The velocity of currents and the pattern of their movements appear to have a huge impact on both the overall abundance and shape of Gorgonian coral colonies. Most P. pacifica will not only be in a fan shape, they will also be concave in appearance, an adaptation that allows the colony to maximize the amount of water flowing through its branches and, hence, the amount of food particulates collected by the extended polyps. Studies indicate that this concave shape appears more often in larger specimens, indicating that the individual colonies adapted during growth to changing conditions caused by currents. The polyps do not seem to require that the current flow directly into their mouths, but instead can gather nutrients from all sides of the polyp tentacle crown. Additionally, it has been shown that there are higher densities of polyps in the upper, younger, branches of the colonies, indicating that an increased level of food gathering is occurring at the places where the current flow is at its peak.

Above: ADM Team Member Calvin Tang approaches a cluster of corals for a photo, their beautiful orange color reflecting in the dome port of his camera housing.
Above: Two large Gorgonian Coral specimens immediately next to each other, showing the dramatic difference in physical appearance when the polyps are extended or retracted.
Our team traveled from the Seattle/Portland area to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, with the stated mission of photographing these deep water corals. With several sites in British Columbia to choose from, the ADM team selected the tiny village of Tahsis on Nootka Sound as our base, the waters there being well-known for harboring large numbers of Gorgonian corals as well as being the home of Tahtsa Dive Charters, an efficient and well-trusted operation that has actively supported us in the past. The team consisted of the author, Calvin Tang from Seattle, Washington, Tom Nicodemus of Lakewood, Washington, and Matt Spiro from Portland, Oregon. Each team member was well familiar with the others and was excited over this opportunity to photograph animals that few divers have ever seen. Calvin and I, using our Closed-Circuit Rebreathers, would concentrate on the deep walls, while Matt and Tom, on Open-Circuit equipment, would photograph corals and cloud sponges found above the “recreational limit” at 130 FSW. We were scheduled to meet up with an old Canadian friend of mine, Vel Wilson, who has made dozens of dives to the thickest part of the coral gardens near Mozino Point, and would guide us to them once we arrived.

The dives

At first a deep rich emerald green, the water surrounding me grows as black as night itself as I drop deeper, the low-visibility thermocline from fresh water rain run-off at the surface blocking the rays of the sun. As we descend we are awash in a world of color, bright pink and red strawberry anemones blanketing the bottom contours, interspaced with gorgeous yellow, tan and white sponges of all shapes and sizes. Their beauty beckons to my photographer’s soul like a siren’s song, but they are not our quarry today. Looking down the steep wall, I see the bright yellow Force-Fins of my friend, Vel Wilson, as she is power-kicking her way down the sharp, steep slope. A stiff current is smashing into me from the West and the strobe arms of my camera system act much like a parachute in the wind, forcing me to angle myself into the current or lose all sense of direction. This isn’t easy, and I can hear myself breathing hard into and out of the loop of my Classic KISS CCR. I’m forced to remind myself to maintain control of my breathing rate. My dive buddy, Calvin Tang, is experiencing similar problems with his camera in the current and the two of us are lagging behind Vel and her dive buddy, Chuck Williams, both of whom are on open-circuit, without cameras, and dropping like stones. Vel’s bright yellow fins act as a beacon in the blackness, though, and soon we find ourselves arriving at the bottom of the immense wall at approximately 170 FSW. Recognizing the bottom contours and realizing that she has compensated slightly too much for the current, Vel immediately turns the team East and we allow the current to take us along the base of the gigantic wall, plunging down still another slope. Within seconds we reach 195 FSW and an incredible display of bright orange and pink color suddenly bursts into view as the beams of our lights dance across our quarry – huge Gorgonian Corals, literally hundreds of them, extend off into the distance. Her job of connecting us with the corals is now done, and Vel waves goodbye as the open-circuit team begins their ascent. Calvin and I are left with only the sound of our breathing and the other team’s lights growing dim above us in the distance. Kicking into the current, we do our best to maintain position as our camera shutters click away, gathering shot after shot of these beautiful and incredible animals that most people don’t even realize exist.

Concave and curving with the current, many of the corals are enshrouded with a lush covering of feeding polyps, gathering rich nutrients from the passing water, while others are dormant without a polyp showing. Unlike warm water corals that are dependent on photosynthesis from sunlight, these deep-water Gorgonians set their own schedule for feeding in the utter darkness of their current-swept world and it is perfectly normal to find corals immediately next to each other – some with polyps fully extended, some with no polyps extended, (almost as if they are “asleep”), while still others will have some branches with polyps extended and some branches with none. The difference in appearance is striking and they almost appear to be different species. Rockfish of various species hover behind the extended coral fans, using them as a shield from the current, while the occasional Lingcod can be seen resting on the bottom behind a coral base. Isolated Longhorn Decorator Crabs, Chorilia longipes, clamber across the branches of some of the coral colonies, and I wonder if that individual colony represents the full extent of that particular crab’s “world”. We see a bright orange and white “orange-peel” nudibranch slithering slowly up the face of one of the smaller coral colonies as it feeds, the color contrast between predator and prey being particularly visually stunning.

Above: Deep at the base of the wall at Mozino Point, ADM Team Member Calvin Tang slowly drifts with the current amongst the coral garden.
Reaching the end of our planned bottom time, we began our ascent, weaving our way through the individual colonies within this coral “jungle”, and finding ourselves astonished at the size and shape of some of the larger specimens. As we slowly ascend we once again notice that the “carpet” of strawberry anemones has appeared, often surrounding the bases of the coral colonies and adding a delightful pink contrast to the almost glowing orange and rust colors of the corals themselves. The size and number of the corals slowly diminishes as we move upward, but their beauty and variety of shapes continues to amaze us. Eventually, we find that we have departed the “coral zone” and have entered depths in which sponges are the predominant large photo subject – Cloud and Chimney sponges being particularly prolific – alongside huge numbers of giant Rock Scallops. In shallow water we find the usual colossal amount of life that is typically found in Nootka Sound, including a vast assemblage of Hooded Nudibranchs in enormous clusters. Having such photo subjects makes our deep stops and decompression time extremely enjoyable, and we ultimately surface with woops of joy at the sights we have seen during the dive, already thinking about the riches of the dives to come….

While there are several different locations in British Columbia that have access to such corals, the ADM team enjoyed the services and skills of Scott and Jude Schooner of Tahtsa Dive Charters on this trip to photograph the corals of Nootka Sound. As always, everything was handled with the utmost of competency and professionalism. Those desiring to see and photograph these wonderful animals can do no better than by contacting them.

Tahtsa Dive Charters