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Diving for Critters in North America's Fjords

Exploring the gaps where mountains of ice once flowed in search of feather stars, sea butterflies, otters and more
By Patrick Webster | Published On June 10, 2024
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Diving for Critters in North America's Fjords

Ochre starfish kiss the forest in the tranquil freeze of Desolation Sound, British Columbia

Patrick Webster

1300 hours, June 20, 2022

SE Alaska, approx. 58°14'N 136°24'W

Water temperature: 41ºF / 5ºC

Cross Sound—boy, oh boy, is it beautiful out here! And oh so intimidating; the sea butterflies are alive and well in the drysuit today. Just a few miles north of our little spruce- and hemlock-capped island is Glacier Bay and the Fairweather Range, the southernmost portion of the St. Elias Mountains. The power of this place is difficult to describe—but it’s definitely felt in the mantle of your being. Because somewhere deep down, a buoyant microcontinent is being shoved under North America along the Queen Charlotte fault line, the most energetically expressive earthquake-producing planetary splice on Earth. The San Andreas gets all the Hollywood hype but Queen Charlotte sits atop the throne. Just 50 miles up from our drop spot lies Lituya Bay, where, in 1958, her majesty triggered a nearly 8.0 magnitude earthquake that created a megatsunami wave 1,700 feet high.

Related Reading: Coldwater Dispatches: Polar Jellyfish

Can’t see the Fairweathers today, and underwater it’s about to be as wet as expected; we’ll manage. Rolling in off the edge of the kelp forest, a few concerned sea otters stare at us from their wrapped algal anchors as we drop down.

Whoa—looks like we may have mistimed slack tide here! The whole of Southeast Alaska’s inside passage drains into the open Pacific through this aquatic gap in the gargantuan geologic terrane wreck, the moon and sun doing their water-level best to match the drama of the surrounding scapes with their current events. We drop a touch deeper, past carpets of countless critters with arms waving wildly to gobble up the passing planktonic picnic. Eventually, the only productive play is to rejoin the shallow thickets of understory kelps and grab on—bull kelps bending at the holdfast to flow almost horizontally and billowing over the bushy, blustery benthos. Everywhere all around us is life being lived right on the edge of calamity, thriving through whatever storm the sea, sky and soil can throw at it. This reef has seen some things.

Related Reading: The Hunt of the Ribbon Worm

0800 hours, October 12, 2022

Canada, approx. 50°08'N 124°45'W

Water temperature: 52ºF / 11.1ºC

Desolation Sound—could there be a greater misnomer? What an incredible amphitheater of forest and sea we find ourselves in on such a gloriously warm fall day. Vancouver Island blocks our little wooded isle from the surging swells and raging currents of open ocean. The water seems as lazy here as the air is today, content to rise and fall as per tidal regulations but nothing more, languid and unhurried. The subtidal life we find on the steep wall feels equally unbothered: Fields of feather stars appear to float off the fjord wall, fleshy tunicates actively pump the water through their internal plankton-pasta strainer, packs of ravenous starfishes hunt in slow motion while fluffy beds of plumose anemones splay frilly arms full of hungry hope out into the sleepy void. If there is desolation here, it must simply be in the pretense that excitement is preferable to boredom. Here is a fantastic place, beautiful and beguiling, its reef enlightened and satisfied to glow slow with the flow.