Telegraph Cove, British Columbia, Canada – Almost at the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island, is shrouded in mist and rain and sudden bursts of sunshine, and enveloped in the dripping wet fecundity of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem.
Erik Young from Edmonton set up this trip. He tantalized everyone on the forums with photographs of amazing marine life, bribed us with DeeperBlue.net t-shirts, and promised fish to make the spearos salivate. I jumped in to see him again, meet some new people and get up close introduction to spearfishing.
Eric Fattah and I loaded up his car really early on a Friday morning in June, a familiar routine for any trip to the islands. But I knew things would be different this time.
Neither Eric nor I had ever speared a fish, let alone handled a spear gun. The last time I had caught a fish was a foot long pike in Lake Huron when I was twelve. It was in the era of having an adult clean the fish and watching in horror and fascination at the entrails sliding into the gut bucket. On this trip to Telegraph, I knew that I would learn a lot about the ways of the spearo and learn another way of interacting with the sea.
Having never ventured out to Telegraph Cove before, I was hopeful that it would live up to the caliber of epic dive sites on Vancouver Island. The walls carpeted with invertebrate life. Corals and anemones appearing in the gloom like aliens from another planet. Orcas and seals playing extreme tag. In other words, a paradise concealed under cold water and cedar-laden landscape. I hoped that Telegraph would deliver the goods for the out of town guests.
Ten people arrived in Telegraph Cove. It was like Team Zissou, gear galore, but without the silver wetsuits. There was Colin, Lee and Jim, spearos in brown and green camouflaged suits, there to fish. Clad in black, fellow monofinner Brianna and her spearo husband Gabe dove everyday and were also handy with their spear guns. Chris and his daughter Claire came from Michigan armed with cameras and an eye for the sublime. Tyler, my good friend and denizen of his secret deep stronghold in Tahsis, BC, came to bring to light the grotesque and tasty mysteries of the deep. And finally, Eric and I were, in Colin’s words, the zealots in the neck-weight, black-suit, monofin wearing, deep diving cult, brandishing our telltale and very scary pink snorkels.
The scene at the campsite once everyone had arrived is worth describing. Not only did Jim make the long journey from the US of A, going from corner to corner across the continent, he also brought his house with him, a cavernous 18-person nylon, mosquito repelling abode that he graciously shared with Colin. More importantly, though, he brought his spear guns, Hawaiian sling, video housing, laptop, space heater, and Cactus Juice. Mmmm. Cactus Juice. Deepest Bear, having risen, phoenix-like from the ashes of charred-fur, also made it to Vancouver with Jim for the first time, again.
It was heartwarming to see each campsite crammed with freediving gear. There was the cheery optimism of Brianna’s sticker-laden monofin, a bristling array of spear guns and gallons of lube. As we gathered round the fire each night under a canopy of BC cedar and fir, I felt that all was well and right in the universe.
The pursuit for fruits of the sea really started on Sunday, shortly after the arrival of Lee from Edmonton and Chris and Claire from Michigan. We all decided to dive from a wharf in the main centre of Telegraph Cove.
Enthusiasm was high and even Claire braved the 8C water in her 2mm suit.
Right away, Tyler found an abandoned prawn trap right under the dock and hauled it up onto the dock. It was full of Dungeness crabs! Most of them were legal and so dinner was already covered. This discovery and the interesting array of spearo and deep diving gear attracted a small crowd of locals and tourists on the wharf.
We all set out. The water was beautiful, clear and green. Moon jellies abounded, as did schooling yellow fin rockfish, and shimmering minnows. Chris brought his camera and weaved his way around everyone, documenting this beautiful site. Eric and I ventured out in search of deep water and our favourite plumose anemone and sponge life, but at thirty metres, found only urchins and a flat bottom.
Making my way back to join everyone else on the wall near shore, I had my first sublime moment of the trip. Breathing at the surface, I watched four spearos and Brianna head down at the same time, violating the mundane laws of human motion, disappearing into the green glow of the ocean. Time passed. Then, one by one they surfaced, smiling and talking about what they saw and all the fish that got away, for now.
I made my own dive, without fins this time, gathering the ocean in my hands and slinging myself deeper until I sank and then settled on a flat rock. I stood upright and waited until a school of fish enveloped me. Sunlight streamed down from above, flitting over the streamlined shapes all around me.
Later, Brianna offered me her spear gun and showed me how to use it. Safety on. Cock the bands. Lock and load. I wanted to shoot it first, to see how it felt in my hand. Mid-water, pointing away from the cluster of freedivers, I pulled the trigger. Thwomp! Yep, it is a gun. Yet, it feels too light, almost like a toy.
I make a few dives with the spear gun and soon find myself drifting along the wall in the current. Some fish cross my path, but now that I am hunting, I don’t seem to find the fish as easily as usual. Maybe it’s the big gun at the end of my hand. Or that I’m not really a hunter yet and I haven’t learned to conceal my indecision about this new activity. At the end of one dive a small kelp greenling swims across my path. I follow him but do not shoot.
The day ends too soon. The spearos catch greenling and the odd rockfish. And the Dungeness Crabs, of course! That night, we eat and eat and eat. Colin teaches me the right way to cook crab – in salt water brine to keep the flavour in. The crab is delicious. I slice my thumb on a crab claw, trying to pry it open to get the last bit of meat. Thank you, MotherOcean, for your bounty. He also serves us moose caught earlier in the year. Best steak I’ve ever had on a camping trip.
Monday was the last day of diving for Eric and me, before we had to head home to the Inferno, uh, I mean, Vancouver. It was an epic day by anyone’s standards.
First, we dove in a channel between two small islands. I swam through huge cathedral groves of kelp five to ten metres high with tunnels and caverns of light and shadow. I played hide and seek with a small seal. Tyler came over and pointed out an amazing basket star.
Later we went to run the rapids where the islands drew near to each other. The wall where the current was highest was laden with all sorts of colorful invertebrate life. But you had to catch it at a glance as you flashed by, swooping over bull kelp billowing and snaking in the wild gusts of current, a smear of oranges, reds, pinks, and whites, like being thrown across a still-wet Jackson Pollock painting.
I found a multicolored Box Crab bigger than Jim’s head in a small oasis of still water just off the channel and pointed it out. We had been playing with his video camera and I found this magnificent crab nestled between some of the first plumose anemones I had seen. I filmed Jim as he went down to get the crab. Yes, we ate him. I felt wistful about it. The crab was huge and had likely been around a long time. It felt a little wrong for me to take him away. But then again, I’d eaten the fish and Dungeness crab caught the night before with gusto. Same with the urchins that Tyler, Eric and I had eaten raw on the rocks, smashing them and scooping out the roe from runny pockets of half-digested bull kelp.
So what was different about this one? It was the first time I’d seen a Box Crab and I was unsettled by seeing it sitting still on our boat, gradually drying out. As Claire snapped close-up photos of the crab and fish in the bucket, I reflected on life and death in the sea and our impact on it. I knew that my feelings about the spearo way would be fresh and new. But I didn’t expect to be challenged so strongly, so soon.
The trip really blossomed for the spearos when we reached HaddingtonIsland. It was late in the afternoon and we had already been diving for 3-4 hours. Everyone was cold and tired. But morale was high.
Gabe, the spear-wielding registered nurse, was the first into the water. Everyone else stayed behind, trying to wring some warmth from the waning afternoon sun.
The objective: Lingcod. This was Gabe’s first ocean spearing trip and there was fire in his eyes. He dove and reported: "Saw some rockfish, the terrain is good, but no Ling." The boat circled up-current while the other divers looked for a good place to hop in. Suddenly, Gabe surfaced and his yell echoed over the water. Breathlessly, he told us how he speared a yellowfin rockfish and then from the shadows, a large lingcod chomped down on the hapless fish and dragged it and the spear tip back into a hole, forcing Gabe to abandon his gun. “The Ling just sucked it in!” he said. Lee and Eric quickly jumped in to help him land the Lingcod, but the larger fish had already disappeared with its prey, leaving Gabe to retrieve his gun and shake his head in disbelief.
Now with electrifying proof of Lingcod at HaddingtonIsland, the rest of the dedicated spearos all girded themselves for the hunt, while the rest of us slipped in to explore the rocky slope.
The legal size limit for Lingcod is 65 cm or roughly two feet. After a half hour of diving, most everyone by now had seen a Lingcod, most too small to spear, but no one tried for one or admitted to missing. I made a dive to twenty metres and drifted over the bottom, ignoring the cold tremors running up and down my spine. Resting on a large rock, a Lingcod fixed me with its round yellow eye and turned down mouth. I had nothing to measure it with, no spear gun with markings to compare it to. He was big, hunkered down on the rock like a mafia don, oblivious or indifferent to the hunters circling above him.
After a few more dives, I returned to the boat, shivering. My dives took a toll on my core temperature. Eric borrowed Jim’s Hawaiian sling and got a quick tutorial, then hopped in with his monofin. The other spearos remained in the water hunting for Lingcod.
Then suddenly, there was action.
I hurried over to the portside and saw Eric swimming awkwardly. He sidled up to the boat. "The bad news is I lost the spear tip earlier on a missed shot,” he said, then smiled, “the good news is I got this one anyway."
He lifted the pole spear out of the water to reveal a copper rockfish flicking for its life, pierced by the shaft. Cheers resounded on the boat. Brianna captured the drama of a veteran sport freediver’s first ever fish.
A few minutes later, Tyler surfaced in the distance and lifted a huge Lingcod out of the water. The red of its gills glowed freakishly in the late afternoon sun. Tyler knows the marine life on Vancouver Island better than anyone else on the boat and his catch was inevitable. Lee’s jaw dropped in amazement and he vowed to get one before the trip was over. Even Colin, a veteran hunter who has hunted the world over on land and in sea, voiced his approval. After all, the water is a cold 8C / 40F and we had all been in our suits for almost 6 hours by this time.
Tyler’s fish brought everyone back aboard and soon we head home, cold, exhausted and grinning from ear to ear.
On the long ride home, I had a chance to think about the spearo approach to freediving. Will I take up spearfishing? I’m in no rush. But since I’ve returned from the trip, I find I notice fish and edible invertebrates much more than before. Vancouver waters are already under the pressure of traditional boat-based fishing, so I won’t be spearing at any of my favourite dive sites.
Eric and I have talked this year about our Leaving the World Behind trips and making long kayak trips through BC islands. Ffishing for rock fish with a pole spear would be an easy way to get dinner every night, not to mention finding crabs and urchins. We even designed a new kind of pole spear on the ferry back to Vancouver. This does appeal to me.
While I feel that I have a better understanding of spearfishing in the Pacific Northwest, I know there is still lots to learn and then to place it in my own philosophy of freediving.
The feast was excellent that night. As we ate, I reflected on how keen everyone was despite the winter-like conditions. Everyone enjoyed themselves and emerged with stories to tell, no matter the depth or diving style. Crowded around the campfire, kindled by Eric’s industrial braising torch, we ate more of Colin’s moose, aka Swamp Donkey, reviewed fish struggles and dive profiles on the F1s, and philosophized about freediving as a way of life.
It was Claire, when I asked her about how she got into freediving and why she likes it, who delivered the first gem of universal truth for the trip.
“I love being in the water,” she said, “It’s pretty simple.”
It was a great trip. Everyone needs to get together and dive. It’s that simple.
I can’t wait for next time.
Read more about the trip in the Forum Thread
See photos from the trip at the Gallery