Hornby again: feels like home

After my last post, something a little more light-hearted seemed in order. And not much is more light-hearted that juvenile Steller sea lions.

Ever playful and curious, Steller sea lions near Hornby Island. Welcome back!

January 9-13 marked my 4th annual sojourn to Hornby Island, British Columbia, to dive with and photograph Steller sea lions.

It’s no secret I have not been great about posting to my SeaJen blog, and aside from the sad Cove 2 commentary last year, I haven’t posted anything since my first trip to Hornby 3 years ago, when I discovered the sea lion diving for the first time. And now they are again my focus. In fact, I’m going to do a series of posts inspired by my most recent trip.

It seems I find the sea lions a compelling subject, for diving with, photographing, and writing about. And yet, when the time finally came to dive, I asked myself what I was doing there. So many dives shooting only one subject! I’ve collectively taken thousands of photos of these animals and was suddenly doubting this was a great use of my time or that I would see anything new or create any different images. There are so many places to go on the planet. Why was I here?

The moment I hit the water, any doubts instantly vanished. It felt like home.

One of the younger residents of Norris Rock.

Before any diving commenced, for days and maybe months the only goal I had for this trip was to get some good over-unders. That’s when your dome port is half underwater so you get imagery from above and below the water line. I imagined I might never even get bottom time. I might stay at the surface the whole time. I got one good over-under last year, and I was bit. I wanted more! But as soon as I got in the water, I wanted to dive. To stay at the surface would have been like riding to the top of the ski lift, getting off, then picking your way back down the mountain one step at a time.

I dropped, adjusted my camera, and was on my way. Soon I was surrounded by exuberant, playful young sea lions.

So many sea lions! And bubbles coming from them and us.

The truth is, a person could take thousands of photos per species to capture the range of activity and beauty, to tell all the stories each species offers, especially one as dynamic as a the most playful mammal I know of, with the possible exception of humans. Similarly, it might take tens of thousands of photos to get one “perfect” image. After all, that’s how the Nat Geo photogs do it – they’ll spend a month or more diving every day on the same subject just for one or two or three photos that eventually get published. It’s their job, and they face tremendous pressure to get perfect photos, but they conversely have the “luxury” of hundreds of hours underwater with their one subject as opposed to 4 to 6 hours a year, which is what I’m spending with the sea lions.

They often just stick their snouts above water for a couple breaths of air before heading back down to play.

When I think of how many photos I have taken of my cats in 2.5 years, going out with sea lions once a year for 4 or 6 dives, some of which may be largely devoid of the animals because they are napping, it is no surprise I have a lot of business yet to do. So, rather than questioning the value of repeated trips to the same place, the true lament is that I cannot spent endless days with each and every species I love underwater. Or at the surface, as the case may be.

We had missed the first day of diving because the winds were so strong the seas were too big. That was fine with me. I’d arrived late the first night, so that meant there was ample time to get my camera and dive gear together at a leisurely pace and just hang out at this lodge I have come to truly love.

The first dive of the trip, the sea lions were “polite,” in the words of one of my fellow divers. That was quite welcome to me. Last year’s trip was more intense than the other times I have been there. The sea lions were a little too playful… It wasn’t unusual for several of them to all try to lay on top of me or my dive buddy all at once. It’s not a great feeling, that many big, wild animals piled on top of you and trying to take your mask and regulator… One did manage to carry off one of my fins. That was the end of the dive for me, though my fin went on to have a pretty nice dive from what I heard. Fortunately, it made its way to another diver, who brought it back to the surface for me.

Despite their best efforts, my fins stayed on my feet this time, thanks to new fin straps.

After the insanity of last year, I was more cautious, more hesitant. But they behaved quite well. They were playful but not playfully aggressive. And there weren’t so many of them that they devolved into mob mentality. It was also easy to spend time at the surface. I moved back and forth from about 15 feet of depth to the surface several times.

Steller sea lions at the surface!

The second dive that day was nearly devoid of sea lions. I went on a swim-about to burn some of the calories from the abundantly excellent food I’d been eating since arrival 5 meals earlier, but we saw no more than a dozen sea lions the entire hour.

I still managed to get a couple decent photos, despite the relative lack of sea lions.

The first dive of the second and final (for me) day of diving, the sea lions were not so polite (to me), and they were a lot more numerous – maybe twice as many as the morning before. Looking up from the bottom, they looked like a tornado of marine mammals at the surface. I wanted more over-unders, but the scene was less inviting. The first time I went up it was a little crazy – non-stop mobbing.

Peek-a-boo! I wasn’t the only one being mobbed at the surface.

On the bottom it was one of those days when their curiosity resulted in my getting nibbled on just about every square inch of my body. Not exaggerating. After the dive I learned that only one other diver had a similar experience. They were polite to everyone else. Not sure what we did to invite such curiosity…

Getting nibbled on. Note also the velcro ring by my face — that’s where my inflator hose goes, but they had pulled it out and it was dangling behind me.

After a good long dive, I headed back toward the boat. In the distance, something bright hung in the water. It turned out to be a relatively large moon jelly, and I snapped a couple shots. Two. That is exactly how many photos I took before a small group of sea lions approached. One moved towards the jelly and I had time to take two more photos before the jelly was in the mouth of said sea lion.

Unlike the sea cucumbers and sea stars that can survive being a play toy to sea lions, the jelly didn’t appear to fare so well. Their engagement lasted only 5 seconds, but a lot of moon jelly bits floated in the water afterwards. Some say the sea lion looks a bit guilty. I think it’s an act.

I would end the story there, because that is a good ending. But one dive remained, maybe.

The wind was up and it wasn’t clear if there would be a second dive that day. Rob (owner, operator) waited till the last minute to decide, but at that last minute, we were a go.

It turned out to be the only dive of the trip where I saw California sea lions. They are much more shy and standoffish than Stellers, by far. They are like a shy cat — curious but fighting the instinct to satisfy their curiosity.

The California sea lions rarely get close. They are curious from a distance.

I’m so glad we were able to get that dive in for at least three reasons. One, I was already down to only four total dives for such a big trip, so losing one of those would have been significant. Two, the boat ride back to the lodge post dive was its own adventure because of the wind and rough seas, so we had an adventure inside an adventure. And three, I got one of my favorite photos from the trip during this dive.

Look at those pearly whites!

I’ll take it for now. It’s not perfect, but it gives me a reason to go back. And yes, I’m going back. Just signed up for 2021.

See you next year!

(This is the first of several posts I’m planning inspired by this trip, so more to follow!)

About Jen Vanderhoof

I'm Jen Vanderhoof. I’m an ecologist with a wildlife background, and I spend a lot of time outdoors near water looking for signs of beavers and, when I'm lucky, photographing beavers. I am also a birder, scuba diver, and accordingly bird, nature, and underwater photographer. I write and draw, and I also enjoy carving beaver-chewed wood. I hope to spread the understanding, acceptance, and love of the most incredible animal species I know, the beaver.
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3 Responses to Hornby again: feels like home

  1. Pingback: Sea Lions taking Selfies | SeaJen

  2. Alexa Whipple says:

    Wow Jen! I didn’t know this was a thing someone could go do. So COOOOOOOL! Can’t wait to hear more when you come out to the Methow though can’t imagine beaver complex photography living up to the excitement of diving with sea lions! Maybe you could dive at a beaver complex and check out their winter wonderland?

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