Even when the sun won’t shine, you can find a whole world of colour beneath the thin blue line. Words :: Nikkey Dawn.
There is an internal stillness that comes with breath-hold diving, also called freediving, similar to the first moments after a big snowfall. Sound is muffled and a peaceful atmosphere permeates the underwater landscape.
The underwater world mirrors the winter cycles of the surface, seasonal kelp and seaweed die off to reveal stark, coralline algae-covered rock that is home to a wide variety of invertebrates. Dense bull kelp forests are reduced to a few ghostly stipes, ragged blades trailing in the current.
What’s withstood the winter swell lies vulnerable to the slow march of hungry urchins. Once kept in check by healthy populations of sea otters and sea stars, these urchins can create full-blown barrens in an unbalanced ecosystem. But the bull kelp has left assurances, dropping reproductive patches from its fronds to the seafloor before winter began.
Unlike the ocean’s surface, you won’t find any washed-out winter hues down here. Flashing off marine life from rockfish to sponges, greens, blues and purples mix with opposing yellow and oranges everywhere you look. And look far you can, because the winter visibility of the Salish Sea surpasses that of the summer with no solar-generated plankton blooms to cloud the water. The clarity feels amplified by the cold water running electric over your face, waking up the mammalian dive reflex. Part of which—the urge to hold your breath—you must override to ‘breath up’ in preparation for your dive.
The surface water averages eight degrees Celcius and continues to drop as you descend through the thermocline. We don’t share insulation as thick as our seal or whale co-habitants, so extra millimetres of neoprene for the winter it is. With each silent kick after leaving the surface, your extremities cool as your core calls back blood for vital organs and the heart slows while carbon dioxide levels rise. The spleen reacts to the pressure by sending out more hemoglobin to ferry oxygen around. But this orchestrated response can only sustain for so long.
Eventually, you must come up for air and begin the cycle all over again. Soon spring will breathe new life down here too, the lingcod are already protecting their nests and by the cacophony of barking sea lions and squawking seagulls, it’s clear the herring spawn is not far off. But even in the midst of seasonal chaos, you’re only ever one breath-hold away from visiting the stillness of winter within.
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