Songs of the Salish Sea

Words by Madison Churchill
Photography by Hannah Gabrielson

Bracing for the shock, we dip under the surface into the frigid Salish Sea.

The water is a gradient of colour from pale mint to a deep viridian blue-green. It’s teeming with life. Large tangles of bull kelp are affixed to tall stands, creating a pathway from the ocean floor to the surface. They sway and rock with the tides, enveloping our group of freedivers. Without scuba tanks, we are able to explore with ease, slipping effortlessly through the kelp. When the rocking of the tide slows, I can hear the faint songs of a distant orca pod. We are in killer whale territory. These Salish Sea kelp forests are a hot spot of biodiversity. They act as a support system for the marine life the reside here. They connect and tie together every species from the tiniest neon nudibranchs, to the great orcas.

Without the use of compressed air, I can swim from the heaping kelp tangle on the surface, soaring down the stock to the holdfast root network, and back up in a matter of seconds without decompression. My breath hold connects me to the ecosystem, seemingly bringing me one step closer to becoming a sea creature myself. It keeps me humble, reminding me that I am still a mammal, just like the harbour seals that move with silent stealth under water despite their great size.

The San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington boast an incredibly biodiverse habitat. Shoals of glistening silver herring move uniformly together as if controlled by a singular brain. As I swim towards them, the group shifts in an instant, anticipating my movement. Sunlight reflects off their scales as the group makes its way up to the surface. These herring are a key piece of the food web, feeding the different species of salmon, which in turn feed the orcas.

kelp forest salish sea lions mane
kelp forest salish sea marine life
kelp forest salish sea underwater
kelp forest salish sea harbour seal

Freediving here poses numerous challenges, but the reward is an underwater seascape that’s truly spectacular. This kelp cathedral is as dynamic and biodiverse as any forest on land. With hoods, gloves, extra thick wetsuits, and long fins, we set out to explore the underwater world. Submerging into this environment is wildly exhilarating. The cold water stings my face like needles and takes the breath right out of my chest. My pulse quickens and my limbs tense up. The initial sense of panic is immediately soothed once I dip my eyes beneath the waterline. I am welcomed home by the swaying kelp, the scuttling crabs and the cautious rockfish.

With deep breaths and extra heavy weight belts, we dive down to the floor. Sixteen pounds of lead pull me down through the saline sea. Hovering above the bottom, I see vast fields of spiny purple urchins, eating their way through the kelp. A lack of predators has led to an abundance of these kelp-grazers. A sign of imbalance in this delicate ecosystem.

While many people think that our cold Washington waters are murky and void of life, we witness otherwise. A limited line of sight and low visibility create a dark barrier that gives way to a rainbow of invertebrates and fish as things gradually come into focus. Once you get close enough to spot them, ochre sea stars shine in their rich cobalt violet hues, and green anemones glow a soft lime colour. A neon yellow shape catches my eye. As I swim closer through the blanket of silt and phytoplankton, the visibility clears. A sea lemon with tiny horns is perched on its rock. Named after its citrus-like characteristics, this nudibranch is a rare and exciting find.

We are drawn in, held under the surface by our love for the ocean. We never know what we are going to see when we step into the sea. We’ve come within an arm’s reach of a Lion’s Mane jellyfish before, the largest jellyfish species on Earth. This particular specimen had tentacles extending for more than thirty feet, with a bulb the size of a basketball. As it undulated through the water, we were spellbound by it, despite the imminent danger.

kelp forest salish sea british columbia
kelp forest salish sea
kelp forest salish sea freediver
kelp forest salish sea jellyfish

Thick rust-coloured stalks of bull kelp stitch together the ecosystem to create shelter and feeding opportunities. Larger predators like the Giant Pacific Octopus hide in small caves and cervices, waiting to strike at passing fish. Chubby harbour seals pass by, coming into focus momentarily before vanishing again. Twirling through the water effortlessly, they acknowledge our presence from a distance. Curious seals pups have been known to sneak up on us through their kelp shelter, darting away at the slightest movement on my part.

If we’re lucky, we might hear the calls of the resident orca pods underwater, reaching out to their family members. Experts of echolocation, these sounds are used to hunt and communicate and may be heard from quite a distance. These orcas are key to our Pacific Northwest ecosystem, being the largest apex predators that hunt these waters. On land, we can hear the signature rush of water as they shoot torrents from their blowholes, creating a fine mist. They are mesmerising. They swim fin to fin, searching for their next meal.

Once we are too cold to bear it any longer, we rise up through the water column. We return to our lives on land, taking with us the lessons of the sea. Tranquillity and gratitude for our experiences beneath the waves follow us throughout our daily lives. Again, and again, the ocean calls for us to return to its waters.

Photography by Hannah Gabrielson