Of Sea Slugs & Serenity

Snorkelling isn’t just for tropical destinations. There’s a colourful world teeming with life just beneath Vancouver Island’s waters and winter is the best time to discover it — along with a sense
of inner peace.

Of sea slugs and serenity - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
Colourful anemones and other local underwater denizens discovered by Ellison on her snorkelling adventures. Photo By: Sara Ellison.

By Melissa Gignac

Growing up on Vancouver Island, I was never far from the ocean. My childhood playgrounds were the shores of Sidney. First, the barnacled outcrops down a little pathway aptly named Memory Lane at the end of Shoreacres Road, and later the rocky ridges and pebbled swath framing the flip-flop-stealing muck of Roberts Bay. I spent countless hours exploring the tide pools, exhilarated by the darting sculpins, clusters of anemones that turned themselves into squishy belly buttons at the slightest touch, and shore crabs waving their pincers like tiny, angry fists. 

Though I grew up well aware of the wonders contained in the teeming tide pools, it is only recently that I began to understand, and explore, the rich world of sea life animating Vancouver Island’s intertidal zone.

It was a chance encounter at Telegraph Bay that sparked my interest. Returning to the bay on my paddleboard, I noticed a wetsuited figure bobbing at the surface, a snorkel breaching the surface like a tiny periscope. As I finished lashing my board to the roof racks on my car, I glanced up to see a woman emerging from the water, cameras in hand. Intrigued, I approached to ask what she was doing. 

The snorkeller was Karolle Wall. She explained that she was photographing nudibranchs  — sea slugs. “OK,” I thought, “that’s … weird.” 

Upon returning home I Googled Wall’s website, and was stunned by her incredible photos of these flamboyant, alien-like creatures. To my mind, they are the drag queens of the ocean, and it turns out they have something of a cult following. There’s even a blog, Bowiebranchia, that compares species of nudibranchs to David Bowie’s ostentatious outfits. It is surprisingly, and comically, accurate.

Of sea slugs and serenity - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
Through snorkelling, writer Melissa Gignac has discovered a brilliant world beneath the waves. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

How had I lived most of my life on the Island, yet had no idea that these spunky slugs existed? What other underwater denizens lurked beyond the lapping waves? And how could it have never occurred to me that their world could be explored without the expense and equipment of scuba diving?

What Lurks Beneath

I mentioned my encounter with Wall, and my newfound interest in snorkelling, to my colleague Tara Abraham. Somehow always in the know, Tara asked if I’d seen University of Victoria physics and astronomy professor Sara Ellison’s new book? Seemed a little off-topic, but Tara went on to explain that Ellison had literally written the book on local snorkelling. 

Ellison’s engaging guide, Snorkelling Adventures Around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands (Harbour Publishing), was soon in my hands, and down the underwater rabbit hole I went. Exploring the pages of Ellison’s book, I was delighted to learn of the diversity of creatures and abundance of locations to explore within a short drive of home. My interest was cemented at a talk Ellison gave a few weeks later, her enthusiasm evident as she walked us through her snorkelling journey. I was all in.

Shortly after, armed with Ellison’s book, I headed to Ogden Point with Tara, anticipating the delight of re-engaging with my childhood sense of wonder at what lurks beneath. What I didn’t expect to find was a deep, profound sense of peace.

Our trip did not have a fortuitous start. From above, tourists ogled while I struggled into my unchristened surfing wetsuit on the exposed lower level. Rifling through the pile of black neoprene in my rubber bin I realized that I’d forgotten one of my boots. No matter, I could brave icy ankles. Minutes later I was cursing my oversight as barnacles nipped into the exposed skin of my tender arches. Slipping into the water I snagged my suit and my mask clouded with fog. My ankles and face reddened and numbed with cold as, fighting frustration, I followed Tara’s fins. 

But within minutes vexation turned to glee as I heard Tara excitedly holler “Melissa! A sea slug!” Nestled next to a spiky sea urchin was a textured white blob, later identified by Ellison as a yellow margin dorid. Not one of nature’s spicier nudis, but delightful nonetheless. Later, bobbing through the chiaroscuro light penetrating the thick forest of kelp, I realized this was the first time in ages I’d felt at peace in my body. As an interloper in intertidal waters I was weightless, focused solely on the lively pops of colour adorning the rockscape beneath me. My corporeal awareness reduced to the rhythm of my breath rising and falling through my snorkel. 

Of sea slugs and serenity - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
A nudibranch (sea slug) captured by UVic professor Sara Ellison.

For someone embattled with depression and anxiety, and a perniciously adversarial relationship with my body, it was a revelation.

A Less Harried World

In the months that followed, I connected with snorkel enthusiasts and continued to explore our shores. I met former scuba divers who had turned to snorkelling after blowing eardrums on dives, and people with health and mobility issues who embraced the accessibility of easing into the waves with minimal equipment. People who, like me, craved the tranquility of slipping into a less hurried, less harried, world. 

At Saxe Point, the clip securing my snorkel to my mask snapped, so I flipped skyward and watched as a wake of vultures dipped in and out of view, ravaging the bloated corpse of a seal. In East Sooke’s Iron Mine Bay, I delighted in the Seussian billows of feather duster tube worms undulating with the waves, bobbed leisurely alongside a fried egg jellyfish, and marvelled at a translucent hooded nudibranch appearing apparition-like in the shallows. 

For my birthday at the end of September, I planned a triple-header with friends. Joined by Michelle Zhou, Tara and I explored the rusted hulls of Royston’s breakwater of decommissioned ships until the setting sun forced us back to shore. The next day we marvelled at the thickets of stout white anemones encasing the pilings of Campbell River’s Argonaut Wharf and observed legions of gangly kelp crabs clinging to the swaying bull kelp. Emerging from the cold, we threw towels on my car seats and, still in our wetsuits, relocated to the river to snorkel with the salmon returning upstream to spawn. 

Of sea slugs and serenity - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
Hermissenda Crassicornis, also known as a Horned Nudibranch. Photo By: Karolle Wall.

I could have stayed indefinitely, heavier and less buoyant in the cool river water than I was accustomed to in the ocean, so mesmerized was I by the thousands of salmon flashing silver, fighting the current to continue their lineage before succumbing to the effort like their compatriots already decaying at the surface.

Just like Meditation

As I write this, I’m on Costa Rica’s west coast, my first time in a tropical climate and snorkelling in bath-warm water. Perhaps I went in with expectations too high that I’d be rubbing fins with a crayon box of little Nemos, but I’ve been underwhelmed. Chunks of white bleached coral, a few schools of Pacific sergeant majors and the odd angelfish are all I’ve seen through the sediment clouds delivered daily by wet season rains. 

I’m here at the wrong time, and as my trip comes to a close I’m itching to get back to fauna-rich home waters. 

Of sea slugs and serenity - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
A Red-Eyed Medusa jellyfish hangs out in local waters. Photo By: Sara Ellison.

Winter is prime snorkelling time around the Island. Colder waters are less encumbered by the abundant vegetation that obscures intertidal critters in the warmer months. Winter waters will mean either shorter spells submerged, or an upgrade from my 5/4mm surf wetsuit to a two-piece 7mm freediving suit. East 2 West Freediving owner Frederic Lapierre assures me that, with the right suit, “You can spend an hour or two in freezing water ― freezing plus one degree.” It’s a challenge I look forward to taking on as I plan trips further up Island, hopefully eventually to revel in Ellison’s beloved basket stars, and delve into the depths of freediving. 

But even dips that don’t divulge new (to me) species are a gift ― one of calm, and a sense of harmony with the ocean that encircles us. Lapierre’s partner, Laurie Feist, perfectly sums it up. 

“When you’re lying in the water, it’s just like meditation,” she says. “And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how deep you dive or how long you hold your breath, as long as you’re in the water and you’re having a good time. That’s all that matters.” I heartily concur.

Gearing Up and Getting Out

Gear > You don’t need specialized gear to dip your toes into snorkelling. If you have a 5/4mm surf wetsuit and a generic snorkel, mask and fin set you can get in the water for a short spell. 

Of sea slugs and serenity - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
Old shipwrecks make for fascinating snorkelling destinations. Photo By: Melissa Gignac.

“When people get hooked and they want to be in the water for longer, that’s when they start getting more specialized gear,” says Frederic Lapierre, owner of East 2 West Freediving. But when you’re starting out, he notes, “If you’re in the water you’re winning.” 

When you do get hooked (and I suspect you will) it’s well worth investing the time shopping for gear in person rather than ordering it online. With masks and wetsuits, fit is essential, and as the open cell suits preferred for snorkelling and freediving require lube to get into, slipping into the wrong-sized suit can be an expensive error. That’s why East 2 West has sample suits for shoppers to try — it ensures customers are able to buy once, and buy right.

Community > I’ve found the local snorkelling community to be incredibly generous with their time, advice and encouragement. Facebook groups such as Snorkellers of BC and Vancouver Island Women Underwater are excellent sources of information, and, importantly, snorkel buddies. 

Remember: The ocean is always in charge, so snorkel with a friend, or at least a shore spotter.