About 60 metres below the surface of Juan Perez Sound in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, Jennifer Lash steers a one-person submersible next to a cloud sponge the size and colour of a sheep.
The puffy creature gives off an otherworldly glow in the sub's high-powered lights. A few metres away, a Nuytco Research Ltd. pilot nudges a larger sub closer to Ms. Lash, giving two journalists jammed inside his craft a fish-eye's view of Ms. Lash in her machine.
Obligingly, Ms. Lash backs up to the sponge and hovers, radioing apologies when she nicks the ocean floor and kicks up a cloud of silt.
She wants the images from this dive, and others from the expedition that it's part of, to go crystal-clear around the world. For the past two years, Ms. Lash, executive director the B.C.-based Living Oceans Society, and a handful of staff have raised money, wooed scientists and lobbied government agencies in pursuit of this goal: a two-week expedition that will allow researchers to dive as deep as 650 metres below the ocean's surface in manned submersibles to hunt for deep-sea corals - colonies of tiny animals that draw their sustenance from the sea.
It's hoped data from the expedition will help shape policies in B.C., which has yet to set aside coral conservation areas, and where the creatures are best known as by-catch in trawlers' nets.
"We don't know a lot about corals, because we've never had the technology that allowed us to go looking for them," Ms. Lash says later aboard the Cape Flattery, a former U.S. Navy vessel that's plied the offshore oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico and, for this job, has come to Haida Gwaii. "That's really why we're here."
THE SEA'S WONDERS
To some degree, deep-sea corals are wallflowers, overshadowed in the public's mind by showy tropical varieties that form reefs in warm, shallow waters in such places as Australia and Belize.
But on a calm Wednesday in June, as the Cape Flattery draws slow circles on a glassy Juan Perez Sound, British Columbia's deep-sea corals are the stars of the show.
Fisheries and Oceans scientist Greg Workman, piloting a solo sub in an area pegged as a promising spot because of currents and terrain, comes to an unexpected stop on top of a rock. After descending first through clouds of jellyfish, then swarms of herring feasting on krill, Mr. Workman has had moments on this dive when he couldn't see more than a blur. So he takes a minute to register what he is seeing, about 300 meters down, where the milky green of near-surface waters has given way to inky black.
When he radios topside, his voice is jubilant.
"We have primnoa. We have red tree coral."
For the next couple of hours, Mr. Workman and his diving partner "fly" their Deep Worker subs up and down a coral-studded rock wall, shooting video for later analysis.
The researchers have found a coral grove, where some orangey-red corals stand more than a metre tall and two metres across.
Mr. Workman collects samples, using the sub's mechanical arm to pluck specimens and tuck them into the vehicle's wire-mesh collection basket.
The primnoa he spotted is a gorgonian coral, a deep-sea variety that grows in branch-like patterns that form underwater forests, creating ideal habitat for rockfish, starfish and other creatures, including an octopus that quickly undulates out of sight of the sub's camera.
Gorgonian corals are slow-growing; some of the ones spotted on this dive might have been decades or even hundreds of years old. Because they exist on a mountainous seafloor not suitable for fishing fleets, these corals are beautifully intact.
In that, they're lucky.
THE SEA'S PERILS
Worldwide, corals are at risk from a slew of factors, including pollution, bottom trawling - in which nets are towed along the ocean floor - and a process called acidification. the result of oceans soaking up increasing amounts of carbon dioxide.
In B.C., deep-sea corals are threatened by bottom trawling and other fishing methods, such as bottom long-line fishing used to catch such species as halibut. Because coral provides habitat for other species, including those that support B.C.'s trawling fleet, widespread damage to the creatures could have broad and long-lasting ripple effects.
Living Oceans has been lobbying for protective measures for deep-sea corals since 2004, when it used data from fishing fleets to map locations where corals were coming up as by-catch. The next year, the group draped a trawl net on Parliament Hill to highlight the issue.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, meanwhile, has been working on a Pacific coral and sponge strategy for several years and expects to finalize it in 2009. But the agency says it doesn't yet know enough about corals to set aside areas to protect them. In the interim, some corals have at least some protection because they're located in rocky areas that fishing fleets avoid for fear of ruining their gear.