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.
B.C. corals could win some protection through planning for the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, a DFO region that takes in the Queen Charlotte Basin, or as part of a Marine Protected Area under the federal Oceans Act.
Such areas are popping up around the globe as means of protecting ocean life, birds and marine mammals. Canada has seven. The newest is the Bowie Seamount, an underwater mountain about 200 kilometres west of the Queen Charlotte Islands that was designated last year and that's crawling with crabs and starfish and supports dozens of species of fish as well as birds and marine mammals.
But it can take years to hammer out agreements for new protected areas, or for management schemes that balance environmental, commercial and aboriginal interests.
Market forces could work in corals' favour. Major retail chains in Canada, the United States and the European Union are launching sustainable seafood purchasing programs or demanding certification from their suppliers. Certification typically requires evidence of a healthy ecosystem, including non-target species such as deep-sea corals. Canadian fisheries are scrambling to comply.
Ask the scientists on board Cape Flattery what it would take to get a complete picture of deep-sea corals along the Pacific Coast, and they start throwing out numbers: $50-million or $60-million. Weeks, if not months, on the water. And more subs, definitely more subs.
A day after Mr. Workman's dive, the ship pulls into Prince Rupert, allowing journalists to disembark and crew members to rush ashore for cigarettes and souvenirs before heading out to Dixon Entrance for more dives. Cape Flattery, at 186 feet and with three subs on its back deck, takes up nearly the entire length of the dock and draws a crowd, including a camera-toting tourist whose pockets are jammed with brochures touting local attractions.
"You folks looking for whales?" he asks, shouting down from the wharf.
Nope, someone responds. Coral. Deep-sea coral.
The tourist caps his camera, looks bemused. He didn't know we had that here.
The Finding Coral subs were made by North Vancouver-based Nuytco Research Ltd., and included two solo Deep Workers and the Aquarius, a larger sub that can accommodate three people, including a pilot. Expedition members had training sessions in Burrard Inlet before the trip.
Pilots use thrusters to direct the subs, which are battery-powered. Inside the Aquarius, the sound of the thrusters was reminiscent of that of an electric sewing machine.
Trip scientists, most of whom were seasoned scuba divers, said the subs were straightforward to operate and provided a direct, thrilling window to deep-sea life without worries over decompression. The typical diving uniform was jeans, sweaters and stocking feet.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada used to have a manned submersible for research. Between 1973 and 1986, the Pisces IV logged hundreds of research trips in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. As part of budget cuts, the Pisces IV was replaced with a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV.
Since 1995, the ROV - dubbed ROPOS, the remotely operated platform for ocean sciences - has been run by the Canadian Scientific Submersible Society, a non-profit group that maintains the system and contracts it out to universities and government agencies.
Last year, a ROPOS expedition collected data on deep-sea corals and glass sponge reefs off the B.C. coast.
ROV fans say the systems provide superior data collection (because ROVs can work longer hours at greater depths), can be launched in rougher weather, and do not pose the safety concerns associated with manned submersibles.
MARINE BIOLOGY 101
A deep-sea coral is a colony of tiny animals, called polyps. Related to sea anemones and jellyfish, polyps are equipped with tentacles that grab nutrients from ocean water.
Unlike tropical corals - which grow in shallow, warm water and get most of their energy from the sun - deep-sea corals live in the cold depths and capture nutrients from the water that surrounds them. They serve as habitat for fish and other marine life.
Partly because of improved technology that has allowed researchers to study the creatures, deep-sea corals have been getting more research interest in recent years. In 2004, the UN Environment Programme highlighted deep-sea corals as a global conservation challenge, saying the creatures were more widespread than previously thought and thrive in waters off the coasts of more than 40 countries, including Spain and Suriname.
Deep-sea corals grow at about one-tenth the rate of tropical corals.
Sources: United Nations Environment Programme, Living Oceans Society