Freediving is a recent endeavour I’ve gotten into here on the BC Coast. Kayaking is a great way to explore the ocean, but I realized that travelling over the surface of the big salt chuck is really only half of exploring the marine environment.

There’s a whole new world underwater, and the simplest way to access it is through the sport of freediving. With a seven-millimetre wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins and a weight belt, you have the keys to a sublime new world of adventure. Combined with my kayak, I can reach hard-to-get-to spots and literally merge with the sea. Once in, you never know exactly what you’re going to find. True adventure requires an element of mystery, and exploring new areas underwater provides exactly that. In addition, it opens another avenue of subsistence harvesting, including handpicking crabs and spearfishing.

I keep my kayak at a friend’s place who lives on the waterfront. I headed down one afternoon, loaded up the free dive gear, and set off to explore the waters around a couple of islands within a marine provincial park up the local fjord. It was December, sunny with no wind, and the temperature a few degrees above freezing, so perfect free dive weather on the coast. In the summer, the water is murkier with natural algae blooms spurred on by warmer waters, so visibility in the winter months is superior.

Friendly SealsFrank Wolf

After a 40-minute paddle, I pulled onto a pebble beach and donned my gear. One hot tip if you get into freediving is to get a product called SLIPPY. It’s a powder you mix with water and then apply with a spray bottle, which allows you to slip easily into your neoprene skin. Without it, it would be impossible for me to get a properly fit suit on. Your suit should be completely skintight, with no gaps. I have an Epsealon Labrax 7mm spearfishing suit that keeps me warm and toasty in cold winter waters for as long as I want to stay in. With the smooth skin cuffs of my suit, I’m fully sealed so water doesn’t penetrate my core.

I dropped in off the shore on a planned circumnavigation of the two islands to see what I could see.  Moon jellies floated all around me like asteroids as I glided between them over a rocky bottom coated in clusters of ochre sea stars interspersed with leather sea stars and the occasional Giant Pink Star. Dungeness crab hunkered in cracks and sandy openings. I stopped to inspect a gargantuan two-foot long, White-plumed Anemone anchored in the depths, looking like a giant cauliflower growing out of the rock.

Curling around the east side of the first island, a large grey flash caught my eye. I peered around but couldn’t pick it up again. Curious.

curious animal saying hiFrank Wolf

I carried on, completing my circuit around the first island at a broad white midden that connects the two islands at low tide. The tide was high, and the midden was covered in ten feet of water at the time, so it was a great level to explore it. Looking much like a sand beach, middens are mostly comprised of crushed seashells, accumulated over time. Indigenous people used to harvest and shuck clams and oysters in areas like this for centuries. It leant an almost tropical quality to the waters as the sun shimmered over the alabaster bottom in waves of refracted light.

Suddenly, the dark form of an adult Harbour Seal sailed by torpedo-like, eyeing me with curiosity. Below, the grey, black-speckled figure of her pup also passed by, twirling playfully along the bottom. I roamed around with them for a time as they slowly but surely came closer. I probably resembled a seal to them, though perhaps the clumsiest and slowest of their kind they’d ever seen. I continued around the west side of the larger of the two islands, where granite walls seemed to drop off eternally into the depths. Caves and overhangs interspersed these walls and schools of rock cod were plentiful. The mother and pup decided to accompany me, eventually joined by two other adults. I played hide and seek with the pup as it hid in the caves and cracks.

playing hide and seek with a sealFrank Wolf

Without the weight belt, you’d never be able to descend to depth because the suit is so buoyant. The ballpark for weight on the belt with a seven-millimetre wetsuit is 10 per cent of your body weight. You can float comfortably with no effort on the surface with this ballast but can kick down easily. Once you get to about 30 feet down, the water pressure compresses the suit so that you’re neutrally buoyant, not being pulled up or sinking further. Once in this zone you truly achieve a state of flight, moving effortlessly in a line.

I soared along the wall in this state of weightlessness, flying in formation with my seal armada. I looked out to the emerald depths to my left and recalled a previous June when a pod of Orcas swept through this area on a seal hunting mission. I wasn’t far from this very spot when a large male, a female and a juvenile threshed below my kayak and then rose only feet from my bow, the six-foot dorsal of the bull cutting away like an inverted keel with the other two in tow. I looked down at where they’d been and a blob of white floated up toward me from the depths. It bobbed to the surface, and I picked up the pie-sized hunk of blubber that belonged to the seal they’d just eaten. It was sobering to think this torn bit of fat was part of a living, breathing entity only moments before.

In my kayak, I felt separate somehow from the food chain, unafraid of these apex predators. Now, underwater grouped together with their favourite prey, I felt quite differently about it. I was in awe of the possibility of seeing an Orca underwater. Would it distinguish me from a seal? Or would I merely be a collateral food item as it threshed through the menu? It was December though, and not June, so I felt quite safe with my new seal friends. They certainly didn’t seem panicked anyhow.

fun with seals under the waterFrank Wolf

By the time I rounded the north tip of the big island, I had six seals in tow, giving me a guided tour of their playground. I’d be observing a couple of them playing then feel a bump on my fins. I’d turn around and the pup or one of the adults would be right there, teasing me into a chase, as if to emphasize their superiority in the water. I’d follow them down, 30, then 40 feet before feeling the tug of oxygen that made me turn skyward for another breath. It was a dream world under there. With so much life and action and having the ability to move with these creatures in their environment, I really felt I’d entered some sort of alternate reality.

The seals continued to follow me closely, right up until I exited back at my kayak after an hour and a half in the water. I sat on the beach and six black, shiny heads with puppy eyes stared at me from the water, perhaps wondering why I’d gotten out.

“I’m done guys—thanks for the tour.” I said with a wave.

The sun dipped to the horizon and the heads slowly sank away, one at a time. I slipped out of my suit and into dry clothes, sipping hot tea in the afterglow of a new kinship found in the ocean’s embrace.