Snorkelling Adventures Around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands

Clad in a form fitting suit of neoprene complete with mask and fins, Sara takes several deep breaths and slips quietly into the cold British Columbia waters. Camera in hand, Sara spots a Green Anemone, pauses a moment and quickly takes a photo or two. Lungs gasping for air, Sara breaks through the waves and breathes deeply. Another photo.

Sara Ellison is a University of Victoria Professor of Astrophysics whose day job is to look at the stars and whose hobby is to look at sea stars.

As it did for many of us, COVID turned things upside down for Sara. Scheduled to go to the Great Barrier Reef, COVID meant limiting her travels to the Salish Sea for water sports. She has had a lifelong passion for snorkeling in warm tropical waters but her plans had to be put on hold. Her husband’s prodding, however, led Sara to decide to see what was in the waters near home. Like many local divers, she discovered a plethora of underwater life. Sara continues to be amazed by the amount and complexity of life to be found in our local waters. In every photograph, she says, there is the main subject but on closer examination one sees more and more small and yet smaller creatures.

I recently attended a presentation by Sara on the launch of her book Snorkelling Adventures Around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Sara described some of her favourite snorkeling spots and showed photos of some of her favourite underwater friends.

Sara has a simple and effective photographic technique. She uses an Olympus TG-6 camera—a favourite of many underwater photographers, kayakers, and outdoor people who might be a bit rough (or wet) on their cameras. Because of the limited amount of time each breath makes available when one is underwater, a simple ‘point and shoot’ method is necessary. The camera is set on underwater in either the wide setting for scenic shots, or microscope for close-ups. Flash is not used because of the amount of backscatter caused by particles in the water. Using lights means carrying extra bulk in the water and that doesn’t always work well for snorkelers. 

Within the limited amount of time each breath allows, Sara finds her subject, frames it as well as possible, finds a way to stabilize herself and the camera, and works fast. Sometimes it takes several attempts—if she can find the same object again!

Editing again is simple:  Sara uses iphoto, mostly, for cropping and to get a good white point. Sara’s simplified technique has produced some commendable photos that illustrate her book and her Facebook page.

Later, when I sat down to talk to Sara, I asked about the process of getting published. Again, she offered a simple answer. Find a unique topic, then make it time relevant and local. And, of course, make the book worth reading. Sara approached several local publishers describing her planned book. COVID made the whole project easier because a lot of people were wondering what to do while travel was limited. Local activity, easily accomplished, well described, and not previously published are easy selling points to a local publisher. Of course, we live on the edge of one of the best ocean areas to explore and nobody had written a book on how a person in a wet suit with a camera can take good photos.

In her book, Sara identifies a number of her favourite spots for snorkeling, offering a good description of what you might find there. Further details explain how best to outfit yourself for extended times in the water, how to swim safely, and when not to swim. All is rounded out with good directions about how to get to various sites and what might be seen with colourful, clear photos. Recommended local spots to start snorkelling: Iron Mine Bay, Aylard Farm, and Clover Point.

Snorkelling Adventures Around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands is available at Monroe’s, Russell’s, Ivy’s, and Amazon. The book and snorkeling equipment can be bought at East to West Freediving on Fisgard St.

Sara will be giving a presentation about her book and her snorkelling at UVIC Nov. 27 2023 7:30pm, UVic campus, Elliott 162


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