David Hall Beneath Cold Seas

David Hall Beneath Cold Seas

David Hall’s first dive in the cold waters off British Columbia, Canada, was in 1995. This was the start of what he describes in his book Beneath Cold Seas as a love affair with the Pacific North West.


Book published in 4 countries

In the book, now published in 4 countries (USA, Canada, UK and Germany) and featuring David’s spectacular images and informative text, he explores the amazing variety of marine life of the region, which extends south to California and north to Alaska.

We have created a new Beneath Cold Seas gallery which contains many more of David’s images from the book. And we asked David in the Q&A below to tell us more about the project and his remarkable images…



Diverse and endemic invertebrate life

The cold seas of Canada’s Pacific coast are especially rich in invertebrate life, much of it endemic to the region. Sea stars, jellyfish, anemones, nudibranchs, crabs and chitons are particularly numerous and diverse.

David tells us about the first 3 images from the gallery above

  1. Moon Jelly and Cross Jellies in Browning Pass. “I felt that for a book I needed high quality images that would give the reader a sense of place.  Accomplishing this with underwater photography in an environment with limited visibility proved difficult, if not impossible.  I eventually decided to rely upon “split-level” imaging to accomplish my goal, and devised a method of doing this in deep water where I could not stand.  It required taking many images without looking through the viewfinder, in order to obtain a few usable ones.  This particular image was made in Browning Pass, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, a place which proved especially productive for my work.”
  2. Hooded Nudibranch clinging to Bull Kelp. “Hooded nudibranchs are shell-less snails, molluscs with an expansile “oral hood” that look superficially like jellyfish.  They are among my favorite subjects for close-up photography, but are even more impressive when viewing dozens or hundreds of them at one time, slowly opening and closing rhythmically, like a silent symphony orchestra.  Once again, a good underwater, scenic image of this was difficult to pull off, but I kept trying; I like this one, which has an almost unreal, fairy tale quality”
  3. Purple and Ochre Sea Stars. “I have seen many tide pool photographs taken from above, through the water’s surface.  This image is an attempt to do the opposite: to photograph the animals in a tide pool from below, looking up through the surface, where trees can be seen in the upper right corner of the image.”

The story behind this remarkable body of work

Q: What makes the waters of the Pacific North West so special and so inspirational for your photography?

A: “Nearly all of my early diving  was on tropical coral reefs.  It was not until I first acquired a drysuit in 1994, that I was able to take on the more challenging conditions existing in cold, temperate waters.  After my first dive trip to British Columbia in 1995, I fell in love – with the people, the land and the amazing marine life – said to be the most diverse of any temperate sea. After that, I made more than a dozen trips over the next 20 years, which enabled me to acquire sufficient images for a book, and Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest was the result.!”

Q: What are the challenges of diving and photographing in these cold waters?

A: “Both the diving and the photography were often challenging.  Most dives were possible only at slack tide, which was typically brief, requiring careful planning.  The need to use a lot of insulation under my drysuit meant wearing as much as 20 kg of lead weight to sink below the surface.  Heavily insulated, dry gloves made manipulation of camera controls difficult at times.  The green water was filled with microscopic algae as well as  larger particles which at times limited underwater visibility to less than one metre.  In spite of the difficulty, I became all the more determined to do justice to what existed below the surface, but was unseen by most people.”

Abundant food for marine mammals

Unsurprisingly, the abundant fish and invertebrates of the British Columbia coast provide rich pickings for a variety of marine mammals, including the endangered Steller sea lion.

The interesting experience of capturing the 2 images above!

  1. Steller Sea Lions. “These are the largest of the sea lions; males may exceed one ton in weight.  I was diving alone at Hornby Island in winter, when I was completely surrounded by this group of twenty or more.  At first they were only curious, but soon became increasingly aggressive, pulling and pushing me around like a rag doll, and eventually forcing me to surface and leave the water.  Before surfacing, I hastily made several exposures with my camera; this one is my favourite.”
  2. Harbor Seal near the wreck of the Themis. “This day I had come with some friends to photograph the wolf eels that make their homes within this century-old shipwreck.   After a while,  I looked up toward the surface, and noticed a shy harbor seal, watching me through the kelp canopy.  From time to time the seal approached, eventually coming close enough for this portrait.  It is interesting that marine mammals often react to humans very differently from their terrestrial cousins.  On land, where our ancestors have walked for millions of years, wild animals tend to see us as either predators or prey.  But human divers have begun visiting the underwater world only recently, and marine mammals often seem to react to us with curiosity, and occasionally, even seem to offer friendship.”

Home to a spectacular array of fish species

This underwater wilderness and its luxuriant kelp forests are also home to some spectacular fish species.

We asked David what made the first 3 images above special for him

  1. Spotted Ratfish “This fish is a chimaera, a cartilaginous fish distantly related to sharks and rays.  Most chimaeras live in water too deep for scuba diving, but in its northern range, and usually at night, this species may be encountered and photographed by divers.”
  2. Split level image of Sockeye Salmon. “I took this shot in 2010, during the  largest “run” of sockeye in a century.  My aim was to get a split image while standing waist-deep in the river, with the sockeye swimming straight toward me, but was unable to do this during daylight hours, because the fish would not come close enough.  Eventually I was able to get the image I wanted after sunset, when the fish seemed unable to detect my presence.”
  3. Decorated Warbonnets.   “These fish usually occur in deep water, 20-40 metres below the surface, where the light levels are low and safe bottom time is limited.  When I found this cooperative individual after several years of unsuccessful searching, I was only able to take three photographs before a large octopus scared it away.  More bad luck I thought, but when I download the images that night, I discovered that I had photographed not one warbonnet, but two!   A very small male had apparently been hiding under his mate, whose swollen abdomen was presumably filled with eggs.”

The Pacific North West rivals tropical coral reefs in colour

The Pacific North West can even rival the coral reefs of tropical seas in its spectacularly colourful creatures.

The rewards of photographing the marine creatures of the Pacific Northwest, and the threats facing them

Q: Which of the many extraordinary marine creatures that live in this region did you find most rewarding to photograph, and why?

A: “This is a difficult question for me to answer!  But I think that the most rewarding images were the ones most difficult to capture.  It took me years to get good photographs of Steller sea lions and harbour seals.  I needed to be in the right place at the right time –  and with the right lens on my camera.”

“The image of a giant Pacific Octopus in open water was sheer luck.  I took a single flash photograph, and the octopus released its hold on a rock wall and swam straight out toward me.  The flash may have startled and confused it, or perhaps it was just curious.  Not wanting this large, powerful animal to grab onto me, I furiously backed away while quickly grabbing two images without looking through the viewfinder.  When the film was developed, I was amazed to see that both images were in perfect focus and  well-composed!”

Q: Is this underwater wilderness threatened? – and if so what are the main threats it faces?

A: “The temperate marine life of the Pacific Northwest is not yet as endangered as are coral reefs, which have already suffered severe damage in many places.  Still, oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, are a serious threat.  Overfishing of species such as rockfishes, salmon and herring, and overharvesting of some crabs, shrimp and abalone are another.  Salmon stocks are also endangered by the damming of streams and rivers, as well as by the loss of genetic diversity caused by commercial fish farming.  As in many other places, population growth and coastal development, logging, pollution, and climate change are also increasingly significant factors.”

Explore the book gallery

If you’d like to take a deeper virtual dive into the waters of the Pacific Northwest, here is another link to our new gallery of book images, with more than 140 to marvel at.

You can also enjoy David’s video presentation of the book images, with soothing musical accompaniment…