Hornby Island, British Columbia, Canada

There’s a sea lion attached to my head, biting down just hard enough to get my undivided attention. Swarmed by a gang of adolescent pinniped delinquents, I feel like the new guy on his first day in prison.

We’re out on our first day diving with Rob and Amanda off Hornby Island, a small speck along the British Columbia idyllic coastline. Sheltered from the Pacific by Vancouver Island, the water is clear and cold, and filled with marine life.

Rob’s dad helped pioneer scuba diving in these waters, and they’ve explored the local waters for 37 years. A local colony of Steller’s Sea Lions calls a nearby set of rocks home for the winter months.After sorting all of our gear, we drag scuba tanks, dry suits and a bewildering assortment of camera gear down to the dock and onto their aluminum 36-foot boat. From there, it’s all of five minutes to the sea lion colony.

My last scuba diving was in Cozumel, which seems a very long way away as I look around at the snow-covered mountains here. I put on heavyweight long underwear and the thickest wool socks I can find. Then another layer of heavy fleece overalls that are more than a little reminiscent of the union suit pajamas from the 50’s, only without the bunny slippers.

After that comes a dry suit of heavy coated nylon and latex, sort of like a radiation suit but not as flattering. I strap on my scuba tank and another 30 pounds of lead for good measure, slip on my fins and goggles and shuffle across the deck and splash into the water with an audible gasp.

Feigning indifference to the mother of all ice cream headaches, I dive headfirst 30 feet down to the bottom and look around. Shadows appear at the edge of vision, and a swarm of sea lions appears, slowly approaching. They circle our small group at a wary distance, the boldest rushing past as if on a dare. Sensing that we’re (I) harmless and (II) slow, clumsy, and defenseless, we seem to provide some entertainment value. They rush in closer to see if maybe we’re edible. too.

For the next hour, they tug and nip at fins, hands, cameras and heads. Several admire their reflection in my underwater camera’s glass dome before trying to swallow that, too. They move through the water with astonishing grace and speed, and as I do my feeble little doggy paddle back to the boat, I’m more than a little jealous.

Photographed January 14, 2009 with a Canon EOS-1Ds II camera and16-35mm f/2.8 lens using a Seacam underwater housing. Exposure 1/100 second at f/9.

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