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World of wonders: Victoria astrophysicist pens a guide to cold-water snorkelling

Victoria astrophysicist Sara Ellison has written a guidebook to snorkelling around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

As an astrophysicist at the University of Victoria, Sara Ellison studies the skies.

But she is equally in awe of what lives just a metre or two beneath the surface of nearby marine waters.

The Victoria resident recalls local beach walks before she and her family developed a passion for snorkelling as a missed opportunity. “There was all of this great sea life right beneath our feet and we just didn’t know.”

On her most recent snorkel near Kitty Islet, at the east end of McNeill Bay in Oak Bay, for example, she spotted three sunflower sea stars, among the largest in the world.

“This is a species that is on the critically endangered list and I found three of them in the shallows,” she said. “The more you start to see, the more you want to see.

“The fact that you could go snorkelling with a critically endangered species, that’s pretty special right?”

Ellison is so committed to sharing the joy she finds in snorkelling, she has written a guidebook: Snorkelling Adventures Around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, the Ultimate Guide.

The 214-page guide is filled with her own photos and details recorded in log books. Ellison figures it’s her scientific background that prompted her to keep detailed notes about each snorkelling trip, what she found there and location.

Written in a cheerful tone with humorous comments, the book covers topics such as gear, safety, what to expect at different times of year and marine conditions.

Each of the 51 locations highlighted features a general description, species present, a “critter list,” photos, its accessibility and tips.

The book also includes a species list and index.

Born in Gloucester, England, Ellison credits her grandfather for sparking her fascination with science. Each time she visited, he would leave out books on different subjects.

A stack of science books caught her attention. She studied science at university, initially dreaming of becoming an astronaut.

A thread of adventure, curiosity and perseverance runs through Ellison’s life. Before attending the University of Kent, she hitchhiked around South Africa for four months. Part-way through her studies, she moved to France, where she studied physics in French for a year.

Ellison is a keen traveller and says meeting local people is always the highlight of a trip.

She earned a PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she met husband Jon Willis, also an astronomer at UVic. Their teenager, Osiris, 16, shares the family’s love of snorkelling. Willis and Ellison spent three years working in Chile as astronomers before moving to Victoria two decades ago.

They were drawn to Victoria because of its climate and lifestyle opportunities, and because it’s home to a large number of astronomers.

Along with her love of science, Ellison’s sense of adventure led her to set a goal of visiting the same number of countries as her age. She’s already way ahead, having visited more than 60 by age 49.

Her first snorkelling experience happened during a break from first-year university when she headed to Egypt and went to the Red Sea.

“When I put that mask on and put my face in the water for the first time, I was just flabbergasted. I just couldn’t quite believe that it was all there in front me — all of the colour, all of the life, all of the diversity.

“I was immediately hooked.”

She continued snorkelling but only as a warm-water activity.

But on New Year’s Day about a decade ago, Willis decided to try snorkelling in the crystal-clear water off Saturna Island. He donned his wetsuit and went in, surfacing to say: “There’s lots to see down there,” including sea stars and anemones.

The following summer, Ellison tried cold-water snorkelling for the first time.

She was with friends and they were just about to step into the water when southern resident killer whales belonging to J pod swam by, about 10 metres away. Once the orcas passed, the snorkelers entered the water where there was a rock wall covered in giant anemones.

“That was my ‘aha’ moment in terms of realizing that there’s lot of cold-water critters to see.”

At that time, the wetsuit she wore didn’t keep her warm enough, so she snorkelled in 20-minute snippets.

When the pandemic arrived, it changed everything, Ellison said.

Travelling was out of the question — including a planned snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef. “I had to figure out how I can adventure closer to home.”

She found gear that kept her warmer longer and embarked on a hunt for the best local places to snorkel with the most diversity. To discover prime spots, “I had to kiss a lot of frogs before I found the princes,” she said with a laugh.

One thing she likes about snorkelling is that it doesn’t have a “large overhead.” Scuba divers need much more equipment, along with a certification course.

For snorkelling, it takes just a few minutes to put on a wetsuit and get in the water. She has a two-piece wetsuit with hood which provides a double layer of neoprene over her core to keep her warm in local chilly waters.

“I would say the most important thing is to get a good wetsuit,” she said.

Ellison figures the timing is right to encourage more people to take up snorkelling, especially as cold-water swimming becomes increasingly popular. Whenever she leaves the water at Clover Point, she said, people approach to ask questions.

“When you live on an island, appreciating and valuing the ocean is so vital.”

Eric Keating, owner of Frank White’s Scuba Shop, has seen interest grow in snorkelling locally. “We do have some of the best diving and/or snorkelling in the world in terms of biodiversity.”

For example, the waters around the Ogden Point breakwater are a marine sanctuary where you can find everything from “really, really large ling cod” to a variety of different crab species and kelp forests, Keating said.

“Depending on the year, you might get a herring bait ball and you’re surrounded by thousands of these tiny little fish swimming up to your face.”

Keating estimates gear prices for snorkelers range from about $800 to $1,500.

“We definitely saw an interest in ocean exploration during COVID, when a lot of locals were stuck at home and they had to think about, ‘What can we do? What is available to us?’ ”

Many turned to the ocean, which Keating points out is open 24/7.

You can just jump into the sport, as Ellison did, or take introductory courses covering safety, tides, currents, proper gear and best practices.

Now that Ellison, who has snorkelled everywhere from the Middle East to Belize, Australia, Thailand and Hawaii, has discovered cold-water snorkeling, she tries to go out at least one day on a weekend, depending on the season.

Sometimes she even fits it into her work day. “It’s very easy to snorkel after work because it is light late and we have all these places on our own doorstep,” she said this summer, adding she recently converted some of her graduate students to snorkeling. “They go at 7 a.m. so they can have a snorkel before work.”

Snorkelers have their favourites in the marine life they see — from fish to wolf eels or seaweeds. Along with sea stars, Ellison is particularly interested in the wide diversity of colourful nudibranchs found in local waters. These soft-bodied animals have a dazzling array of colours and shapes.

“I always say to people if you don’t know what a nudibranch is yet, your world is about to changed forever, because these are the most incredible creatures.”

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