The Pacific Northwest’s Underwater Wilderness

The rich and murky undersea world off the Pacific Northwest inspires a photographer to endure freezing waters to shoot dazzling creatures.

Dressed in a dry suit, boots, thick gloves, and a 50-pound lead vest to keep him from bobbing to the surface like a cork, David Hall rolled into 45-degree waters off the coast of British Columbia in 1995, embarking on a project to photograph the marine life that thrives in this frigid ecosystem. Over the next 15 years he would take the plunge hundreds of times, each dive an opportunity to capture images of another species.

“No one had tried to photograph them artfully before, and that was my goal,” says Hall, an award-winning underwater photographer whose images comprise Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.

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Drawn to the challenge of taking pictures in cold water, which is murkier and darker than warm water because of its high concentration of green algae, Hall wanted to be one of the first to catalogue the numerous fish, mammals, and plants living in a vast expanse of ocean ranging from Northern California to Alaska.

“He combines the inquiring and exacting eye of a scientist with the soul and vision of an artist to produce uniquely beautiful underwater images that educate as much as they inspire,” Christopher Newbert, a renowned underwater photographer, writes in the book’s foreword.

Tentacled moon jellyfish, transparent candy stripe shrimp, and a Pacific octopus, the largest in the world, with a 16-foot arm span, appear in this book, illuminating a world that few people will ever see for themselves. Hall also witnessed the largest run of sockeye salmon—a dwindling species that’s emblematic of the Pacific Northwest—in a century, possibly due to an injection of nutrients into the ocean from a volcanic eruption. Although sockeyes spend most of their lives in the ocean, they swim up freshwater streams to lay their eggs. The different environment triggers a shift in their metabolism, and causes their skin to change from silver to vibrant red and green. Standing waist-deep in a stream, Hall took shot after shot of the spawning fish while they swam around his legs.

Some of hall’s shots include both land and water, giving his subjects and their environment context. “It is beautiful up there, both above water and below,” he says. His subjects are thus surrounded by evergreens, often silhouetted in the distance. “That’s one of the things that I wanted to do: Give people a sense of how the land and sea are connected,” he says.

Hall’s work also makes a case for conservation. About 99 percent of underwater photography is taken in warm waters, he estimates, where colorful corals and fish flourish, so viewers aren’t as connected to their colder counterparts.

“People protect what they know and value, and wildlife photography has a very important role in that,” says Hall. “I think that people don’t realize the value of what’s out there in cold water and how these ecosystems are just as fragile as any.”