When you think of the aquatic animals that typify the Pacific Northwest, you think of orcas, salmon, and harbor seals. They're our unofficial mascots. And rightfully so! Orcas project mystical emotional complexity, salmon seem to possess great intuition, and harbor seals are the dog ballerinas of the sea.
Local diver and photographer Drew Collins loves those animals just as much as anyone else, but he says there are all kinds of other fascinating creatures swimming around Puget Sound—ones more indicative of the kind of life that flourishes in our especially cold, greenish, murky, and generally inhospitable waters.
The giant Pacific octopus, the wolf eel, and the Pacific spiny lumpsucker are three of Collins's favorites. In his first book of photography, Puget Sound Underwater, he champions these and other unjustly unacknowledged critters.
He's partial to the giant Pacific octopus. They grow from the size of a rice grain to more than 12 feet across in only 18 months. When they're not sleeping in their den, they're hoovering Dungeness crabs at twilight.
I have a lot of favorite photos in Collins's book—an egg-yolk jelly crawling with little crabs, a Puget Sound king crab looking like an armored peony—but my favorite depicts a baby octopus floating in a bath of amber light. The baby is almost completely transparent, as if formed from the water itself. A few orange spots define its tiny tentacles. The one big eye I can see in the photo looks hopeful, even though I know it will grow up to be a hopeless crab-eating wizard of the sea.
Collins says he shot that photo at Three Tree Point in Burien. He was 65 feet underwater taking shots of a mama octopus who died on Christmas Day. He guesses about a third of her eggs didn't hatch. But of the approximately 100,000 eggs she laid, two or three hatchlings will make it to full maturity, he says, which is still enough for the species to repopulate and maintain its large numbers.
Collins dives 100 to 200 times a year locally, and about 98 percent of the time he sees at least one octopus. "I jokingly tell people you can't swing a wolf eel in Puget Sound without hitting an octopus," he says.
Even though wolf eels are seven-foot-long, horror-faced, urchin-munching machines with massive teeth, Collins says they're incredibly friendly. "They have very itchy skin, so they like it when you pet them," he says. Collins may be speaking loosely here. Wolf eels, which are actually a species of fish, don't have "itchy skin." Moreover, while wolf eels seem to interact with humans without coercion, it's poor form to pet or touch animals on dives.
And Pacific spiny lumpsuckers? "Incredibly cute," Collins says. A modified fin on its belly allows its round body to stick to rocks and kelp. "They're amazing. I have a shot of one swimming toward me. It looks like this majorly large creature, but it's about the size of a jelly bean."
The personality of these animals comes through in Collins's work. His wolf eel looks playful, his lumpsucker looks falsely puffed with pride, and his octopus looks like a sleeping wizard.
Collins says he's done dives all over the world, but the waters of Puget Sound bring him back every time. He'll tell you why on September 5 at Elliott Bay Book Company, where he'll present his book of photographs and the variously sweet and thrilling stories that accompany them.