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Discovering there's more than meets the eye below the surface of the bay

St. Margaret's Bay is a small, placid inlet at the edge of Atlantic Canada's largest urban area-Halifax's "bay next door." Named Le Port Sainte-Marguerite in the early 1600s by Samuel de Champlain, it's known for its sandy beaches, tiny islands (with names such as Potato and Wedge, Strawberry and Shut-in), spectacular coastal scenery and great sailing. Despite the natural beauty of the bay and its popularity among beach-goers and sailors, however, one aspect that remains unseen to many is the diverse undersea life that calls the bay home. Only a stone's throw from the pretty homes hugging the hilly shoreline and mere feet beneath the ketches and schooners plying its waters is a place full of extraordinary creatures, of mystery and intrigue.

On a bright summer's day last year a diving buddy and I embarked on an exploration of life below the surface of the bay. Off the shore of Birchy Head we slip beneath the glassy surface and into the gin-clear water. We descend through a school of small pollock lazily milling about a bed of 15-foot cordweed, ethereal in the soft, streaming sunlight. The shallows around us are a seascape of huge boulders clothed in red, brown and green seaweed. A ball of little, torpedo-shaped sandlance fish flashes past us, twisting and turning in perfect synchrony like a single organism.

A little farther from shore, among some giant granite boulders, a big red sea raven navigates over the bright sandy bottom. Sea anemones, sea stars, sponges, sea peaches and other invertebrates cling to every solid surface, creating a multi-textured blanket of life. Shrimp-mysid, sand, skeleton, Montague's, polar and Greenland-occupy virtually every nook and cranny, from down in the eelgrass to the stems of the kelp. A baby lumpfish, no more than an inch long, emerges from a tangle of sea colander to investigate our noisy exhaled bubbles. On a boulder just beyond, a miniature young sea raven attempting to hide in a stubble of Irish moss is betrayed by its own scarlet gaudiness. It's hard to believe this is the North Atlantic Ocean-it feels more like the limpid waters of a Caribbean cove.

At a depth of 35 feet the temperature plummets to about 4°C as we descend though a thermocline-the divide between a layer of relatively warm, clear surface water and the colder, denser water below. Sea gooseberries, looking like skinned grapes with tentacles, tumble through the water in the wake of our fins as we swim by. A striking salmon gilled nudibranch, its body covered in a bushy mane of about 100 external gills, forages for tiny prey on a frond of broadleaf kelp. A big lobster, lunging from between two boulders with open claws, warns us to back off before retreating into its lair.

A curious cunner approaches its reflection in the camera’s dome port. From here, the bottom slopes steeply into the murky depths. Parts of this bay are popular among local technical divers, who do deep recreational diving-many come to the bay to test their mettle against the considerable depths that are easily reached from shore.

As we continue to descend, the sun becomes a faint smudge above us, our new sky a thick emerald green layer of water. Most of the colours of the spectrum have been filtered out now, rendering everything in diffuse shades of grey, like a low contrast black and white photograph. It's not so pretty at this depth and the density of the water makes breathing from our regulators and swimming more of a challenge, but the life that belongs down here thrives just the same.

The numbers on our depth gauges edge past 120 feet. Deep-sea scallops, hermit crabs and a few frilled anemones add life to an otherwise eerie dark bottom. We swim past a rag-tag school of cunner fish hanging around a boulder festooned with scrawny, pale finger-shaped sponges.

Sea urchins cling to a boulder on the steeply sloping bottom, at about 150 feet deep. At 152 feet, a large clump of sea urchins marks the end of our descent. Retracing our undersea path toward the world of light above we are welcomed back in the shallows by a harbour seal, and revel in the warm, pellucid water with its abundant, colourful life.

Scott Leslie has won two Atlantic Journalism Awards for excellence in photojournalism. Look for his recent books Bay of Fundy, A Natural Portrait and Wetland Birds of North America, both published by Key Porter. For more information go to scottleslie.com.

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