The seafood platter before me is both a visual feast and a physical representation of the mystical underworld that is the Pacific Ocean. Dungeness crabs were steamed until their shells turned vermilion. Sea urchins look and taste like lust feels – my spoon freeing the custardy innards from their spiny shells. But it’s the seaweed – bull kelp, sea lettuce, iridescent macro kelp, all freshly pulled from Tofino’s Clayoquot Sound – that is the true star of the show.
Seaweed isn’t merely garnish but a main player in almost every meal I eat on Vancouver Island. And there are a few reasons for that: It’s local and abundant, not to mention carbon neutral and full of essential amino acids, especially helpful to those on plant-based diets. The seaweed and the rest of the seafood platter ingredients have a natural disposition for wowing the pants off of West Coast diners. But this candlelit spread boasts an extra dash of showmanship. That’s because chef Paul Moran of 1909 Kitchen at the Tofino Resort & Marina didn’t just cook the meal, he also free-dove for it while I dog-paddled nearby in head-to-toe neoprene.
Actually, perhaps we should start there.
Several hours earlier, I’m on a free-diving and snorkelling tour, where I’ll get to harvest all kinds of seafood indigenous to the clear, cold waters, from barnacles to sea cucumbers. Our guide, Chris Adair, owns and operates Bottom Dwellers Freediving, which focuses on sustainable and ethical harvesting and free-diving. And Adair’s most recent graduate just happened to be the aforementioned chef, Moran. We’re on board a small boat headed about 10 nautical miles from the Tofino marina, to an area dubbed Little Hawaii – “Where you can harvest just about anything you may want for dinner,” Moran says. But first, we drop some crab traps on the way out to retrieve on the way back. Seagulls squawk overhead.
Free-diving involves holding your breath and descending into the water without using scuba gear, Adair explained when we dropped anchor about 20 minutes later. Bottom Dwellers’s free-diving pass begins at 33 feet, while the snorkelling course takes visitors to 15 feet. For packages such as the one with Moran and 1909 Kitchen, where you get to harvest your food and then eat it later, “everything is usually attainable within those first 15 feet,” he says. “You’ll get quite a feast.”
For a long time, free-diving has been a popular warm-weather destination sport, but now cold-water free-diving and snorkelling are finally getting their due. About 20 years ago, the same thing happened with surfing, and it turned Tofino into what it is today, an old growth-forested surf town, complete with tie-dyed shirts and crispy fish tacos (there’s no getting around the queue at Tacofino). Vancouver Island’s whales and bears replace California and Maui’s white sands and palm trees, with pro surfers enjoying the swells around Cox Bay all year long.
Adair says advances in neoprene have made all the difference. But he and Moran aren’t just suited up in skin-tight wetsuits: They also sport wrist knives, lead weight belts, elongated free-diving fins and dive lights. They look set to save the world. I, too, find myself immersed in the Clayoquot Sound under the foggy sunshine. No free-diving for me, though, as I’m not certified. But I’m good to go in a wetsuit and snorkelling gear, and gamely do a backward plunge off the side of the boat, hitting the ice-cold water with a yelp. I flipper my way through swaying blades of kelp that look like streamers at a prom night for sea monsters. I tear off a piece, remove my snorkel and nibbled on it. It was translucent green and silky smooth, snappy in bite, cold and salty in taste. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the coast of British Columbia is home to an estimated 530 macroalgae species, and approximately 650,000 tonnes of wild kelp. In other words, it’s abundant and thus okay to eat up. And so I did – in the ocean and elsewhere on the island.
After all, there are many ways to enjoy this delicious yield. At the Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn, I relish a head-turner of a dish in sea lettuce-cured scallops with peas and green onions. At Picnic Charcuterie, I sample cheese and charcuterie, including a sea sausage (cured pork with paprika, ginger and locally harvested wild kelp). At Tofino Brewing Co., amid an industrial-chic space with rolling garage doors, I drink a rich and caramelly Kelp Stout.
And don’t get me started on dinner at Wolf in the Fog: A mezcal cocktail infused and garnished with winged kelp arrived alongside plump, fried oysters with a seaweed mayo that includes macro kelp from Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre – which grows and harvests wild kelp then dries it in a curing shed before shipping it near and far. Seared albacore tuna on a seaweed salad is serious sustainable luxury. Even the roasted lamb sirloin has a kelp jus and comes topped with a toasted seaweed crumble. The meal is admirable in every way.
Back in the ocean, there are a few small commercial fishing boats about, but mostly it’s just us bobbing around, Adair and Moran disappearing underwater for four minutes at a time while my mind flits to the survivor-horror thriller Open Water. They’re looking for mussels, rockfish (Adair is even sporting a spearfishing rod), sea cucumber, gooseneck barnacles, urchin and tons of seaweed – macro kelp, bull kelp, galleria kelp – most of which they harvest from the island rock faces before loading their treasures into their green mesh sacks.
“The water is so cold and fresh,” Adair says. “Everything tastes amazing coming out of it.”
That it does.
If you go
Harbour Air is North America’s first fully carbon-neutral airline, and its seaplanes take passengers shore to shore. We took off from Vancouver Harbour and landed at the dock in Tofino an hour later.
Tofino Resort and Marina isn’t just convenient – I was in my room five minutes after landing and it’s a seven-minute walk to town – it’s also a hub for comfortable accommodations, great food and water adventures from the marina’s Adventure Centre, from paddleboard bear-watching to the less-daunting hot springs or whale-watching tours.
Bottom Dwellers offers hand-harvesting and snorkelling courses, as well as free-dive certification, in Tofino and Victoria. You will not find a more passionate or knowledgeable instructor than Chris Adair.
Seaweed Festival happens in the spring, and is an immersive food-themed experience that includes an expert-guided seaweed beach walk, seaweed-pickling workshop and seaweed-themed meals at Tofino’s best tables.
The writer was a guest of Tofino Resort and Marine. It did not review or approve this article.
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