ID Insanity.

One of my favorite aspects of diving is looking up the fish and critters I photographed during the dive to learn what they are. While I’m not great at retaining the knowledge, especially with places I only visit infrequently (or just once), I enjoy knowing what I saw. I also try to log the names as keywords in Lightroom so I can reference them later.

Of course there are always those critters that don’t quite match the options available in my book and you start to wonder. Could it be? Maybe it’s? Hmm, I wonder….

Luckily for me, we live in a digital age, where I can upload a photo into google image search, add a keyword and bring up all the similar images floating around the interweb… mystery critter no longer!

This was the case for one of my nudibranch from the 2013 Anilao trip. In my book there were a few possibilities, but none of the photos matched. My nudi had white bumps when all of the pictures had orange or yellow bumps. Another species had major variation with either orange or white bumps, but I dismissed it because it still was not quite what I had seen. Turns out I was wrong. That last species was the winner, thanks to a google image search which brought up several matching nudis, more than one of which was labelled Phyllidia ocellata. While you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, I feel pretty confident that its a good ID. I guess I should have put more faith in the first two words on that entry in my Reef Creature Guide…. “Highly Variable”.

Hello Phyllidia ocellata.

Phyllidia ocellata

Phyllidia ocellata

Anilao Nudibranch Heaven.

Anilao is known as the nudibranch capital of the world and for good reason. Not only are you apt to find a nudi on every dive, but its very likely that you can find a different nudi on every dive (or several different nudi’s). In 2013 I got my first chance to dive Anilao, in Batangas, Philippines, as a trip leader for Bluewater Photo. Nervous, as it was my first time leading a trip… let alone my first ever international diving trip, it all ended up going very well. We had a great group of guests, really enjoyed the resort (Crystal Blue), and my co-leader, Ron, was excellent.

I had heard tales of the variety of life found throughout the Anilao region and had perused through some fish and invertebrate ID books prior to the trip but was still floored by the incredible biodiversity found on every dive. This region varies from beautiful coral reefs to seemingly barren, sandy muck dives. The knowledgeable guides really make the trip, as they know where to find unique critters and help you discover all the treasures hiding throughout the dive.

I love the various colors, shapes and sizes of nudibranchs found throughout the world and getting to dive in Anilao was amazing. Here are just a sample of what I saw throughout my (too short) week diving with the hundreds of nudibranchs in Anilao. (I tried to ID them properly, but if I am incorrect, let me know in the comments!)

Ranging in size from extremely small to bigger than my fist, one of the most enjoyable parts of diving in Anilao was searching for as many different nudibranchs as I could find. It was easy to spot the Choromodoris annae as they stand out and can often be found out and about. The better camouflaged ones were often spotted by the incredibly talented guides, who know where to look and what to look for. More often then not, the guide would point at a nondescript section of reef and it would take me a few moments before I could discern the nudibranch from the surrounding environment. These of course were often the most unique sightings, and usually the ones most difficult to photograph well.

One of my favorites from Anilao is the Chromodoris willani, which I dubbed “Sparkle Butt” as its gills were speckled and looked like they sparkled. In addition to that, the Ceratosoma alleni was incredible primarily for its size and unique shape, though easy to miss despite being nearly 5 inches long as it camouflaged well with the surroundings.

There are so many more incredible nudibranch and other critters from the Philippines, way too many for one simple post, but I figured this would be a great place to start.

 

In the Nud(i).

Two weekends ago after our dive on the Midnight Hour, we headed over to a “secret” pinnacle spot that is a favorite of Sand Dollar Capt. George. I’d had a chance to dive this pinnacle before and it really is awesome. The visibility was still pretty good, but I wasn’t as worried about that, I was hunting nudibranchs. Unlike my day spent at Casino Point, this time I was not disappointed. The little slugs were everywhere, in all sizes, species and colors, swaying with the water as they clung to the rocks and plants on the pinnacle. I probably spent the full dive in about a 10′ square area on one side of the pinnacle, just moving from nudi to nudi as I looked for ones that were in good positions and places for photographing. I was able to play around with my strobes to try and create more creative lighting.

Of course I found a Spanish Shawl (Flabellina iodinea), a California Classic, and this baby was a big one. He was pretty much out in the open, allowing me to really frame him in a dynamic way, diagonally through the photo.

I found one of my favorite (because of the awesome blue color), Porter’s Chromodorid (Mexichromis porterae) which are vivid blue with two yellow stripes. Upon closer inspection I realized it was two, cuddled up with each other. I couldn’t quite get in there to be able to see the second guys’ head, but it was neat to see the two together.

I even came across a Hermissenda (Hermissenda crassicornis) chilling on a small kelp leaf.. the position you never see them in! It was facing away from me which was disappointing, but I figured it offered a good chance to try and practice a little back lighting through the kelp to highlight the little nudi. I lucked out as I started shooting the little guy turned towards me offering a nicely posed photo. The back-lighting plan didn’t work as well, but I think having one strobe behind the kelp did add to they way the kelp looks.

Lastly I got a nice classic shot of a San Diego Dorid (Diaulula sandiegensis) as he crawled across the weedy landscape.

The Eyes Have it.

A couple weekends ago I went out to Casino Point on Catalina with two friends for the sole purpose of just doing several relaxing dives and practicing some macro photography. I was using two strobes again, something I’m still getting used to, and had two different cameras to try out, my olympus and the new Panasonic GX1. I really enjoyed using the Panasonic, trying these new cameras really reminds me how much has advanced since I bought my Oly two and half years ago. The focus speed on the GX1 was amazing, and the LCD is really bright, crisp and detailed. The only drawback I found with the camera and kit lens is that the lens does not focus very close so it was difficult for getting good close macro shots.

The point was busy as usual with lots of people diving and students learning to dive. That meant that many areas of the dive park dropped to cloudy 5′ visibility due to the number of inexperienced fins causing the sand to billow up and into the water. This is to be expected here, which is why I wanted to focus on macro. I was hoping to hit some of the deeper sections and hunt for nudibranchs, but it seemed there were none to be found. I saw only two nudi’s on all three dives, only one of which I could actually photograph.

One of two nudis that I saw all day, the Catalina Triopha

I focused instead on trying to sneak up on the tiny gobies, and got a good shot of a black eyed goby, and an okay shot of a blue banded, which are even harder to sneak up on. I saw two bat rays, that swam off before we could get close, and lots of large sheep head and bass.

Black Eyed Goby perching on rocks

The highlight of the day for me was a very patient young halibut (i think) who allowed me to swim up in front of him and take picture after picture. He even stayed chill when I put on my macro lens and moved in closer and closer. I think at one point I even bumped into him and all he did was flutter up a bit then settle back down. I left with a nice shot of his eyes up close that I was really happy with.

Over all it was a pleasant day of diving, especially now that the water is warming up into the 60’s and the air temps are moving into the high 70’s. Summer is here and its looking to be beautiful.

Close up of a Giant Spined Sea Star (Cropped from original)

Little Hermit crab out for an afternoon stroll.

Centennial Celebrations!

Wow, this is officially my 100th post! I started chronicling my underwater adventures in February of last year, and while 100 posts over 19 months isn’t really that much in the grand scheme of things, considering the amount that I actually get to dive (for fun) its pretty impressive! I feel giddy just like when I hit my 100th dive last year… well that giddyness might have been the Champagne. A quick digression… its amazing how once you start teaching, and are able to spend more time in the water… let alone live in Southern California… how quickly your dive number climbs. I was originally certified in July of 2003. I hit my 100th dive in August of 2010 after several years of no diving and several years of much diving. Its now about 1 year later and I’m nearly at 200 dives! Crazy town.

Anyways, It’s taken me awhile to get around to writing something, the allure of the 100th post seemed so daunting. However, I decided I’d just write about the fact that it is my 100th. Sorta lame, but I like to recognize the milestones. In case you’re looking for more here is one of the pictures from my Santa Cruz dives two weeks ago. I FINALLY got a good shot of a nudi – a Spanish Shawl. The rhinophores are in focus, the lighting is great, and you can really see the detail in the photograph. (Have I mentioned how much I’m enjoying my Olympus EPL-1? It rocks).

Just in case you really want a good look, here’s a cropped version. Look close you can even see its beady little eye. (Or I always assumed those are it’s eyes… I’m not really sure).

So that’s all for now. Happy Centennial Post to me! I’m off this weekend to explore a new type of diving, Blue Water Diving. I’ll be posting all about it next week, hopefully I’ll have some good photographs to share with you all. If not maybe I’ll steal some from my friend Carolyn who’s done several of these dives and often has stellar images! Enjoy your weekend, get out and do something fun!

Just out for a stroll.

Right at the beginning of the third dive, I came across this little Spanish Shawl crawling across the sand. Despite getting knocked side to side by the strong surge, he was actually managing to move at quite a good pace. I settled down on the sand right in front of him, trying to make him fill the frame, while also trying get the rhinophores (the red ear like parts) nicely in focus. Well, I seemed to be just off on all my shots, with these two being the best of the bunch. My macro lens creates such a shallow depth of focus that its hard to get right where I want it to be, especially with the surge I was battling. Other than the focus issues, I was really happy with the exposure and composition of these guys. I didn’t amputate any part of the nudi, I got him looking right at me and and even was able to incorporate the useful diagonal composition on the second picture to help include the whole nudibranch. It will just take more time and practice and soon I’ll have my macro shooting locked down much better! 🙂

Finally Farnsworth.

Its the dive site that everyone talks about… if you’re diving around Catalina, inevitably the question of, “so, have you dove Farnsworth?” will come up. It is a site I’ve yearned to get the chance to see, one of the only places I know around Southern California where you get hard corals…the famous Purple Hydrocoral. Truth to be told, its not actually even a true coral, its a hydroid, in the phylum Cnidaria – relative to jellyfish and anemones! Farnsworth Bank is a preserve for this slow growing animal, and its easy to see that it flourishes out there.

The Bank is found a little ways off shore from the backside of Catalina. It’s a large seamount that rises off the ocean floor (which is anywhere from 300-100 feet deep) up to about 50ft below the surface. There are several walls where it just drops away, as well as many gentler sloping faces. Over all the site is larger than can be fully explored in one trip…especially when I happen to have my camera and could easily spend all day within a few yards around the anchor chain!

I buddy-ed up with fellow photographer Carolyn, and while we are not the best of buddies in terms of sticking close and keeping in contact with each other, it worked out well as we were both not up for wandering super far, and wanted to practice our photo skills. We descended along the anchor chain looking down into the blue depths of some of the clearest water I’ve seen out here in California. Surprisingly though, as we reached about 30ft it started to get dark, as though we were approaching the seamount already. This was way to early and I quickly discovered that it was not land, but rather a huge and thick school of Blacksmith blocking our view. Slowly we descended below them and the view of Farnsworth began to form in the dark water below us.

This dive is different from so many around Southern California, as there is very little kelp. The makeup of the site is rocky, covered with anemones, very few urchin and just littered with the little clumps of Purple Hydrocoral. Lingcod, Garibaldi, Sheephead and the thick schools of Blacksmith surround the area. Eels and octopus can be found tucked away between the rocks, and of course my favorite, the little colorful nudibranchs seem to be everywhere!I spent the first dive slowly exploring and taking in the view. I found a huge (nearly 4 inches) lemon dorid nudibranch, as well as an awesome little hermissenda nudi perched nicely on a barnacle. Later, nestled beautifully in a grove of hyrdocoral was a large moray, just curiously poking out his head at me.

On the second dive I followed a large lingcod for a bit as he swam away then settled again, then practiced more with my landscape shots, attempting to expose the background and use my strobe to help light the darkened foreground correctly.

While I might not have wandered too far and really explored the area. I enjoyed two fantastic dives practicing my photography…finally getting a chance to try some wider landscape shots because of the better visibility. All too soon it was time to swim back up through the thick cloud of fish and back to the boat. I’ve definitely been bitten by the Farny bug, and look forward to getting to explore more of the site next time.

Finishing off the day, we motored around to the front side of the island and enjoyed a relaxing shallow dive off Eagle’s Nest. The visibility here was not a great as the first two dives, but it was still enjoyable and relaxing.

Pea Soup.

Saturday morning, I excitedly drove down to Long Beach to board the Sundiver Express bound for the oil rigs, one of my favorite places to dive in Southern California. As I’ve mentioned previously (here) the rigs are unique because of their three dimensionality. There’s no bottom, and the entire structure is covered with life, so you can dive along, across, up, down and around each beam and support. I’ve been on two trips previously, both of which were fantastic with great visibility, and calm seas. As we motored out to the rigs, the day appeared to be just like before, the sun was shining and the sea was flat as a pancake. Unfortunately, once we’d plunged off the boat and into the water, we discovered that the ocean was not going to be as clear as the cloudless sky. There was a ton of crap floating along, mucking up the visibility and choking out all the light at depth. Unfortunate, but not the end of the world.

This was my first real chance to use my new strobe that I had recently purchased, so regardless of the viz, I was eager to test it out. Overall the strobe worked beautifully…it fired properly, and I found that by loosening my clamps a bit I could easily move and reposition the strobe as needed. The auto focus on the camera can still be finicky, especially in the low light we had at depth, and when using the close up lens I discovered that there is a pretty small window of focus available which can make it trickier to get the focus locked. However I feel that with time, I’ll get better at it. Despite having some focus trouble in the beginning I really do love the new close up lens, the shorter depth of field really helps your subject pop out in the picture, and the ability to get a more true macro is fantastic.

The upper 50′ of the Eureka rig had been stripped last August when I last dove the oil rigs, but slowly life is starting to come back. One little critter than has come back and is thriving are the Hermissenda crassicornis, a beautiful and easily identifiable opalescent nudibranch with brown and orange cerata covering its back. Its got two oral tentacles that extend like probes off the front, and of course the two rhinophores that stick up like rabbit ears on the top of its head. Between the two rhinophores is a bright orange stripe that runs the length of its body bordered by an electric blue stripe on either side. These guys were everywhere, which made exploring the stripped section of the oil rig rather exciting. I also came across two other nudi’s; a San Diego Dorid (who had his head stuck into some coral making him impossible to photograph well, and a couple Triopha maculate, though none of my shots came out in focus.

The second dive, while still fairly poor visibility, was really a trip. There were a group of sea lions lounging on the rig near where the boat dropped us off, and apparently our group was very exciting. Throughout the entire dive we had several sea lions diving down and around us before darting back up to the surface. It was fantastic and aggravating at the same time. They were great to see, and fun to watch, but trying to get a picture of one is darn near impossible because of the speed. Half the time they were gone before I even had a chance to move the camera, and more often my camera would not focus in time. I did manage (mostly luck I’m sure) to snap one shot in focus as a sea lion zoomed towards me.

His large, comical eyes are nicely in focus and he’s staring right at the camera. Add in a bit of a current wanting to pull us all off the rig structure and out into the sea made for a bit of a struggle when trying to keep the camera steady and pull of some macro shots.

Despite the poor viz, as always diving the oil rigs was a blast, and I thoroughly enjoyed practicing with my new set up. I’m really looking forward to more chances to hone my skills and start to really improve my photography skills now that I have the gear that will allow me to do so! Here’s to many more posts with better and better photography as the year progresses!

Mystery Solved.

I’m sure its been bugging all my, what 2? 3? constant readers just like its been bothering me. In August, on our fantastic Oil Rig dive my group of divers happened upon a mysterious and see thru creature I had never seen before.

I attempted the usual google searches, but not really knowing how to classify, or even describe the creature in ways that a search engine would be able to key into the specific animal, I didn’t find the answer. Friends on Facebook did not know, and I gave up, and let it slip from my mind.

Then just the other day while perusing through some images for the website I’m slowly working on, I came across it again and a new idea struck. Scubaboard.com! They must have a creature ID forum, if not perhaps posting in the main forum would illicit an answer. Lo and Behold, they do have a whole sub-forum just for helping people identify those mysterious and beautiful creatures that often float by us on our underwater adventures. This one, happens to be a snail. Yep…a pelagic snail, most likely Carinaria japonica.

More information: http://tolweb.org/Carinaria_japonica/28750

So many thanks to the folks over on scubaboard, mystery solved, and now I know where to go for any help with my creature ID questions!

Rocking the Island Time

In desperate need to reach that golden 100th dive by July 31st I went out on the morning Island Time with a group of folks from Eco last Sunday. The waters were calm, we hit several great sites off Catalina, and overall had a blast. There was one small hiccup to my day. My wetsuit has a small tear so before leaving to go to New York I dropped it off at the shop to get fixed. Unfortunately its not back yet, so I had rented a wetsuit from the shop for the dives. I tried on one which had a built in hood, but was too small, so I grabbed the next available size up, put it on halfway which let me know it would fit well enough and headed out. What I didn’t realize was that while both suits are made by Bare, the second one I grabbed did not include a hood like the first. So I pulled it out of my bag at Catalina and went, “oh crap!” Luckily Kendra had a vest she let me borrow, which helped keep my core warm, and I managed to suck it up and deal with a cold head. Ironically it reminded me of my first ever California dives. A bit naive, I had no hood and no gloves for that first dive several years ago. It was also on the Island Time off Catalina, and occurred in July, not too far off from this dive.

Despite having to make do with out the hood I had two very nice dives. The first site we hit was called Bird Rock (for friends that join us for the Beer Fest…thats the nasty looking big rock covered in Sea Gull poop outside Two Harbors). It was overall rather shallow and had a great wall to explore. I found a nudibranch I had only seen once so far (Hermissenda). Other than the usual suspects (Garibaldi, Senorita Wrasse, Sheephead, Blacksmith, etc) I also saw a large Giant Kelpfish. Dive #2 was at a small cove between Howlands and another which I didn’t catch the name of. It was around the same depth, no more than about 50 ft deep, as the first dive, and not quite as clear. Lots of kelp and large boulders marked this site. I saw two new Nudi’s,  Macfarlands Chormodorid and the Mushroom Sidegill.