Electric Encounter.

One of the diving best days on Farnsworth Banks, off the back side of Catalina Island – clear skies, warm weather and water, with visibility stretching on and on and on! Among the many wonders this large ocean pinnacle holds we enjoyed a sighting of a Pacific Electric Ray – or Torpedo Ray. This guy was lazily swimming along and allowed us to approach, swim near and snap a few pics. These guys usually hang out at Farnsworth, in deeper water and can offer a bit of a jolt if you get too close!

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Close Encounters of the Shark Kind

One of my lifelong dreams has been reached, and it was fabulous. Swimming with sharks. Now it wasn’t Great Whites, or anything scary, but beautiful blue sharks. These animals are long, lean and graceful in the water with a temperment akin to a puppy. Curious, bright eyed and constantly moving, exploring and checking out each swimmer the experience of being in the water with one was incredible. We had two different blues, one about 9ft and another closer to 6ft, both stunning to encounter. In addition to these sleek swimmers was a rare sighting of a Salmon Shark, one that looks very similar to a young white, though with a larger rounded dorsal fin and differently shaped snout. The Salmon didn’t linger though, these sharks are not a curious as the blues and buggered out pretty quickly when people or the other shark showed up. However, it was still awesome to see them from the boat.

Before the sharks showed up we had a friendly sea lion hang out at the boat, this was great as he provided some great opportunities to test and fine tune the camera settings for the sharks!

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Luckily, after taking some test shots and enjoying the acrobatic antics of the sea lion, we didn’t have to wait long. About an hour and a half after getting out the Capt. let us know that lunch was ready. So of course.. that meant it was time for the sharks to show!! Jeremy the “handler” got in the water first, to help lure in the shark so that it will relax and stick around. This also is for safety so he can gauge the sharks temperament. Once given the OK, it was go time!

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One part of the day for the folks working on the boat was working with the shark. Below Jeremy uses gentle, knowledgeable touch to turn over the shark. This inverted position overloads their senses, putting them in a tonic like state. When done correctly, it looks really cool, and the sharks gets a chill overload.

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The day was incredible as I mentioned above. A day, I’ll always remember, and a trip I will gladly sign up for again!!

It’s Electric.

Hopefully you’re all now humming the Electric slide, as that’s what I first think of when I hear “it’s electric.” However, today I’m not talking about an old dance move. I’m talking about the Pacific Electric Ray (or Torpedo Ray). Last month out at Santa Barbara Island we hit a deep reef before going to play with the sand dollars. I had my wide angle lens on and was greatly rewarded with an awesome ray sighting. While I was practicing wide angle and admiring the rare purple hydro-coral, Scott pulled Shane and I over to where he had come across the ray which was slowly moving along the wall as it scanned for prey. I had seen pictures of these rays before but never actually spotted one while diving, so I was extremely excited. It swam along seeming casual, but in reality was using its electric field to scan for possible prey. I’m sure it was annoyed by us crowding around it and shooting pictures, but oh well.. it was only for a few minutes. Scott posed for me as I tried to compose some shots. Here’s the results:

The great contortionists.

One of the things I love about diving in California is that most of the really unique and interesting creatures are not immediately visible. Much of the life here blends in with its surroundings and can be easily missed. Sure there are things like the Spanish Shawl and some other nudibranchs, that while small, stick out like a sore thumb with their bright purple and orange coloring, but many of the fish and crab and other ocean dwellers along our coasts are a bit more drab, or at least appear so at first sight. They hide away among the rocks, slink in the kelp or nestle themselves in the sand… blending in and disappearing.

One of my favorites of these magicians is the octopus. With its beak being the only hard part of its body the octopus is really the great contortionist of the ocean, often found squeezed into little holes and all wrapped up on itself as it hides away. Since it is rare to see one just out and a about, especially out here, they can be easily missed. You have to know what you are looking for, which is typically the eye.

While the octopus can change color to mimic its surroundings and blend in even more the eye does not change. It will stay white with its black slit, which is what usually will catch the attention of the diver as they swim over. Its very easy to miss these creatures, for example, this guy was curled up in a hole about 2 feet from a hermit crab that I had been photographing for about ten minutes. I paused and glanced to my right briefly and to my astonishment, there he was just sitting there. I’m sure I’ve swam over countless octopus hidden away in holes over the course of many dives but its always great when you look in the right spot at the right time and discover a little treasure all neatly packed up for your viewing pleasure.

What I really love about these guys, is how at first they appear mostly brown, blending in the with the rocks and surroundings, but when you look closely its easy to discover that their skin is a riot of color, all able to change and flash and adapt to whatever they’re resting on. It might just look like a mottled brown rock, but will also pull in the pinks and greens of the surrounding algae and anemones to further the camouflage. In addition to the great color palette, the octopus displays amazing patterns.

With its skin a web of dots and lines and stripes and circles, the octopus blends in well to its surroundings. The patterns can shift and change just like the colors do making this creature not only a great contortionist, but also a master of disguise.

Next time you’re out diving, keep an eye down along the rocks looking for any holes, nooks or crannies and keep a look out for the white eye. You just might stumble upon an octopus!

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.

Diving with Dad.

Last weekend my father journeyed from afar…well Phoenix, to join me for what turned into a non-stop adventurous weekend! It all started with the fact that he, an avid Jimmy Buffett fan and my reason for loving his music, has never been to a Jimmy Buffett concert. So for his birthday (which is in June actually) I purchased a pair of tickets for us, and promised a fun weekend in LA. The concert was fabulous, but the highlight of the trip for me was going to be getting him underwater for the first time in about seven years! (that is not counting the numerous 5ft, 15 minute dives he made out in Saguaro Lake cleaning algae growth off the underside of our ski boat, which I don’t). The last time he actually dove was the first time I did. Back in 2003 on a family vacation to Maui, my sister and I earned our Open Water Diver certifications. On our final open water dives he joined us for a trip out to Molokini and St. Anthony’s wreck, then later we did a shore dive with all four of us (including my mom) on the small reef just off shore from our hotel. Flash forward seven years, and I’ve earned my OWSI rating and put more than 100 dives under my belt and he’s barely been wet.

It sure looks like I have a ton a gear! Mostly because of my camera, and because all my Dad’s gear looks like its actually hanging off me!

Needless to say I was slightly nervous about throwing him right into a Southern California beach dive, especially with a higher surf forecast, but he fell back into diving easily, as he said, “its like riding a bike, once you get back into it everything just comes back.”

We had driven down to San Diego to dive with a friend of his who is a big lobster hunter. He took us out to Swami’s, a beach in Encinitas known primarily for great surfing. I could easily see why, as a nearby reef created a perfect break for the surfers. What this also meant was that just down from the reef, there was barely any waves breaking at all, so we had a very easy entry and exit. Unfortunately, the fact that the beach is known for its reef break, coupled with a larger swell in general, meant that our dive conditions were less than ideal. The reef at Swami’s is fairly shallow, and the large swell moving in from off shore created a big surge underwater and pretty poor visibility. My dad handled this fine however, especially when we got separated about four minutes into the dive. Thats right, I lost my dad after only four minutes. Way to go me! Truth is, I paused for a picture while he and Dan (who was effectively leading the dive) continued to swim, and with the 5-10 ft viz, I lost them quickly. My Dad was a little left of Dan, so when he stopped to check on everyone and discovered I was not there, my Dad continued swimming. I caught up with Dan, but then Dad was gone! Dan and I searched, then surfaced (after what was probably only about 30 seconds as my mind worried over my missing father) and looked for bubbles on the surface. Meanwhile, we discovered later, my dad continued swimming along, thinking us just up ahead, and forgetting the 1 minute search rule we had decided upon before the dive. Finally, after what felt like forever, but was probably only a few minutes he surfaced about 50 yards up from us, opposite of where we were looking for him. Crisis averted we swam over to him and dropped back down. The highlight of the dive was finding a large Moray Eel inside a hole that Dan nearly put his hand down in search of lobster. The Moray poked its head out and started opening and closing its mouth in a fashion that makes you think he’d be hissing or growling if it were on the surface.

Yes, those little black dots in the water are surfers!

Moving on from there we found a couple lobster, however any that Dan was able to grab were too small to keep, sadly no delicious crustacean dinner. The rest of the dive was spent swimming around, exploring the kelp and searching for lobster hidey holes. We surfaced when my Dad finished his air, quicker than the more experienced divers, but not so fast that it was annoying, we enjoyed a nice 37 minute dive. The water was summer warm around 60 degrees at depth, and the only drawback was in the form of the extremely long surface swim to and from the dive site… almost a 1/4 mile! Its definitely a sight I’d like to try again, maybe with a kayak and definitely with less surge and better viz. Mostly though I enjoyed just getting under the water with my Dad again. Next up: Mom. (I think that effort will require somewhere warm and clear).

The rest of the weekend passed quickly with some delicious food, a couple of beers, a movie and a day at the beach spent trying our hand at Stand Up Paddleboarding. After successfully getting through the larger surf breaking (though unsuccessfully losing my sunglasses to a large wave) we managed to get our SUP skills down and paddle down to the Santa Monica Pier and back for a 2 mile trip. We practiced some more, then went in for a long break which included playing in the perfectly sized body boarding waves. Another voyage through the surf and some more paddling, though not quite as far because the wind had picked up creating a lot of chop on the water. Then more food and a beer, showers and it was back to the airport. I had a blast, and can’t wait to get him back underwater again soon! (I think I’ve got him wanting to dive again, hooray!)

A perfect summer day, in the middle of October. Taking a break from paddle boarding, we went back into the ocean for some body surfing.

Crystal Clear, mostly.

Christmas Tree Cove (#54)

Sunday morning started completely opposite of Saturday. I had been out Saturday night with good friends, a few drinks and fun movie along with a good nights sleep really turned my mood around. The weather was perfect and I had organized two dives off of Palos Verdes to take advantage of the small swell and good visibility. Chris, Daryl and I met at 7:45 at Christmas Tree Cove. My friend Carissa joined us to snorkel since the weather promised good clear water even close to shore.

The plan was to dive Christmas Tree and use it for the mapping project due in the Divemaster class. With the conditions as they were it was going to be cake. We could almost create our maps just by looking down into the water from atop the cliff it was that clear out. So we hiked down with our tanks, back up, then back down with the rest of the gear. Got everything ready and were in the water right at high tide. Just before starting our descent we spotted a Bat Ray chilling on the bottom. The dive went smoothly and I plotted depths and features (like kelp, boulder patches and the large rock wall) while Daryl took note of compass headings and distances. The visibility was fantastic, though there was alot of little things floating around in the water.

Malaga Cove (#55)

After hiking back out of the cove we opted to try a different site for dive #2, purely because the hike in was EXHAUSTING. Driving north around Palos Verdes we headed to Malaga Cove. Again, the low swell made this another fantastic dive. The overall profile here is shallower, and we barely got deeper than 30ft.

Malaga was Horn Shark City. We easily saw more than 15 sharks just relaxing along the bottom. To top that off there were lobsters out enjoying the bright, clear viz, several Sheep Crab walking around, Spanish Shawl nudibranchs all over, a large Shovel-Nose Guitarfish that was pretending to just be sand and at then end (just before I reached the dreaded “memory card full” warning) we saw a huge Bat Ray resting in the shallows.