Hello Harbor Seal.

At the end of the third dive as I was headed back to the boat I saw something dart through the kelp ahead of me. Rounding a corner of one of the rock channels I saw a harbor seal laying in the sand. He looked up, saw me and darted away before I could get a picture. Excited because I haven’t seen a harbor seal under the water while diving as of yet, I continued on to the boat. As I neared the anchor chain, macro lens put away and camera set as wide as possible, just in case, I came across him again! He was slithering along the bottom, nose in the sand looking for something to dig up and eat I expect. Either not hearing me or just ignoring my presence he continued along before darting away again after a few minutes.

Surprisingly, he kept coming back! As one point he swam over and settled into the sand right in front of me, watching me fumble with my camera, hoping to  get it into position and snap a decent shot. He never settled quite long enough for me to take a couple shots, so it was either you got it or you don’t type of situation. I was excited about this shot, though in order to have the background exposed properly I had the shutter speed set too slow to capture the seal crisply. The strobe froze him in place, but the longer shutter speed allowed him to blur after the strobe had fired. Next time, I ought to open up the aperture so that I can stop down the shutter speed in hopes of still having a well exposed background and a nice crisp critter!

One last try, before needing to give up and head back to the boat, but I guess I got too close (seriously was worried as I inched nearer and nearer that he might try to bite my camera or myself, but he just sat there watching me) and my flash was a little over powerful, he even had to squint!

Overall I found it incredible how inquisitive this guy was, and how huge! The seals always seem smaller compared to the sea lions, and they are a little bit, but they are still pretty huge! I got to sit and watch this guy cruise around the kelp and dig in the sand. I watched him chase a fish nearly catching it. It was incredible. Just wish the viz had been a little clearer, and the surge a little less so that there would be less sand and particles floating around in the water!

Blast from the Past.

Wow, it’s been more than a month since I’ve graced you with my web presence, and truthfully it’s now been more than a month since I’ve been in the ocean (well unless you count the many times I’ve been swimming in it lately, but really it does not compare). Life has been busy, I went home and visited my Mom, traveled up to Mammoth to hike and bike with my friend Amy, worked in the scuba shop, have done some pool teaching days,  been making cakes and running around training for my next triathlon. So again, Constant Reader (there’s at least one of you checking each day and yes I stole that phrase from Stephen King) sorry for my absence from the internets. I promise I’ll be back enforce soon. Summer is coming, which means hopefully the return of AMPM diving… I just need my dive buddy’s knee to heal!

However, in the mean time here’s a blast from the past. Its the most solid influence for why I am here today, teaching, shooting pictures and truly loving the underwater world. In 2006, three years after getting my first taste of diving before returning to the dry wasteland of the Tucson desert (well not true, the Sonoran Desert is really, really beautiful), I found an internship out in Hawaii that would a) get me diving again, and b) allow me to practice and learn more about shooting underwater. Immediately I contacted them, and applied. I was accepted (only after I assured them that my knowledge of video and editing (I was a film major after all) would not give me a chip on my shoulder, and I would be eager to learn their process and practices. In addition I applied for a scholarship offered through the Media Arts College and received one, getting almost everything but the airfare covered (my amazing parents covered the rest). Let me re-phrase this… I was able to get my school to pay for me to go diving. I was stoked.

At the end of June I traveled to Hawaii, fitted with a new set of gear (some borrowed from my Uncle, some newly purchased…his gift to me, as he loves diving and was excited to see me getting involved more with it). I met up with Martina and Jim, the owners of Dolphin Dreams Images. Jim is a professional underwater photographer and videographer, who has had images and videos in many different magazines and assisted with several national geographic and other video shoots in Hawaii. Their primary business though is to film tourists on the popular Manta Ray night dives and Dolphin Ohana snorkel adventures. They sell the DVDs and photos to divers, and we the interns assist them with every facet of the operation. During the trip I would earn my Advanced Open Water certification, as well as Nitrox and a Manta Ray Diver specialty. I learned a TON about Manta Rays through giving the Manta Eco talk at the Sheraton some evenings, a trade in which we gave the talk to hotel guests who would come out to watch the mantas dance gracefully near the surface, swooping in and out of the beam from the large light they have shooting into the water to attract plankton (which then attracts the rays). In return we were allowed to use their shallow pool to offer intro to scuba to anyone interested. This was my first experience in a teaching situation, and I found I loved it. Those few days in the pool are really what put the idea of pursuing scuba into my mind.

In the evenings we assisted with all the scuba and camera gear set up, and would drive this ancient and awesome old suv down to the boat, and assist with getting the gear loaded and ready to go. If we were diving with them that night, we’d stick around. If not, we’d head into town and grab some food, the return to give the Manta talk. On days that we were diving, we would get to experience the dive just like the normal tourists, or sometimes even help out with the video duties. I remember the first night that Martina asked me to lead. Its a simple out and back dive, but I was SO nervous. It was night, pitch black and I’d never lead a dive before…surprisingly we all survived. One evening at the north site (by the airport…Garden Eel Cove (by day), we had 17 manta rays show up. It was insanity, Mantas were everywhere. The line up was: Alexander, Doug, Timbuktu, Knight, Big Bertha (who was pregnant and is the largest one they know of at 16ft), Lefty, Rebekah, Isabel, Wyland, Who Ray, X-Ray, Cousteau, Curly, Sugar Ray, Kaulani, Bob-n-Ray and Miki. This was definitely the best dive of the trip, and is a dive that I will remember forever.

Late at night after the Manta we’d digitize the tapes, and edit the dive down into a nice video with music to be mailed out or delivered to the hotel of the folks who purchased a DVD. In the mornings, when we went out of the Dolphin Ohana, a snorkeling adventure that caught up with the pod of dolphins slowly cruising back to a large bay after a night of hunting. They would chill and swim around in the bay, half awake while dozens of snorkelers got an up close view of the animals that many people only see in theme parks. Again, we assisted with any gear, helped out on the boat, and talked with the customers, assisting them if needed. After just like at night, we’d set up a small TV so that they could see the video as they left the boat, and could purchase a DVD or pictures that we would be editing that afternoon once we got back to the boat.

In addition to all my intern duties, we had chances to go diving for fun from the beach, and a couple of times out on the boat of one of the folks that Martina and Jim know and work with. I got to explore all over the Kona area, going into and making it out of several awesome lava tubes, hunting octopus and eels and other elusive creatures that hide out in the coral. We had days off where we could go into town and shop, relax, hang out at the beach, do just about anything we wanted…

Two of my weekends out there I was able to take off with some of the other interns and explore. On one occasion we rented a jeep and drove around the entire big island, stopping at the black sand beaches, hiking out along lava beds to where the Volcano is currently erupting (this was an adventure in itself as we didn’t plan and ended up hiking in flip flops, with no water or flashlights for the nighttime return back…and FYI lava is sharp!). We slept in the jeep when we discovered the campground was full, the showered in a cool river in the jungle like flora of Hilo before nearly tipping the jeep off a cliff as we traveled tiny single track roads to nowhere. We watched surfers on the beach, and drove through a crazy rainstorm before we emerged on the back side of the Big Island. Continuing around we found our planned campsite had been “bought out” for a family reunion, so once again, we found a deserted area and slept in the car. We spent the day on pristine beaches snorkeling and napping, before driving back into Kona to return the jeep and go back to interning in paradise.

On the other weekend I flew over to Oahu. We stopped at Pearl Harbor, but missed the chance to get over to the USS Arizona. From there we wandered Waikiki, then the next morning drove across the small island for a shark encounter, a snorkel adventure in a cage with sharks swimming all around. It was AMAZING. From there we continued our exploration of Oahu by taking the scenic route and driving the coast around, stopping at a variety of beaches and locations until we got back to Honolulu and the airport to fly “home” to the Big Island.

All in all this internship was one of the best experiences of my life, and I would definitely say is was a big influence into my decision to pursue a profession with scuba. Enjoy the slideshow below of many of my pictures from the trip! If you want to read more in detail, I kept a little blog/journal of the trip, updating each day: http://billytheplatypus.blogspot.com/ (the last post is first, so click on the archives and start with the oldest entry to follow in succession…)

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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.

Dolphin Frenzy.

The second large group of dolphins heads east as we near Catalina Island.

Last Sunday I was aboard the dive boat Mr. C, headed out to Catalina Island to complete weekend two of the Open Water course I was teaching. Finally, unlike the previous couple of weekends, we had perfectly calm seas, though the skies were overcast with rain possible in the afternoon. Not long after exiting the harbor we ran across a rare, and amazing sight. Dolphins. This was not the usual 4-5 cruisers surfing along the surge of water pushed ahead of the bow of the boat. No, ahead of us were hundreds of dolphins that seemed to be making a beeline across the vast seas for some unknown purpose. They were all cruising at a decent speed, popping up out of the water before sliding back in and popping out again. Our boat was traveling just a little faster than they were and we caught up to them, then slowly moved through the crowd. It was incredible to watch the pod of dolphins all moving along as a giant unit. With no camera on hand, I grabbed my iphone to snag a couple of pictures and a short video. This was definitely not something I had ever seen before, and to top it off we ran across another large pod doing the same thing in the opposite direction as we neared Catalina later in the morning. It was fantastic!

Champagne Toast (and more oil rigs!).

As I mentioned in my previous post on the second dive of the oil rigs Jessica brought along a little bottle of champagne for an underwater toast to my 100th dive! She just finished editing an awesome video of the day, and it includes a shot of my taking a nice swig of champagne while getting checked out by a curious sea lion. I’m not going to lie, while a bit salty, it was really entertaining to drink a little bubbly underwater with a sea lion! How many people can say they’ve done that? Enjoy the video, its fantastic! (Thanks to Jessica for letting me share!) The champagne toast is at the end of the video, but watch out for her amazing shot of one of the Salp colonies, its my favorite!

Diving the Oil Rig Eureka.

When I tell some of my non-diver friends that I am heading off to dive an oil rig this weekend I often get weird looks and questions like, “why would you want to do that?”, “what is there to see on an oil rig?” Well, for those who haven’t experienced it, the answer is quite a lot.

We dive the oil rigs off of Long Beach, CA. They sit in about 700 feet of water, so unlike most dives, where you can at least see the bottom contour, or follow along a rock shelf, you are completely in blue water and keeping control of your depth is very important. The dives are deep, and sometimes there can be currents (though I’ve lucked out with two years worth of good calm oil rig trips). Due to these reasons the oil rig dives are considered advanced (and if you ever needed one, are a perfect reason to take the advanced course!)

I love diving the oil rigs because they offer an experience unlike any other. The boat ride is short; they pull up close to the rig and as many people as possible plunge into the ocean and swim away from the boat. Often there is a pause in off loading divers so the boat can reposition itself to avoid drifting into the rig. Its all bit chaotic and rushed, buts it’s exciting. Once off the boat you swim inside the rig structure (being careful to mind the swell so it doesn’t push your head right up into a large beam). Then the boat drives away! It doesn’t go far, but it can’t anchor to anything and has to keep a safe distance from the rig. After grouping up with your buddies you descend straight down into the abyss. Depth for these dives is totally up to each diver, you can go all the way down to the recreational limits if you wanted. On Saturday we decided that we would go down as deep as we could until either someone got narc’ed and wanted to stop, or we reached 130′. Having never been narc’ed (though I’ve been deep – to 125′ before) I was curious if this would be the dive. It surely was. We dropped down fairly quickly and as soon as we hit around 112′ my heart started thumping and I realized that I felt funny. We kept going down and at 117′ it was too much, I was giddy, excited, could not stop smiling, then actually started to laugh out loud for a little bit before my higher brain function took over and said, “Hey Kelli, you’re totally narc’ed! Pay attention, mind your depth, how’s your air, stay focused!” For those who don’t know, being “narc’ed” is encountering Nitrogen Narcosis, which is an overload of nitrogen in your system that occurs from breathing excess nitrogen due to increased pressure in your breathing gas during a deep dive. It’s really non-life threatening, mostly makes you feel drunk, silly or impaired in some way. My buddy Beck, got very anxious and tenses up when narc’ed, while I went all giddy and couldn’t stop smiling. Anyways, after this realization I gave Beck, Jessica and Bryan signals to say, I’m narc’ed! Lets level out here, I don’t want to go any deeper!

Once we reached that depth, all that was left was to go back up. So we started our ascent, and really our dive. As we slowly ascended back through the structure we swam around, over, and through the various metal crossings, and beams. Everything was absolutely covered with life. Corals and anemones covered every inch of the structure. Sea fans grew, and brittle stars lay in bunches on top of other growth. Hiding in holes and crevasses of the corals and anemones were small fish that would dart in and out as you got near. Large fish rested on the beams as well, or swam around inside the structure. We encountered huge schools of baitfish swimming through, and sea lions would glide down from the surface, effortlessly moving around us before bolting back up.

The oil rigs are probably one of the most surreal dives I’ve experienced, as you watch the large beams that plunge into the depths and the giant cross sections that support those beams all materialize as you near them. Hazy shapes take form as you slowly ascend back towards them. The whole dive is really mysterious and completely unique.

I saw several new creatures on these two dives. We encountered several colonies of Salps. A salp is typically a barrel shaped, free floating tunicate (underwater, saclike filter feeder). They float along in the ocean, move by contracting and pumping water through its body, which it also feeds off of. I saw two, possibly three different types. One was a long chain, at least 5-7′ of small tubes all joined together. It would curl and uncurl as it floated along. The other was a series of three rings joined together with golden parts inside, and the third, if even a salp, looked like a single organism and was almost fish shaped. It moved along with the use of one larger fin that swung back and forth over its body.

This year, these two dives happened to fall on a big milestone for me. Dive #99 and #100 were my two oil rig dives. I’ve now hit triple digits in my number of dives and to celebrate, my friend Jessica brought a small bottle of champagne down in her BCD pocket. During our safety stop around 15′ she pulled it out and popped the cork. We each took a nice big swig, doing our best to block the opening with our finger in an attempt to keep out as much sea water as possible. It was awesome, and to cap it all off, we had a very curious sea lion that kept swimming down to our group and checking out what we were doing. I tried to offer him some champagne, but he wasn’t really interested.

Our day had started with another rare event, Blue Whale sightings just off our bow. There were several whales surfacing in the channel, so the boat stopped and we watched from a distance as these majestic creatures slowly rose up, took a nice big breath, and dropped back below the surface. We were lucky on the return to run into the whales again, much closer this time and watched them rise and fall in the water, their smooth backs gliding out of sight each time they dropped back down. It was my first time seeing a Blue Whale, and they really are as big as all the books say! It was insane to see something that big with my own eyes.

I could not have asked for a better 100th dive, and even got to celebrate with the entire boat on the way back, as Jessica pulled another full size bottle of champagne, some orange juice and plastic cups from the cooler and poured mimosas for everyone, she then raised her glass in celebration of my dive, and everyone followed suit. It was great.

The little things in life.

Fin straps. They really aren’t that bad, typically a piece of rubber that ratchets tight through two plastic clips often with a quick release making it easy to remove. Simple contraption, easy to use, so really something that wouldn’t need an upgrade right?

Wrong.

The moment I got my new fins earlier in the year I heard, “sweet, those are great fins, now what you really need are some spring straps.” Most of my scuba buddies have spring straps, and all of them exclaim how wonderful they are, but I never really bought into it. I’d never had too much trouble getting my fins on and off in the surf, so why spend extra money on something that wasn’t really necessary?

Well fast forward a bit to a couple of beach dives where tiny bits of sand got stuck in the quick release mechanism of my regular fin straps. Those granules made it impossible to fully depress the button and release the fin straps which meant I was stuck sitting in the surf zone getting battered by wave after wave as I tried in vain to remove my fins. On one occasion I even had to crawl out of the water, sit in the sand and then pull them off, pretty embarassing. Not to mention that I was cleaning sand out of every piece of gear for weeks. Needless to say, the idea of spring straps began to grow on me.

So what’s so great about spring straps? Basically they are a high tension spring that you fit to the size of your foot in your fin so that there is no longer any adjusting of straps to get the proper tightness keeping the fin secure on your foot. In addition, since it’s a spring, you no longer need the quick release for getting out of your fins because you just pull back on the large, easy to grab (even in gloves) loop and then slide the fin off your foot. Magnificent.

I pushed the idea of upgrading to the back of my head because I had much more important (and expensive) things I needed to be putting my money towards, namely my Instructor class, and the upcoming Instructor Exam. Then I went out with Brett as an assistant one Sunday when he had 9 students for Open Water and ended up rescuing a student’s fancy expensive watch from the bottom of the ocean. It really was just luck; he had tried to stay in one spot while floating on the surface looking for it, but I noticed he was drifting, called him back over and said we’d do a quick search on the bottom once we descended. I then glanced down below me and noticed something shining on the bottom. Once Brett surfaced with another diver he was completing a CESA with, I asked him if I could drop down real quick and see if it was the watch. It was, and the student was so grateful that I managed to recover it, that he put a $100 credit on my account at Eco.

All in all I was amazed, it was totally more than necessary, especially since it was total luck that I happened to spot the reflective face of the watch from the surface, and that it didn’t get buried in the sand when it sank. However, the credit was there, and now I had free money to spend. So I bought myself a nice shiny new pair of spring straps for my fins. It took a little bit sitting on the couch to get them adjusted and installed on my fins, and then later in the week I went out for a dive and got to test them out.

It was beautiful. The ease of being able to slide my foot in the fin then just let go and the strap sprang back tight against my foot immediately was fantastic. There was no struggling to adjust the strap and get the next fin on before the next wave hit, no issue of making sure I had them loose enough before entering the water, just pull, let go and swim away! The straps were comfortable and held my foot securely in the fin the whole time, and exiting the water was a breeze. I just had to grab the loop, pull back the spring and off the came. No more struggling with a finicky quick release.

Seriously, I would recommend spring straps to anyone now, especially if you do any beach diving. I totally understand why they exist and why everyone kept telling me I needed to get them. So thanks Dan, for your gracious credit, and I can’t wait to get in the water again!

(ps. I’m being good with the remainder of the credit, it’s going to go towards my class in one way or another) :o)