Surgealicious.

At the beginning of July I got the chance to finish an Advanced class with several students that I had began the class with a couple months ago. We were headed out on the Peace with two dives to complete, which meant I would also get two “fun dives” in. Excited for another chance to practice photography, I brought my camera to use on the dives once we were done with the AOW class. The day was great, though the visibility wasn’t fantastic in general. We hit up Cathedral Gardens and Rat Rock first, and I was a bit bummed at Rat Rock that I didn’t have the camera with me. When we hopped in and descended I looked for a patch of sand to start with the class and couldn’t find anything, the bottom seemed covered in thin weeds. However when we got closer I discovered that it was not weeds, but rather brittle stars! The entire bottom of the ocean in this area was thoroughly blanketed with massive amounts of brittle stars. It was incredible. Hopefully I’ll get to go back soon with camera in hand.

I was able to take the camera on dives 3 and 4 at Channels and Fish Bowl Point respectively. Since the visibility was limited, I decided to focus on macro which would keep me close to the subject and the poor viz wouldn’t matter so much. This would have been great except for one minor issue. SURGE. Most of my dive was spent in about 20ft of water, and the surge was intense. I found it extremely difficult to compose a shot with the macro lens on, a few inches from a subject and snap the shutter before I was tossed back and forth with the surge.

There were a ton of really beautifully colored anemones at the Channels dive site, and I wanted to practice shooting them as the lines and patterns they contain can make beautiful pictures. I didn’t have a ton of luck in capturing that great shot of a perfectly centered anemone with its tendrils fanning out along the edge, but I did capture several different colors and beautiful patterns of lines. Hopefully I’ll get to visit again with better viz and much less surge! Here’s the first of the next round of photo posts: Anemones!

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Filling the Frame.

The second to last group of pictures from my photography adventure a couple weeks ago is of a tube anemone. I had my macro adapter with me and really wanted to work on some macro shots and practice with “filling the frame,” another one of Scott’s composition tips. I had a little trouble at first, not getting my camera to focus properly…that is until realizing I had messed with the settings on my camera and was not even in the mode I wanted to be. After taking a second to switch back into manual and check my exposure settings I tried again. This time everything worked right. After that I spent the next 15 minutes (at least!) huddled over this anemone trying to get a shot with it wide open, perfectly centered with its tendrils spreading out of the frame. Finally I got it…well its maybe not 100% in the center, but its pretty darn close!

I continued shooting, trying different angles, still working to fill the frame but also to see if a lower angle, or an off angle would create a more compelling image. I remembered the rules of trying to use the diagonal and ended up liking this next image…

What I really liked is how the inner tendrils of the anemone are more prevalent, carefully reaching up and out of the dark center. Once again, I had trouble not shifting any sandy bits as I knelt in the sand next to the small creature, but as a first time practice I’m okay with the small white spots of sand marring the dark center. If I really wanted to I’m sure I could take them out in photoshop, but I haven’t had the time.

After awhile I remembered I was underwater with a finite air supply, so I checked my gauges, surprised to find my air half gone and 30 minutes elapsed. Yikes! Looking around I also discovered that the rest of the group had moved on to other subjects, so I said goodbye to my anemone and swam up to shallower water in order to make the dive last a bit longer and to find another macro subject.

Up North: The Monterey Breakwater.

After successfully completing our IE, Shane and I stayed at the Monterey Breakwater to go out for a “real” dive. Neither of us had ventured this far north before and we were interested to see what lay beneath their sea. Monterey is known for colder temperatures than Los Angeles, and for some rough seas. We were warned that our test conditions were probably going to be less than ideal. However, as mentioned earlier, we could not have asked for calmer weather. It was chilly and overcast on land, but the ocean temperatures were in the mid 50’s which, unfortunately, has been normal for us in LA this year.

We were advised by some of the other folks in our IE group to enter from the middle area and swim down along a large pipe towards the Metridium Field. This is a large field of Metridiums, which are basically huge white anemones. While they are fairly common from Washington down through California, for reasons unknown a large patch of them grown in this one location off the Breakwater beach. Now please excuse me, if I go Star Wars on you at some point in this article, as I was unfamiliar with these animals, and my brain immediately changed the name to Midichlorians and I still confuse the words! Yes I know, these massive anemones are not the organisms that create the Force, but my mind wanted to make them so.

We were given instructions and a heading to take in order to find the pipe, and set off for adventure. The visibility was not the best, but it was decent and we dropped down into about 20′ of water and swam out in search of the large pipe that was described to us. First we found a small pipe, and unsure began to follow that down into deeper water. We explored around it as we swam until it abruptly ended. Shrugging at each other the unspoken consensus was, “well lets just dive around and see what we see”. A few minutes later I swam over a large half buried pipe. This had to be what we were originally searching for! I signaled to Shane and we once again were on track swimming deeper and further out into the ocean.

The life up in Monterey is very similar to our home in Los Angeles, though there were definitely plants and fish I hadn’t seen before. We had seen otters playing in the water from the surface and while I hoped and hoped that one would just swim by us on our dive, we had no such luck. While being adorable, I was told that the otters are more of a menace to the dive instructors, as they will get on and inside the dive floats, tossing out weights and rope you may have stored inside and sometimes even popping the float itself. As one person told me, “its annoying when you’re trying to teach and the next thing you see is your float slowly sinking behind your students.” Having not experienced that, the idea made me chuckle. Another creature that was very prevalent up in the colder Monterey waters are Jellyfish. As we began the dive in the shallower waters we’d see a few of these jellies, Sea Nettles, I believe. As we went deeper and deeper, they grew in numbers. There would be times that I’d be studying a rock area, or watching several fish swimming around, then I’d look up to swim forward and stop short as there was a jellyfish right in front of me. At one point in the dive, I looked up as we swam along and the water above me was dotted with jellies, large and small, everywhere. I just wish I had a better camera system that could light the darker water so I could show everyone just how many there were, but my little strobe wouldn’t reach and my photos came out black. There was so many though, that a couple times during the dive I had to stop kicking because I couldn’t see a safe route through them. I knew I was mostly safe as every inch of ¬†me was covered in neoprene. Every inch except for some very important ones in the face region. The last thing I wanted was to return to LA with a face full of jellyfish stings! Luckily neither Shane or I had a run in, and we made it down to the Metridium¬†field safely.

Getting close to the field was supernatural at best. These anemones are so starkly white that the seem to glow under the water, so as we neared, the water lightened and slowly the large blurs began to take shape. They were beautiful. Large white columns that exploded at the top in a burst of small, fine tentacles. The field was exactly that; a huge grouping of metridiums that started abruptly and ended just as quick. It was a large rocky patch absolutely covered in various sized metridiums. Some stood alone, others bunched together in a sort of miniature underwater forest. I would have loved to explore them for awhile, but unfortunately it was a long swim to get there so we had to turn back after a few short minutes and start the trek back to shallower waters.

So we swam back through the masses of jellies as we followed the pipe. Once in shallower depths we explored some of the kelp, though stayed mostly in the rocky reef area until our air supply was up and we surfaced. It was a fantastic dive, and whetted my appetite for more northern adventures, though possibly after a purchase of a drysuit, especially as our dive took place at the end of summer when water temperatures are probably the warmest. Thanks Monterey for the memories, can’t wait to return!

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.