Anilao Wide Open.

The beauty of Anilao is found in the diversity. When your eyes get tired of hunting for the minuscule among the sandy muck or hiding within the folds of a crinoid you can simply change lenses and open your eyes to the full scene. Lush coral reefs abound around the area offering colorful fish by the hundreds and incredibly scenes to try to capture. Here are a few of those scenes from my first trip to the Philippines back in 2013.

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

Dig Deeper.

Finally, after much delay, the final installment of my trip to Florida in June. Finally the real meat of the trip, the reason we had flown across the country and were still hopeful despite the consistently poor weather we’d had throughout the week. Treasure Diving. That’s right, treasure diving. We were in Key West to get a once in a lifetime chance to search for sunken treasure on the ocean floor.

History side note: The treasure we were looking for is from the wreck of the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1622 leaving tons of the gold, silver coins, emeralds, jewelry, pottery and so much more on the bottom of the ocean floor. After more than 15 years of searching, in 1985 Mel Fisher and his team stumbled upon the “mother lode” bringing up the richest treasure find in the world since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1930. Since then they have continued working the area, bringing up more treasure and different artifacts each year.

Earlier in the week we got a sneak peek behinds the scenes at the conservation room above the Mel Fisher Museum, where all the magic of restoration happens. We learned some important details that would be helpful during our hunt beneath the sea, for example, most metals look different after spending years on the bottom of the ocean. Silver turns black, and iron becomes encrusted to the point that you wouldn’t know it’s iron except for the pinging of the metal detector.

Getting to see some of recently restored treasure.

A canon ball in a desalination tank


A sword hilt pulled from the ocean floor.

One exception is gold. Gold stays nice and sparkly and does not attract encrustations. It also does not show up on most metal detectors (although we were told that the ones they are using are so sensitive that they do pick up gold.)

Now as you know from reading my two previous posts, we happened to cross paths with the beginnings of a tropical storm while in Key West. Our first day of diving was rescheduled from the nice coral reefs to the community college lagoon, we barely were able to get out to the Vandenberg, and now our days on the Atocha wreck were in jeopardy. We were saddened to find out Wednesday night, that the winds were holding strong. The crew of the Magruder (the treasure salvaging ship) were hiding out in the safety of the Marquesas, and were not going to be able to get out and set up the next day. Still hopeful, we clung to our new motto, modeled off of Mel Fisher’s classic line, “Today’s the day”, and told each other, it would be okay, “tomorrow’s the day!” Luckily it was! We were able to pack up and head out late Friday morning, despite the still high seas.

After the ride out on the small speed boat “Lucky Dog” we got to the Magruder to hear annoyed and angry voices coming over the radio. The ship had gotten back to the coordinates in the morning and began mooring off only to find that sometime since they were last at the site another large ship (probably a coast guard cutter), had come through and severed the mooring line from one of the anchors.

Quick side note: the Margruder uses three mooring points, one of the bow and two off the stern, so that it stays exactly in one place. This allows the mailboxes to work and they can precisely adjust their searching pattern by letting out and pulling in a certain amount of line on each of the anchors, slowly moving the ship around the ocean. Each anchor weighed several tons!

The crew had spent the morning pulling out the gps coordinates, relocating the anchor, re-attaching the mooring line and tying off. It made it even more difficult that they had to do it in rough seas. The next step was another doozy. To get on the Magruder we had to transfer from the fiberglass speedboat, to the aluminum work boat, then leap up onto the Magruder. This can be dangerous in calm seas, and we were not in calm seas. We all made it safely, with the only catastrophe being that a cleat was pulled off the small boat as they tried to tie off to the Magruder. The crew transferred all of our gear and it was time to get ready for treasure hunting.

The mailboxes, before being lowered over the prop.

We left a trail of sand throughout the day as the current pushed it away from the boat.

The first step was lowering the mailboxes and blowing the first hole. The mailboxes are these large pipes that lower off the back of the boat covering the props. The propellers are then turned on to full and the prop wash is sent gushing down into the ocean floor blowing all the layers of sand and sediment away leaving a 5-6′ hole down to the coral hard seabed. Once the current has cleared the area enough to be able to go down and start searching.

While we were waiting, we got to mingle with the crew and see some of the the artifacts they had found earlier in the week. As soon as the first hole was cleared, it was go time.

For the ascent the best option was to put your fins on your arms so they wouldn’t be in the way climbing the ladder.

Treasure diving is not for the faint of heart. Luckily we started with a pretty calm current, but by the end of the day the current was RIPPING. To be successful you couldn’t spare any time. After giant striding into the ocean we just continued straight down, quickly looking for the line that directs you to the hole. The visibility was about 2ft at best, and the current is pulling you in the opposite direction. At the end of the dive it was the opposite. In order to not be swept away, and to be able to actually get out of the water, we removed our fins in the bottom of the hole (no current) then ascended hand over hand on the line to the ladder. The waves were pushing the boat side to side, so the ladder was plunging in and out of the water. Once you grabbed hold you had to hold on for dear life as you would be pulled out of the water then pushed back in until you were safe back up on the deck of the ship. It was rather exhilarating!

As I mentioned, visibility was pretty awesome. The big plus was that there was no current once down in the hole.Unfortunately my very old small canon camera that I had not used in about a year and half flooded after jumping off the boat. However my buddy Kendra had her’s and got some great pictures that really show what it was like down there.

Our job was to dig around in the “solution” holes, looking mostly for something shiny, like gold or for pottery and other artifacts that are not picked up by the metal detector. The whole time you’re down there searching thinking, what if there is something in this hole, then you move to the next and think, what if there is something in this hole, etc etc, so on and so forth.

This is what we were searching in. A solution hole is basically a hole in the hard coral formation of the seabed that is filled with shells and sand, and maybe, just maybe treasure!

In the midst of the hunt!

Every now and then a ray would swim by, or I’d look up to see a huge fish just chilling on the edge of the hole and I’d be reminded that we were out in the middle of the ocean.

One of the crew, finishing up his pattern with the metal detector.

It was a crazy day, and unfortunately it was cut a little short as the winds picked back up in the afternoon so we only got in four short treasure dives. Despite that we all had a blast, and while we didn’t come away with anything sparkly, we all found some pretty awesome shells, coral pieces, sand dollars and these awesome large sand-dollar like pieces that I learned are called Sea Biscuits. After the dives, we were able to look at the large map of the search area, and see the four holes we dug.

This large map, is still only a portion of the whole search area!

A closer view, the four holes we dug are near the center, numbers 7671-7674.

See the Sea Bass.

One of the really great things to see out here in Southern California are the Giant Sea Bass. These huge fish, swim lazily in the water, moving slowing with long casual flicks of their tail. Often easily recognizable by their size and large black spots, they were over fished in the 1950’s and 60’s making them also an elusive find these days. After protection laws were put in place and fishing stopped the Giant Sea Bass has been making a come back.

Every time we dive certain sites, like Goat Harbor, we’re told that the Sea Bass typically can be found there. These days I am often with students and end up in the sandy shallows away from the deeper water the fish enjoy, and up until Saturday I had not had been lucky enough to glimpse one of these large fish.

Saturday we went out with Eco Dive Center on the Bat Ray to clean up parts of the wreck of the Star of Scotland in Santa Monica Bay. I was filming the group as they searched for fishing line, old lures, trash, discarded nets and more and removed them carefully to help make the wreck a cleaner and safer dive site. This wreck is also known to be home to several Giant Sea Bass, so once again I was hopeful. Towards the end of the dive, such hope was rewarded. I happened upon the whole school of GSB!! Unfortunately I didn’t get a great picture, and didn’t get too close to one, but check out the shot below. I count 10. Yep 10 just hanging out about 10 feet above the wreck! Love it. No spots on these guys, the biggest was only about 4-5ft, the rest around 3-4ft, but still an awesome sight!

Deep Blue Sea.

Yesterday I ventured out in the sea with a small group of divers on the Giant Stride. Our destination…somewhere off the coast of Palos Verdes in about 2,000 feet of water. Why? Well… why not?!

I took part in what is called a Blue Water Dive. This is where we drop a line around 100ft off the boat, then descend on it, tethering yourself to the down line. The tether line is typically around 20ft long, and you just float and drift in the middle of the ocean with the current. Unfortunately yesterday the current was a bit strong, and the ocean seemed pretty empty. Carolyn and I shared a down line, and we caught a glimpse of a Mola Mola swimming away from us as we descended but that was all we got. There were a couple floaters, pelagic life that just drifts around the sea.

With the stronger current, I left the strobe to my camera on the boat, and just went down with my light for video. The experience was incredible. At first it seemed a bit daunting as I descended into nothingness. Once I hit my target depth, around 90ft I tried to clip my tether to the down line. After watching Carolyn (a BW veteran) easily clip and release her line, I started working on mine. Clinging to the down line for dear life, I was jerked up and down as the boat bounced on the swells way above us. I fumbled with my clips, and managed to get them unhooked from myself while keeping one leg wrapped around the down line. At one point my leg slipped and a quick vision of me floating tetherless as my friends drifted away flashed through my mind. I quickly kicked hard and grabbed the downline. Managing to secure my tether I cautiously started to let it out. It was the weirdest feeling, being suspended in the water pulled only by the small line attached to my BCD. I didn’t need to navigate, I didn’t need to check on where my buddy might have wandered off to, I just hung there, scanning the blue void.

I floated on my back staring up at the shadow of the boat 90ft above me, marveling that I could even see it and enjoying the weightlessness of the dive. I took a little bit of video so I could share what it was like, although there is really no way to express the giant expanse of water surrounding you on a dive like this through video. I’m definitely hooked on this style of diving, can’t wait to go again and looking forward to another twist if we manage to get our black water dive organized. Black water is the same as blue water….only at night. Sends a shiver down your spine, doesn’t it? Exciting.

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!

Time for your close up.

Jumping back under the water, even though I’ve been landlocked for the last couple weeks, here are another couple photos from my last dive out at Anacapa. I had been working on capturing more macro and closeups, so for these I was set up with the camera a bit zoomed in and my strobe fairly close to the lens as was swimming back to the boat. This rockfish (I think) swam up and decided to try and take a bite out of my strobe. I caught him just as he was headed up towards my strobe for the second time, and I loved what came out. He’s framed oddly, with much of the fish cut off but his eye is perfectly in focus, staring me down. The bright rim draws your attention then the empty black pupil just sucks you in! I also really like the texture on his skin and the mottled colors of his face that really stand out in this image.

The other fishy face I captured was from a kelp bass that kept swimming around me. I really like his disapproving face as he eyes me. I was also really happy that his little pointy teeth were lit from my strobe and are nicely defined in the picture.

Hermit Hiding.

Throughout the fourth dive, Fish Bowl Point, there were a variety of Hermit Crabs out enjoying the warm water. I say warm, as it was nearly 60 degrees up at Anacapa which out here is rather warm! I was able to sneak up on this guy and snap a couple photos before he shrank into his shell, and for once, the shallow focus plane hit right where I wanted it to! His eye and little arms are nicely in focus and it almost seems like he’s watching me come close. Well, he probably was!

I’m headed up to Guerneville, CA this weekend (think Napa area) for some swimming, biking, running and wine tasting! I hope everyone in LA has a nice weekend and gets a chance to escape the “carmageddon” freeway closure. Hey…go diving!

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!

Painted Faces.

On the fourth dive at Fishbowl Point there were a ton of Painted Greenlings sitting on rocks, enjoying darting just out of frame each time I tried to snap a shot of one. I managed two decent shots, the first as I was trying to approach and get on the same level as the fish for a face on shot (he swam off before I could get into postion, so I’m a little above). Its not great as I missed the focus on his face/eyes, but rather got the little fringe bits on the top of his head perfectly illuminated and in focus! Ha.

The second, was pretty much luck. I had a couple of these type of shots this day. For this one, I was trying to get nearer and nearer to a greenling when he took off, then swam right in front of my camera. Without hesitation I clicked the shutter, and managed to capture, in focus, half of him as he swam past my lens!