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!!

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.

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!

The unpredictable California waters.

Diving in California, as I’ve learned over these past four years, can be completely unpredictable. Even if you pull up at a dive site that appears calm and clear on the surface, that is not necessarily what you will find on the bottom. Last weekend I went out with a previous student of mine, a young girl of 12, for some guided dives on the Spectre. We were hoping for Anacapa Island, but strong currents and swell on one side and winds and chop on the other drove us over to San Clemente. We were still facing similar challenges there, but the larger island allowed a bit more refuge for us to anchor and and find a decent spot. The first place we pulled up to was Sandstone Point. Remember that site name, it says a lot about what we found on the bottom. The water was pretty calm up top, deep blue and looking down it appeared that we could see nearly to the bottom 30 feet below. Kelp was up, mostly, which was a good sign. Gearing up and dropping in I started to realize that the bottom was moving. The further we descended the weirder it got until we hit the soup. The bottom was moving because there was so much surge washing everything back and forth. Remember the dive site name? The bottom was completely sand and sandstone, with thick patches of kelp so as the surge pushed through, all the sand was kicked up creating a thick soup with visibility of about 5-10ft in places. The dive also had the feel of a desert sand storm. There was sand in the water, the surge was like the wind whipping around us and all the critters had disappeared. It felt oddly barren down there. Despite the poor conditions, we still enjoyed the dive, exploring around as the different patches of kelp would slowly materialize in front of us.

Isabel handled the soupy mess wonderfully, floating back and forth with the surge and still having a blast despite the conditions!

The next two dives offered rocky bottom, which dramatically improved the overall visibility. We hit Red Bluff first, and while there was still a bit of surge, it was a world of difference from the first dive. Wide open bottom with nearly zero kelp and large rocky boulders made this a great site for exploring and hunting down nudibranch and other good macro subjects. It would have been a perfect site for me to settle in a few key spots and really practice my photography, but I was leading the dive, not just out on my own. I did however put a plan into action to allow myself a chance to get a few photo practice moments. I brought my old little canon point and shoot for Isabel to use while diving. It gave her something to focus on, and just as I had hoped as soon as she started clicking away at the shutter she would pause on something which gave me small windows to find a subject and practice a bit before we’d move on. She had a blast with the camera, and watching her chase down fish and hang upside down trying to get a picture of a sea star reminded me of the first time I took a camera under the water. I also was reminded of how easily having that camera in hand makes a person forget about things like sticking close to a buddy. We had gone beach diving the day before with no cameras, and she was right next to me the entire time. Once she got that camera in hand though, there would be times I would look up, and she’d be further away chasing down a fish, or peering in a hole in a rock.

There was still a bit of surge, but the rocky floor at Red Bluff kelp the viz clearer. Isabel really got a chance to practice with my camera during the second dive

After Red Bluff we hit up Dropoff Reef, which was great. There was a little bit of sand getting kicked up, but overall the water was clear and visibility was great. This site was littered with nudibranchs which made me wish I had brought my macro lens, but I enjoyed getting as close as I could with just my standard set up. The decent visibility also allowed me to practice some wide angle, though I’m still having trouble illuminating a diver coming over the reef… probably because they are too far away, or I need that second strobe to light them while my first is lighting the reef…. oh well. My little camera malfunctioned on this dive (it is getting old) and wouldn’t turn on for Isabel, but she enjoyed spending the time peering in and under all the rocky ledges as we swam out and back along the dropoff. I tried to keep moving on this dive so she wouldn’t be bored of sitting in one place and we got to see a nice big chunk of the reef. On our way back we ran into Matt and his two students as they swam around for the fun tour portion of the dive after finishing skills.

Matt leads his students over to the reef, enjoying the nice visibility.

Lastly we headed back to Sandstone Point. This time we ended up on the eastern side where the surge was still fairly strong, but the bottom was rockier which meant MUCH better visibility. Four dives in a day is tiring, and that fourth dip in the California waters is chilly even though the temperatures stay the same. We wandered around the kelp enjoying the better visibility, and watching the abundance of fish zoom around. It was no longer a deserted wasteland, but rather teeming with life. Lobsters came out from their rocky hidey holes and one group of divers happened upon a bat ray… unfortunately though it was not us. As Isabel’s tank drew lower we headed back to the boat, slowly ascending through the kelp for our safety stop, and watching the mass of divers (mostly students) that had collected on the bottom just below us. Then it was back on the surface and up on the boat for the last time of the day.

With less surge on the far side of the same dive site, the visibility increased dramatically and all the fish came back!

Overall it was a fantastic day of diving. You may have noticed from the pictures that young Isabel is truly a rockstar. She did all four dives with no gloves, no vest or hood! She claimed that she was not cold, though I did catch her start to shiver towards the end of the fourth dive. What I found great about leading her on the dives was the opportunity it gave me to practice shooting people, as I had her swimming right with me the whole time, a perfect photo subject.

 

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!

Mystery Sack.

On the third dive there were a bunch of these sacks anchored in the sand. They were just whizzing back and forth with the surge, and I was honestly surprised that they held up as well as they did. The membranes seemed really thin, but obviously they are designed to withstand ocean conditions, so must be tougher than they look. Anyone know what this is?

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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Seen from Below.

At the end of the dive, Scott had us work on silhouettes. While he hoovered in around 5 feet of water, the four of us dropped back down and worked to capture an image with the sun directly behind him, remembering to adjust our settings to find the proper exposure so that the suns rays cascading through the water would be surrounding Scott, shadowing him to be dark against the light water.

I was amazed at how difficult this was… I’m sure I took at least 20 pictures and in all but one, I was barely off, with the sun exposed to the side, or completely showing. Sometimes I amputated a fin or arm from Scott. It seemed that every time I had the shot lined up, myself or Scott would move in the few seconds before I could depress the shutter, and I’d miss it. I also discovered that the EPL1 limits me to a shutter speed of 1/160. I don’t know if that’s just with the kit 14-42mm lens or the camera in general. I had to close down all the way to F22 in order to get a decent exposure, and I feel like I could have made it even better if I could have made the shutter speed just a little bit faster… oh well, that’s what Photoshop is for, right?

Here’s the shot, enjoy!

EPL1, Focal Length 14mm, F22 1/160

All Knotted Up.

Classic Square Knot. An oldie and a goodie, easy to tie, best used for securing two lines together.

Last night I took part in a  knot tying class that was being offered by Eco Dive Center.

The class was taught by a retired Navy Admiral from the US Coast Guard school.

Our fearless instructor, whose name I didn't catch. 😦

While I knew most of the knots he covered, the gentleman himself made the class entertaining and fun. He started off by reviewing parts of a line, such as the dead end, or the end that is tied off to something, the bitter end…a loose untied end (think how bitter it would be if you toss your anchor over the edge and didn’t secure the “bitter end”!). If you put a loop in the middle of a line, thats known as a bight or bite in the line. From there, in his casual and often “old man” meandering fashion we moved into tying several different knots. I wouldn’t say it was really an “advanced” knot tying class, he reviewed mostly the basic knots that are useful in any ocean related activity, such as diving, sailing, etc.

We started with simple overhand knots, then expounded that into the figure 8 knot, one I was familiar with from rock climbing. Both those knots are useful as quick and simple ways to tie a looped end that can be secured around anything. You can also use a longer line with several looped “bites” to create a quick makeshift ladder out of a single line.

A figure 8 knot tied into the bight of the line. I learned that the "bight" is the looped end.

Moving on from there he went into more knots such as the square knot, one that I’ve used many times, though often I just think of it as the “over – under” knot since its quickly tied correctly by remembering that you place the right end over the left, then the left over the right. Otherwise you can end up with a granny knot that will start to slip once tension is applied. We reviewed the sheet bend, another knot primarily used for tying two lines together. Its stronger than the square knot, and you can modify it by adding in additional loops which adds even more strength.

When it came to the bowline, the real fun began. This is a knot that is often used in diving for rigging lift bags, or tying off to different objects. Our instructor attempted to teach us a way to tie this knot one handed, which is quite complicated, and led to much amusement as everyone worked at it.

Triple Sheet Bend. A modification upon a regular sheet bend, the additional loops add strength to the knot

He also wowed everyone by swinging the rope around a few times then pulling it taught revealing a perfect bowline, then garnered laughter by teaching us the very difficult knot, a “Dragon Bowline” (or so I thought he said). Turns out it’s a play on words as he set his bowline on the ground and pulled it along…get it? A dragging bowline!

The night ended with adrenaline rushing as we all competed to be the first to tie which ever knot he called out to the group. I’ll admit I held my own, coming in first on several knots and earning myself a nice Eco Dive ball cap (which is good, because I didn’t have one yet!).

Dry Post: Heading North.

This weekend I ventured up north to visit my sister. Everything started great until I arrived at the airport, we boarded the plane and began to taxi to the runway. The captain’s voice sounded over the speaker of the small Q400 aircraft; there was “a power plant warning” on the screen and we’d be heading back to the terminal to have it checked. After about five minutes we were asked to de-plane while the maintenance folks worked their magic. Approximately two hours after our scheduled departure time the plane was good to go and we took off for the far north. The far north being Northern California, Humboldt County where my sister has been living for about a year. Knowing my passion for the ocean, the first thing she did was take me right to the beach. Despite the forecasted rain, the sky was bright blue with a few scattered clouds moving lazily along. We drove down to Luffenholtz Beach where she pulled out a box chock full with a baguette, goat cheese, apples, a chocolate bar, cherry tomatoes and a bottle of  red zin. I hadn’t eaten lunch due to the flight delay, and was pretty hungry so this looked perfect. As we pulled up to the beach and began to walk down the path I caught glimpses of the dark coarse sand, and aqua blue water turning white as it washed up on the shore.

Having noticed a few cars in the parking area, she also gave me a quick warning… “oh yeah, this is also sorta the local naked beach.” Exciting. However, unlike the fancy European naked beaches you may be picturing in your mind, this is the NorCal hippy version of mostly old bearded  men, enjoying the rare sunny day in their birthday suits. After passing several, we hoped that the next bend would take us to a bit of privacy, which it did. Neslted into our own little alcove we sat in the rocky sandy and began to enjoy our box of goodies.

The bread, from local cafe Brio was delicious, and the local Cypress Grove goat cheese chevre complimented it nicely. I sat in the warm sand munching away and admiring the astounding northern beauty. I had expected the lush green forests that greeted me immediately after getting off the plane, but the scenery of the beachfront I never dreamed of. The water was a deep aqua color, turning a lighter teal as the depth grew shallow. It was gently rolling into shore, splashing off the numerous rock pilings that were scattered along the coast; stubborn remnants from years of ocean waves pounding away at the waters edge. The air was crisp but the sun was warm, and all along the top of the cliffs were large green conifers, ferns and grasses.

As we slowly made our way through months of catching up and the bottle of wine, we walked around, and climbed along the smaller rocks peering into the clear water as it washed in and out. We dipped our feet into the fridge water as I imagined the life beneath the surface. We talked and talked, and slowly the sun started to move towards the horizon and our bottle of wine ran low. A younger man who had walked past earlier trying to make conversation despite us being completely uninterested in sharing our alcove had walked back over shirtless before being rebuffed again (sorry dude, you were a bit of a creeper). I glanced down the beach in the direction he had wandered to see him now only in a pair of red boxers. Deciding it was time to go before we received another visit I took the last swig of the bottle and we packed up camp. This turned out to be a smart decision because a final backward glance revealed white buttcheeks as he removed the final article of clothing. We made our way back along the waters edge to the path, gave the beach a big farewell look and climbed back up to the car. The sun’s rays danced off the water creating playful sparkles that reached all the way up into the wet sand. Luffenholtz is a beautiful beach, and while sad to leave, it was only the beginning of the trip and I was excited and eager to explore the rest of what Humboldt County had to offer.