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!!

Swimming with Sea Dogs.

Last month, yes that’s how far behind on my pictures I am… anyways. Last month we headed out to Santa Barbara Island to hang with some sea lions in the large rookery on the island. I’ve never had good luck photographing these swift swimmers, but this day I was armed with a wide angle lens and two strobes and the results were… well… better than before, but still with lots of room for improvement. We ended up shallow, spending a good deal of time in 6-15′ of water. I was using the 8mm fisheye, a lens that I love, though I quickly found out that with such a wide lens, the sea lions needed to get extremely close, which didn’t always happen. After the day of diving, and upon talking with others on the boat and looking at my pictures, I also realized that I really should have tried some shots with just the ambient light. The 1/160 shutter speed on my E-PL1 isn’t quite fast enough to really freeze the sealions as the zoomed by, and I was shallow enough much of the time that I could have turned off the strobes and bumped up the shutter speed. Ah…well, something for next time.

Pea Soup.

Saturday morning, I excitedly drove down to Long Beach to board the Sundiver Express bound for the oil rigs, one of my favorite places to dive in Southern California. As I’ve mentioned previously (here) the rigs are unique because of their three dimensionality. There’s no bottom, and the entire structure is covered with life, so you can dive along, across, up, down and around each beam and support. I’ve been on two trips previously, both of which were fantastic with great visibility, and calm seas. As we motored out to the rigs, the day appeared to be just like before, the sun was shining and the sea was flat as a pancake. Unfortunately, once we’d plunged off the boat and into the water, we discovered that the ocean was not going to be as clear as the cloudless sky. There was a ton of crap floating along, mucking up the visibility and choking out all the light at depth. Unfortunate, but not the end of the world.

This was my first real chance to use my new strobe that I had recently purchased, so regardless of the viz, I was eager to test it out. Overall the strobe worked beautifully…it fired properly, and I found that by loosening my clamps a bit I could easily move and reposition the strobe as needed. The auto focus on the camera can still be finicky, especially in the low light we had at depth, and when using the close up lens I discovered that there is a pretty small window of focus available which can make it trickier to get the focus locked. However I feel that with time, I’ll get better at it. Despite having some focus trouble in the beginning I really do love the new close up lens, the shorter depth of field really helps your subject pop out in the picture, and the ability to get a more true macro is fantastic.

The upper 50′ of the Eureka rig had been stripped last August when I last dove the oil rigs, but slowly life is starting to come back. One little critter than has come back and is thriving are the Hermissenda crassicornis, a beautiful and easily identifiable opalescent nudibranch with brown and orange cerata covering its back. Its got two oral tentacles that extend like probes off the front, and of course the two rhinophores that stick up like rabbit ears on the top of its head. Between the two rhinophores is a bright orange stripe that runs the length of its body bordered by an electric blue stripe on either side. These guys were everywhere, which made exploring the stripped section of the oil rig rather exciting. I also came across two other nudi’s; a San Diego Dorid (who had his head stuck into some coral making him impossible to photograph well, and a couple Triopha maculate, though none of my shots came out in focus.

The second dive, while still fairly poor visibility, was really a trip. There were a group of sea lions lounging on the rig near where the boat dropped us off, and apparently our group was very exciting. Throughout the entire dive we had several sea lions diving down and around us before darting back up to the surface. It was fantastic and aggravating at the same time. They were great to see, and fun to watch, but trying to get a picture of one is darn near impossible because of the speed. Half the time they were gone before I even had a chance to move the camera, and more often my camera would not focus in time. I did manage (mostly luck I’m sure) to snap one shot in focus as a sea lion zoomed towards me.

His large, comical eyes are nicely in focus and he’s staring right at the camera. Add in a bit of a current wanting to pull us all off the rig structure and out into the sea made for a bit of a struggle when trying to keep the camera steady and pull of some macro shots.

Despite the poor viz, as always diving the oil rigs was a blast, and I thoroughly enjoyed practicing with my new set up. I’m really looking forward to more chances to hone my skills and start to really improve my photography skills now that I have the gear that will allow me to do so! Here’s to many more posts with better and better photography as the year progresses!

Video: Diving the HMCS Yukon

Two weekends ago I traveled south to San Diego to dive the HMCS Yukon with Eco Dive Center aboard the dive vessel Marissa. An easy 20 minute motor from the Mission Bay harbor, the Yukon lies in 75-100 feet of water. Due to accidentally sinking the night before the planned grand send off the Yukon lies on her port side making that first dive a bit disorienting. Once used to her layout however I was able to begin to really marvel at her majesty and truly explore along her structure. At around 350 feet long the Yukon is impossible to fully explore in just four dives, even just out her exterior! We started on day one by descending down the forward guns, on the second day we descended onto the signal mast. The ship itself has just about become a living entity, it is just about 100% covered with life including small corals, anemones and large cauliflower looking Metridians. Large schools of fish swam around the wreck, primarily Blacksmiths, along with Sheephead, Garibaldi and Senorita Wrasse just to name a few. Sea lions constantly played in the surrounding kelp, often diving down to check out the strange addition to their world and the divers exploring it.

This was my first dive with my new Olympus EPL1, and as I have no strobes yet the video is a bit grainy due to the lack of light so far down. Over all I was pleased with the outcome, as I was really pushing the camera to its limits and it still performed well. Enjoy the video! I hope to have a more detailed write up later, along with some images, but I’m still working on that!

A day as the Dive Master

Last weekend I drove down to the Sand Dollar dive boat with much anticipation. I wasn’t heading out to dive as usual, but for my first true training day as Dive Master. I was shadowing the awesome Kendra, who tends to be the usual DM aboard the Sand Dollar and is fantastic at keeping people safe and smiling. The destination that weekend was Santa Barbara Island, known for several sea lion rookeries where the animals are abundant and friendly, allowing divers get up close and personal. I’d not yet had the chance to get out on this trip but had been looking forward to it. If things went well I would even be able to duck under the water for a few minutes.

I definitely wasn’t the only one excited for the weekend, the boat was over sold with 31 divers, plus Kendra and I, making 33 on a 30 diver boat. We had assigned bunks, something different than usual on this boat, and one couple assigned to a single bunk that just was not going to work. The scheduled check in time was 9:00pm, so I arrived just before 8:30p. Kendra was not there yet, but the bag area was full, tanks were laden with gear and people were milling around. Luckily I had the shop waivers with me and the boat waivers were already on the table. I greeted several of the people on the boat, then laid out the waivers and started organizing the boat ones that some folks had already signed. The line started forming as everyone came up to sign waivers and get checked in. As I was giving out bunk assignments we had a little chaos because some of the earlier people had put their stuff on bunks since its typically first come first served so we had to wait for them to get back so we could shuffle gear around the bunks. I had half the people checked on before the official 9:00p. Tank space became an issue as we were already full, then had a couple with twin tanks which meant they each took up two spots. Kendra and I put our gear on the floor and were able to get two others to as well. Around 10:00pm I gave my first ever boat briefing; reviewing the rules of the Sand Dollar, where the head is located, how food worked the next day, safety, etc. I was nervous as hell, and stumbed over a few points, but everyone was listening and Kendra  backed me up when I missed something. After that I sat and chatted with various divers while Kendra and I filled in the roster slate. Then I brushed my teeth and was in bed around 12:45a just a few minutes after we started under way.

Sunday morning broke grey and cloudy, another typical California day. We could hear the sea lions barking just on shore and splashing through the water. Luckily it was not an overly anxious crowd and people woke up slowly, eating breakfast before jumping in. This gave Kendra and I some time to go over a few things, and start to suit up. I assisted one diver with a bad tank o-ring, answered as many questions as I could about a site I’d never been to before and then gave a quick safety briefing regarding proper boat exit and entry techniques, gear safety, flow, etc. I ducked and weaved through the divers to the stern and started helping Kendra get everyone into the water. We had the usual surface ballet as people discovered weight issues (these usually occur when people are used to diving in warmer water). One pair stands out, they swam back to boat to request more weight. I gave the guy four pounds, then he tried to descend again; coming back again we asked how much weight he was wearing. His answer, “um…with what you gave me I have 12” Yikes! I quickly grabbed two 5 pounders, giving him 22 total and he was on his way. We had one pair discover she had no weight in after jumping in the water. Her husband was surprised because he filled her weight pockets the night before. We discovered later that she and her son had the same BCD, and dad filled the son’s BC not the wifes. So she was trying to get down with zero weight and the son had close to 40 pounds on. Luckily it didn’t glue him to the bottom and they sorted it all out during the surface interval.

We had a couple divers not used to the colder water and hoping to have a guide for the first dive. This is where I got lucky. Kendra asked if I would take them on a guided dive, of course I said yes! They waited for us to get everyone else in, then as the last few divers were jumping in we geared up and were on our way. Let me tell you, sea lions and little kelp or rocks sure make a dive disorienting. I had to check our location a couple times on the surface a and each time ended up different from where I thought we were. We ran into a small group of sea lions frolicking, as well as several individuals who would zoom by to check you out a few times. Their speed and swirling grace through the water definitely made me, clad in my 7mm wetsuit, scuba gear, hood, gloves and fins, feel big, slow and bulky! Focusing mostly on keeping the group together I only tried to snap a few pictures, and learned just how quick the sea lions were as half my pics are just the flippers in frame!

Once everyone was safely back on board we went through roll call and pulled anchor to head to a new location. We anchored off the twin sisters, two rock outcroppings that pop out of the water off the main island. Capt. George warned that there could be a bit of a current around the sisters and to be careful. I checked divers off with Kendra and we took notice as the first pair to enter the water started slowly drifting towards the rocks. It wasn’t too long after all the divers were out exploring that two tiny black dots popped up between the sisters one arm slowly waving in the air. We waved back to acknowledge that we saw them. The choices were to get in and snorkel out to them, or send the boat out to pick them up. Both divers looked calm and had not panicked so we choose to send out the boat deciding that the current must have been stronger than anticipated and they were merely tired. This became the trend of dive #2, the boat would swing out to pick someone up, and by the time it was back someone else was waving as they drifted away. Gear was left in the boat between pick ups to help speed things along and only several divers made it back to the platform under their own power. It was a hectic and interesting dive, and a great learning experience to see how smoothly Kendra and the boat crew handled what could have been a stressful situation.

The gear was left in the skiff as we moved locations for the final dive.  We were at another rookery with a large open and calm dive area. There were sea lions all over, bouncing out of the water and barking from the rocks. There was a bit of a scramble to get all the tanks from the skiff off and filled, but everyone got in pretty quickly. Kendra was able to head out for a quick dive while I kept watch from the boat for the first few people to come back. I helped pull up cameras and fins, checked names and wrote down exit times from the roster as each diver clambered up the ladder. Kendra popped up right by the boat exactly at her 20 minute mark and helped me as more divers popped up. Sadly she didn’t run into a single sea lion, while from the stern I’d watched several dance around the boat! The flow slowed a bit and she told me to jump in and snorkel around to see if I could see any action. I wandered near the kelp and swam around with no luck. As I swam back to the boat though one curious little sea lion swam up and around and I was able to capture a little video as he curiously came up and darted away.

After all the divers were out and roll call was taken the crew pulled anchor and we headed back towards home. I was exhausted from the busy day, and started to fade about half way back (next time, more caffeine!). Kendra told me to go get some sleep and that she’d get me up before we got back so I could help get things organized and do the final announcements. I was out right after crawling into my bunk and got a short nap. As the boat pulled into the harbor I gave the group the final annoucements, thanking them for joining us, upcoming eco events, rental reminders, etc then joined Kendra in saying good bye as people filed off. All that was left was a quick check to gather anything that had been left. We had two pair of guys underwear, a mesh bag and a brand new looking regulator bag (that luckily the diver had labeled, so I dropped it off at the shop for him the next day). Kendra was amazing and split her tips with me since I had spent the whole day working with her. I walked away with a good chunk of change, exhausted after an amazing and eventful day of divemaster training!