Nothing but Muck

I was diving at Cove 2 this morning. “World famous” Seattle diving. Amazing diving in the Pacific Northwest! Well, two of these statements are true.

I was diving at Cove 2 because I just got all my regulators back from being serviced and leave for a big trip on Tuesday. This was a gear-check dive, 10 minutes from my house, at a place with easy parking (if you get there super early), bathrooms, a gear rinse area for afterwards, and a restaurant for breakfast, also afterwards. We were not going for the underwater life or beauty or the normal reasons I like to dive. And that’s a good thing, because there is not a lot of life left at Cove 2.

As my buddy John and I moved through the dive, I had memory after memory of the nudibranchs I used to see here, the octopus den there, the numerous species of crabs, the wide and wonderful array of fish species, the colorful variations of different species of sea stars… Now? Monochromatic variations on mud, muck, mucky algae, muddy algae, muddy muck, and mucky mud. I exaggerate only slightly. The bottom hasn’t changed — it’s always been muddy muck, but the life seems all but gone.

I remember once looking at a wolf eel while my buddy was getting my attention to look at an octopus, when another octopus went by. There were crabs, shrimp, nudibranchs, squat lobsters, and all sorts of other animalia standing by, waiting to have their photos taken, as our attention raced from one charismatic creature to the next to the next. Now? “There’s the place where [fill in the blank] used to be,” over and over and over. One dive I counted 5 different Decorated Warbonnets — on the same dive! I haven’t seen a single one in several years. Probably 2015.

2015 is the last time I recall seeing a lot of good life at Cove 2. That was also the year of the blob — the massive warm water blob off the west coast. It’s possible a lot of larval forms of the species we used to see regularly died out in the warm water of the open ocean, and nothing remained to keep the populations going.

A couple years earlier, 2013, is when we saw the last of our really giant sunflower stars. The massive, colorful stars grew to a meter in diameter and carpeted areas of our local dive sites. Then we saw them succumb to sea star wasting syndrome, melting into the muck, all that lush color and life gone along with the widespread effects that an apex predator brings. Or a top predator on the bottom anyway.

After we lost the sunflower stars, we saw a brief explosion of green urchin numbers. Now those are gone, along with just about everything else that made Cove 2 such a special place. It’s always been mucky, but a person used to be able to get in the water and trust that there would be several unexpected gems. The same is true for Three Tree North, Junkyard, Cove 3, and other local sites. I have to imagine it isn’t just the dive sites that have seen such a widespread loss of life.

The photos below are from dives of the distant past. It is hard to imagine we may have healthy giant sunflower stars like this ever again.

These days on most mornings I see Seattle Dive Tours staked out along the sidewalk near Cove 2, and it makes me sad every time. People new to Seattle or new to diving are going to enter this “world famous” wasteland and either think it’s great or wonder what all the fuss was about. The former are the lucky ones, as they have no idea what’s been lost. The rest are right to question. I only know what the fuss should be about: the total, quiet collapse of marine life in Seattle’s waters without the slightest fuss.

Giant sunflower star on a barnacle-encrusted bottle with a gunnel at Cove 2.

Giant sunflower star on a barnacle-encrusted bottle with a gunnel at Cove 2. From 2011.

Giant sunflower star(s).

A tangle of giant sunflower stars. Or is it just one? Hard to tell. Junkyard, 2013.

Giant sunflower star.

A giant sunflower star at Three Tree North in 2013, on a day when I had “two amazing dives.”

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Tales from the Wet Side: Steller Sea Lions

Super Maul

Day 1. Arriving at the rookery, the barking is loud, varied, sometimes guttural and nasally, otherworldly, and pretty funny. The sound fills the air. Once they see us, a bunch of them slide into the water en masse, and the water roils. I have to remind myself they aren’t going anywhere, so strong is my urge to jump in the icy water right then and there, gear or no gear.

They are definitely not going anywhere. It’s January, and this is when the Steller sea lions are hanging out at Hornby Island. That’s why we’ve made the journey that took one border crossing and three ferry crossings.

We descend along the anchor line, which takes us to about 50 fsw. That allows time to set up strobes and check camera settings before moving up slope to meet the marauders.

I want to be in the fray. When I had been in the water at a Steller sea lion rookery back in 2003, I was nervous because I didn’t know anything about their behavior, so I hung back. This time I’d been briefed extremely thoroughly and the moment I saw them, I wanted to be inside the melee, I wanted total sea lion chaos. We’d been told that if you kneel on the bottom, they will be all over you. If you lift up off the bottom, for whatever reason, their attentions wander. Maybe they can sense helpless playmates when they see them.

Our multiple briefings left me feeling confident. So I moved around until they found me. Then I hunkered down.

Over the course of the dive, nearly every accessible body part was tasted and tested, nibbled and nudged, tugged and teased, pulled and pinched, and just this side of bit. Well, yeah, bit.

One bit my butt (left side). I felt them test out my hamstrings. I felt them on my calves. I could also feel them tugging on various pieces of scuba gear, and at one point I heard bubbles escaping my BC — presumably, though I’m still not entirely sure.

One bit at the side of my mask. That was the most tenuous it got. Otherwise, the biting was tolerable, because I knew they would never really chomp down. So we were told.

One kept testing my bicep, over and over. Not too hard, but hard enough for me to wonder if it was impressed. (Did I flex? You’ll never know.)

One worked its way down my forearm slowly to my hand, and I started to imagine what would happen to my fingers if it kept going. So I made a fist to be safe.

At one point I could feel both of my fins simultaneously pulled by different animals.

The third mauling of the dive was the most intense. They were on me, under me, next to me. One settled in with his face next to mine and just stayed there a while. I could feel them everywhere around me.

Beyond body parts, twice they became tenacious about my flash sync cord. The first time the sea lion pulled for a while then gave up. The second time, the sea lion successfully removed the sync cord from my secondary strobe and pulled on it for what seemed like ever. I knew there was not a thing I could do about it. I hoped the cord would be okay, but I knew it might not. The sea lion pulled and pulled and pulled. Funny how something so small could capture their attention. Eventually the sea lion let go. But they were still all around me, so I did not want to incite by reaching out for it. And sure enough, it grabbed it again and kept pulling some more. Eventually they had to go up for air. Shockingly, the fragile sync cord remained intact. That speaks to how gentle they can be in their tenacity.

More than once they tried to swim away with my strobe in their front flippers. Fairly dexterous, those flippers, from my very close-up perspective.

I flipped my camera around for selfie photos with them and tried to gauge when to snap by activity level, by feel, and by reflection in my dome port. Most of all I wanted a shot of one with its mouth on my head. But both times when I could actually feel a mouth over my head, I was so in awe of the fact that a sea lion had its mouth on my head that I forgot to snap the shot. The first time it was mild. Later, the second time it happened, I could actually feel teeth.

More than once a group of 10 or 15 or 20 swam past, all in tight formation, completely in sync like one beautifully orchestrated machine moving effortlessly but with such great power and speed, 20 parts to a single torpedo.

After I’d had enough fun (and enough ocean in my drysuit from a poorly sealed wrist seal), I headed back towards the boat. I reached the boat, handed up my camera, then went to remove my fins, and one of the fin straps was totally undone. Thanks, guys.

When I went to remove my BC from my tank, one of my two tank straps had been undone as well. Wily. Wily sea lions.

Grand Maul

Day 2. After reviewing my photos from day 1, I wanted more-better head shots. That is, a shot of them with their mouths on my head. This would be “be careful what you wish for” day.

We arrived at Norris Rock, and immediately they began swimming and porpoising out towards us, like a giant pack of super excited dogs, boundless joy, leaping into unabashed play.

Not much time to set up my camera this go-round, as they met us at the bottom. Actually, they met us on the way down.

And in almost no time, they were on me. And they seemed especially interested in my head today. (Be careful what you wish for!) More than one in succession seemed to read my mind and wanted to get their jaws around my noggin. I kept telling myself they’re just checking me out, they won’t bite down too hard – thinking these thoughts as they were on the extreme verge of not biting down too hard. Pretty sure I came away with mild teeth-shaped bruises like a crown around my crown.

In fact, they came so quickly and played so hard from the git-go, that I ended up putting my arm up over my head more than once just to fend them off. Forget the photos. Tomorrow’s another day! They were playing harder than day 1, no doubt about it.

After only a few minutes and enough head-shots to satisfy myself for the day, I raised up off the bottom. Instantly they became less interested: hovering above the bottom is like going into safe mode. So I swam around a bit watching them interact with some of my dive friends. It is an underwater mammalian ballet (er, modern dance?), to see them swim so fast, so gracefully, and yet so playfully.

One in particular held me rapt. It spun as it swam, like a propeller, just spinning and moving slowly forward. It reminded me of the one really creative kid who goes off by himself and dances or paints a beautiful scene while everyone else is busy doing the same thing everyone else is doing.

Another miniature scene that played out was a very small sea lion, who first went over to buddy Joan and just lay on the bottom posing perfectly for her for the longest time. It seemed not much older than a baby, and oh so gentle. When it did eventually swim away, she gave some excited hand signals that translated into something like “WOW WOW WOW! DID YOU SEE THAT??”

After witnessing Joan’s interaction with the little one, I wanted some of that. Before long, a small one swam in front of me, and it kept swimming in circles right before me. It might have swam 6 loops – it seemed to be asking me to join in. It had a game in mind, but I wasn’t catching on. So after trying to teach me the game, it decided I was a lame wallflower and swam off. I was a lame wallflower.

This day I decided to see what it was like to be in with them at the surface. Happily, buddy Myra and Joan decided to do the same thing at the same time, so I did not feel alone in what really does feel like a crazy endeavor. They are so big, and the idea of swimming right into a big mass of 20 or more of them doesn’t sound like the brightest idea in the world. But everyone had said that they maul you the least at the surface. Time to find out.

Overall they maul you the least at the surface (maybe?). But I very nearly had my mask ripped off at the surface. So on this day my jury said that they generally don’t interact as much up top, but when they do, anything goes. When I felt the chaos that included my mask almost being removed, I put my hand up to hold it in place then just wait for the sea lions to finish doing whatever it was they were doing. They pushed me down and around a bit and tugged on various parts. But I’ve done Ironman swims, and once during the Honu 70.3 Half Ironman in Hawaii, I had two swimmers, one on either side of me, converge in the space where I had been, which meant I went down. The sea lions had nothing on the washing machine that is the Honu 70.3 swim. Pshaw! Piece of cake! Sea lions, shmea lions!

Darth Maul

Day 3. The sea lions seemed kind of lazy, and the clouds and grayness of the morning echoed the slow feel. We splashed, and pretty quickly I spotted a squadron of the mammalian torpedoes swimming together down towards what looked like an underwater amphitheater. I followed to take a look, and by the time I arrived, every one of them – maybe 15 – had their heads stuck under a ledge. Just bodies sticking out all in a row, like keys on a piano.

the drawing I made of them in my logbook

Pretty soon they began emerging from their little cavern, and nearly every one of them had sea stars or sea cucumbers in their mouths. This was their toy chest! They would toss their toys out into the water and grab them again, nudge each other with them to incite more play, carry them around a bit and then drop them. Essentially behaving like puppies in the toy basket. They had no interest in eating these sea decorations, just playing with them.

I watched one swim to the top of the ledge and very gently set its sea cucumber down, like placing it carefully back into the toy box. This is the gentle child who will get bullied in school.

I stayed down in the small arena waiting for their return. The big group did not come back, but one sea lion I ended up seeing several times throughout the dive approached me. It was easily identifiable by the two vertical white marks on either side of its nose. I call this one Nosey. Nosey was on the large side of being a juvenile, and it gave off a vibe that bordered on aggressive (or creepy, if you read too far into it). I assumed a more protective demeanor – that is, I wasn’t going to drop to the bottom, where I would be most vulnerable – and in fact, I didn’t even want to let Nosey get his teeth on me at all. Despite all I’d learned, I had the feeling that this one wanted to play with me, wanted to play hard, wanted to make me is special friend. I don’t mean this in a kind, gentle way. So I stayed off the bottom and moved any time he came towards me – if he came towards my right side, I swam in a circle to the right to stay out of the reach of his mouth. Now, if he’d really wanted to catch me, he certainly could have. But what ended up happening was I continued this spinning motion, swimming in circles with him swimming in circles around me. We did this for several spins (which takes a lot of gas and gets exhausting fast), then I noticed he started swimming in the cork-screw fashion I’d seen one of the little ones do. My interpretation of all this was Nosey thought that I was trying to teach him a new game. Which was a pretty sweet feeling, despite how creepy he was. Eventually, he needed air so I too got a breather.

Over the course of the dive, I saw Nosey about three more times. Each time, he had the same intense manner about him, and each time I did not let him touch me. Spooky child!

After the piano keys and Nosey left, things were quiet for a long while. I started to think my last dive sea lion dive of the trip might be a bust. I swam around a bit – the site really was quite pretty. And the water was green and stunning, and the sun was breaking through on top. I was ready for a sea lion to swim into my perfect green water with the sparkly sun beams on top. But they didn’t, not en masse. Just a couple teasers before everyone disappeared.

I swam up and towards the island, and before long, we were getting visited again, but it was not as intense as the prior two days. The sea lions were more dispersed, to be sure. I was starting to think the trip would end with a fizzle.

But then they reappeared, and there was no shortage of sea lion buddies in every direction.

I had already decided I wanted some shots at the surface, so I headed up into the gaggle of them.

Forget everything I said about them leaving us alone at the surface. For the first time, without any question whatsoever, I was a living, human chew toy. There were so many, and they were everywhere at once, pulling, pushing, biting like crazy everywhere. It was over the top, and it seemed it would never end. I was a tug-of-war toy, I was a rubber chicken, I was a bouncy ball with a treat inside. You name it, and that is what I was, and all at once, and on and on.

I kept snapping photos as best I could, though half the time they would push my camera sideways before I could click. Once they managed to turn the camera off. Another time they turned off my strobe. And for the love of Pete, they bit my head over and over and over. To the point where I just shut my eyes and hoped they’d get bored, because clearly there was no escaping.

And yet. After they finally left – finally! – for a moment, I instantly began looking for more. I had to remind myself I had been wanting to finish. I reluctantly began swimming towards the boat and away from a truly incredible source of fun, kept turning around to see if they were following me, already regretting leaving before the last possible moment.


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Backscatter be still my heart

If you are a friend of mine, you have probably heard me complain about, er, mention backscatter. Backscatter is the reflection of strobe light off the tiny bits of particle stuff in the water that can muck up an otherwise lovely photo.

I have a relationship with backscatter. Backscatter has caused me endless consternation, a lot of self-doubt, and more hours than I will ever, ever recover for the rest of my life no matter how long I live.

If you are a friend of mine, you have already patiently sat by while I’ve pined and droned on about these many hours of my life spent click click click click clicking to get rid of something that I should have had enough skill to not collect in the first place. So I won’t repeat all that here.

And, not for no reason have I spent this time. In fact, for better or worse, I have come to think of my underwater raw images as truly raw material to be molded and shaped into exactly what I want in what we inartfully term “post-processing.”

In the example below, I took what most people would regard as a wasted lost-cause of a photo, and I removed the backscatter, among other things. I did leave the bits of sand on the moray eel, and honestly, if I were to take that image on now, I’d have left more of the backscatter. But this rather extreme example illustrates how removing backscatter can certainly help improve an image.

Before. Most times, only a few bits of backscatter are removed. In this instance, sand was flying everywhere and made a mess of the shot.

After. Editing in LightRoom, and you no longer need sunglasses to look at it! I likely removed at least 2000 bits of backscatter. It took me more days than I care to think about.

After. Editing in LightRoom, and you no longer need sunglasses to look at it! I likely removed at least 2000 bits of backscatter. It took me more days than I care to think about. The final product is no award winner, but it is respectable.

Endless click click click, for hours into days into years. And then. Then I went to California to dive the Channel Islands in November 2016. The trip was led by a professional underwater photographer, Richard Salas, whose teaching focus was about lighting (which, as you know by now, causes my arch enemy, backscatter). He gave us incremental lessons and instructed us to toss aside concerns of backscatter for the time being. The implication being we’d take care of that later.

Or not. In the middle of the lectures and show-and-tell sessions, he also said that some backscatter is fine — because it shows that we were actually underwater. Because stuff does float around in the water. Because we are suspended in a medium that is rich in planktonic life. So, sure, remove a few bits of backscatter here and there. But don’t necessarily spend countless unadulterated hours doing the click click click click click thing… yeah.

Words are cheap. So I’ll let some photos speak for themselves.

This is my ode to backscatter.

After my first round of editing California sea lion photos from the Cali trip, I came upon a photo in my overflowing files that I had overlooked the first go-through. I instantly loved it, and I shared it on Facebook before I had edited it at all. That is, before I had removed any backscatter. But then I went in and removed a bunch of the backscatter.

Afterwards, I didn’t like it as much.

What? What just happened? Did the earth’s polarity shift? Have aliens landed and taken over my brain? This flies in the face of my rote, painstaking nightly labors of the past several years, ever since I got Lightroom installed on my laptop.

I’m going to present the two photos in reverse order. First, the photo post-backscatter removal.

And here, as it was originally, just as shot.

I like the second (original) one better! The photo itself is austere. The backscatter gives it heft, solidity, grounds it firmly in the water world. Gives it dimension. I love the sea lion, but without the backscatter, he looks flat and kinda boring.

I spent a fair bit of time doing this: unclick, unclick, unclick, unclick, etc. times about 100. Because the backscatter version looks better.

On that trip, Richard taught me a lot about lighting. But he might have inadvertently taught me even more about backscatter.

Then there’s this Garibaldi. I removed some backscatter from this shot for my article in the Marker Buoy Newsletter — mostly I just muted it so it wasn’t so apparent (because even by then I was recognizing the value of the backscatter). I regret even the muting now.

Again, shown in reverse, with the edited version first:

And here, as it was originally shot:

I like the second one much better. The first one looks like several accidents conspired on it. The second one looks like only one accident occurred, and it was a happy accident. (And that is the true story.) It may not be an award winner, because the problem is my strobe was placed too far out in front of my camera. But it’s still pretty cool.

In the end, it is unlikely I will return to past photos to resurrect backscatter I have relinquished. But I have plenty of material that was never edited — often because of the over-abundance of backscatter.

For my grand finale, I’m going to show one last shot that has had no backscatter removed whatsoever. It is one of the young opalescent squids that greeted me almost daily in August 2015 during my early morning dive series at Three Tree North. There is some ink in the water, and there is a massive amount of particulate matter. Unedited, the shot is almost ethereal, like he’s in space, like we’re floating in space together. It’s real, and it’s beautiful. Beautiful with the backscatter.


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Lighting up the Channel Islands

[This post is essentially reprinted from an article I wrote for the December 2016 Buoy Tender, the newsletter of the Marker Buoy Dive Club. As a newsletter article, it has a little more boat review than I’d typically do in this space. Feel free to scroll down to the pretty pictures.]

cover photo

I’ve heard of the storied Truth Aquatics fleet out of Santa Barbara for years, and my November 2016 trip to the Channel Islands on the Vision was my initiation.


The Vision anchored in the kelp off of Santa Cruz Island.

When I signed up for the trip, I knew the sleeping arrangements were not separate staterooms and the risk of being nightly at the mercy of a snoring chorus was high. I’ve been on a lot of different types of boats, and I had never shared one giant sleeping room with everyone on the boat before, ever. So I was a bit reluctant. But having been diving in the Channel Islands in 2008, I very much wanted to return. I packed noise-canceling headphones and filled my i-devices with music to sleep by.

The boat felt like one giant floating dive platform. And who wouldn’t like that? The back deck (the dive deck) was large. I should disclose that we had fewer divers on this charter than normal, so I know that luxury contributed to the spaciousness everywhere – on the dive deck, in the galley, and in the sleeping room. But even with guaranteed more divers, I will go back. That’s how much I enjoyed it.


The large dive deck of the Vision.

In terms of sleeping, the online map of sleeping quarters makes it look like one big awful room with and endless sea of depressing, skimpy sleeping pallets. That’s not what it’s like at all. The area is U-shaped with bunks along the walls, and each bunk has wood partitioning, lights, and thick curtains – and the double beds are massive – so when you are in your bunk, it’s very private, and I found it to be cozy and comfortable (aided, perhaps, by the flannel sheets I brought with me – you do bring your own sheets). I didn’t just tolerate it – I actively enjoyed it. And bonus – no snorers! I didn’t even need the headphones.


California golden gorgonians, some with yellow zoanthids growing on them in the foreground, brittle stars all over the bottom, and red gorgonians on the right.

I signed up for the trip through Anacortes Diving, and they had booked Richard Salas, a professional underwater photographer, to give photo workshops. Richard gave us daily lectures combined with live demonstrations to illustrate his points. He also gave us assignments – thorough, meaningful, helpful, and fun assignments. Richard was enthusiastic and engaging – he never tired of our questions, of talking about photography, nor of inquiring about our experiences, and he never tired of trying to help us improve. He was generous with his time (to a fault) because he is insanely passionate about this stuff. It made everyone else excited too.


Kerbals underwater! Richard made a little army of these guys for us to take in the water and practice our photo lessons. The female sheephead (pictured) and senioritas kept trying to eat mine.

Our first day was spent at Santa Cruz Island, then we headed to the oil rigs just off-shore from LA. That night we headed to Catalina, where we spent a couple days. Next up was Santa Barbara Island, where we had two delightful dives with the California sea lions. Then one more day at Santa Cruz Island before heading in. Six days diving with opportunities for about 25 dives total (I did 22). And we were never rushed to get in the water – with the exception of the oil rigs, you could take your time getting in and stay in the water as long as you liked. I loved this unusual format.


Dive platforms Ellen and Elly. We did one dive on each.

Richard’s lessons centered around lighting – strobe placement – and how to bring more life and dimension into our photos. It forced you to prepare for a specific shot, rather than just aiming and shooting at everything you swim by (which is how I normally, er, previously behaved). Of course it’s great when a fish actually cooperates once you have your lighting all set for some coral.


Garibaldi with California golden gorgonian at Catalina Island.


Male sheephead and Macrocystis kelp at Santa Barbara Island.

Richard convinced me to not worry about backscatter, at least not yet. Unleash your inner backscatter? Why not. But then when my backscatter got totally out of control and you could sometimes even see my strobes in the photos, he taught me how to dial it back just a little bit.


Acres of purple hydrocoral at Farnsworth Bank. The backscatter transforms into fish in this shot.


Down at the hold-fasts, Santa Barbara Island.

I used wide angle nearly the entire trip. That itself was a lesson to me, as I am so much more comfortable with macro. Breaking out of the camera comfort zone in California.


Red coralline algae, Santa Barbara Island.

Richard also helped us with ambient light. We were instructed on getting the ambient light set correctly before even turning on the strobes. The only time that’s a bummer is when you drop in and there is a sea lion immediately staring you in the face, and the instinct to snap produces a silhouette at best – but with great ambient light no doubt.

Red gorgonian on our final day, Santa Cruz Island.

Red gorgonian on our final day, Santa Cruz Island.

I was happy to take my standard lens on a few dives, especially when encountering one of the local octopus or horned sharks.


California two-spot octopus at Catalina. We saw several of these octos during the week.


Horned shark at Catalina Island.

Although it was November, we had unseasonably delightful weather and calm seas. Everyone wore shorts and t-shirts, and we never had to shut the galley door that leads to the dive deck all week long. Skies were mostly clear, which is great in kelp forests. Water temps ranged mostly in the low to mid 60s, though on a couple dives at Santa Cruz it got all the way down to 55. But I remained comfortable using no gloves the whole trip.


Sun, good viz, and beautiful kelp at Santa Cruz Island.

One rather unexpected phenomena occurred our second night on the boat. The crew had dropped a light in the water, and dozens of squat lobster came to the surface and floated around. But what was even stranger was their butts seemed to give off sparks! Yes, I said that. Their butts gave off sparks.


Squat lobsters at the surface after dark. The things that look like gunk in the water were actually some sort of sparks flying out of their bodies.


Close-up of one of the squat lobsters. The sparks seemed to emanate from their butts.

One of the final photo lessons was about aiming your strobes to light up only what you wish to illuminate. This is tricky, but it is possible. I managed to successfully bring out the details in some very black sea hares while not washing out their very white egg masses. It’s a good thing giant sea slugs don’t have eyes, because there would be a lot of blind sea hares at Santa Cruz after my stubborn efforts. Anyway, the photos below are not sea hares. But I got a million great sea hare photos if anyone would like to see them. Just let me know.


Garibaldi at Catalina Island.


Red gorgonian with Macrocystis kelp at Santa Cruz Island.

The trip felt like a floating classroom; each dive a study session. It didn’t have to be that way, but I embraced it. Though in terms of academic placement, I was in first grade. AP first grade at best. But as with most adults going back to school, I’m excited to learn and improve. Back here at home in Puget Sound, I am excited to get out as much as I can to keep practicing what we learned. Old subjects just became new again.

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Summer of Cephalopods

[Much of this post reprinted from an article I wrote for the November 2015 Buoy Tender, the newsletter of the Marker Buoy Dive Club.]

I want to write an entire book about my dive experiences during the summer of 2015, the summer of cephalopods. But right now I am both in a hurry and baffled how to begin such an endeavor with so many possible topics. So for now I’ll keep it short and let the photos tell the tale — the tale of the-amazing-things-that-you-see-when-you-are-obsessed-with-giant-Pacific-octopus-paralarvae.

August 12. I started going to Three Tree North the day prior, doing early morning dives – splashing at 3:30am, to get in early-morning “night dives” waiting for, watching for, and trying to photograph the giant Pacific octopus hatchlings (paralarvae) as my schedule would allow. Turned out, going at that hour, water flat, stars out – was completely magical. Going solo at that hour, during my first such early-morning splash, I was more preoccupied with being there than the life around me, so I didn’t see much (and my first attempt at photographing the baby octopuses were failures). But by the second day, this day, Bob Bailey and I went, and I got a quick glance at juvenile opalescent squid as we descended. During the dive I saw a larval flatfish for the first time ever, and we also saw some hooded nudibranchs. (My paralarvae photos were still very bad, too.)

August 13. I returned for my third day in a row for a 3:30am splash at Three Tree North. The young squid greeted me again on the descent line, but I wasn’t ready with my camera. They were getting curiouser. On the way to the mama octopus den, all the fish seemed curious – what on earth has lights so bright at this hour? The ratfish came at me like a swarm. And then a vision: a dogfish followed its curiosity and approached me several times. So awesome!

Later that dive, I came upon a pair of spawning opalescent squid. They too seemed curious about my light – or maybe they were just too into their mission of mating that they didn’t care about me. Either way, I watched them deposit their egg sac, and they watched me…intently. I also decided to teach myself about masking in Lightroom…

The water was full of gunk. But who cares? The squid didn’t.

One more of the very curious squid. And me with my new Lightroom skills. (And by now, my octo baby photos were beginning to improve.)

August 16. Finally, I was ready to photograph my squid baby friends on the descent at Three Tree. These little guys are maybe 2 inches long, and each time I descended at 3:30am, they were there. Each time, the experience was different. On this day, they seemed to be trying to show me they were not scared of me. Of course, all the ink they let out in clouds around me suggested otherwise.

Current was stronger this day, and so much stuff blew by. Of course white-lined dirona are common, and gunk blowing by is common, but white-lined dirona blowing by – not so common.

I think I have seen three total white-spotted greenling in my entire diving career, including this one. Yeah! Score.

And if the white-spotted greenling wasn’t enough, this spiny lumpsucker was the cherry on top of the dive. Dives just don’t get much better than this. Except for all the other dives this month… and next month. And last month, actually.

August 18. The juvie squid met me again on the descent and not only seemed to approach me with total curiousity, but they also produced an ink-out. The baby octopus were getting fewer and further between, so I knew this would be the last dive at Three Tree. At the end of the dive – another lumpsucker. After I finished this dive, I headed to Cove 2 to check on the octopus den there. By 7:30am, I’d done two dives in two different locations. Not a bad way to start a day!

After five days at Three Tree photographing baby giant Pacific octopuses just moments after they hatched out of their eggs and floated into the water as “paralarvae,” it turned out my best photos came on the fourth dive on August 16.

September 12. A month after these early morning dives began, and now the octopus dens at Cove 2 were hatching out. And I again roused early. I decided to try my 60mm macro lens on the first dive, and my 12-50mm on the second dive.

The sailfin sculpin had become common.

And yes, a wolf eel at Cove 2. Crazy, I know! As I type this post, this wolfie is still in this hole, and he is sure a shy one.

I visited the I-beams on the second dive and found one of my favorites, a decorated warbonnet.

And there were still so so many other octopuses out and about that weren’t having babies yet.

September 13. After checking on the well-visited octopus den, I swam to another den a little deeper. I’d visited it the day before to discover the female there had died, but babies were hatching like crazy. I went back on this day to see what might be happening, and while I was there, my flash died at the same time I noticed some eggs had been dragged outside the den and some of them were hatching. I did my best to use my Sola, and when I got home, I was stunned to see the various levels of hatching in the eggs. If you look closely, you will see some paralarvae half-way out the eggs, some still in the eggs, at least one that was dead after nearly hatching out, and of course one that was swimming freely away.

After this dive, I drove out to Carnation for the Beat the Blerch Half Marathon. They took the best photo ever of me crossing the finish line. I think it’s worth posting here.

Beat the Blerch Half Marathon

September 27. Anyway. On September 26 I had visited the main den at Cove 2 only to discover she had died. The timing of an octopus’s death is mind boggling — she lived only long enough to ensure the majority of her babies had hatched out successfully. After nine months of staying with them constantly, fanning the eggs with her arms to ensure they stayed free of muck so they would have proper oxygen transfer, and keeping predators at bay, she died within hours or moments of when they no longer needed her.

A few eggs were were still hatching, so I went back the following day before my half marathon up in Bellingham to see if any more baby octopus would still be there. I might have seen one or two, but while I was hanging out photographing the den for the last time, I could not have been more surprised when a red brotula swam out of the den… then back in… then out again. No big deal. Which is my way of saying: this was a really big deal! Hell of an ending to the summer of cephalopods.

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Nearshore diving, Simonstown, South Africa

For my final post on my March 2015 South Africa “Sharkaholic” trip, I’ll try to let the photos do the talking. From my [unbiased] perspective, I saved the best for last. After all, the water is green!

We did three days in the nearshore environment close to Simonstown. Each of these days began with one dive at the edge of the kelp forest with seven-gill sharks (cowsharks) and other smaller shark species. Then our second dive on these days was at a Cape fur seal colony nearby – no, not the nursery!

Apparently there are few places in the world where you can drop in the water and reliably dive with seven-gill sharks. But we were at the one place, and they were very reliable. The seven-gills hung around the edge of the kelp forest – ranging between a little bit beyond it and a little bit inside. When we were there, viz was not too great. I can only imagine being there on a sunny day with great viz, the sun beams shining through the kelp, the beautiful green water brightly lit, and seven-gills weaving in and out of the vertical ropes of algae.

I’m glad we did three dives in the nearshore, and I’d have been thrilled to do many more. It took me three dives just to begin to get a handle on photographing the seven-gills. Three dives? Yeah, I’m a little slow, because the fact is these prehistoric fish were the pictures of predictability. They moved slowly and swam in a straight line, like a freight train in no hurry. So by the time I figured this out, on the third day, the moment I caught a glimpse of one through the semi-murky water, I swam like hell in the direction that would intersect the shark’s trajectory, and I’d be ready with my camera as it passed. What I noticed, once I had a better idea of what I was actually doing, is that their tail fins seemed to be perpetually away from the camera.

There are other small shark species that live in the kelp. Again, I’d love to spend much more time in the kelp seeking out the little guys. One was called a pajama shark because its stripes look like pajamas (and “prison-attire sharks” doesn’t have the same ring to it).

Pajama shark.

Pajama shark.

Another of the small species living in the kelp is called the shy catshark. Why is it shy? Well, it is small, so I imagine it’s shy for the same reason a lot of small animals are. But it gets its name because when it is threatened, it curls into a ball and covers its eyes with its tail. Is that one of the cutest things a fish could ever do? Ridiculous.

Shy catshark, being shy. Photo by Britta Siegers.

Shy catshark, being shy. Photo by Britta Siegers.

Sweet little shy catshark -- not being shy.

Sweet little shy catshark — not being shy.

(By the way, the shark in the photo below with me was “shown” to me – I’m a firm believer in don’t-touch-the-animals policies, above and below the surface.)

Author with shy catshark. Photo by Britta Siegers.

Author with shy catshark. Photo by Britta Siegers.

Our first day of this inshore itinerary was a special day for me – the second dive, with the Cape fur seals, was my dive #800. We had a small celebration on the skiff afterwards, and I got a t-shirt!

After Jen's dive #800! Photo by Gerald Novak.

After Jen’s dive #800! Photo by Gerald Novak.

The Cape fur seals are referred to by the Shark Explorers staff as the “clowns of the sea.” And boy were they ever! They were the most tenaciously curious animals I have ever encountered. But, like me, they got bored easily. (Did I say that out loud?) Uhem. Anyway, if you weren’t interesting, they’d leave. So best to try to keep them entertained (I never did master that, seeing as how I tend to stay pretty still).

In their spirit of playfulness, I’d often see them sparing with each other. If I did, I’d move towards them in the hopes that one of the bitey seals would come check me out. That’s how I got the photos of them looking so very ferocious.

Some stats in case you’re curious:

  • Water temps. ranged between 54 and 61 degrees F. Big range, but you get the idea: better to be in a drysuit!
  • Depths: 40 ft. ave. Ranged 34 to 52 ft.
  • Viz (which I rate as the ability to see how many fingers my buddy is holding up): 8 ft. for two of the dives, and 20 beautiful feet for our final day in this environment. If you’re a local Seattle, diver, you know 20 feet is awesome (especially when 20 ft. by my standards usually means 40 ft. by the standards of everyone else).

If you made it this far, and if you are a diver, I’m hoping to return to South Africa in 2017. Let me know if you’re interested.


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White Shark Habitat

Did I really write that? White shark “habitat”? Last week I mentioned that when I was in South Africa in March, we went to three different habitat types for different shark species. But what is white shark habitat? After all, these fish travel all over the world. They are found in deep water, shallow water, green water, clear blue water, and murky water where you’d never have a chance to see them coming. White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) can be found in almost all coastal and offshore waters with water temps between 54 and 75°F. That’s a whole lot of ocean.

Ha! Made ya look. Anyway, one of the few places in the world where you can get in a steel cage and come face to face with white sharks is in the waters off of South Africa. We stayed in Simonstown and tried our luck experiencing these incredible animals at the local Cape fur seal nursery on two separate days. The water was only about 30 feet deep where we were anchored, and viz was 10 feet or less. Add the steel cage, and there you have today’s working definition of “habitat.”

You don’t have to be a diver to experience the white sharks at Simonstown. You don’t even need a snorkel. The truth is, this is a tourist experience – it is something anyone can do. And a lot of people do it for the adrenaline. But just because anyone can do it, doesn’t mean anyone should miss it.

There’s a lot of water around Simonstown. And, there are a lot of Cape fur seals. (I’ll  prove that to you next week). So why aren’t the white sharks aren’t nosing around us everywhere we go?

The Cape fur seal nursery near Simonstown, South Africa.

The Cape fur seal nursery near Simonstown, South Africa.

Unlike other islands and shorelines with Cape fur seals, the particular tiny island we go to see them hosts a fur seal nursery. Read: completely vulnerable tasty baby treats for sharky sharks. The seals come to this island to have their pups for whatever reason (I’m not an expert), and at some point the young helpless hapless pups have to go off island. They have to leave and go find a life for themselves somewhere else. And the sharks know it, so they come here. And let me tell you, there are a lot of seals and a lot of pups at this place. (You want to be upwind. Seriously.) This all means two things: (1) the white sharks are here very reliably, and (2) they already have great snacks all around, so we have to work really hard to get their attention. And by “we” I mean the crew. Not me. Unless you count hoping, hoping, hoping.

There are a few different types of shark cages. Some and scuba, some are snuba, and some are otherwise. We were in the otherwise. Because my group was a bunch of divers, we already had our own wet and drysuits (okay, everyone had wetsuits and I had a drysuit). We had our own masks and cameras, too. That and a heavy weight belt was about all you needed.

Ready for white shark action!

Ready for white shark action!

The way it works is you get in the cage, which is only about two feet wide and long enough for 5 people to cram in side by side, and the cage remains tethered to the boat at the surface.

Shark Explorers' white shark cage.

Shark Explorers’ white shark cage.

One member of the boat crew is tasked with throwing out a decoy – it’s a 2-dimensional rubber fur seal silhouette on a rope. It’s supposed to get the attention of the white sharks. Meanwhile, someone else is throwing out bait – big unidentifiable chunks of something that was once a part of a large fish tied to a rope. The idea is not to feed the sharks, just to draw them in. So the crew member throws the chunk out, pulls it in, throws it out again, over and over, ad infinitum. There’s also a guy standing up watching the water. (There’s a lot going on at the same time.) But the important part is that when a shark does show up, the person towing the bait pulls it in fast and directly at the cage, where we small mortals await. The idea is to bring the shark right up to us, those of us in the cage. The crew does their best to lure the shark along the front of the cage so everyone can see. Of course, it rarely works exactly as planned. But hopefully over the course of one or two days, everyone will get at least one great look.

When the spotter spots a shark coming, he yells “DOWN CAGE!!” And if you’re in the cage, you take a big breath and stick your head underwater. If you are lucky, you get a great view of the ocean’s magnificent apex predator swimming right at you, mouth wide open. And yeah, it is a hell of an adrenaline rush.

Great photos are another matter altogether, as you can see from my paltry attempts. It all happens super fast, and you’re holding your breath, and then in your adrenaline frenzy that is not unaffected by your close proximity to all the other incredibly excited humans, arms flailing with their own cameras, you’re hoping that your camera is in the right position — presumably inside the cage but without bars or ropes blocking the view.

It’s pretty awesome watching from the boat, too, as the sharks tend to come out of the water as they lunge at their prey. They are also known to breach the surface – some seasons they do this more than others. I would love to be there for that, as it would be spectacular. Regardless, it is an undeniably awesome experience to witness them, whether from the boat or in the water, whether you come away with a single decent photo or not.

A white shark at the surface -- this one snagged the bait, but usually the bait is pulled away before they get a chance to actually eat it.

A white shark at the surface — this one snagged the bait, but usually the bait is pulled away before they get a chance to actually eat it.

And if you’re in the water, and if they swim right at you with their mouths open – there is nothing like it. It’s like you’ve died and gone to shark heaven – but without the dying part.

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