Deer in Dive Lights

We are sitting atop a new year, and I’m tempted to make a resolution to post my dive stories more frequently. Part of the reason I haven’t posted in so long is because I spend my free time (a) diving, (b) processing photos from diving, or (c) getting ready for an art fair to show my photos from diving. The other reason? Having so many stories to tell and not knowing where to begin.

New year’s resolutions like this (do more, do better, blah blah blah) seem so familiar they’re tedious, so I never actually make them. So maybe if I do, I’ll abide by them? Let’s see.

I did a dive this morning — first dive of 2016, and also the first dive I have done locally since it turned so cold. I nearly froze solid. I long for the cozy warm comfort of last summer. Not your problem, I know. But today’s dive was happily reminiscent of last summer in one regard — we saw 3 of the 4 local octopus and squid species.

Alas, it’s been a while since it was warm out and all the cephalopods were making babies. But it wasn’t that long ago… And it was the most amazing summer for local diving I’ve ever witnessed. I could write a book for all the sights I was privy to. Which is why I haven’t written a blog post in a long time — there is simply so much to tell, I feel like a deer in headlights.

During the amazing summer of 2015:

I had close-up experiences with both of our local shark species — close up in ways I never have before. The “summer of sharks”?

Spiny Dogfish, Three Tree North, August

Spiny Dogfish, Three Tree North, August

sixgill in profile

Sixgill shark, Sund Rock, June.

I witnessed three different giant Pacific octopus dens hatching out. Yes! Tiny baby octopuses. I got sucked in to major obsessive compulsive diving (OCD) at 3 am on many mornings just to try to see as much as possible. FOMO (fear of missing out). I also found one of the females just after she’d died…

Newly hatched giant Pacific octopus, Three Tree North, August.

Newly hatched giant Pacific octopus, Three Tree North, August.

Newly hatched giant Pacific octopus, Three Tree North, August.

Newly hatched giant Pacific octopus, Three Tree North, August.

Female giant Pacific octopus, just after death; Cove 2, September.

Female giant Pacific octopus, just after death; Cove 2, September.

There were the squid! Oh the squid. First, there was the mass spawning at Redondo South. Then, while visiting the octopus den at 3 in the morning several times in August at Three Tree North, I experienced an evolving relationship with juvie squid — every day on descent we met up and they got more at ease, or more curious, or more aggressive (I have no idea which). Then there was the single pair of mating opalescents that mated and laid an egg pod while I watched — couple of exhibitionists!

Mass spawning, opalescent squid; Redondo South, July

Mass spawning, opalescent squid; Redondo South, July.

Juvenile opalescent squid, Three Tree North, August.

Juvenile opalescent squid, Three Tree North, August.

Spawning opalescent squid, Three Tree North, August.

Spawning opalescent squid, Three Tree North, August.

I used to work for DivEncounters Alliance, and for 2 years I wrote a weekly blog for them. That is how I spent 88 Sundays of my life. For the next few weeks I will commit (resolve?) to a weekly SeaJen post to catch up on 2015’s underwater awesomeness. I’m quite glad to say goodbye to 2015 topside. But 2015 underwater was the stuff of coldwater divers’ dreams.

Also during 2015 I was diving in South Africa, Iceland, the Olympic Peninsula, Southern California, and the Philippines (my only wetsuit trip of the year). There are a few stories and photos from those trips too. I’ve got my work cut out for me.

See ya next week.

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The Devolution of a Diver (aka, what happens when a sixgill shark shows up as a complete surprise)

One of the countless interesting factoids about diving is this: Every dive, no matter what, contains stories. Some might only be interesting to the one or two who experienced the dive, and some stories gain worldwide attention. Even an uneventful dive’s story might be how “there was no life to be seen, which is crazy. Normally…” and, bam, there’s a story from nothing, but borne from a dive.

And I’d venture to say that most divers have a pack of special stories that they’ve told many times over. Tales of awe, wonder, and amazement. Tales of beauty. Tales of near-disaster. For me, two of my favorite stories both center around the same fish: the sixgill shark.

One of these stories happened on July 5 of this year. I’d been wanting to get back to Sund Rock since last year to see if the red brotula are still there. Bob Bailey had more than once mentioned the cloud sponges and all the decorated warbonnets in them deep off the South Wall. So we made a dive date. And what follows is a very wordy account of those dives. Normally I’d intersperse my tale with lots of photos from the dives, and I do have lots of photos, but in this instance they would only distract from the story. And so.

Because of the depth (around 110 fsw), Bob suggested getting 30 percent enriched air. Our first dive was such a pleasure. So many squat lobsters sitting out in the open – the only place I have seen this behavior. And on these dives, baby sea whips lined the bottom everywhere – by the thousands. I have done the South Wall at Sund Rock a couple times, but I’d never really enjoyed it much – luck of the draw. On this day, the place was teeming with life. We only found one warbonnet in the cloud sponges, but that was enough for me. Upslope from the sponges are dozens of full-sized sea whips and a scattering of sea pens. On this day, we encountered several species of sea star, several species of nudibranch. All this in addition to the normal wolf eels (and octopus, though I didn’t see any on the first dive because we were deep for so long we didn’t spend much time on the wall). Towards the end of the dive, there were hundreds of Hermissenda crassicornis laying eggs all over the kelp. And nearly at the surface – massive clouds of larval fish of who-knows-what species. In short, it was a great dive.

So rather than do our second dive on the North Wall, we decided on a repeat. And after spending quite a bit of time at the cloud sponges, I was off to the side taking a photo of a vermillion star while Bob was wrapping up by the sponges when I noticed his light going absolutely bonkers nuts. Normally he is very concise in his light signals, so I knew this was going to be good. And I didn’t have to wonder for very long. As soon as I lifted my head, this massive beauty swam right in front of me: a sleek, long, perfect sixgill shark. (Yes, left to my own devices, it would have swam right over the top of me while I took amazing photos of a sea star. Some of you have witnessed this behavior in me. Ahem. Anyway.)

I had told Bob before the dive a quirky fact about myself: that if I get excited about an animal underwater, my SAC rate doubles, maybe even triples. Well, to be more specific, it’s not just seeing a cool animal – it is when I see a cool animal I want to take a photo of yet am keenly aware it may move or leave at any second. Instantly, my heart starts pounding so hard I can feel it beating against my chest. And naturally, my breathing rate increases. As we were going deep on this dive, I wanted to conserve air, so I told Bob I’d to my best not to get too excited about anything.

So when this incredible animal appeared directly in front of me, mere inches away from my face, and he was maybe 8 feet long but my camera was set to take photos of little bitty warbonnets, I said to myself (no kidding, I was actually talking to myself), I said to myself in a voice you might use on someone who just stepped on a piece of unexploded ordnance that you’re trying to keep calm “Jen, very calmly change your camera settings…” my voice a quiet whisper in my mind: “Very calmly go from macro to wide… stay calm… breathe….calmly…” I could have used this voice on a meditation CD and put the shark to sleep. Point is, I remained calm. The shark swam past me, and I got the settings changed and started to swim alongside it.

Even when they look like they are barely moving, large marine animals can still move faster than most people swim (calmly!) on scuba gear. So I snapped just a couple shots of the shark’s profile, before it was ahead of me and heading downslope. I could not go deeper at that point without going into deco, so I resigned to my likely poor (yet calmly taken) photos. Bob followed it, swimming alongside it and just below it, and I followed them both from above.

Then I noticed that the topography ahead of them sloped upwards, and with Bob below the shark, I thought it would probably swim up to my level again. Then it did something even better: it stopped and sat on the bottom.

Can you hear the sirens now? Brrreee breeee breeee!!!!  Spaceship will self destruct in… zero. point. zero seven minutes. Warning, warning… breeeee breeeee breeeee!!!!…. Best photo op ever!!! Heart – pounding so hard out of my chest I worried it would punch a hole in my drysuit. Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod

This time I spoke firmly and directly to my heart: CALM DOWN!!!!!!!

Bob positioned himself in front of the shark downslope, and I got into position in front of it upslope. I framed perfect images: his beautiful face in the foreground, head-on, and his fall body falling away in the background. I took a few photos like this between my rapid-fire breaths, and a slight current actually pushed me right towards the shark. I popped up and swam over it so I wouldn’t head-butt him. I looped back around to try to take more, and this time I plummeted down and landed hard on the bottom in my insane excitement, and a cloud of silt billowed up. In that moment it was official: I had completely devolved into a diver with the buoyancy skills of an absolute beginner. I was, in fact, a total spaz. And probably a narced one at that. The only saving face, er I mean saving grace about that silt cloud was it was time for us to head up anyway. We left the shark sitting on the bottom.

Leaving, I got all calm again, like, hey man, that’s cool, what we just saw, no big thang.

Spaz!

After swimming up a meter or two I turned around to face Bob, and he did an underwater happy dance. I could hear him whooping and hollering in joy in his reg. We high-fived, and I did a hand signal to him of my heart pounding out of my chest.

And then what? Nudibranchs? Seriously? Like, who really cares about nudibranchs after seeing an elasmobranch like that?? Nobody, that’s who. That’s like: oh goodie, sea cucumbers.

I had only ever seen one other sixgill shark ever. The first time was in 2003 on a circumnav trip around Vancouver Island. We were docked at the tiny town of Tahsis for the express reason of seeing sixgill sharks. They were known to come up really shallow there because of all the fish heads and fish guts the fishermen threw over the side. It was a trip with aquarists from the Vancouver Aquarium, and the five of them plus me all dropped in on a night dive together, our lights pointing out in every direction, we moved down like a space alien from the X-Files. We descended, and in no time a sixgill shark appeared. It swam directly towards me, me with my little Sea&Sea film camera. It swam right at me and I shot one photo as it passed right over head. In my mind, this photo would be worthy of National Geographic it was so awesome. The shark so very close. Remember those days of film cameras? You didn’t actually know the results until you got home and had the film developed. So when I did, well, you can see my National Geo shot below.

Tahsis sixgill shark

(What is even stranger is I don’t remember any divers in front of me. But there is a dive light clearly in front of me. I thought everyone was behind me. What exactly happens in the presence of a sixgill? Does my brain capacity reduce to only just above its reptilian counterpart?)

So after this dive at Sund Rock where I could see what I was shooting – I could frame the shark, and the shark sat there patiently (probably wondering who the hell the total spaz was) while I fired frame after frame – but still, I am kind of superstitious – no, I’m just generally afraid to see my photos – I exalted in the experience for the rest of the day and did not venture to look at the photos until the next morning.

For good reason. There were exactly two photos that were in focus: one of the initial profile view, which was completely blasted with backscatter, and the one I took as I passed over the shark’s head when the current had pushed me too close. All the other photos, the masterpieces I was hoping for? Every one of them a blurry disaster. Photos taken in complete nitrogen narcosis la-la land, in total devolved-diver spaz-mode. It would seem I framed the photos just fine but forgot to let the camera focus before I snapped. All of them. I keep getting the image of Bill the Cat in my mind.

narc'd beauty

I would love to be able to end this story by saying I went back the following weekend and did a bang-up job finding and calmly photographing another shark. We did go back, but the sharks kept to themselves that day. It could easily be another 12 or 15 years or ever before I see another sixgill. For now, I have to live with my story and my highly doctored profile shot:

sixgill in profile

I never did tell the whole story of my first sixgill sighting up in Tahsis… Let’s just say it also involved a great white shark and defying the laws of physics. I’ll tell that story another day…

 

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Hitting all the red lights in green water

I was so excited to try out my new wide-angle lens (Olympus 9-18mm) that I didn’t even wait till I got the dome port. I went to Three Tree North on Sunday, March 1, and used a poorly fitting flat port, just so I could get an idea of the quality of the lens.

caption?

It seemed promising.

Then the dome port arrived on Monday.

Then I went diving on Tuesday.

Except it wasn’t quite that simple. Here’s what really happened. Warning: this is one of those stories where nothing goes right (except for the most critical things, fortunately). In other words, there were no dive emergencies, but pretty much everything else that could have gone wrong did. Some magazines have the ill-fated story on the last page — you can read about someone else’s disaster and hopefully learn from it and not repeat their mistakes. Well, this is like that, except possibly without any actual lessons.

The plan was to ride the 5:45pm Water Taxi from downtown Seattle to SeaCrest, where my car full of gear was waiting. It would be waiting a half-mile away, so the great hope was to find a closer parking spot.

I did get a little closer…but there were still no spaces in the parking lot proper, so I parked on the street next to Cove 2. When I had first arrived, I spotted my buddy, Andy, already parked in the lot; he’d taken an earlier Water Taxi and was quite relaxed waiting for me at his perfect parking place. I started to get my undergarment and dry suit on in the street when I noticed a space opened up in the parking lot, so I jumped in the driver’s seat half-dressed and drove into the lot for a good spot, then started to put my gear together. When I got to the point where you attach the part you breathe out of — you know, the air delivery system, aka regulator, aka “octopus” — it was not there. Ouch. I made this discovery not 5 seconds after chiding Andy for being slow to get geared up. Should have kept my mouth shut. (Hey, maybe there is a lesson in here after all.)

I jumped in the car again and drove to my house in peak traffic. Long lines of cars trying to get home from long days at work. I finally got to my house and grabbed the octopus, which was strategically placed in my basement in such a way as to be completely hidden from normal view. I jumped back in the car and hit precisely every single red light on the way back to SeaCrest. And when I arrived, it seemed like SeaCrest was the place to be on a Tuesday night, as parking was even worse than 30 minutes earlier, and I was back out on the street and further away than before. Anyway, Andy helped me haul my gear, and before much longer we were splashing.

Getting off the Water Taxi, I had noticed nasty looking bubbles floating on the water surface. When we actually made it in the water six hours later, the nasty bubbles were still floating by. One time in Hood Canal my buddy Stacey and I got in the water after a big sewage spill had occurred nearby at a trailer park. That was really gross. So was this. Andy thought it looked like water from the holding tank of one of the container ships in the bay. And while I was kicking out to our descent point, a small wave crashed right inside my mouth – so I got a mouthful of it. And it did not taste like saltwater so much as like chemicals. That’s some serious yuck. Or immune-system booster, if you want to look at it positively.

We swam to the tall white can buoy and dropped down. The plan was to swim to the end of the I-beams, as I wanted to test my new dome port and wide-angle lens on some structure, and I thought the I-beams would make a good subject, plus I was hoping for some interaction with a harbor seal, another good wide-angle subject. I was not one bit worried about seeing anything that would require a macro lens, as (a) what could possibly be in Cove 2 on a Tuesday that I haven’t seen before?, and (b) Andy had his camera with macro settings so he could shoot anything I could not.

I was proven wrong on item (a) within moments of descending, as I spotted a stubby squid eating a shrimp – something I have never before witnessed. I took photos with my wide-angle lens (set at 9mm – that’s really wide). Then I motioned for Andy to get some photos with his Canon. But item (b) didn’t work out so good either, and Andy didn’t get any shots of this little feast-in-action. Meanwhile, I tried to keep a good attitude and remind myself this dive was all about the wide-angle subjects. …here seal, seal, seal… (how do you call a seal underwater, anyway?)

Do you have any idea how awesome this photo would be if I'd had my macro lens?

Do you have any idea how awesome this photo would be if I’d had my macro lens? That is a shrimp he’s got in his arms — you can see the shrimp’s eye in the bottom right.

We swam another kick or two and BAM! Another stubby squid – this time it was easily the largest one I have ever seen. It was the monster mother lode of all stubby squids. It could barely swim it was so big and fat. It sort of bounced instead of swam. Later, Andy dubbed it the “tubby stubby.”

Monster stubby squid -- nearly as big as the red rock crab lurking nearby.

Monster stubby squid — nearly as big as the red rock crab lurking nearby. Kinda looks like he ate a red rock crab. It’s….almost disturbing.

About this time, the harbor seal showed up, though I was mostly just catching sight of his silt trail, not him.

Out at the end of the I-beams, I found a decorated warbonnet in a really cool (read: photogenic) spot. If one had a macro lens, that is. It was in the corner of the bend of the beam, set in there like a bead of welding.

The bent I-beam. See the beautifully posed decorated warbonnet? Yeah, me neither.

The bent I-beam. See the beautifully posed decorated warbonnet? Yeah, me neither.

After a few minutes, we turned around and headed up to all the pilings covered in white plumose anemones. On our way, we came upon the harbor seal, lying on the bottom. Just lying there like a pin-up girl. Posing. For the camera. Which I had in my hands. But I was so surprised by this centerfold piece, I froze. I did not take advantage of the fact that this guy was not moving, not swimming with his face away from me, not stirring up muck; he was just lying there, posing. And I just stared at him wondering why he was just lying there. By the time I finally decided there was nothing wrong with him and decided to start taking pictures, he decided he’d posed long enough. Just like that – BAM! — opportunity lost. (Hey! Another lesson: if you see a cool sight but worry that the animal might be sick or dying, shoot camera first, ask questions later. Um… See, even when I type it, it doesn’t seem right…)

Harbor seal playing possum.

Harbor seal playing possum.

But that seal was not done with me. For I had the perfect lens with the perfect port to get what could have been the perfect photo. And he knew it. It really was like he knew it – and wanted to help me out, give me the chance that no harbor seal had ever given me, the chance for perfect photos. We were at the place where there is sort of an arch made of fallen-over pilings, and they are covered in white plumose anemones, and he appeared below all this, and I followed him as he swam up and stuck his face right inside the anemone – like he was smelling flowers. But my camera would not fire. Then, it got even better (or, worse) – he turned and faced me and swam right to me, and he hung upside down in the water looking right at me, posing for me, totally cute and perfectly framed by anemones on three sides. Yes, we had a moment. But my camera… would not focus. Would not fire.

The only shot I got of the harbor seal in the anemones. I am completely sure that if the camera had been able to focus and fire, I would have had the next best thing to Petunia sniffing the flowers.

The only shot I got of the harbor seal in the anemones. I am completely sure that if the camera had been able to focus and fire, I would have had the next best thing to Petunia sniffing the flowers.

After that, I chased him around like is typical, his feet waving goodbye, and always a little faster than I could swim. And then the dive was over. And I knew without a doubt that I had no good photos of the stubby squid, the warbonnet, or the harbor seal, but that I just saw and experienced some of the coolest moments of my underwater life.

And, it turns out, the camera does okay when the subject is not in motion and acting all cute and charming…

White plumose anemones on the I-beams.

White plumose anemones on the I-beams.

...on the pilings.

…on the pilings.

arc of the Metridium

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My new favorite old dive site – reprinted from the Marker Buoy Newsletter

It has been far too long since I posted here. I am going to share a newsletter article I wrote for my dive club, the Marker Buoys. 

But first, as they mentioned at the end of my article, I would be remiss to not mention there are particular hazards associated with this site at certain times of year — namely, when boats are using the boat ramp. So… maybe don’t go there. Maybe just read my fun article and look at my fun photos and just have fun from the comfort of your fun computer.

bay pipefish and hermit crab

bay pipefish and hermit crab

biggest bay pipefish ever

biggest bay pipefish ever

If you have read my seajen.com blog, you know I get obsessed with things underwater. “Things.” Usually the things are species. Hooded nudibranchs. Decorated warbonnets. And the obsession stems from the desire to make my idea of a perfect image. I get a vision in my head and return relentlessly to a location until (a) I get what I want or (b) the animals have moved on, left the building.

giant fleshy scaleworm

giant fleshy scaleworm

light-edged ribbon worm

light-edged ribbon worm

My newest obsession is a site. And this obsession is more about discovery than one perfect photo. I guess you could say it is about many imperfect photos.

sailfin sculpin chasing me

sailfin sculpin chasing me

sailfin sculpin not chasing me

sailfin sculpin not chasing me

The site is not new, but lately I have been obsessively exploring a part of it that I don’t think gets the bulk of divers’ attention. The site is at Redondo Beach, which is known as a singular dive site, but I would argue there are actually two sites there: one leading out from the stairs and MAST and another leading out from the beach south of the boat ramp. And as these sites are separated by the fishing pier and each features its own geographic reach, they each deserve a unique name. I would therefore submit that we start referring to them as Redondo North (entry at the stairs or the beach north of Salty’s) and Redondo South (entry point at the beach south of the boat ramp). You might think I’m ridiculous, as probably there is a great deal of overlap of these areas. But humor me for a few more paragraphs? If nothing else, it makes describing your starting point easier.

blacktail shrimp

blacktail shrimp

Dana's blade shrimp

Dana’s blade shrimp

The first time I dived Redondo South was January 4, 2014. I did it as a Marker Buoy night dive hosted by Joyce Merkel. I followed Joyce and Fritz around, and it was a good dive. We ended up seeing more than a couple Pacific spiny lumpsuckers, the primary target of the dive. Two days later I went there with different buddies but was unable to re-create the profile Joyce set out (instead, I unfortunately led us through the wood field, and the most exciting thing we saw was some sunken head shop paraphernalia). But here very recently, I returned to the site after reading reports of 8 lumpsucker sightings in a single dive, and my first time back after my wood-field hiatus I counted 8 octopus for starters. That was December 13 (12-13-14!!), and I have been getting to know this site better ever since. Most importantly, I now know how to avoid the ugly patch of woody debris near the boat ramp. The profile I prefer is to swim down to a bottle field at about 85 feet, then slowly come up slope over a field of cockle and moonsnail shells, and finish with enough air to explore the sandy and intermittently cobbly shallows parallel to the beach. In each of these areas you will find exactly two things: species you can anticipate and species you cannot.

early-morning hooded nudibranch

early-morning hooded nudibranch

plainfin midshipman

plainfin midshipman

At 85 feet, in the bottle field, it’s an amusement park of muck critters. Tiny red octopus can be seen reliably in and among the bottles, and all kinds of crazy worms are a surprise every time. Stubby squid are quite likely, but whether the cockscombs will show up in numbers free-swimming is anyone’s guess. You can reliably find sailfin sculpin and pipefish here — I have seen the largest bay pipefish of all time — so big it looked like a snake (I thought it would be a different species, but it seems there is only the one species in our waters). In the shallows I recently found a starry flounder – not at all common unless you are in the Seattle Aquarium. Crescent Gunnels are the norm, as are a mix of shrimp species I never see elsewhere. (Gives new meaning to the phrase “shrimp cocktail.”) The safety stop zone is spiny lumpsucker-land in winter. But they seem to vary their preferred depth on any given day based on, what? Time of day? Tide cycle? Roshambo?

marbled snailfish chasing me

marbled snailfish chasing me

marbled snailfish acting innocent

marbled snailfish acting innocent

I kept thinking about the muck diving in the Philippines and how this dive site seems to rival some of their muck sites. This is a site where I consistently wish I could double my underwater time — a full hour deep and a full hour shallow. The only reason I hesitate to write about this site is I don’t want it to be the next California: you tell everyone how great it is, then it gets over run. I want it to be like Seattle: everyone thinks it rains here all the time so no one moves here. Okay, well… maybe not the best analogy. But this is a special site.

scaleworm on a white-lined dirona

scaleworm on a white-lined dirona

another shrimp

another shrimp

I did a pre-dawn “night dive” there just before the longest night of the year. Besides the usual suspects, we saw two free-swimming hooded nudibranchs. That morning I had a sailfin sculpin chase me head-on down slope until I finally had to stop descending. On January 3, my buddy and I spent most of the dive deep and ended up rushing our search for lumpsuckers. I was about 6 seconds from giving up, throwing in the towel, getting skunked and surfacing when a medium-sized lumpie appeared from nowhere swimming directly at me, hell bent for leather. Have you ever been chased by a lumpsucker? And on January 11, I did a night dive with the target of finding snailfish. I had some great intelligence, as there had been a Marker Buoy dive the night before. I knew the snailfish were seen between about 45 and 15 feet. We found three! And, as seems to be the trend, one of them swam at me…

octo too sexy

octo too sexy

octo without attitude

octo without attitude

Maybe you have already dived here, maybe you haven’t. Regardless — At Redondo South, expect the unexpected – and the expected.

pair of high cockscombs

pair of high cockscombs

very white grunt sculpin

very white grunt sculpin

spiny lumpsucker chasing me

spiny lumpsucker chasing me

spiny lumpsucker relaxing

spiny lumpsucker relaxing

another worm

another worm

just yer basic stubby squid

just yer basic stubby squid

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Coming to Terms with Fish-Mug Mini-Obsessiveness

Back when I wrote about my nemesis hooded nudibranchs, I was naive. In my narrow view of the world, those many dives ago, I thought hooded nudibranchs were my only nemesis in the sea. I’ve lost that innocent view of the water; I now have many nemeses.

So many in fact, that I think of them now as mini-obsessions: I get a new nemesis and seek it out until I gain photographic satisfaction.

I finally came to accept these mini-obsessions recently as I was doing repeated visits to Cove 2. My target was the incredibly cute decorated warbonnet. Despite the rather ostentatious name, the fish is generally shy and completely adorable. And as I am now well aware, most of my mini-obsessions result from seeing someone else’s really great photo of a given animal and wanting to make my own really great photo of the same species.

I had not even wanted to dive Cove 2 — it sounded boring to me. I had not been in the water in 6 weeks – which is very unusual. So first splash back, June 13, John suggested Cove 2, which I thought sounded monumentally uninteresting. Like I said: Bo-Ring. Little did I know a new [mini-]obsession was about to be born.

It all began when I spotted a decorated warbonnet in a piling. (By the way, this is one species that is hard to create a cute nickname for — warbie? decky?) The decorated warbonnets at Cove 2 are seasonal, and to me this sighting meant that they had returned for the summer. The one I found was posed exactly perfectly beautifully. It was not shy, not moving, and I had a clear shot. I should have come away with stunning images. But instead, I had a minor gear malfunction (with my brain). I could not understand why every single photo was getting totally blown out, no matter how I changed my camera settings. Well, despite having faced this exact same issue probably 10 or times previously, I failed to remember the solution, which had nothing to do with camera settings and everything to do with accidentally hitting a button on my YS-D1 strobe so that it was set incorrectly. (One of the drawbacks of that strobe is how easy it is to knock the buttons to unknowingly put the settings askance.)

June 13. Total blow-out. Comical, really.

June 13. Total blow-out. Comical, really.

Bad photos of a perfectly set up Warbie = must return and try again. I went back with Don on June 14 (yes, the next day).

This time, the little guy was home, but for whatever reason, 24 hours later the Metridium (the giant plumose anemones) were completely obstructing the view. I snapped a few photos but was painfully unsuccessful…

June 14. View obstructed.

June 14. View obstructed.

Okay, that’s two dives at Cove 2 with two different buddies. I decided to add a little challenge to my quest for a good Deckie photo — to do every Cove 2 dive with a different buddy for as long as it took to get a photo I would like.

On my third attempt, June 22 with Eric, exact same route, and the same little guy was home, and the Metridium were not in the way. I took a few photos that I thought looked great in my view finder. I felt very expectantly happy… felt like I finally did it! This was going to be it. I was finally going to have my great shot of this fish whose super cute mug I had failed to adequately capture for years, despite repeated efforts. After I was satisfied I had finally done it, reached the top of Everest, I let my buddy know about the fish so he could also see it and take some photos.

Back home, my photos were not what I had hoped. They were okay but not *wow-great* which was my goal. It was too shallow to blame narcosis. I simply didn’t reach Everest. I was only at Base Camp.

June 22. Cute but still not what I was hoping for.

June 22. Cute but still not what I was hoping for.

(Eric’s photo was terrific.)

My fourth attempt… July 12 with Kimber. This time we headed out to the end of the I-beams (a break with tradition). Along the way we found a huge surprise for Cove 2 — a spiny lumpsucker (I will blatantly point this out as foreshadowing to a future SeaJen). The end of the I-beams are covered in Metridium — favorite habitat for the Cove 2 DecWarbs. Therefore, Metridium was all I cared about inspecting… and voila! An I-beam DecWarbie. Snap snap snap.

We headed back upslope to the pilings where my little pal had been the previous three dives. But I had an empty feeling approaching the piling, and my instincts were right. No,  the little DecoWar was not there. But as there was plenty more Metridium in the area, I was back on the hunt. And pretty soon I found not one, but two more Warbonnies. They were next to each other — one hiding in a hole, the other wedged in amongst the wood and Metridium. Poof, Poof, Poof, went the strobes as I blinded these guys relentlessly in my complete and total obsession with getting one good photo.

So, are you dying to find out?

On this day, I got my best so far. It is still not perfect. But it is probably as good as I will ever get at Cove 2 with the camera I am using.

July 12. As good as it’s gonna get.

July 12. As good as it’s gonna get.

Epilogue: I returned the next day, July 13, to Cove 2 with yet another buddy (Bobby), but it was like going back to base camp from the top – no, not even that. It was like nothing at all. I barely even searched for the Raters. And in fact I didn’t see much at all. Which was fine. I felt like I was being let out of rehab. No, that’s not right; rehab implies one is rehabilitated. Spiny lumpsuckers, here I come…

 

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Sailfish and Sardines at Isla Mujeres — aka, the fast and the damned

This is one of those “best-kept secrets” that will be all the rage by next year, I’m pretty certain. I’m referring to snorkeling with sailfish outside of Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

I was there in February, and on my return I wrote an article for my dive club’s newsletter, but if you weren’t in my dive club you probably didn’t see the newsletter. I recently posted a photo of me in the water with the sailfish taken by one of the photo pros on our trip, and I got a lot of questions. So I thought I would reproduce the newsletter here on my blog site. But first, a few thoughts that did not make it into that article.

Yours truly, view from the sailfish. Fortunately I bear no resemblance to a sardine. Photo by Britta Siegers.

Yours truly, sailfish’s perspective. Fortunately I bear no resemblance to a sardine. Photo by Britta Siegers.

The Atlantic sailfish show up in winter in the waters off Isla Mujeres because during this season down in deep water there are millions of sardines — tasty treats for these arguably world’s-fastest-fish. And after being in the water with the sailfish, I can tell you with complete confidence that if you don’t look like a sardine, they don’t really care about you at all. But if you are a sardine and you are unlucky enough to end up in one of these herded “baitballs,” your minutes are numbered. The baitballs are consumed sardine by sardine by a group of sailfish, until the round school of little prey fish are completely gone. Poof.

One of the scenes I found endlessly fascinating was watching the sailfish catch and eat the sardines. There were moments when I could hear the crunching of bones in the water. And the first time my eye caught sight of a lone sardine that had somehow got separated from the rest of the baitball, I was shocked to witness a sailfish appear out of nowhere at the speed of light and — BAM — no more lone sardine. I learned quickly then that any time a sardine was singled out from the group, it was easy pickins and would last no more than a few seconds.

Which is exactly why from that moment on whenever I saw a lone sardine, I watched it, because I knew what was about to happen. (Same reason people stare at car wrecks? I dunno.) And, it’s also why I had a little freak-out moment of my own at one point.

We were floating on the surface after the action had passed but before the boat had retrieved us, and I felt something tickling my back. I thought it was my imagination at first. But it happened a second time and I couldn’t ignore it again, so I looked over my shoulder to discover a sardine. On me. Doing something fish don’t usually do: trying to get out of the water. By getting on me.

Instantly I thought of the needle-sharp nose of some still-hungry sailfish that I was sure was going to appear out of nowhere to spear the little fish on my back. You bet I did a strange horizontal water dance to get out from under that little small of prey otherwise known as a target.

Call me a coward, but far be it from me to come between a Fish and its Dinner.

Below is the reproduction of the article I wrote for my dive club’s newsletter: Marker Buoy’s Buoy Tender, for the March 2014 issue.

Lessons Learned while Swimming with and Photographing Sailfish

I will admit that when I first heard of snorkeling with sailfish, my response was less than enthusiastic. First of all, snorkeling? But I’m a diver… Second, when I saw the photos others have taken from similar trips, I thought they were fine and nice but they did not particularly grab me. And yet, I wanted to go on this trip, and after all the raves I’d heard of from others who have been in the water with arguably the ocean’s fastest fish, I knew it would probably exceed my expectations.

I was very correct.

Sailfish, which are in the marlin family, are in the open ocean about an hour’s boat ride from Isla Mujeres every year from January through March, roughly. They are there because the sardines are there. And I won’t spend too much time belaboring those details here, because I want to save the rest of my column space to focus on the challenge of capturing these super-speedy fish in photos.

About a week before I was to fly, the travel agent said scuba might be available, but if so we’d dive with a backplate they would provide, because a normal BC had too much drag in the water. Um. If a BC has too much drag, what about my camera strobes? Turns out, you don’t use them. Not normally anyway.

I have been swimming weekly, and I went to the pool two last times between her foreboding warning about swimming hard and my flight to Cancun. Both times I put on my zoomers and did some hard workouts. I do not regret that one bit.

When we arrived, they told us no one had been seeing sailfish, so there were no guarantees. They were quite serious, and we believed them, gravely. We understood we might spend four days in a boat with nothing to show for it but extreme facial and hand tans (the rest of us covered in neoprene).

The best lighting conditions we encountered were on the first day. The best everything conditions were on the first day. We got so lucky that Saturday. The water was flat calm, the sun was shining, the water was clear blue. Which is why we were so easily able to spot three whale sharks that day. By the time we saw the third one, we kept going – we ignored it. That’s how much in the animals we were. We saw long trains of mobula mantas swim by. We also got in the water with manta rays that calm day. Again, later that morning we motored past many mantas, only stop-ping to get in the water when we found a group of four together – like the third whale shark, solitary mantas had become a low-value target.

The professional photographers on board got mind-blowing photos of everything – mantas with their accompanying remoras and massive shoals of sardines. Whale sharks feeding at the surface with glorious rays of sun shooting through the water.

My photos are so amateur it is actually physically painful for me to review them in comparison to the pro’s images.

Each day, the weather got progressively stronger. Our second day was chock-full of sailfish. On the third day we had to motor for a few hours before we saw any signs of life in the choppy seas. The first animal we found that day was a whale shark. That was a fun one for me, as I was absolutely loaded with adrenaline and swam harder than I probably ever have in my life to stay with the animal as long as I could. After the whale shark, we found more sailfish, and on the fourth day, the dolphins were not only visible from the surface, but we were able to spend some precious moments in the water with them as well. In fact, no joke, I actually witnessed one doing that “ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” call while swimming directly towards me underwater. I didn’t know they could even make that sound when they aren’t dancing backwards across the water like Flipper.

Before the trip, I thought four days doing the exact same thing sounded sketchy. Me, ever the skeptic. But by the fourth day, I was only just beginning to get my camera to play nicely with its master. One time, I dropped in a spectacular position with the sailfish, and they were zipping past me all over the place. I felt like I was in the middle of a sport fisher reality show. But every photo was so blurry, no matter how long I held the focus button. I checked and checked and checked my settings, and eventually discovered that upon splashing from the boat, my macro knob had been turned on. And, these fish are not macro – that much I know.

So I thought I might offer a few tips to the amateurs like me – things I learned – so if you do this trip, you can save yourself a big portion of the learning curve.

My recommendations.

This sport is not for everyone. Unlike diving, where if you’re doing it right, you are not working very hard, you have to be prepared to drop in the water at a moment’s notice and swim like hell for as long as it takes. These are amazing interval workouts. So, be a very strong fin-kick swim-mer.

Take extra snacks. The sandwiches they provide on the boats get very old very fast.

Shop around for a good operator, and if possible organize your own group. We used EcoColors, and they were fantastic. We also paid extra to have fewer people on the boat. Do that too.

I was in a 3mm wetsuit all day, every day, and that was perfect. The wind gets chilly while motoring around, and the neoprene provided a nice windbreaker.

Do not expect to dive. It is rarely worth the trouble, and the bubbles only scare away the sailfish. We witnessed this time and again as divers from a different operator kept getting in the water with us, and as soon as they arrived, the sailfish were insti-gone.

Leave the strobes at the hotel until you get a good feel for what this is all about. Or, if you are really set up, take two systems, and on the rare occasion the bait ball is not moving, try your hand at flash photography.

When the bait ball is stationary, we learned quickly that a bunch of snorkelers all in a bunch gives the sardines a big shady patch to shoal. Read: sailfish will leave the area. So move in and out and around, but don’t ball up in a big mass of humanity if you want the big fish to keep hunting.

Some “Notes to Self” that you might also benefit from.

Be sure to allow the camera to focus before snapping. Just firing rapidly in frenzied excitement is not a good approach.

If you are using a GoPro, do not use any red or magenta filters; you are shallow enough that the natural light works just fine, and any filters will cast a strange tint to the water reminiscent of a wet hell.

Bring and use sunscreen for face and hands and lip balm with a high SPF. My bigger failure was on the latter – I cooked my lips severely, and by the end of day two I looked like a red-lipped bat-fish. And this, people, is the wrong ocean for a red-lipped batfish.

Don’t scoff at four days doing the same thing. After four days, you will wish for four more, because maaaaaaaaybe at the end of four days you were just starting to get things figured out.

Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans). The white flecks in the water are scales from the sardines, which are now in the bellies of the sailfish. These glittering remains were always a tell-tale sign of where a feeding frenzy had taken place, and often nothing was left in a big patch of blue water except the scales as the sailfish (and the sardines with them) had long since moved on.

Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans). The white flecks in the water are scales from the sardines, which are now in the bellies of the sailfish. These glittering remains were always a tell-tale sign of where a feeding frenzy had taken place, and often nothing was left in a big patch of blue water except the scales as the sailfish (and the sardines with them) had long since moved on.

This is one of the larger baitballs we saw, as its numbers had not yet been decimated by the feeding sailfish. The larger sardine balls would sometimes split in two and converge again after a sailfish swam through it -- much like flocks of shorebirds flying in unison. If a single sardine somehow got singled out away from the rest of the bait ball, that sardine just signed his death certificate -- without exception, a lone sardine lasted only seconds near these sailfish.

This is one of the larger baitballs we saw, as its numbers had not yet been decimated by the feeding sailfish. The larger sardine balls would sometimes split in two and converge again after a sailfish swam through it — much like flocks of shorebirds flying in unison. If a single sardine somehow got singled out away from the rest of the bait ball, that sardine just signed his death certificate — without exception, a lone sardine lasted only seconds near these sailfish.

We lost count of how many manta rays were out on the first day. They were easily spotted from the boat from their wing tips extending above the water.

We lost count of how many manta rays were out on the first day. They were easily spotted from the boat from their wing tips extending above the water.

On the first day, the whale sharks were easily spotted feeding along the surface of the water. This particular whale shark was the only one we spotted after that first day, as seas had become increasingly rougher. That, and it was not actually "whale shark season."

On the first day, the whale sharks were easily spotted feeding along the surface of the water. This particular whale shark was the only one we spotted after that first day, as seas had become increasingly rougher. That, and it was not actually “whale shark season.”

 

 

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700 Centuries

I faithfully keep my dive log. Sometimes I wonder what the point is of being such a meticulous record keeper. Like a terrier with a pencil. But it is definitely useful when I return to an area and want to refresh my memory on site details. Or want to write about my underwater century marks.

I just returned from Atlantis Dumaguete Resort in Dauin, Philippines, where I hit 700 dives. It was a special one for several reasons. I won’t go into all those details, but I will share some photos from the dive, just below my accounting of all the big 00 dives I’ve had. I will share one of the reasons it was such a special occasion: the shirt below was a gift from the Atlantis resort… a huge surprise given to me on my last full day there. (Be sure to scroll all the way down to see some of the photos from dive #700.)

700

Here are all the century mark dives plus one bonus dive (I’ve bolded some of the more interesting tid-bits for your skimming pleasure; the notes are from my logbook; the bracketed thoughts are new):

11/5/99: Dive #100. Site: HMSC Saskatchewan, Nanaimo, British Columbia. Buddy: Cindy Hanson. “tiny winged sea slug swam by near line.”

4/20/02: Dive #133 (first dive with a camera). Site:  Buddy: Marty Steinberg at first, then solo. “Camera in hand lends whole new perspective. Great fun.” Notes: I was using my new Sea and Sea MX-10 film camera. Marty noticed a toxic cocktail in his rebreather on the way down the line and ascended. I stayed near the line and completed my dive. [This was my first experience solo.]

6/25/03: Dive #200. Site: Sea Crest, Cove 3, West Seattle. Buddy: Andy Lamb. “Shot 19 photos.” By now my camera is a Sea & Sea Motormarine II. Longspine Combfish, high cockscomb – still to this day have not improved on that cockscomb photo. Andy was quite excited about the longspine combfish. [Yes, this is the Andy Lamb.]

4/28/06: Dive #300. Site: Sea Crest, Cove 2. Buddy: John Dorsett. Notes: pleasant with 20’ viz. But otherwise unnoteworthy. Shot roll of film. [One entire roll of 36 photos?? That’s just living on the edge.]

6/8/10: Dive #400. Site: Twin Sisters, Big Island, Hawaii. Buddy: Kerry Key. Notes: 85-minute dive. I found a Hawaiian lionfish. We aslo saw lots of octopus and some pipefish.

4/6/12: Dive #500. Site: Roca Blanca, Galapagos. Notes: I became a dive fiend at home to hit 500 during this trip.

7/28/13: Dive #600. Site: Crescent Lake, Olympic Peninsula. Buddies: Jeremy Freestone and Don Winslow. Notes: last of 5 dives this weekend on the peninsula.

4/13/14: Dive #700. Site: Cars, Dauin, Philippines. Buddy: John and the group (our friends Stacey and Andrew Hassard, the two horrible bottom-draggers from Newport Beach, and our guide Wing).

I had 19 photos I wanted to share from this dive #700. Tough to narrow it down!

frogfish

striped catfish

puffer in a jar

lionfish

one of the ghost-pipefish

banded pipefish

cardinalfish with eggs!

my drunken little waspfish

baby ornate ghost-pipefish

another type of ghost-pipefish

anemonefish for the finale

 

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