Archive | December, 2011

Catalina Island: Casino Point on Scuba

29 Dec

From an older blog June 2008, this one I originally titled “the black sea bass magnet”

It’s 3:45 am and my alarm clock goes off like some kid crying on an airplane. I can’t believe its time to get up already, any time before I do something fun I have a hard time sleeping and this was just another one of those times. It was twelve midnight when I finally had fallen asleep. Jesus the things I do for fun. Once a year I usually try to gather the “guppies” (my term for the noob scuba divers that work at the Aquarium) together to do a deep dive.  I generally don’t like scuba diving as much as freediving, I use it more as a tool for work to collect things that you can’t get on breath hold.  It’s just a pain in the ass to wear all that cumbersome gear, heavy tank on your back, hoses to get tangled in the kelp, and the dread of knowing you can only be under as long as that air lasts in your tank.  On the plus side I’ve seen some remarkable things while on scuba and every trip is a bit different.  I rub the sleep out of my eyes and gather up my scuba gear and head out to meet my friends at the landing.

Instead of the normal bumpy ride on my small boat, we find ourselves on a glass smooth ride on a gigantic catamaran, the Jet Cat.  Minutes later I’m snoring peacefully to the delight of my friends. One of my super hero powers is the ability to fall asleep at any place at any time, what a waste I wish it were the ability to become invisible or have adamantium claws or something cool like that.  The ride is uneventful and I luck out and don’t get cats or pig noses drawn on my face and as the engines wind down the changing sounds wakes me up.  A few hours later and we are bobbing in the middle of the ocean in the preserve at Casino Point (Avalon underwater park).  
I signal my buddies and we slowly drop down.The B.C is shooting air thru the dump valve and I find myself slowly being pulled underwater with a regulator in my mouth, I have to remind myself that I’ve got a tank on and to not hold my breath like I usually do. I glance downwards and keep an eye on everyone as they clear their ears and drop into the blue water below. At first the water is warm and then there is a fuzzy layer of water where the thermocline is and all of a sudden I feel a bit of a chill which is almost instantly met with scalding urine. Ahhh my mini jacuzzi ;)! It beats the heck out of me how some people can dive in a dry suit because I’m always peeing when I’m underwater, I do it so often it’s hard to remember not to do that when I’m in a crowded mall or sitting at my desk.  If you think that’s gross you should smell my dive boots.  One time I told my coworker Tom, “hey I used some weird detergent, does my dive boots smell like strawberries to you?”  Of course he fell for it and took a good wiff before wrinkling his nose and coughing and sputtering and of course I rolled over with laughter, but that’s for another blog.
It is beautiful on the reef and I see soft corals everywhere, their colors are so beautiful it looks like a painting. I click on my dive light and peer into the caves and sure enough see lobsters nervously clicking their antennae towards me.
This is by far my favorite reef, its more of an advanced dive in this spot so you don’t see a lot of new scuba divers in the area, they are usually working the shallows right in the front of the park. A boat wreck points out in one area and there is a steep ledge that drops down to 80 feet. Way too deep for a rookie freediver like me to hold my breath. On scuba though it’s great fun. The thick kelp blocks out the light and in the midst I see a school of spanish mackerel nervously flickering in a large bait ball. Must be predators around.
                        Spanish Makeral, one of the signs I look for when hunting pelagics
We keep working around the reef and finally I see what I’m looking for. Wedged into a cave is a three foot horn shark. I try to shove myself into the cave but I’m too big dammit. But I see faint light flickering so I move to the back and sure enough find another opening. The rocks are pushing against me now and I squeeze into it and grasp the shark by the back all while trying not to get stuck. Immediately it pulls its head upwards and tries to bite me but horn sharks are harmless anyways so I hold it carefully and bring it out for my friends to check out. They hold it and take pictures and then I stroke its belly when he’s upside down and he falls asleep. I wake him up and then let him go and we watch as he returns back to the reef.
There’s a lot of life on this reef.  I see bright yellow kelpfish weaving their way thru the blades of kelp,
                                               Kelpfish
                                          Treefish
A small octopus eyes me from the safety of his den.  There’s so many fish around us, treefish on the bottom, kelp bass all around and I even see “Oscar”, the gigantic resident sheephead that hangs around the wreck.  
There’s even more if you take the time to peer into the rocks, scorpionfish hide exceptionally well and often look just like rocks.
     Take your time and look really close  in the center of this pix under the red soft coral, you’ll see his eye and then the rest of his body.
Once a long time ago I got stabbed by one of these guys, their sharp fins are loaded with a foreign protein toxin, in minutes my whole hand swelled up like I was wearing some clown gloves and it felt like every single bone had broken.  One of my buddies once said it feels like you are getting kicked in the nuts.  Your best bet is to soak it in the hottest water you can stand, the protein breaks down in the hot water.
I didn’t even see it at first, but noticed some movement to my left. I spun around and was looking eye to eye to a massive head covered with tiny parasites. Jesus that’s a big black sea bass! It is a different fish than the white sea bass that I hunt during the wintertime, while the white seabass is in the croaker family, the black sea bass is in the true sea bass family and is protected in California. The sea bass looks at me and moves along, I’m alone but I find my friends and grab them and motion to my mask: look! Then with my hands: big fish! We turn around and the fish had disappeared but sure enough five minutes later there are two of them, mammoth old fish dark black and gray in color with a few spots. I don’t realize it but I have a huge smile on my face.
Seeing a big black sea bass is definitely humbling, you feel like a little kid standing next to an elephant. I kick gently up to the fish and it’s way bigger than I am! I guess the weight of the big fish to be over 200 pounds, the girth on it made it look like it was a cow. The fish turns and looks at me for a few moments and I reach out to touch it but it’s mammoth tail swings back and forth just beyond my reach. My friends all see the fish and they have huge grins on their faces, for some of them it is the only black sea bass they have ever seen I their life. I check my gauges and I’m still smiling, man there are just some days where you are on top of the world and this is one of them. It had to be one of the best scuba dives I’ve been on in my lifetime.

We empty our tanks three times at catalina and see black sea bass on each dive. Besides on scuba I’ve seen them on almost every single freediving trip this year. I just can’t seem to get away from those things, I must be carrying around some kind of sea bass magnet 🙂

The day zips by like it was seconds and too soon we make our way back to the docks to catch the boat back to the mainland. We start nodding off one by one with dreams of giant sea bass swimming through our heads…

A couple of links on some video that I put together of black sea bass

The first one is on scuba from this trip.

This one is a collection of black sea bass videos I took while freediving.

The first Seabass

23 Dec

Another unpublished blog I stumbled across, this one happened May 2006 if I have the date down correctly, it was when the freediving bug first started to take hold of my life.  I don’t even have some of the gear I started out with and it’s been a blur of fish, but I’ll always remember the first real seabass I ever got.

Have you ever had one of “those days”?  One of those days when you wake up in a funk and you know you should probably just stay in bed and let the day pass by?  Sometimes I get like that, it’s like I know something isn’t right and I just need time to sort things out.  I always laugh and tell my buddies “there is a disturbance in the force”.  It takes me a few hours to sort it out, but I just need time by myself and think about life.  I had dove memorial day for a few hours but the visibility sucked and the big swells sent me back home.  
But today is a different day.
I had a good day at work as usual,  how can you complain about wearing shorts every day?  Tomorrow I’ll be diving in catalina island to collect on SCUBA, it’s a rare work day but it’s more fun than work.  Today was a kick back day, I fed my rapidly growing baby squids and watched “the kraken” dart forward and take a handful of baby fish and stuff them into is mouth.  I  took care of some filters and chatted with friends.  At five pm the world belongs to me and I’m free until eight in the morning…I grabbed my spearing gear and headed down to one of my favorite spots.  Yesterday the water was chocolate brown and I didn’t bother getting in at this spot.  I stood up on the cliff and peered down,  the water was brown in the middle of the cove but the kelp beds looked…. black. Wait, black?? Wtf???  I squinted and looked again, yeah they look black. I figured it must be just okay on the visibility so I throw my backpack on my back and begin the decent down.
I throw my gear on the rocky shore and wiggle into my wetsuit. I flip over my wrist and check the time, six pm. That means I have about an hour to find some fish!  There is absolutely no swell today, its like a swimming pool, so I put on my fins and load my speargun and begin the long kick out.”UNBELIEVABLE”. Thats all I can say. The reason why it looked black from the surface was the visibility was at least twenty five feet on the reef and up on the cliff  I was looking at the black rocks with the glare on the water. “UNBELIEVABLE”, I said it again.  I’ve never freedove in condtions like this, it’s like diving on the islands on a clear day.  I see fish everywhere, lots of zebra perch zipping around and opaleye eyeing me from the kelp forest.  Baby tiny kelp fish were zipping around trying to hide from the bigger predators.  I  see lobsters walking around and seastars mixed in throughout the reef. I’m still kicking on the surface but the kelp begins to brush against my mask and pulls on my snorkel. It’s time to dive below.

I fill my lungs with air and flood my snorkel so it doesnt make any noise and then dip silently below.  Under the kelp its dark and scary looking, the visibility here is about ten to fifteen feet, it’s always more murky in the kelp bed at this spot.  Mainly I see silouhettes thru the greenish water. Lots of little fish scatter about. I kick forward and hold my breath until my lungs begin to hurt and then I start to rise. I put my hands forward to open up a spot in the kelp and clear my snorkel.  Take a deep breath and do it again and again. As I kick silently thru the kelp forest I see a monster kelp bass. Usually they average less than a pound at this spot, but this one is closer to seven or eight.  In a second it sees me and bolts out of range. Wow that was beautiful.  Again the limitations of my breatholding summons me and the air breathing world becons me once again.

The sun shines on my face, the water is warm and I can hear seagulls in the distance.  Its a whole new world today, and a brand new day. I can feel it today, I’m in the groove.  Except for the crackling of shrimp it’s silent underwater yet I know that there are fish here.

I drop down again and begin kicking, to my left I see a dark shape sink away. My eyes narrow and I squint and watch it closely. Is that a black sea bass?

The reason why I am careful is black sea bass are protected and you can’t take them here in so cal.  If you take a moment to see them you’ll never mistake the two, the body shape is different as is the coloration.  But in a murky kelp bed it’s good to take that extra second to be sure.  “Wait”. I look closer and see the telltale bars on the body. THATS A FREAKING WHITE SEA BASS.  I begin to softly kick my fins to close the gap, unfortunately I have the smaller of my spearguns with me today, the 110 cm Rabitech Stealth. I nicknamed this one “sting” after the sword in the hobbit, lol. It is my favorite and is super accurate but lacks range. My big railgun (the rabitech 120 carbonfiber stealth) is named “bad karma”, I wish I had it today. Generally the longer the speargun the longer the distance you can cover and this fish is fifteen feet away and rapidly disappearing into the kelp forest. Another few feet and it will be out of range and worse yet, out of sight.

I slowly extend my arm and guess where the fish will be next. I guess correctly and the fish begins to turn. it turns slightly to the left and I line up my shot then I squeeze the trigger and the shaft shoots thru the water.  “Pfffft”. Black line trailing it, I wait to see if my reel begins the familar screaming of protest but I hear nothing. Not any movement and I dont see the fish.

I’m bewildered. I was sure I hit it, but it was pretty far out.  Dejected I begin to pull the line in and feel something heavy on the end. My pulse quickens and I quickly dive down and being following the line like a spider pulling in its web. I weave in and out of the kelp until I get closer to the spearshaft. Laying on the bottom is my fish. I grab it and rush back to the surface, breathing air has never felt that great!  I don’t even have to measure this fish, I can tell its well over the legal size and I guess its weight to be about 15 lbs.

It’s only been 5 years and it looks like I’ve aged 100 years since this picture

I had hoped it would be bigger because I wanted to shoot a 40lber, that was my goal!  Still its my first year chasing white sea bass and I got two in the last two weeks, I didn’t count the first one because it was a barely legal schoolie. I call up my buddy with the good news and at first he doesnt believe me. “You got one after work?? How long were you down?” I figure about twenty minutes. He’s bewildered but agrees to take some pictures with the new digital camera I just got. My old one broke and I tried to fix it and broke some of the computer chips in it. It was going to cost the same price as a new camera to get it fixed, and as I opened one part a spring flew out and the computer board wires disconnected.  So being the calm collected person I am, I threw it across the room and shattered it into a billion pieces. But thats another blog…

You would think after so much diving I’d be satisified right? Hey guess what im doing tomorrow nite? Yep I’m diving after work. That puts me to fifteen straight days of diving I think.  And how about the night after that? I’m going to my parents house silly, I do that every Thursday. Sheesh a guys got to have a life you know, its not all about spearing, lol.  I sling the fish in  my backpack and start up the cliff, I load up my car and then walk back to the edge to check out the ocean.  Wow what a beautiful day.  I think back to yesterday when I was in the funk. It’s amazing how one day can change your life. I guess thats why you can never give up, you never know what the world is going to bring you the next day. You have to hold out for that one day…

Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish) Heaven

5 Dec

No this is not a blog about eating Mola Mola (aka the ocean sunfish), because Molas are filled with worms and parasites and I’ve heard they taste like crap.  It’s a story about freediving with some in the open ocean.

Mola Mola’s are often said to be the nerds of the sea.  They are awkward looking, with their big heads and funny fins they look more alien than fish and a lot of other animals beat them up.  Sea turtles in aquariums sometimes chase them around, wicked sea lions catch them and tear their fins off for fun.  They are very curious fish, and have some remarkable traits.  Mola’s are huge, they are said to be the largest KNOWN (I always say “known” rather than give a definite answer when I’m telling facts to school kids because a lot of times they’ll find some other creature lurking in the deep blue that might be bigger, faster etc) BONY fish (before you raise your wiseass hands, sharks are not bony fish and whales are mammals you dummy)  in the ocean and can reach 5000 pounds and over 10 feet long.  They are found in both tropical and temperate oceans and usually feed on jellyfish and other types of plankton.

They are awesome to watch in a Aquarium, if you ever have a chance head down to Monterey Bay Aquarium because they usually have one or two on display in their open ocean tank.  You can’t but help be attracted to the big brute as it stares at you with it’s gigantic unblinking eyes and wiggles its modified fins.  I don’t know of a mola that’s purposely harmed anyone, I’d love to have one at my aquarium but you’d have to have a tank of gigantic proportions because they are true blue water/pelagic animals.

However, if you are lucky, you might get a chance to see one in the ocean if you spend a little time out there.  Often times you’ll see them sunning themselves on the surface with their gigantic dorsal fin sticking out of the water and we often find them around kelp paddies (floating mats of kelp in the middle of the ocean).  Once when I was freediving I was startled because I saw two fins headed towards my buddy, I thought for sure it was the top and tail fin of a large shark, I hollared out to my buddy who hauled ass back to my boat and then we both laughed when we saw it was just a couple of molas.

I have a cool job, I’ve said that many times before and I’ve also blogged about being a marine biologist.  One of the coolest parts of my job is I actually get paid to go diving, both freediving and tank diving.  I should back up a bit and lay some history down first…

About five or so years ago we had a large circular tank built at the aquarium, it is round with a giant stainless steel base where kids can climb under and stick their heads into a dome shaped part of the tank and get an idea of what it’s like to swim with fish.  We ended up putting a kelp paddy in that tank and were trying to fill it with kelp paddy fish.  That’s the hard part.  In the wild, pretty much all the fish that hide in/around the floating kelp paddies are technically dead fish.  They are alive of course and move around, but that kelp deteriorates in 45 or so days (live kelp needs to be held down to the bottom of the ocean where it can gather nutrients and sunlight) and all of those baby fish that were hiding in there get eaten if that paddy doesn’t end up by some structure.  I’ve seen paddies with thousands of baby fish, little spanish mackerel, yellowtail, half moons, opaleye, rockfish etc all huddling around the kelp.  We used to scoop up the paddy a little at a time, it’s a tedious job and we’d only get about 10% of the fish under the paddy.  I won’t go into the details because it’s a secret but I devised a way that two freedivers could collect most of those fish on the paddy.  We take them back to the aquarium and then grow them up and release them or give them to other aquariums when they outgrow our tanks in less than a year.  It’s a better life than being consumed by predators in 45 days!

A week or so ago I was on a collection trip and when we were underwater I was amazed to see 30 mola mola schooled up!  Of course I had no camera and I cursed myself a fool for missing out on some cool footage.  It was with that thought that I carefully packed up my underwater video camera and got it ready when we planned our next trip.  The camera sat in my dive bag bouncing safely among my soft wetsuit as our work boat hauled ass towards Catalina Island.  There was no wind and very little swell, perfect conditions for spotting the kelp paddies.  I’ve got a knack for spotting them out at a distance and in short time saw one paddy.  We pulled up and saw a giant mola mola, maybe five feet across swimming around it but there were no signs of the baby fish we were looking for so we kept going.

The next paddy had a few mola on the surface so I quickly put my fins and gear on, grabbed my camera and then hopped in.  And when I did look around I had quite a site to behold. Around me a school of 20-30 baby foot long mola mola waggled around.  At first they swam quickly away, I sat still and  after a few minutes I saw them come back towards me.  I clicked on my camera and took pictures and video of the fish.

They would eye me and come close, then swim away, all the while a school of half moon perch circled us.  Different plankton drifted by, I saw clear jellyfish, tiny quarter sized ctenophores (comb jellies) and chains of siphonophores.  Huge chains of salps that looked like UFO’s drifted around me.  I reached out and brushed against a mola and then it flapped its fins like a bird and took off, only to return a second later.  I took a breath of air, spit out my snorkel and made a drop, the fish came closer and closer and then I simply reached out and carefully grabbed it.  We both came to the surface, I showed my colleagues and we all laughed as I carefully released the little fish.  It flapped away and then did a turn and came back, swam right under me and then flew away again.  It was quite an experience to say the least!

We stopped off at several paddies during that morning, almost every one had a bunch of molas around them.  Most of the time they would watch me and come closer to inspect the visitor to their home.  We ended up catching a bunch of baby fish, but not enough to fill the huge tank.

That’s good news for me, that means I might have one more chance to swim with my molas again in a few weeks if the weather cooperates…

Here’s a link to the video I shot, unfortunately I had to remove the soundtrack that I had on there because of youtubes policies.  If you like the video, please click on one of the window ads that show up inside the video, I earn a small amount for each click :).