Archive for June, 2008

Monterey: kelp, seals, otters, nudibranchs and some interesting students

Friday, June 6th, 2008

After a few false starts, and scheduling conflicts, I finally hooked up with Alan Studley for some training out in Monterey California.   This time my wonderful wife was able to join me for the trip.   I booked what I hoped was a nice room for the week.  We packed our bags along with my rebreather and drysuit, and headed out west.  The trip out was long, but uneventful.  When we left NJ, the weather was warm and sunny.  Upon arrival, we were met by the typical So Cal ocean breeze.  The temp had dropped 20 degrees, and I was digging my jacket out of the luggage.   Although it was 10pm, we were in a desperate search of food.  The airlines have now gone to a “pay as you go” meal program, and there was no food for half of the plane.   Fortunately the restaurant at the hotel was open.  We got a light bite to eat, then headed to bed.

The next morning was a wonderful surprise.   We woke to find a few rays of light sneaking between the curtains.  The first order of business was to acquire necessary caffeinated beverages.   Coffee, hot, and lots of it!  Room service!!!!

While we sipped the life giving liquid, we opened up those curtains to check out the view.   As it turns out, our room overlooked Monterey Bay.  Below us was a kelp bed, to the right was the marina.  While the coffee infused new life into our tired frames, we looked out over the bay.  We both commented that it was a shame that we did not bring our binoculars.   While pouring another cup, I noticed a pair of binoculars sitting on the table.  Nice touch!   Armed with binoculars and my wife’s digital camera, we sipped our coffee, and watched the wild life.

Off in the distance we could hear the calls of sea lions.  The marina is protected by a stone breakwater that they have now claimed as home. I would guess that there are over a hundred at a time on this structure alone.

We noticed an object in the kelp bed below us.  On closer inspection it appeared to be the floating remains of an otter.  Given the boat traffic in and out of the marina, I assumed it had been hurt, then drifted over from the channel, and caught in the kelp.   Soon, I was able to pick out what appeared to be a few other otters.  Much to my surprise (and embarrassment) they were all alive.  I was not aware that otters actually slept in the water (a feat I’ve yet to master).   Sea lions and harbor seals climb out of the water to warm themselves, and I assume to sleep.  Apparently otters do not.  Obviously, I need to watch the discovery channel more often.  Once they started moving about it became clear that this was a whole family with several small babies in the group.  I was really starting to regret my decision to leave the video camera at home!

Along with the seals, sea lions, and otters, we also watched the birds diving under the kelp, and bringing up what appeared to be crabs.  They brought them back to their nests in an abandoned building down the shore line a bit.  The event was of particular interest since they did not fly directly from one point to the other.   Instead they took off heading out into the bay, then made a large turn heading back to the shore.   I’m guessing they needed to head into the wind to acquire lift, then they headed home once they had the necessary speed.  (Sea birds are notoriously bad fliers).

As a crescendo to our morning wild life experience, a large pod of dolphins came by just beyond the kelp.  They appeared to be chasing some form of prey towards the shore.  We watched for a few minutes as they churned up the surface in the pursuit.  We’ve only been here for a few hours, and I’m already amazed at the diversity of life.

I placed a call to Alan, and found that the class that was scheduled to start in the evening was moved to the next morning.   That meant that the rest of the day was free, so we spent the time touring the town.   We stopped in the local aquarium, the marina, and selected spots along the water.   I found the store front of who’s shop was just a few blocks from our hotel.  It was a beautiful day, and we made the best of it.

Wednesday morning, I joined Alan at our classroom which was actually a well appointed garage of one of the students.  Looking around I could see several under water camera rigs, and what appeared to be video equipment.  We set up a sport and classic KISS and prepared for class. Alan and I took turns walking through the operation and setup of each unit.  Alan also showed me some of the upgrades available in the new units. We covered the operational fundamentals of each, and went about preparing them for the next days dives.

In the morning we packed our gear and headed out for the dives.  The offshore winds had picked up a bit.  We tried to head out around Monterey, but the chop was a bit much for our little boats.   Instead we set anchor next to the marina’s breakwater.  After our standard preparation, we splashed and headed down the anchor line.

Once on the bottom, I was again amazed at the diversity of life.  Here were tube anemone standing 6 inches out of the silty bottom. Their tentacles spanned another 6 inches.  Large colorful nudibranch slid along the bottom.  Here and there were huge sun starfish, over 2 feet across. At one point we could hear the sea lions above us so loudly that I was sure they were barking at us.  I was then startled to see one swim right between me and my buddy.  Looking up there was a group of them swimming in concert above us in a ballet of motion.  At first I was surprised at the lack of fish life, but with all those sea lions and seals, they probably don’t have much of a chance.

In the midst of all this, I’m supposed to conduct a class?   Along the way I signaled divers to perform various drills (hypoxia, hyperoxia, hypercapnia …)   Each was performed well, and we continued along the dive.   I must point out at this time that my buddy/student was the owner of all the previously mentioned camera equipment, and I later found out, is an accomplished photographer.   As such he had the unnerving habit of stopping and looking at objects underwater.   While doing this, he stopped and remained completely motionless.  For any of you considering CCR, do not do this during class!  It scares the shit out of your instructor!

During our surface interval we headed into the marina.  Here Alan had previously noticed an adult otter and baby that had taken up home in one of the slips.   We were able to pass a few feet away on our way to the dock.  (Damn, no camera again.)  The second dive went much like the first: a few more skills, and a lot more swimming.

We all survived the day, and headed back to clean out our rigs, and get ready for the next day.  I tried to casually mention the “hang motionless” issue, and got a few chuckles in response.  At least every understood my concern.  Drills had gone well, and it was just a matter of getting everyone comfortable with the units.  We agreed on a plan for the next day, and headed back to the hotel.   My wife had selected a great restaurant for dinner, then we turned in after a long day.

We were up and at them early again.  The marine forecast did not improve, so we headed back to the break water.   Alan had the skinny on a secret wreck, a few hundred feet off the breakwater.  That was our destination. We all suited up, and jumped in.  While I was helping everyone get ready, my student/buddy had hit the water a few moments before me.  When I rolled in and looked for him, he was nowhere to be found.  Again the panic of loosing a student runs through my head.  Alan suggest we descend the anchor line, and guess who’s at the bottom?  Damn, he’s going to be the death of me.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s an excellent  diver.  Its just the initial shock factor of not knowing where he was.

This dive Alan brought his camera.  I wish I had mine!  During the surface discussion, I found that the nudibranchs prey on the tube anemones. During this dive we got to see this in action.  It was quite the sight, and again I need more time on the discovery channel.   Alan was able to get pictures, and we watched as the slow mo action played out.

We took bearings and headed out to the secret wreck.  It turned out to be a good swim, and again we did some drills along the way.  The wreck appeared to be an old wooden barge, broken up on the bottom.  Hidden between the planks were small groups of fish.   I guess we were far enough away from the sea lions for the fish to survive.   Alan got some more shots, then we headed back.

The last few drills were the hardest.  I had briefed them in detail on the surface, but the execution takes some thought.  The frustration factor was climbing, but by the time we hit the surface, everyone was done the class with flying colors!  We cleaned our gear and debriefed for the the week.

My wife and I packed our bags and headed home.  I had spent the week diving, and she had spent the week sightseeing, and stopping at various saunas along the California coast.