It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Dozen Needles in a Haystack

On Saturday, John, Rob, and I were planning a little expedition to Twin Peaks to document the Aldisa cooperi that we saw there a couple weeks ago. This time Rob would have his camera, rigged for macro, no less. Last time we saw them, they were near the bottom of the big peak, so we were planning for a slightly deeper dive than the usual Twin Peaks run, and packed the appropriate gas for it. When we got to Lobos, I ran into Brenna, who had some exciting news about a recent slug find (Spanish shawls with egg ribbons found at Ballbuster -- there had been some speculation that they only mate further south). We talked about some other interesting slug sitings we'd each had lately, and she mentioned the mystery Okenia that Rob and I found (once) almost a year ago. She told me she had been keeping an eye out for it, which I found amusing, since I had sort of given up on actually looking for it, thinking it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, or more like a needle in a sea of haystacks. She was on the Beach Hopper (which was doing one of its Lobos dive days), so she had to head out, and as she walked down the ramp, the last thing she said to me was "Find that Okenia!". Yea right.

John was running late, but when he finally showed up, we argued about who had to lead. I refused, since I have led the last two long scooter journeys we have done. I wanted to be a follower today. So Rob agreed to lead. We told him where we had found the Aldisas (since he wasn't on that dive), and we came up with a plan based on our expected depth range. I swam our gear out to the float while John was getting into his drysuit. It was a good excuse to get into the water, since it was pretty warm on the surface, and I prefer the swim than the lug :) We finally got geared up (just after Team Bunny arrived, who we chatted with for a little while about their proposed expedition to Beto's Reef), and headed into the water. The viz was really good right at the ramp, so we were excited about our prospects. We surface scotoed out to about 35 feet, where we could still see the bottom, and dropped in the sand channel. After a little fun with masks, we headed out. It was a pretty uneventful travel to the Sisters, via Lone Metridium. We hit the first sister, and I could literally see the second sister from there (and the shadow of the third, I swear!). The viz was just incredible. We headed out along the Road, and almost immediately, I saw a Doriopsilla spaldingi -- an exciting enough slug, in my opinion, to stop the team to check it out. The iridescent ring around the slug was particularly glowy -- more blue than white. After we looked it over, we continued on. Very shortly after that, I saw the sponge that the Aldisas eat, and I couldn't believe my eyes, but there was a yellow-orange slug sitting on top of it. I stopped us, again, to check if it was A. cooperi (vs. A. sanguinea), and there were the tell-tale spots down its back. I showed it to Rob, and he asked if he should take some pictures of it. Of course!

So at this point we were about 10 minutes into the dive, at 120', and we'd already completed our "mission". Sweet! Now we could just have some fun at the peaks! After Rob finished up taking pics, we were about to get going when Rob spied a big lingcod hanging out under an overhang, with its mouth hanging over. We swam over to take a look, and then were about to leave again, when John signaled us. He innocently pointed to the reef, and I looked over to where he pointed. In hindsight, I can't believe my reg stayed in my mouth, because I'm sure my jaw dropped open when I saw not one, but two little mystery Okenias. The next minute was filled with screaming through my reg at Rob. I was not just excited that we had found it again, but we had found two! We have a permit to collect up to two of these little guys, since, in the event that it actually is an unknown species, two are required to authenticate that. I wasn't even sure if John knew what he had found, but he did. I practically mauled him as I told him he rocked (yes, I now have a hand signal for "you rock"). As Rob was taking some photos of it, we found three or four more within about 10 feet of those two. It must have been small white nudi day on the Road, because there were also dozens (or maybe even hundreds) of Diaphoradoris, and at least a dozen Aegires. But the Okenia stood out easily, like a ball of whiskers sitting on the reef. By this point I had decided that we probably weren't going to make it to Twin Peaks -- I was way to giddy to embark on the long scooter ride out there. A couple of things surprised me about the slug this time around. One was that it seemed so much bigger than I remembered it. Objectively, it was still a tiny slug. But after studying the photo Rob had taken of it for so long, I could look at the details of it, and actually process what I was seeing. The first time I found it, it was just like... on there's some weird looking nudibranch. Another thing that surprised me, which is related, is how easy it was to pick them out on the reef. I've always found that after I see a small critter the first time, I form a pattern in my mind that makes it easy to pick out, even as I scan the reef fairly quickly. Looking at Rob's photo over the past year definitely helped to form that pattern. All this time I have been looking for it, thinking I would have to be scanning a patch of reef so slowly to possibly find it, but now I think just the standard nudibranch perusal would do it.

Disclaimer: don't try this at home, kids, unless you have a permit to collect at Lobos. After Rob got shots of the first several that we found, we decided we would collect two. When we originally got the permit to collect them, I started carrying a little piece of gladware on a boltsnap on deeper dives, but eventually that got tiresome and ended up living in the garage. So instead Rob and I had a backup ziploc bag that we had been passing back and forth between our wetnotes. Luckily I still had it in my wetnotes. So we carefully removed two slugs from the reef (one of them came with a bit of its substrate, which we figured would be useful to identify what it eats, plus it would give it something to eat for the road). I was a little sad to collect them, but it was definitely better that there were so many of them around, so I didn't feel like I was plucking the last two of the species from the ocean. In the end, we saw probably around a dozen (although I stopped counting after nine). I couldn't stop thinking about Brenna's last comment to me as she walked into the water :) Once we were finished with that, we discussed what to do next. At this point, I figured if we headed out to the peaks, we'd basically get there in time to turn around. So I suggested we just stick around the area for a while and then head in. So that's what we did. It was amazing what a slug fest it was out there. In addition to all of the white guys, and a lot of the usual suspects, there were quite a few of the Aldisas.

Eventually we decided to head in, and just as we were about to get to the Sisters, I saw another D. spaldingi. I'm not sure I've ever seen more than one on a dive before. Makes me wonder what we might have found had we gone further down the road. When we got to the Sisters, Rob suggested we head across to Beto's, which I always love to do in good viz. There were lots of canary rockfish over the sand on the way, as is typical out there. The viz was so good, I could clearly see Beto's more than 30 seconds before we actually got to it (which, using the 150 ft/min scooter speed estimate, tells me the viz was over 75 feet). When we got to Beto's we headed in along it, stopping to say hello to the wolf eel. From there we skirted Sea Mount, and following the kelp-sand interface of the sand channel until we got to 70' and switched to our bottles. We hung out there, and had a little wetnotes discussion about how we couldn't wait to tell Clinton about our find. Rob was very carefully carrying the ziploc bag as he scootered, which was amusing to watch. In order to vent he had to stop, so he could move the bag to his right hand. So it was a slightly slow trip in on the sand channel, but it matched our deco schedule anyway. At 30', we ran into Suzanne and Nathalie, and showed them our specimens. I wrote them a little note about what it was. We eventually scootered in the whole way to the ramp, pausing for a while at 20'. Don helped us (or the nudis, really) out of the water, and we found a bigger, more stable vessel to keep them in (a mask box). After a bit of scrambling with John's Blackberry (which has the smallest, worst keyboard known to man), I managed to find the phone number of Gary McDonald, who had volunteered to preserve any specimens we eventually found. After discussing with him when we could bring them by and how to keep them alive int he meantime, we decided we could do another dive, with them safely bobbing in a huge bin of seawater in the back of the divemobile. We also called Clinton (actually Rob and John both called him, so he had a couple of missed calls when he got back from his dives, which hopefully didn't alarm him too much), who unfortunately couldn't manage to get over to Lobos to see the slug :(

We had originally planned to survey the transects for dive 2, but we decided that we had done enough for the nudibranch project on dive 1, and we would just have fun on dive 2 (fun being looking for nudibranchs at Granite Point). Rob left his camera behind (which I knew he would regret, but I didn't want to pressure him to bring it), and I volunteered to lead the dive. Just as we were about to get going, we noticed Team Bunny heading in, and I just had to show them the slugs, so we waited for them to get in. After we wow'd them with our nudibranch prowess, we headed into the water (Kenn escorting me down the low-tide-ramp, as he has become accustomed to doing). The viz was still really good, although with the sun lower in the sky, the water wasn't quite as bright. We headed out on the sand channel and before you know it, we were at the main wall. Rob had requested that we got to (what we refer to as) "the hydrocoral spot", so we motored until we got to the spot, and then clipped off the scoots and kicked around there. There was an impressive showing of nudibranchs out there. We saw the usual dorids, more Aegeris, several Dendronotus albus, tons of trilineatas, quite a few Limacias, four Hilton's, and an Adalaria jannae. Of course Rob regretted not bringing his camera. We left there with the plan to hang out on the east side of Middle Reef ont he way in. We got back to the end of Middle Reef and took a left to get to the east side. By the time we got in there, I decided I was took cold to do more than a fly-by, so that's all we did, and we hopped over to the sand channel and headed into the cove. At some point (as we were along the wall of the cove), Rob's scooter died, so we just ascended there and kicked in.

We managed to keep the slugs alive until the handoff to Gary, which was a relief. At his place, we looked at them under the microscope, and I was relieved to see they were still alive and kicking. I think that the one that was on his substrate was a bit happier with the trip than the other. Gary also gave us some good tips about various nudis to keep an eye out for, and showed us some of his excellent pictures. His office is like a little nudibranch wonderland :) He put the nudis in a tank and got some shots of his own, which are here.

On the way to dinner, I was telling Rob how I think that Brenna was my good luck charm -- she said to find the Okenia, and we did! So Rob has dubbed her the "nudibranch whisperer".

All of Rob's pics are here.


Unknown said...

Congratulations on your find. Michael P. Murphy (seahound1)

scottg said...

what a great dive! you guys hit the nudie jackpot. I have to get back up to monterey sometime to see these rare okenias. thanks for the great post.