It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Monday, January 16, 2012

Flaggle Rock

 (Note: this report includes details about a boat separation incident.  If that's what you are here to read about, you can skip to the fourth paragraph.)  We have Martin Luther King Day off, and every year for the past several years, we have booked Phil (or the Escapade) on this date.  As you can imagine, since it is the middle of January, our record of being able to dive is not that good, maybe 50/50.  We've been skunked for the past two years.  As we approached the weekend, the forecast looked iffy for Monday.  But after the totally awesome conditions on Saturday, and my excitement over our fish sightings from the previous weekend, I really really want to make it back down to Birthday Wall.  At the same time I really really didn't want to get up early and drive down to Monterey, to get skunked by the weather.  But Rob or Kevin checked in with Phil on Sunday night, and he didn't seem concerned.  But Phil might think we'll dive in anything at this point, so I wasn't sure what to make of that.  When we got down to Lobos on Monday morning, conditions were quite a bit better looking than expected.  And it was a nice sunny day too!  We didn't even discuss whether we could make it out... we just loaded the boat and got going.  The ride to Yankee Point involved big rolling swell, but not too much wind chop.  When we got to the site, we found the 140-something spot and dropped the anchored.  It looked like there was not too much current.  Kevin suggested that for the shallow segment, we go to a different spot, just a couple hundred feet northeast of the spire.  He showed me a tiny little map on his GPS and though it didn't really make much sense to me, I said okay.  We told Phil when to expect the bag and that we may be a couple hundred feet to the northeast.  I was horribly seasick (further proving Rob's theory that there is no correlation between me getting seasick and me taking bonine, since I did actually take it the night before) by the time I got geared up.  We did our gear checks before putting our bottles on, and then I took my bottles and rolled in and waited for the guys (this was Phil's bright idea... I was way too seasick to have such a good idea).  That was much better.  There was just a tiny bit of current, enough that I had to hold onto one of the lines on the boat.  Eventually Phil handed me my scooter and I would just drift a little, scooter back up to the boat, and repeat.  Before you know it, the guys were in the water, and we met up at the line and headed down.  The viz was very good, and it was bright even at the bottom.  In terms of viz, water color, etc. this is the second best dive I've done here (and of course Rob was shooting macro :P).

We stopped at the plateau and then headed down the wall.  We were further south than we have been on other dives lately, so when we hit the bottom of the wall, it wasn't quite as deep, and there were some small structures across a little sand channel -- this is the area where we saw the out-in-the-open GPO on our first dive here.  As we headed northwest along that channel, I found a ratfish!  I signaled Rob and he got a couple pictures... and the camera worked, woohoo!  From there we continued along and eventually we headed perpendicular to the wall, just out over the rubble.  I wasn't completely sure what the plan was here.  I thought that Rob would want to head straight for the flag rockfish spot, to see if he was around.  But we meandered around the rubble for a bit first (this new two-segment bottom profile makes the deeper segment seem luxuriously long).  There were quite a few fish out there, though mostly just solitary ones.  The usual giant vermilions and some pretty big bocaccio -- bigger than the ones that we have seen in small schools at this site.  Eventually we headed to the part where the wall turns, which is where we have seen the flag rockfish before (around some big boulders near the base of the wall).  Further down the wall there is also where we saw the "school" of ratfish recently.  We were near the bottom,  keeping an eye out for Flaggie, when Rob found him.  Rob was patiently waiting for him to line up in a nice position, since he was sort of half out of a crevice, when I looked a bit down the reef, and there was Flaggie.  Another Flaggie.  Two flag rockfish.  Woohoo!  The other one was in a much more photogenic position, so I got Rob's attention (trying not to scare away the one near Rob, since it would be really dumb to wave my light around and end up with zero Flaggies to take pictures of) and kept telling him "another fish over there".  There was a boulder in the way for him to see the other fish.  Eventually he got the message and came up a bit and looked over the boulder. Ahhh, another flag rockfish, totally out in the open.  I think Rob ended up getting pictures of both of the fish.  This left us to ponder, after the dive, if there might be even more than two flag rockfish living in that little complex of boulders.  Who knows?  There could be a whole colony of flag rockfish, plotting to take over the world.

I also saw more of the supposed juvenile pygmy rockfish, and basically had to force Rob to get a picture.  There were so many of them, I was NOT coming back from this dive without a good picture of one to show Tom for ID.  Rob did get a couple of pictures, which nicely show both the red smear and the yellow tummy patch.  Good job Rob.  Eventually we headed out just a bit further, and found a little congregation of 3 or 4 ratfish.  Yay!  They were right around the area where we saw the big group of ratfish before, so they must live around there.  Good to know.  We eventually agreed to head back and started working our way shallower.  On the way in, I passed a monster yelloweye in nearly the exact same spot where I saw a big yelloweye on a previous dive.  So perhaps he is a resident, and needs a name.  When we turned the dive, I was closest to the the start point, and started to head that way.  Kevin had suggested we try this alternate spot to the northeast of the start point for the shallow segment of the dive.  But I thought we would come back to the main wall before heading that way.  Apparently that wasn't what he had in mind, so once I started to head back to the main wall, he and Rob figured I didn't want to go exploring.  Oops.  So we just headed back to the spire where we started, and killed some time there.  Rob found a fish in a crack that he really wanted me to see.  I tried to look at it, but really just saw a fish butt, which if I had to describe, I would call it a canary rockfish (though it was in a pretty unusual place for a canary).  I guess Rob's camera was dead at this point -- apparently taking it deep causes button crushing which drains the battery.  I also found a bunch of Dotos at the shallow spot.  Eventually I got kind of bored, and went to the top and put my gauge right next to the shallowest point -- 143 feet.  Now I know :)  After the dive, I told Phil that next time we aren't dropping the hook until we find the 143 foot spot.

We eventually thumbed it right at that high spot, within site of the anchor line.  Kevin put the (big) bag up at the first or second deep stop, and off we drifted to the south.  I was delighted to find that moving my D-ring down, and adjusting the left side of my harness (I think it had inched itself shorter over time) actually made a difference in being able to reach my D-ring during a bottle rotation -- yay!  Deco was pretty boring, with not a lot of stuff to look at.  Yet for some reason it wasn't until we got to 50 feet that I realized something was amiss; I hadn't heard the boat yet.  I asked the others, and they hadn't heard it either.  That is unusual, but not *that* unusual.  But by the time we got to 20 feet, we still hadn't heard the boat, and that was very unusual.  I told Kevin to give the line a good tug so that the bag would stand up, which I'm sure was mildly annoying to Kevin, since he knew that :)  Our 20 foot stop was 30 minutes, and I spent much of that time thinking of the various scenarios that would cause us to not hear the boat, and the outcomes of those various scenarios.  Needless to say, it was pretty distressing, but what could we do?  There were a couple of points where Kevin or I thought we heard something, but it definitely wasn't a definite boat "sighting".  At some point, I think right after our backgas break, Rob tried to engage the boat, just in case Phil was silently drifting near us.  He put up a second bag, which we knew would elicit a response from Phil, then he put an empty bottle up the line, which would generally bring Phil over to take the bottle, and there were no boat sounds.  So at that point, we were pretty certain that Phil was not with our bag.  When we finally finished our 20 foot and then our 6 minute ascent, we hit the surface, slowly searched around in all directions, and confirmed what we pretty much already knew -- that the boat wasn't there.

We were carrying several audible signalling devices between us, including several dive alerts and whistles.  We pulled these out and tried them, and found them all to be pretty underwhelming.  My dive alert did not produce any noise (except maybe a big of gurgling), though on subsequent tests, it has actually produced sound as expected.  We discussed various options, such as heading toward shore (we were about a mile from shore), and decided that our best option was to wait for a while.  We each picked a direction to look, and watched for the boat, while taking turns holding the big bag up vertically.  It was still very sunny and pleasant out (though with big swell) which I think helped our (or at least my) state of mind.  After about 10 minutes, I was "sure" that I saw some sort of boat on top of a wave, in the north-northeast direction.  I told the guys, and we all looked in that direction for a minute or so, and I started to really doubt myself.  After about 15 minutes total, we finally had a confirmed siting of Phil, heading toward us, from the north-northeast direction (so I probably didn't imagine it, but who knows?).  After a bit of rejoicing, we slowly handed our gear up to Phil and got back on the boat.  Phil reported that when he couldn't see our bag at the appointed time, he pulled anchor and started running a search pattern about 60 minutes into the dive.  This means he spent approximately 70 minutes searching for us before we were found.  Yikes.  He ran an expanding elliptical search pattern and found us on the third time around.  Based on our GPS unit (which shows the track that Phil drove), we determined that we were picked up just under 0.9 miles from our start point.  We also determined that Phil ran quite a nice search pattern!  Once we were back on board, Phil offered his theory of why he could not find us.  He pointed in the direction that we had drifted, and looking in that direction, the sun was in our eyes, and we couldn't see any details on the surface of the ocean.

I'm pretty sure we saw some whale spouts on the ride back to Lobos, but honestly the ride back was kind of a blur.  I got dropped at the ramp because I really had to pee by the time we made it back to Whaler's.

Since this dive, we've obviously considered all of the possible scenarios that played in our minds, and what we can to do prevent or mitigate the risks.  I'm not going to go into detail about every little thing, but here are the highlights.  There are obviously inherent risks to drift deco.  Diving off of a small boat with a single crew member presents additions risks.  In large swell, the visibility from a small boat is not as good, so this may have been a factor.  With only a single person on the boat, there is a single point of failure if he should become debilitated (to me, this was the worst possible scenario I could think of while we were separated from the boat).  Carrying a hand-held radio on the dive would not have prevented the problem, but it certainly would have provided peace of mind if we could call Phil and at least know he was looking for us.  We have a radio that fits into a plugged canister (which we have carried on some Big Sur dives in the past), which was safely stowed on a shelf in the garage.  We plan to carry the radio on dives off of Phil's boat in the future.  Also, we don't know the extent that this affected things, but we did deviate slightly from our plan to pop the bag slightly to the northeast; instead we popped the bag right by the anchor line.  Our final thought about all of this was that our audible signals were pretty underwhelming; the big bag was by far the best "signalling device" that we had.

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