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Monday, October 10, 2016

Cordell Bank 2016: Northern East Ridge

The day started with a lot of skepticism about whether we would even be able to dive.  The fog was THICK, all the way to the building in the marine lab housing enclave, where we were staying.  It was probably even worse than the worst fog we've seen there (when we went out and could not dive, at the end of the 2013 trip).  And this was not really surprising, considering the forecast, or the report from Jim and Jared about the trip up the day before.  We decided to wait for a bit to see if the fog lifted.  Eventually the fog lifted (or retreated) from where we were, and John, Clinton and I went for a walk to check things out, and kill time.  We could still see the fog just outside of the harbor, though it improved noticeably between when we left and when we turned our walk around.  We ran into Rob and Jim just outside of the housing enclave, and decided to drive up to the top of the cliff and see how it looked further out.  It was very grey, but we could see pretty far out.  It looked like there was a wall of fog further out, but it was really hard to tell.  So we decided we had to go out and take a look, or we'd always be wondering... (Jim claims this is what he was saying all along, but I think that's a bit revisionist.)

Packed and ready to go at the dock
We scurried back to the dorm and announced that it was on, and all got our stuff together and headed over to the dock.  We got everything loaded onto the boat and finally headed out at 11AM, which was coincidentally (or not) the time we had agreed to (in the early morning) as the last possible moment that we could leave the dock and still make it out, dive, and back before dark.  It was very grey on the ride out, though not foggy, and SUPER flat.  Of course, it's always flat at Cordell, since we only go there when the weather is super flat ;)  Jim and Jared had reported almost no whale sightings on the drive up the previous day, so we were very pleasantly surprised to see quite a bit of whale action on the way out.  Once we were about an hour from the dock, we stopped pointing out whales, because there were so many of them.  They weren't doing anything particularly interesting, there were just a lot of them around.

We made it out to the bank in very good time, faster than I expected, because it was so flat!  And when we got there, the clouds miraculously lifted, and there was a blue sky.  And the water looked spectacularly clear from the surface.  So in total contrast to the conditions on shore in the morning, it was pretty much a perfect day to be out there.  We got geared up, and Team Kitty splashed first.  We were at Northern East Ridge, where we had put down lead balls to mark the corners of transects 2 years earlier.  The idea was to re-locate these markers and do some photo/video documentation of the area around them.

There's a diver somewhere behind those fish
I jumped into the water and saw that the viz on the surface was really good with very clear blue water.  I could not really detect any current on the surface either.  I scootered to the downline with Kevin and Rob, and then we started our descent.  Not too far below the surface, starting at around 10 feet, was a layer of at least 5 feet which was filled with krill.  At the time it didn't occur to me that this was krill, but it was small translucent shrimp-like critters with a red tint.  I've seen (and scooped up with my hands) krill on the surface before, but never underwater.  As I was passing through the layer, I tried to avoid scootering to get down, so as not to disturb them.  We met up at 20 feet, gave okays all around, and continued down the line.  The line was pretty straight up and down, though around 80 or so feet there was a little bit of a shimmy on the line, which suggested to me that there was some current.  The very clear blue water continued all the way to the bottom where it was quite bright from the clear water above us.  This was probably the best viz I've seen on a dive at Cordell (which is saying something, since we have had exceptionally good viz there in general).  The water was also quite cold.

When we got to the bottom (after a somewhat slow descent), we found the reef was completed covered with a huge school of young-of-year rockfish (I'm not sure of the species, but Rob got some pictures so that they could be identified).  After taking in that sight, we agreed to do a circle around the area, to look for the lead balls, our first order of business.  We circled around and searched for several minutes, and then kind of spread out around the pinnacle, but no one saw a lead ball.  We eventually decided to start working our way around the pinnacle taking photos and video, in hopes of running into one of the balls while we did that, though we never ended up finding the balls :(  I think that the fish-limited visibility was at least somewhat to blame!  While the conditions were stellar for photo and video (in terms of clear and bright water), it was actually a bit challenging due to surge.  I guess this was not really a surprise, since there was a pretty big but very long period swell.  But even down at 150', we could feel big surge periodically.  It definitely made it more challenging to pose for pictures.

Rob was carrying a video light for me, so we alternated between him taking pictures and the two of us doing video runs.  I have to admit, I wasn't very motivated to take video; it was too nice of a dive for it to seem worth my time to take video :P  We stayed pretty close to 150' for most of the dive, since the top of the reef is where the balls might be found, and also it was so beautiful there seemed to be no reason to go any deeper.

Other fish sightings, aside from the huge school of YOYs, included several (around a dozen) YOY yelloweyes and one fairly big adult yelloweye, a handful of blue rockfish and quite a few small adult rosy rockfish, one or two decent-sized, but not huge, lingcod, and some kelp greenlings.  We were asked to keep an eye out for sea stars, so I was a little excited when I found a blood star that had 4 long legs and one nub of a leg.  The short leg had no visible damage, but it was at most 25% of the length of the other legs.  (I showed it to Rob, who apparently thought I was pointing at something next to it, so he didn't take a picture.)  I also saw one completely healthy-looking pin cushion star.  In terms of invertebrate cover, the reef was totally covered with Corynactis, sponges of various colors, and hydrocoral.  There were a few really big hydrocoral bushes, but most were not huge.  There was a lot of white sponge, many of which were coated with a shaggy-looking brown hydroid.  There were several vase sponge-looking sponges, which I don't remember seeing at this site before.  There was also more burgundy kelp flapping around on top of the reef than I remember from previous years (which I've noticed in Big Sur in recent years as well).

We didn't cover a huge amount of ground on the dive; we stayed on the main ridge whereas on the first year we went to a separate reef across a sand channel.  Just around 30 minutes into the dive, Rob was taking pictures of a cool-looking vase-like sponge (which didn't seem quite the same as our usual vase sponges) in a channel, and I thought it would make a nice shot if I was lined up behind it in the channel.  So I swam over to pose, and Rob wasn't taking my picture, which struck me as odd.  He signaled to me that he had a drysuit leak and was cold.  We went on with our dive, but a few minutes later, Rob signaled that he was very cold due and wanted to start our ascent.  Actually what he signaled was that he and I should start our ascent, and Kevin should buddy up with the other team (which was nearby).  I said no to this plan, and called Kevin over and gave him the thumb.  Rob again suggested that Kevin could stay with the other team, but Kevin and I were adamantly opposed to this and so we prepared to ascend.  Kevin pulled the bag out of his pocket, and as he did this, I saw a bunch of line and his spool unspooling.  Before he could stop it, the spool was headed to the bottom (20 to 30 feet below us) and he had to go to the bottom to retrieve it.  We've all done the same thing before (many times) but I could tell by the look on Rob's face that he was thinking "why now!?!" and I had clown music playing in my head :P

Once Kevin took care of that, we really started our ascent.  We got to 70 feet, and I figured out our bottom time and called 5 minutes, which everyone agreed to.  About halfway into the stop, Kevin signaled to move up, and I asked why.  He pointed to Rob, who was visibly shivering (I was in a position to be staring at Kevin, since I didn't realize just how much of a "leak" Rob had).  So we expedited our ascent from 70' to 30', and bumped our PPO2 a bit higher on this part of deco (I usually run it at 1.2 until we get to 20').  At 50', Rob started flapping around excitedly, pointing behind Kevin.  I thought maybe he'd gone hysterical on us, but then I looked behind him and saw something thing and grey.  At first it looked like a ray, but I realized I was staring at the pectoral fin of a humpback!  So then I joined Rob in the excited flapping around.  There were two humpbacks, and the one closer (that I got a good look at) was small, a calf.  Rob said he got a clear look at both of them and that they circled around twice (I only saw them on the second pass).  That was super cool, and made up for the fact that we had to end the dive early... if we'd stay down for another 10 minutes, who knows if we would have seen humpbacks on deco? :)

Once we got to 20', we had some time to think and come up with the minimum acceptable deco, and I was basically watching the clock and watching Rob the whole time, until a little after 10 minutes into the stop, I thumbed the dive.  It was about 5 minutes less deco than I would ideally do, but it was more than what I considered the minimum.  After a bit of arguing about it, we agreed to send Rob up first (given the viz, we could see him up to the surface) and Kevin and I would do a bit more deco, assuming Rob didn't need our help.  We watched as he got back on the boat, both gave a sigh of relief, and hung for a few more minutes before we headed up.  When we surfaced, I could see Rob on the boat, wrapped in towels and a coat (not breathing O2, which is always a good sign).  We got back on the boat, and Rob showed us the source of the leak.  There was an L-shaped slice in his suit, about 1 inch on each side, on the thigh of his suit (a few inches below the p-valve).  Yikes!  Apparently the crew had to pull him up the ladder because his legs were filled with water.  But by the time we were on the boat and out of our gear, he was okay, just a bit cold.

A successful day of diving
We told the crew about the humpbacks on deco, and they told us that there had been whales feeding around us the whole dive.  This is when I realized that the layer on the way down was krill!  I looked around and saw that there were whale spouts all around.  We waited for the second team to surface, which was not too long after us... they left the bottom a little bit early too.  They'd seen humpbacks on deco too!  After everyone was back on the boat, we decided that we had enough time to do a little whale watching.

Photo by Clinton Bauder
Well not exactly "a little" whale watching.  There were an insane number of whales all around us, many of them actively feeding, but a lot of them just playing around.  You couldn't look in any direction without seeing at least 5 spouts, fins, or flukes.  There must have been at least 100 whales in the area, and we just drifted along with them for over an hour.  There were one or two full breaches in the distance, but the sheer volume of whales flapping around all around us was what was so cool.  It was the best whale watching experience I've ever had!  I took a lot of video footage, which of course did not capture how awesome the experience was at all.  But it will have to do :)  I was kicking myself for forgetting my selfie stick (aka stick I use to drop the camera under the water), because with this kind of viz, we could really see the whales clearly underwater.  Clinton hung off of the swimstep with his housed camera and randomly shot pictures, and actually managed to get a nice shot!  See how blue that water is!

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the whales and head in, because sadly, there is only so much daylight, and entering Bodega harbor at night in fog is, well, not something you want to do intentionally :P  What an amazing day at Cordell Bank.  The underwater conditions were probably the best we've ever had there (or maybe tied with one of the days from the first year), but the whale watching was even better than the diving, which is a pretty high bar!

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