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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cordell Bank: Northern West Ridge

For the second day of the trip, we returned to Northern West Ridge, which was everyone's favorite site from the previous year's trip.  Last year, there was an insanely big school of widow rockfish, actually two schools, one of adults and one of juveniles, so we were eager to see if it would still be so fishy.  The surface conditions were flat swell-wise, but it did get a bit windy on the way out, with some whitecaps around by the time we got to the bank.  The agenda for today was to gather more photo and video documentation of the site, and also to collect a few specimens requested by scientists at either NOAA or the California Academy of Sciences.

When we got into the water, we found excellent viz and basically no current at the surface.  Unlike yesterday, on the way down, we never encountered a murky layer, so the water was bright, blue and clear the whole way to the bottom!  Near around 90' or so, the downline sort of corkscrewed around when we hit a layer of current.  From there, I could see the vertical wall on what I will call the "back" side of the pinnacle, because it is the opposite side of the pinnacle than we approached the pinnacle on the downline last year.  I could clearly see the pinnacle extending all the way down to about 200' as we approached the pinnacle.  Once we got to the pinnacle, we were protected from the current.  We headed down to about 200', where there was a small plateau before continuing to slope down.  One notable sighting on the way down was a small vase sponge, which I don't think I definitively saw any of last year.  (There were some interestingly shaped white sponges that may have been vase sponges, but nothing that I was really convinced was.)

We popped down to just a hair deeper than 200', before starting to work our way back up.  Kevin and I were working together to get video again, but we were diving in a team with Matt and Rob.  Matt and Rob went a bit deeper, but not as deep as the bottom.  But they got a closer look and estimated it was about 270' down at the sand.  There were a couple of items on our list of specimen requests that were bottom-of-the-wall sand dweller types of critters, but Matt and Rob resisted the urge to bounce down there for a look (which I was pretty surprised by :P).

Anyhoo, once we started to work our way along/up the wall, we were pretty focused on getting video.  At the spot where we started, the wall was pretty encrusted, though it's all relative -- it was even more encrusted from 180'ish and shallower.  As we came around the pinnacle (we were heading counterclockwise), we came upon a spot that was pretty sparsely encrusted, but had a lot of white sponges, which I would guess were elephant ear sponges.  It was weird, it was like one patch of wall, maybe 20 feet tall and 50 feet wide was just not nearly as encrusted as the areas all around it.  While we were in that area, Matt signaled to Rob that there were some specimens to collect.  Matt didn't have any specimen bags with him, which is why he called Rob over.  So Rob swam over and Kevin and I followed him so we could video the collection effort.  He collected some little tips of a small hydrocoral bush (what I refer to as the "flat" magenta hydrocoral, whose branches seem to grow along parallel, two-dimensional planes, versus the more three-dimensional pink and purple hydrocoral that grows in huge bushes at Big Sur Bank).  There was also an orange bryozoan shrub nearby, which Rob also collected a bit of, and snapped some photos of the bryozoan next to the specimen bag. 

We continued videoing the wall there, and then just a bit past (and above) the end of that not-super-encrusted patch of wall, I found Rob taking some pictures of a little ledge that kind of jutted out at 170' or so, which was completely encrusted with all kinds of invertebrates… corynactis of various shades of pink and orange, white sponges, yellow sponges, orange bryozoan, gold hydroids, etc.  From basically this point and up, the pinnacle is very heavily encrusted.  Kevin and I did a slow swim along and up the pinnacle from this spot, documenting the heavy invertebrate encrustation.  It's crazy!

There weren't a lot of fish down deeper, but as we worked our way up the pinnacle, we passed several small rosy rockfish and yelloweyes.  Once we got above 150', it got a lot fishier.  There was a huge school of widow rockfish, like last year, but the fish didn't seem quite as big.  Last year, there were two somewhat distinct schools, one containing adults and one containing juvenile/young-of-years.  This year, there was just one big school of what seemed like smaller adults.  However, in the "big fish" category, overall this year was a lot more impressive.  We saw a couple of monster yellow eye rockfish, some big lingcod (compared to zero big lingcod last year), a small school of good-sized blue rockfish, and one giant bocaccio.  Sadly the big fish were (smart enough to be) skittish and not exactly willing to appear on video (or photograph, I think).

Once we got to the top of the pinnacle, I spent most of the time trying to get some good fish footage.  There was a fair amount of current right at the top, it seemed like it was coming up over the pinnacle and then down the other side.  After about 50 minutes on the bottom, we thumbed it and started our ascent.  I sort of got stuck in the current coming down one side of the pinnacle as we started our ascent, but once I got out of that, there wasn't a ton of current.  We were looking at the down line for the first several stops of our ascent.  The viz on deco was insanely good (just like it was on the dive!). There weren't too many deco creatures, but we tried to document the few that came by (since that was a request from Cal Academy).  At 20' and part of the way up from 20', a mola came by a couple of times.  He didn't seem too interested in hanging out with us though.

When we surfaced, we were in pretty significant fog.  Luckily the boat was right next to us!  Apparently the fog came in after we were already on deco.  It was pretty surprising, since it was totally clear, without a hint of fog, when we entered the water, and also it seemed very bright underwater throughout the entire dive, all the way to the end of deco.  Everyone agreed that this site was every bit as great as we remembered it from last year.  Jim, who had missed the dive at this site last year, said he was glad he didn't realize just how awesome it was, or he would have been pouting all year that he had missed it :P

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