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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Cordell Bank 2016!

In 2015, we never made it to Cordell, despite having a 4 week window during which we could move the boat.  There were never more than 2 consecutive days in the forecast that had good enough weather to move the boat and/or dive.  Given the weather that we'd had so far this year, we were not too optimistic about the 2016 trip.  We had a 3 week window this year, and finally two weeks into it, there was a 4-day window of very good forecasts.  Despite some fog on the first day, we managed to get in 2 great days of diving, with some of the best visibility we've seen there, and one amazing afternoon of whale watching too!  This year, for various reasons, the roster changed a little bit.  We had one new-to-Cordell diver joining us (Doug, an excellent addition, who thoroughly enjoyed the trip!), and Jim took a really big one for the team and crewed the boat instead of diving.  So in the end, we had Team Kitty Classic (Kevin, Rob, and I) and John, Clinton and Doug (still looking for a team name for those guys...).

More details in the day-by-day reports:
Day 1: Northern East Ridge
Thanks to Rob, Jim, and Clinton for doing most of the heavy lifting on the planning.  And as always, extra big thanks to the crew of the Escapade (Jared, Hunter, and especially Jim)!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Cordell Bank 2016: Northern West Ridge

There was a lot less fog on Tuesday, and we also had a much better attitude about getting out to the bank and the fog would go away, so we got going at the usual time.  We headed out Northern West Ridge, everyone's favorite dive site at Cordell (although Northern East Ridge is giving it a run for it's money after yesterday's dive!).  We made really good time getting out to the site, though there was a little bit of swell when we got out there.  When we jumped in the water, it was just as clear on the surface as it had been the day before.  There was a little bit of current as we scootered to the downline.  On the way down the line, there were a lot of small jelly creatures, including lots of sea butterflies.  

Heading out for some more
As we approached the pinnacle, I was a little disappointed by two things: first, the water was not nearly as bright as the previous day (but the viz was still insanely good); second, there wasn't a giant school of fish on the pinnacle, like there were in the two previous dives there (2013 and 2014).  However, I immediately saw a smaller aggregation of fish on the northeast side, which included quite a few bocaccio!  We headed down to that area, and I quickly found a couple of big yelloweyes hanging out on the reef. 

Like yesterday, there were a lot of rosy rockfish hanging out on the reef, and many juvenile yelloweyes.  I eventually saw quite a few more adult yelloweyes, including one monster big one that is, I believe, the same giant yelloweye I've seen on our previous two dives there (even hanging out around the same crack).  This time I managed to get a little video footage of it though.  There were also quite a few blue rockfish, and the occasional china rockfish, and more bocaccio, and one monster lingcod.  The first year that we visited this site, we all noted the lack of blue rockfish.  So the next year, we were all keeping an eye out for them, and I saw about 3... so this year I was pretty surprised that there were actually a fair number of them there.  Definitely a new development from our perspective.  Other fish sightings included a kelp greenling or two, and a (not terribly large) school of small juvenile rockfish on the north side of the wall.

We started around 160' on the northeast side of the wall, and worked our way counterclockwise, eventually settling around 140'-150' for most of the dive.  I spent a lot of time around the north/northwest area of the pinnacle.  This is near the crack that the big yelloweye lives.  I spent a little while looking around for macro critters, and the only thing really notable that I saw was that there were quite a lot of Flabellina trilineata living on the brown hydroids on the white sponge.  There were also Corynactis of all colors (especially on top), including the light purple/lilac color which we hardly ever see in Monterey (especially not at these depths).  Again, at the top of the pinnacle there was more of that dark red kelp than I remember.  One thing that was notably missing was the golden hydroids which were all over the place in previous years (I know from diving in Carmel that this stuff can bloom and then disappear, but it was *so* prevalent in the first year that we went to Cordell).

Eventually I came around the south side and only then did I realize that there was a large school of rockfish on top of the pinnacle, well really more like above the pinnacle.  There was actually a mix of YOYs and adults, with the YOYs seeming to congregate closer to the pinnacle, and the adults higher up in the water column.  I went as shallow as 100' to video the school of fish.  I wasn't sure what they were; in the water, I thought they were widows, but in the video, they seem a bit dark in color.  Rob sent pictures to Tom Laidig, who reported that the adults were widows.  The smaller ones were quite the mix... he ID'd rosies, blues, widows, and (most prevalent) shortbellies.  Good thing for hi-res images :)

One nice-looking diver
The first team started their ascent a few minutes before we did.  When we left the pinnacle, we were initially in an area of water that was unbelievably clear and devoid of any critters.  It was so clear that I had the sensation that I was looking at Rob suspended in air :)  I was thinking about how when we first descended, I was "disappointed" by the viz -- I've become pretty spoiled by the viz at Cordell!  A couple of stops later, the amount of deco critters definitely picked up, so there were sea butterflies, jellies, etc. to stare at to pass the time.  At 20', I met a reddish-orange copepod that I was transfixed with for most of the stop.  Unfortunately we were not visited by whales today.  Or I really hope we weren't visited by a whale while I was staring at a copepod :P

Making friends on deco
When we surfaced, it seemed that the swell had laid down, and the water was back to glassy.  Unfortunately there weren't any whales to watch on the surface; extra disappointing since I even remembered to bring my selfie stick today!  We made it back to the dock in good time, which was good for Jim and crew, who needed to gas up the boat for the return trip tomorrow.  The forecast made it pretty clear that tomorrow was the day to get back to Monterey, unless Jim wanted to permanently relocate the boat to Bodega Bay :)

Mission accomplished
After getting our gear off of the boat, we headed across the street to Fisherman's Cove for lunch, and eventually everyone else made it over there too.  Then we headed back to the housing enclave to pack up and hit the road.  It was about 4 by the time we were ready to go, so Rob and I hung around for a while, to try to wait out traffic through San Francisco.  Everyone else seemed in a hurry to get home, so it was just us and the boat crew.  Rob volunteered to take some of them to town to get some provisions (beer, but "provisions" sounds more nautical).  Since Rob was driving, I volunteered to help the crew finish up the leftover liquor from the trip.  It's important to be one with your boat crew.

Despite some doubts at the start of the trip, it was a super successful trip to Cordell this year.  Considering how bad the weather has been overall this year, I really didn't believe we'd pull off Cordell.  But this makes up for all of the weather-cancelled dives this year :)

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!