Diving along the Great Barrier Reef

Diving along the Great Barrier Reef has been on my list for a long time. After having been there I can wholeheartedly say that it is absolutely worth it. We did a weeklong life-aboard on the outer reef and it passed way too fast. We did this trip in four stages. First a couple days in Sydney to acclimate and get over the jet lag. We then flew to Cairns where our boat departed. The main act was diving long the Great Barrier Reef. Finally we spend a couple days in Melbourne looking for Australia’s other famous critters. There are a couple pictures and impressions of the non-diving part in the Australia 2019 post.

We chose to spend our week on the Great Barrier Reef aboard the Spoilport, a custom dive live aboard run by Mike Ball Dive Adventures. It was perfect in every way with a phenomenal crew. The original itinerary was to spend 4 days diving the Coral Sea near Osprey reef and then 3 days on the actual GBR. Unfortunately, the weather was not with us and we could not make the crossing. It was just too windy. On the upside, we got to dive a couple more days on the GBR.

As an added bonus we had several encounters with Dwarf minke whales. It was already past their prime season at this location, but a couple did decide to hang back. These encounters are snorkeling only, which is nice as there is no limitation on how long you get spend with the whales. It is entirely up to them to decide. There are no pictures as my little camera that I normally take on snorkeling gave up on me. Still, seeing these beautiful animals is amazing.

The rest of the actual diving is also nothing short of amazing. We encountered a huge variety of animals of all colors and sizes, big reefs full of healthy corals and calm waters. Over the course of the week I got a total of 22 dives and 19.5 hrs below the waves with a couple stories to tell.

First off was the encounter with a large Olive Sea Snake. These are amongst the most lethal snakes anywhere, but do not attack humans. This one snake, however, took a liking to my dive buddy and decided to go after her. Not to harm, but simply out of curiosity. It was quite impressive to see this huge snake move about and checking out a diver. Needles to say, my dive buddy was far less interested in the snake.

Another dive was marked by a group of huge, (American) football sized, cuttlefish. I have seen plenty of them before, but they are usually rather skittish and maybe fist size. This one did not care at all that I was there and proceeded to poke around the holes of a coral mount to find a good spot to deposit her eggs.

Lastly, it is interesting to compare the GBR with Fiji and Indonesia, the two regions in the coral triangle I have been to. Indonesia has more colors on the corals of the Bunaken National Park, but mostly smaller critters. Fiji has more soft corals. The GBR appears a bit subdued at first, but has much more and much bigger marine life. The reefs have suffered from global warming and patches of coral bleaching can be seen occasionally even on the outer reefs. It is still a beautiful sight to be seen, though. There is an enormous diversity of life out there.

Finally Oil Rig Diving Again

Some of my favorite diving along the California coast in on (or rather under) the oil platforms. There are plenty of them here, but only 3 are accessible to hobby divers. A couple years ago Platform Grace near Ventura was open as well. I never got the full story on what exactly happened, but they closed it after some legal issues. Best I know is that some diver got into trouble and then sued the rig operator. That now leaves Platforms Eureka, Ellen and Elly as the only options.

All the rigs around the Santa Barbara Channel are platforms as they go all the way down to the ocean floor rather than float. They look essentially like a huge steel tower. What makes the rigs so special is that they all sit in deep water (720 ft in case of Eureka). The legs are the only thing available for life to grow on and it becomes a beautiful artificial reef. The colors are stunning and if you are really lucky you get to see some of the large animals that call the channel home. I got to see a Mola Mola many years back, but I have heard of gray whales stopping by on rare occasion.

I forgot one reason to go dive the oil rigs: Scallops! You can easily get a dozen or two large scallops on each dive. Those are nice 1-2 in sized ones. And after eating a truly fresh scallop you will never go back to a store bought one. A couple divers in our group were so generous with their haul that they donated a couple to prepare a fresh scallop ceviche for the group. It was awesome!

The 3 rigs are still very much in operation and just a tourist attraction. That means that boats move about, pumps are active and things can and do fall down on occasion. Diving is also more challenging because of the depth. For all intense and purposes there is no seafloor. If you see it, enjoy as you will be dead pretty soon. The open ocean provides for great life, but also for great currents. And finally, you are in what is really a steel cage and that makes the compass all but useless. Visibility is hit or miss. I had dives with crystal clear water and 100+ ft and pea soup dives with less than 20 ft.

The first dive today was on the wreck of the Olympic. No photos as I forgot to put a memory card in my camera and only noticed at 90 ft depth. Rookie mistake. Dive #2 was on platform Eureka. No current, but also not much in terms of visibility in the first 80 ft. Below the thermocline the water cleared up considerably for a nice and relaxing dive. For the last dive of the day we went to platform Ellen. I like it better than Elly because it has a lot more pipes running down and thus a lot more growth. There have been better conditions on other dives, just look for older posts here. This was still a great day under the beautiful California waters.

As I mentioned before it was pretty green today. This makes taking nice photos that much more difficult. Especially when you try to take wide angles. I could put a macro lens on, but I already have so many of those. So instead I tried to go more for the monochrome look. The B&W are altered, but the green and blue filters were the actual water. That is what it was.

 

Diving Santa Cruz Island

This is going to be a short post, but I have been neglecting this blog a bit lately. After way too many months I finally got to dive again. A good friend had chartered my favorite dive boat to go out. This time we ventured out a bit further than the usual Anacapa Island, which is the closest to Ventura harbor. It it was well worth it.

We did go to the north-west of Santa Cruz Island. The sites were around Painted Cave, supposedly the largest sea cave in the world. Charters do allow for diving in the cave as special training and equipment is required, of which I have none. However, the area around it is still very nice. Water is a bit cooler than Anacapa and we got a lot more marine life than what has been around Anacapa lately. The warmer ocean we have been seeing in Southern California the last couple years have let to a lot of species retreating to deeper and cooler waters. 

No sea lions, they just could be motivated to get into the water, but lots and lots of nudibranchs. I have not seen many lately, so this was a beautiful and welcome sight. Overall a great day and some nice diving. Now I just need to keep that up.

More Diving on Anacapa Island

Anyone going through this site will have noticed that there are lot of posts labeled Diving Anacapa Island. This one is the 15th to be exact. Obviously I like that island. It has become my goto destination for some quality fish time. There are a few reasons for that. The simplest one is that, aside from shore diving, this is the closest dive site. It is also the quickest to get to by boat. But that really does not do the island justice. I would go there even if I had to take a vacation to do so.

Parts of Anacapa island has been a marine protect area, or MPA, since the mid-80’s. It was one of the first such areas. They have since been extended quite a bit. The protection ensures that fish and lobster can live a long life well into their fertile ages. That in turn greatly increases their numbers. Eventually the juveniles will migrate to neighboring areas and repopulate those. In the beginning a lot of people protested not being able to hunt or fish, but in the end this is a win-win situation. The MPAs ensure a never ending and steady supply of hatchlings for the open areas next to them. That again ensures that fishermen will have something to catch without overfishing the entire area.

For me it means that there are areas with abundant marine life. And since these critters do not see divers as threats, they are more friendly and happy to pose for my photos. Besides fish, the California Channel islands are also famous for their kelp forests. The California Giant Kelp forms dense canopies on the surface. It is like flying through a forest and unlike any other diving out there.

Summer is also when the water gets warm and a bit clearer. People accustomed to the Caribbean or pacific tropics would surely disagree with me. Warm means 60ºF (16ºC) and clear is around 40 ft (10 m) visibility. Those would be truly horrible conditions in many famous vacation spots. To us in Southern California, it is paradise.

With that in mind, it is also the time when I try to squeeze in as many hours under water as I can. The first trip was mid-June on the Spectre, one of 3 operations out of Ventura harbor. Not a lot of big critter photos this trip as I am trying to improve my photography skills. I only took my 60 mm macro lens on this trip and played around a few subjects.

Two weeks later I managed to hop on a last minute spot on the Peace, by far my favorite boat. This time the water had cleared up even more and I switched over to my standard lens, a 17 – 50 mm, in hopes to document the beauty of the kelp forests. At the same time I am still tinkering with my camera setup to make it work better. Someone on the boat referred to it as a science fair experiment. I guess with 2 large strobes, 2 Sola video lights, a GoPro and ample hardware to connect all of it, it might well qualify for one. That contraption did pay off big time for me, though. On the first dive I encountered two mid-size bat rays hunting for food and was able to take a nice movie of those magnificent animals. On the last dive, I caught an octopus out and about and was able to shot that.

Of course I also have a bunch of photos to along. The visibility was amazing and seeing a Bat ray always gets a big smile on my face. However, this day was special in another way. I love nudibranchs and try to find as many as I can. This time was the first time I saw a California blue dorid (Felimare californiensis). Apparently they have been extinct around here for some time and are only recently making a comeback(1). They are some of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen with their deep blue body.

Fiji 2017

Oddly enough, posting photos is the very reason we did this trip to Fiji. Not these photos, though. A while back a friend asked for suggestions for a relaxing vacation and I remembered how nice Fiji was. When I wanted to show her the photos, I realized that I never posted them. So, while working on the 2009 photos the wish, more need, to go back emerged.

Originally planned for Christmas, the trip had to be postponed due to a tropical storm on Fiji during that time. At long last, a couple months later, I finally saw the gorgeous reefs of the Bligh waters again. It is still amazing.

In 2016 Cyclone Winston did a bit of damage to the shallow reefs and it shows. There is a lot of debris on the ground. The deeper waters of the Bligh passage did not seam to have been affected as badly. The Bligh waters, named for Lieutenant William Bligh from the “Mutiny on the Bounty”, is a large area of coral reefs on the eastern side of Fiji. There are deep water passages that bring in all the nutrients and large animals. We had an abundance of reef sharks and even a couple turtles.

Other than enjoying the magnificent underwater worlds, there is not much else to do at this corner of the island. Our resorts were near the little town of Rakiraki on the north-east corner of Viti Levu, the main island. However, that just makes for the perfect relaxation vacation. Go out diving in the morning, have lunch and relax with a good book in the afternoon. Rinse and repeat for 10 days. Pure bliss.

We did run into a bit of wrinkle, though. A big Hollywood producer decided to get married at our resort and booked the entire place. Consequently, we were kicked out for the second half of our trip. Fortunately, that happened a week before we left and we could find a room at the resort next door. Their loss is our win. The resort we transferred to, VoliVoli, had just recently been completely rebuild after Cyclone Winston and was a big improvement over our original place.

Diving Anacapa Island – 11/12/2016

Once more I managed to get on a boat on short notice to take advantage of a rare free weekend. Photography wise, I was a bit conflicted this time. I got a brand new housing for my new Canon 80D and really wanted to play with it. On the other hand I was just too lazy to put it all together and carry it along.

That is not to say that I did not have a camera at all. I took my old, but trusty point-and-shoot and also my other new toy. By now, you might have seen some of the 360º panoramas on Facebook, Google and Flickr. I have always been intrigued by them, but really wanted to do that under water. Nikon has launched the Keymission 360, which does exactly that. So I got myself one on launch day and took it along as well. The next two photos are the first results. You can pan around in them. It is pretty neat.

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The day started out fairly windy and so we were limited to Anacapa’s backside. That is not a bad thing, though. Still great dive sites. Especially if one can convince the sea-lions to come out and play. I did not have much luck all of summer this year, but today they came out in force. They are just great fun to watch and are very inquisitive. They will come up right in your face. The old point-and-shoot is a bit slow and suffers badly from shutter-lag. That is the lag between pressing the shutter button and the camera actually taking the shot. With sea-lions zipping around a breakneck speeds, I have tons of photos with only the tail end of them.

When I was not looking for the pinnipeds, I was searching for octopi. And in this I got lucky as well. I found a couple and after a while they would even come out of hiding. On the first dive, I even got to to witness a fight. It was fast. I was focusing on one octopus out in the open and next thing I am engulfed in a sea of ink and the two octopi are up in one ball. I only managed to get one photo. It is labeled ‘Octopus fight’.

Diving Anacapa Island – 08/26/2016

One of the benefits of flex time is that I get to take a day off mid-week here and there. This Friday was one of those days. The weather looked promising and so I decided Thursday afternoon to hop on one of my favorite boats, the Spectre. We had a gray, overcast morning, which is good. It means there is no wind and the ocean is flat. Literally last minute I decided to succumb to my ingrained laziness and leave the big dSLR at home and only take my little point-and-shoot with me. The upside of the small camera is that I can stick it in into small nooks and crevices where the big rig simply wont fit. The downside is that there are no strobes and so the lighting is a bit one-sided. Figuratively and literally in this case.

The passage over the channel was smooth and soon enough we got to the backside of Anacapa. We typically call the pacific side of the islands the backside and the channel facing side the frontside. That is simply because from the mainland you see the channel facing side. Besides the somewhat arbitrary naming, the backside lacks the protection from the channel and is usually a bit rougher. Without the wind and no major storm anywhere, we got to dive some of the more remote spots. More often than not, the currents and swell will require to go to the more sheltered spaces close to the island.

First dive was of Aquarium, a good 500 yards off the island on the backside. It is a bit deeper and had some current. Unfortunately, it was a bit on the green side with lots of debris, so no good photos here.

The second dive of a section called “Outside Coral Reef” or “Coral Reef B”, has a nice ledge leading to about 80 ft of water. The wall is covered with growth and lots of little nooks for animals to hide in. For some reason today was eel day. I saw 2 on this dive and another 3 on the next. They even seemed to smile for the photos. One more interesting fact is that the eels always come with an entourage of shrimp (see cover photo above). I am not quite sure why, but if you see the red and translucent Red Rock Shrimp, there is a an eel nearby. Has to be nice to have a staff of cleaners nearby.

We moved to the frontside to the popular Goldfish Bowl for the third dive of the day. This was California diving at its best. Visibility of 50+ft and temperatures in the mid-60s. It is almost like diving in the Caribbean, just better. After almost getting a heat stroke on my first dive, I decided to dive without gloves and unzip my thermal undies. Before you think something naughty, I dive in a dry suit and use a special fleece jumpsuit as thermal protection. You know the water is hot if you see divers around here without gloves. Tons and tons of fish, eels, shrimp and tiny hermit crabs in a gorgeous kelp forrest. It was awesome and certainly one of the best dives of the year.

Fiji 2009

I just realized that I never posted the photos from Fiji after a friend was looking for suggestions on where to go to. Well, that is easily remedied. This trip was actually quite a while back, but after looking through these photos, I feel like I have to go back and revisit Fiji.

The trip itself was a pure relax and dive vacation. We stayed at the Wananavu resort on the north east tip of the main island. The resort is about a 2 hr ride from the airport in Nadi, where all the international flights arrive. It is a fairly pleasant drive through some really nice landscapes and sugarcane plantations. However, the hotel can arrange for a water plane as transport, which we did not do. The isolation is a great bonus as there is nobody around. We spend the morning diving and then the afternoon at the small local beach in a hammock. Then repeat the next day.

Diving is about as easy as it gets. Warm, crystal clear waters bursting with life. Unlike many other places, the ocean floor is at about 100 ft with coral pinnacles going up to the surface. That is also the reason Fiji is called the soft coral capital of the world. It is absolutely amazing to dive these reefs. The photos barely do them justice. The deeper waters have some of the larger creatures like turtles and reef sharks, while the upper layers are teaming with colorful fish.

While many of the more popular (and glamorous) resorts are on other islands close to the west cost, this resort is the only one that allows diving the Bligh Water by day boat. It is otherwise only accessible by live aboard. The Bligh Water is deeper water with more currents, but even more amazing corals and life. Definitely not to be missed.

Finally, a Ro-Ro ferry capsized a few years prior in a storm. It now makes for a great dive wreck. Especially the main deck with all the cars and trucks strewn around like toys.

Diving Oil Rigs and Wreck of the Olympic

It has been a long time since I last had some time with the fishes. This weekend it was finllay that time again. One dive on the wreck of the Olympic and two dives on the oil rigs. The latter are some of my favorite dive locations.

The wrecks near LA are always a hit or miss. That is to be taken literally usually. It is so dark and green that we have missed them on more than one occasion, even though the GPS said we are right on it. It was very green again, but we found the wreck. There is not much left of it, but the bow is still there and some parts of the main deck have nice features. Taking photos was another story, though. Using strobes limited me to only very close subjects unless I wanted all the silt lit up. So I tried some available light shots and converted them to black & white. I kinda like them and definitely have to work on that technique.

Next up was the usual oil rigs. Unfortunatelly, there are only 3 rigs left that let recreational divers dive. I know them well by now, but it is always a great treat to go there. Conditions can be pretty much anything. From dead calm, blue water with 100+ ft visbility to raging current with 10 ft visibility. Today was calm, but still green. Eureka sits a bit more sheltered and thus was less clear. Also, it seems they had just cleaned them down to 100 ft, which does not happen very often. It means that the company removes all growth, which makes the rigs less interesting.

Next up, we went to one of the twins Ellen and Elly. One is a production rig, which means they have the wells and get the oil up to the surface. The other one is a processing rig. That one does the first treatment of the oil. The water and gas gets separated out so that there is less to pump onshore. The twins sit right next to the underwater cliff and thus can get more current. Fortunatelly for us, at about 80 ft depth the water cleared up and we got a good 50+ ft visibility, albeit still very green. Ellen, too, got cleaned recently, but only down to about 60 ft. Diving at 100 ft depth makes the dive a bit shorter, but still great. Again, I tried my hand at some available light photography. I will work more on that in the future.

Diving Anacapa Island – 10/10/2015

I managed to hop on a boat on last minute, even though the swell forecast did not look too good. The swells did indeed render most of Anacapa Island undivable. However, was remained was absolutely specular. Water temperatures in the low 70’s and visibility of over 50 ft makes this almost a caribbean dive.

The warm water does have an effect on wildlife on the islands. No nudibranchs, which normally are abundant. And it seems the number of fish has declined some as well. The other peculiarity is that most areas that used to be barren are now covered in seagrass and kelp.

As for the photos, oh well. I have so many macro photos, that I chose a mid-wide angle lens for this dive hoping to take some landscapes. If I knew how good the water would be, I would have used the wide angle lens. Conditions were so good in fact, that I managed to take my first ever underwater panorama by stitching 3 images together.

Diving LA Wrecks – 07/21/2015

This year has not been one of my best diving years so far. I am working hard on changing that, though. As part of my 12-step program to abstain from dry land, I hopped on a small 5 diver charter to dive some of the LA wrecks. Going out I had my doubts about the wisdom of that decision, giving that we just had some thunderstorms and torrential rains in LA in July (that never happens). I was afraid of poor visibility and high seas. Turned out that we were very lucky. Seas were flat as a mirror and visibility was phenomenal. Mostly anyway.

First off was the deep wreck of the Palowan, a liberty class ship. It sits in about 130 ft of water with the upper structure at about 110 ft. That makes for short dives, unless you want to do decompression dives, which I usually try to avoid. The advantage of a small boat is that its maneuverable. The captain offered us the option of making a blue water ascent anywhere on the wreck so as to not have to come back to the drop line. So we started of with the plan to dive the length of the wreck and come up once we reach the end. The visibility on this day was a phenomenal 40 – 50 ft at least. Turns out that the drop line that we used to descent to the wreck was close to the bow and we chose to dive that direction by chance. We made it back to the line and did not have to take our chances in being found in the middle of the ocean. The wreck has great growth on it, while still having all the structure. Taking photos is a bit disappointing since the strobes just don’t reach very far. It was a great dive nonetheless.

Next was the barge. It is an upside down transportation barge that sunk for reasons I do not remember. The sonar and the captain were sure we were on it, but unfortunately we were not. A dive is a dive as long as there is water and so I am still happy.

The third dive was on the Wreck of the Avalon. This was a first for me and we almost missed it altogether. We went down the drop line and found a reef that almost looked like a shipwreck. It certainly had me second-guessing for a while until I got close and verified that it was rock and not rusted steel. Still a very nice reef with some nudibranchs I had not seen before. Thanks to me having my wide-angle lens on the camera, no photos of those. Thinking that we missed the mark again, I enjoyed the reef and was ready to go back up the line when I saw a shadow about 40 ft into the blue. Following my curiosity I decided to check it out and lo and behold, there was the wreck. Not much of it left, except for the bow. Still a nice little attraction.

The final dive of the day was on the wreck of the Star of Scotland, a ship with quite a history. Personally, it is not a wreck I like to dive. There is an abundance of fish there and we saw several giant seabass and a very nice sized halibut. The wreck is also covered in nice growth, but the structure has completely collapsed into a pile of rubble. Also, it is close to shore and the visibility is always bad (about 10 ft). Following the mantra that the only bad dive is one without water, I would still call it a good dive.

Diving Anacapa Island – 6/14/15

It’s becoming ever more difficult to find some time to go diving these days it seems. After a long pause, I finally managed to go on a boat again to enjoy some time with the fishes. Unfortunately, the boat I usually go on has changed their policy and is only making 3 dives rather then the 4 they did in the past. Still, a day diving is a good day.

The other fallout from my lack of diving is that I am forgetting how to take pictures. There was not a lot to take pictures of this time. The warm water is having an  effect on the creatures it seems. There are hardly any nudibranchs anywhere and we used to have tons of them. I did get a friendly octopus on my first dive. He was definitely not shy an didn’t seem too bothered by my sticking around.

The other two dives were more on the uneventful side. Nothing bad, but really not much to see other than the usual school of fishes. We did get a handful of sheepcrap which are becoming more of a rare sight these days. However, they are simply too big to take a good photo with the macro lens I had on.