Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#325: One Critter's Trash is Another Critter's Home

Two weekends ago some 400 divers paid a fee to pick up trash left on the bottom of Avalon Bay, mostly by our boating visitors, during the annual Avalon Harbor Cleanup. Now why would these divers pay to participate in such an event? Some for the opportunity of diving in the Bay, which is generally closed to SCUBA diving. Some to find something truly unusual so they can fabricate a tale for the Ken Kurtis "Silver Tongued Devil" award. However, most do it because it is a great time to gather together with other divers, help keep the marine world clean, and raise funds for the hyperbaric chamber down at USC.

Every year I reflect on the fact that divers are called upon to pick up trash discarded by yachters on moorings in our Bay. Now our small town's economy depends to some degree on these visitors. Like us divers, they also have a love for the sea. However, wouldn't it be nice if they also participated in this annual cleanup in some way? Personally I think so, but of course no one wants to kill the golden goose. I'm sure many of our boating visitors would welcome the opportunity to join together to keep the Bay clean. Obviously no one intentionally throws a Blackberry into the water... and several similar devices were found this year. I do wonder how so many bottles, cans and other debris find their way to the ocean floor.

For the second year in a row, I was fighting a cold, and felt it best not to dive and risk further aggravating it. Instead, I filmed the event topside, rather than following all the divers underwater. This gave me an excellent vantage point to really watch the trash that was collected. In addition to the usual Bud and Miller beer containers, and various wine bottles, there were some truly unique things. One was a fairly intact American flag. There was a single woman's spiked heel, I assume from a lady attending one of the various dances in the Casino or perhaps a wedding. I turned my head when an undressed Barbie doll arrived (I won't say which way I turned it). And there were four boat props... I wonder how the owners got back to the mainland without them?

As a marine biologist, the most interesting thing I saw were eight small octopuses (yes, that is the plural... not octopi... according to specialists like Avalon's own Dr. Eric Hochberg). These small critters crawled out of various pieces of trash, or otherwise unoccupied snail shells. The volunteer trash crews made sure every one of them was returned to the safety of the water. One was even retrieved from one of the trash bins. A few tiny crabs were also saved from drying out in the warm air.

I was able to get some video of several of these octopuses. One was especially rewarding. The diver who brought up what appeared to be an empty beer bottle soon noticed a small head poking out of the bottle's mouth. I quickly turned my video camera on, and recorded the little cephalopod as it pulled itself out of what it thought was a safe home. It is always impressive to see how these molluscs can squeeze their bodies through such small openings. After it fell off the bottle, the diver held it in his hands for me to film before it was returned to Mother Ocean.

This is a good example why one must be careful when removing anything from the ocean. When I was the on-board marine biologist for SCUBA Luv's King Neptune, there were often divers who wanted to bring up a shell or other object to take home. Occasionally these were found to be the homes of little octopuses, other invertebrates or even small fish. And that's not to mention the thousands of much smaller inverts like bryozoa living on the shell exteriors. This is why dive boat operators and divers at Casino Point ask others not to bring up natural objects like shells, or even bottles and cans, without checking them for occupants. After all one man's trash may be a marine critter's home!

While I was socializing with other divers during lunch, my former Toyon student Rob Stringfellow and his wife Kathy walked over to say hi. As they left, they handed me ten raffle tickets for the post-dive drawing. Of course I never expect to win anything (although I still hope for success in the lottery... once I start buying tickets). I donate a number of my "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" DVDs to the raffle though. However as emcee TJ called off the winning numbers, one of mine was called. I had won two days of diving in the northern Channel Islands with the Truth Aquatics boats out of Santa Barbara! I quickly e-mailed Avalon's own Tommy Cappanelli, captain of the Vision, that I'd be up to do some diving. Fantastic since I need to film a few species up there I rarely see in our warmer waters. Thanks Rob and Kathy.

Returning to my thoughts at the beginning of this column... last weekend I was asked to go out to the wreck of the squid boat Infidel. Kurt Lieber, head of Ocean Defenders Alliance, brought a crew from KCET (PBS) out to film the work being done to remove some of the dangerous fishing net from the vessel. As a marine biologist, Kurt asked me to be interviewed and comment on the marine life affected by the net. This was my first trip out to this vessel. Allegedly it sank due to the greed of the boat owner who wanted to take in one more net load of squid. Many of us wondered why he wasn't held responsible for removing the net... and the wreck itself. If someone had left such an incredible piece of trash on Yosemite's Half Dome, the walls of the Grand Canyon or the trees in Redwoods National Park, there would be public outcry for its removal at the expense of the perpetrator. However, when it happens underwater, few actually see it and complain. Of course this concern doesn't even touch on the net's fatal impact on sea lions, fish and other marine life. Divers once again are stuck with doing the dirty (and dangerous) work.

Just as with the shells and human trash collected during the Cleanup, the fishing net left draped over the wreck by the operators of the Infidel poses an interesting problem. Does one remove the net entirely to prevent entanglement by swimming marine critters, a very difficult and time consuming proposition? What happens when you discover the net, already in the ocean for about two years, is now home to literally millions of marine invertebrates, many of which would be killed by removing it? Again, is it trash... or habitat? We'll tackle that issue in the next column.

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

One of the eight octopuses filmed as it crawled out of a beer bottle during the Cleanup. It did seem a little tipsy!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia