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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#347: Wreck Alley Part I- A "Nervous" Wreck

Musician/entertainer Tony Baloney used to tell a joke while playing on Antonio's patio that went something like this: "What sits on the ocean floor and twitches?" The answer? "A nervous wreck." I thought that would be a good way to start this week's column on my recent dive trip to San Diego's Wreck Alley. As a marine biologist, I generally avoid wrecks unless they are covered in critters. I have dived the Spiegel Grove and Duane in the Florida Keys, the King Cruiser in southern Thailand, the Fang Ming off La Paz and others, but generally wouldn't take a trip specifically to dive one.

However, this past year I got involved with California Ships 2 Reefs (CS2R) and have been asked to assist in the formation of a scientific advisory committee for the organization. One of the reasons is that I believe sinking large wrecks will not only add new dimensions to Catalina diving, but also provide new fishing areas for anglers that can take some of the pain out of the planned new closures when additional marine reserves in southern California are finally approved. I think it is great the fishing community is getting involved in these projects and as divers we are working together.

About a month ago I was asked to speak to the LaVerne ECO Dive Club. A few days after I returned to the island, representatives of the club e-mailed me to extend an invitation to dive San Diego's Wreck Alley for two days as their guest. About the same time, Rod Roddenberry invited me to a Roddenberry Dive Team mixer as part of Comic Con the same weekend since I supplied the underwater video for the event. There was no way I would miss this weekend... until I checked the "cheap" hotels in San Diego and found that $400 a night was considered "inexpensive." Not for a dive bum! Heck, for the price of a two night stay at one of those, I could fly round trip to the Philippines and dive with my friend Mia in toasty tropical waters.

Occasional dive buddy Joel Geldin, Chairman of CS2R, thought this sounded like a great weekend and decided to join me... or rather, have me join him. I think Joel was pretty certain my ancient Toyota Tercel could never hold the two of us, all our dive and video gear, and still make it to San Diego in time, so he offered to drive. To sweeten the deal, he arranged for us to stay at the home of Dick Long and Bonita Chamberlin while we were down there. Dick is the founder of DUI (Diving Unlimited International) which makes the premiere drysuit in the world, and was instrumental in having the Yukon, the premiere attraction in Wreck Alley, sunk back in 2000. I greatly appreciated their warm hospitality and great conversation over the weekend.

Joel and I arrived at the Roddenberry Dive Team mixer Friday night and enjoyed the company of some 150 divers. Rod had promised to introduce me to Brook Lee, Miss Universe of 1997, but when I saw her with her husband and a child in her arms, I released him from that "obligation!" Enjoyed the event, but had to stay away from the "beverages" (other than lemonade) since I was diving new sites in the morning. We got up before 6:00 am and left without waking Dick and Bonita, and met the members of the dive club at the dock where the dive boat Lois Ann is based. I ran into a number of divers from Orange County and San Diego who were heading out on the Marissa, so it was almost like a second mixer!

It's a quick motor out to the Ruby E., our first dive site, so I got my wetsuit on before we boarded and set up my camera on the way out. The forecast had been for anything from 8 to 20 foot surf on south facing beaches, but we had a mild 2-3 ft swell on the way out. The Ruby E. is a 165 foot Coast Guard cutter built to intercept "rum runners" during the Prohibition era. However, Prohibition had ended by the time she was finished in 1934. She did serve in Alaskan waters during World War II, and was decommissioned in 1950. Four years later she was purchased at auction, and refitted as a fish processing vessel for Central and South American waters. Ironically she was seized and impounded by customs down there for smuggling drugs! Her next owners defaulted on their bank loans and the vessel was purchased for scrap metal. Instead the vessel was made "diver safe" and sunk as an artificial reef in 1989 thanks to the efforts of local divers.

I descended with Joel as my buddy and found the wreck was covered in beautifully colored corynactis sea anemones. Under good light, it might look like a Rose Bowl float with all the colors. However, the vessel was in dark water with limited visibility so it was hard to get a wide angle view. The colonies of sea anemones grow through asexual reproduction. Thus the members of each colony are clones of one another, and all have the same color. This made it easy to see where one colony ended and another began as there often was a marked color shift at the boundary. Most of my filming focused on them, but I did see several other invertebrates including a white Tritonia festiva nudibranch feeding on a red gorgonian (soft coral). Due to the limited visibility, the only fish that were obvious were the ones living directly on the wreck like the colder water painted greenling. Joel and I did manage to cover the entire wreck from stern to bow.

The second dive on Saturday was at the NOSC Tower. This structure was a research platform for the Naval Ocean Systems Center until it was toppled by a huge storm in 1988, and sank in 60 feet of water. This was the same "storm of the century" that hit Avalon Bay and wiped out the seaward wall of Antonio's Cabaret which was then under construction. Dale Scheckler, publisher of California Diving News, described the NOSC Tower as a "cornucopia of underwater scenery and photo opportunities." I will take his word on this, but that day Joel and I were greeted with 5-10 foot visibility at best. It was hard enough to see the steel structure, much less my dive buddy, and we got separated several times due to the very poor visibility and strong surge.

Filming was nearly impossible given the surge and the need to constantly be aware of the steel projecting in all directions. Many of the critters were filter or suspension feeders. Since this is an exposed site, there were many mussels attached to the structure but they were mostly covered with white Metridium senile or corynactid sea anemones. The presence of the mussels provided food for a large number of starfish of various species. Most of them fed on the bivalves when they were torn off the structure and fell to the bottom. I was impressed by the sight of so many starfish of three primary species and their munching behavior.

The "highlight" of this dive was filming two of our "close" relatives, invertebrates known as tunicates. If you were drawing up your family tree, I doubt you'd want to include these spineless invertebrates. However, I was happy to get a stalked tunicate (Styela montereyensis) on film for the first time and to identify a species new to me, the elephant ear tunicate (Polyclinum planum). Speaking of family trees, my father had it easy with his side of ours. When I visited the family farm in northeastern Germany many decades ago, I discovered why. Our genealogy was carved in the fachwerk (wooden beams) of the farmhouse the family had occupied since the 1600s!

After this day of diving, I was no longer a "virgin" on Wreck Alley. Thanks to the LaVerne ECO Dive Club, Joel and Dick and Bonita, I had a great first experience there. It would get even better the following day when we did two dives on the premiere attraction, the Yukon, which I'll write about in next week's column. Although the visibility was terrible and the surge posed problems with my filming, I'm sure the next time I visit down there conditions will be even better (after all, they can only go "up"). However, I will probably pass on a second visit to the NOSC Tower unless it is a perfect dive day.

© 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!

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Corynactid sea anemones covering the Ruby E., colonies of clone corynactid anemones showing
boundaries between them; white Metridium senile sea anemones covering mussels,
and elephant ear tunicate (must be from your side of the family tree!).

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