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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#407: Almost Skunked

This year I may well end up with the fewest number of dives in at least a decade. My stimulus check from the government never arrived (they must have the wrong address) and DVD sales are almost non-existent in this newly "recovered" economy. I guess the economic pundits like former Harvard president Larry Summers just haven't looked too closely at the status of real people like us, just their Wall Street buddies who were "over stimulated" by the bailout. With the cost of a tank of air these days, I have to make a choice as to whether I'll munch for a day or two... or dive for an hour. Fortunately two strong supporters of my work have helped me greatly with air cards as gifts this year. Thanks Nadja and Matt.

Perhaps because of the relatively few dives I've done this year, or the fact that during summer almost all of them have been at night, I was close to getting skunked for the first time in over a decade. Despite having giant sea "bass" swim behind me... as I filmed something else, or over to the group I was with... right after I left them, I had not seen a single giant sea "bass" this year. Of course they aren't really "bass," since scientists now place them in the wreckfish family. Normally I would see and film dozens of them each summer and fall, but until recently the only ones I had seen were those being fed off the Pleasure Pier by the crew at the Joe's Rent-a-Boat stand. Of course that was pretty interesting, but it's not the same as running into these gentle giants underwater. They make me feel skinny... something my mirror no longer succeeds in doing.

As my readers know, I dive mostly at night during the warmer months. The "night shift" is so different and so interesting. Two of my night videos were featured at last year's Long Beach SCUBA Show Film Festival. The peacefulness of a night dive, especially when I'm all alone in the park with the light from the Casino and an occasional full moon, is very soothing. On one such night a few weeks ago I had overshot the stairs on my way back, did a 180 underwater and was returning toward the exit point when I sensed something ahead and to my port (or is it portly) side. I moved my video lights toward it and there hovered a "petite" (perhaps 300-350 pound) female giant sea "bass." She was calmly fluttering her pectoral fins to keep steady in the water column, so I moved around some kelp and began shooting... with my camera of course.

When I encounter females of this species, they are generally quite docile and approachable. If only those of the human species responded the same way, instead of running off in the opposite direction when I approach! I was able to take about a minute of footage before I heard "it." Her amorous, and unseen, partner barked... and she took off. Jealous boyfriends like that one... and those I encounter at El Galleon during karaoke really get under my skin. After all, what kind of threat is the harmless Dr. Bill? At least this sighting broke my spell this season. However, I have to ask why others are seeing the "bass" and I'm not... beyond the diminished frequency of my diving and the fact it is primarily under cover of darkness (like the activities of most of my fanged relatives).

I don't know many SoCal residents who would call the past summer and the first days of fall "normal" in terms of weather. The same goes for King Neptune's realm. Water temperatures have been unusually cool this summer (if indeed one still claims we had one). It is my observation that giant sea "bass" behavior is affected by water temperature. First, they come into shallow waters during the "warmer" months presumably to court and mate. Second, they are often found hovering on top of the thermocline, a layer in the water column where the warmer shallow water rests on top of cooler bottom water.

During the early part of their breeding season, the "bass" seem to spend their time transiting through the dive park... moving along as if they were on a mission. My guess is that their goal is very similar to that of the guys lined up to enter the Chi Chi Club here in Avalon... finding a lady friend. At least the "bass" seem to hang with theirs longer than the human males. Later in the season, after couples have paired off (the "bass," not the humans), we see them hovering almost stationary in the dive park and elsewhere. At this time one may spend an entire dive with a pair, rather than almost getting run over by them as they race past the reef near the Cousteau memorial plaque.

This summer's cooler waters seem to have affected the location of the thermocline. Not only were the temperatures in the surface waters lower than normal, creating less abrupt changes in temperature, but the thermocline seemed to oscillate up and down throughout the season. Giant sea "bass" attempting to rest their weary bones on top of it may have experienced a bit of a roller coaster ride as it rose and fell. The changing thermocline also meant that colder, nutrient rich water was pulsing in and out of the dive park. This had another impact on our marine ecosystems. The the lower temperatures, and presence of nutrients late in the season, favored the growth of our giant kelp forests. By this time of year, low nutrients and warm water generally cause much of the surface layers of kelp including the canopy to deteriorate and slough off.. I don't remember seeing our forests as healthy as they are this summer since the early- to mid-1970s when our waters were generally a bit cooler.

Much as kelp forest ecologists like myself like healthy kelp forests, they do have consequences. Thick kelp can hide a giant sea "bass" fairly effectively from human eyes, especially for newer divers who often suffer from "tunnel vision" or older divers like myself with less visual acuity. Perhaps divers are missing the ones that are hovering under cover so most of the sightings are of them swimming through the park. Of course we are also hoping the unseasonably thick kelp will help shade out the nasty invasive Sargassum from Japan so it is less of a problem this winter. I only wish the kelp was providing a bit more cover to hide the lobster from the poachers who were active in the park a few weeks before season began... and the ones who defied our desire to keep the park "no take," and harvested a number of bugs from there this weekend. I guess for them, it's all about "me." I hope they at least had the required lobster card and reported their take.

© 2010 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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Courting pair of giant sea "bass" in the dive park during the day, giant sea bass being fed off Pleasure Pier;
female giant sea bass at night hovering and preparing to take flight when her boyfriend barked

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia