Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#500: Are The Stars Out Today?

Hard to believe, but this is the 500th "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" newspaper column... coming during the month I celebrate the 43rd anniversary of my first dive off Catalina and the year I celebrate 50 years since my first use of SCUBA. To celebrate I am doing 70+ dives this month! It gives me great pleasure to know that I have helped so many readers cure their nighttime insomnia by writing these columns. Will I make it to #1,000? Who knows. If not, my readers may have to resort to Ambien instead.

Back in my early days of diving, I was a pretty shallow person. Heck, using dive gear in the 1960s to clean the bottom of "deep" diving wells in public swimming pools did not even get me down to two atmospheres (33 ft). When I arrived on Catalina August 24, 1969, and did my first ocean dive at Arrow Point, I don't think I got deeper than 60 feet. Decades later, I spent a lot of time diving deep... many times to 200 ft. on air (the gas the Creator gave us). Once I'd filmed what was down there, I returned to being a rather shallow fellow. Today most of my dives don't break the 60 ft boundary and I've been spending a lot of time above the 20-30 ft range. Diving shallow gives me a lot more "bottom" time to film. Unfortunately that also gives me more video to edit late into the night... but at least it keeps me out of the bars!

Many of my most recent dives have been up in the kelp canopy. Most divers spend the majority of their time near the bottom looking at the critters on the rocky reef, sand or lower portions of our giant kelp forests. Some also manage to kick up incredible clouds of sediment in doing so... which occasionally ruins my "perfect" shot. Of course I feel bad for the divers who have to follow in my dust cloud, too. Lately I've been avoiding these "bottom dwellers" by staying high above them... and it has brought some interesting results.

One of my favorite subjects this summer has been the proliferation of stars out in the dive park during the day. Yes, I see plenty of heavenly lights on my night dives too but I'm referring to starfish, which the PC crowd prefers to call sea stars (thinking normal humans aren't intelligent enough to know a starfish, or a jellyfish, isn't a fish). I have more faith in my fellow man... and the lovely ladies of course. Speaking of which, I may have fallen in "love" with a classically beautiful Japanese lady-go-diver two weeks ago in the dive park... but the instructor she was with wouldn't "chance" having me meet her and sweep her away with my charms.

Now some of my readers may remember that many species of echinoderms (the spiny skinned critters that include starfish and sea urchins) cast off their sperm and eggs into the water column where they are fertilized externally. Hmmm... what fun is that? The resulting embryos drift in the ocean currents, then hatch into larvae that continue this journey until they grow too big to float in the water and have to settle out onto firmer substrate. One of our common local species, the giant spined or knobby starfish (Pisaster giganteus) is believed to spawn in March or April with the larvae spending a few months in the plankton. Then they settle out and begin their "benthic" (bottom-dwelling) life after seeing the world when young.

On my recent dives up in the kelp canopy I have been rewarded with sightings of dozens and dozens of baby Pisaster giganteus starfish. Not quite the "billions and billions" of stars one can see at night through my telescope per Carl Sagan, but still very impressive! Why is it that the ladies seem to expect something else when I tell them I'll make them "see stars?" These tiny immature echinoderms range in size from about 1/4" to nearly a full inch in diameter. In their early stages they are very white in color and contrast significantly with the dark color of the older kelp blades on which they are found. One would think this stark contrast would make them easily pickings for canopy carnivores like the senorita, but I have yet to see those fish take one despite watching them nip at almost everything else growing on the mature kelp blades (not to mention at the strands of hair that stick out from my wetsuit hood!).

According to some scientists, this is the only species whose young settle out onto kelp in the canopy rather than on the rocks. Eventually they drop to the bottom and continue life on the rocky reefs. Almost all the babies I've observed appear to be five-armed knobbies. However, I've also seen several whose arm count diverged from the standard five in this species. One four armed tot appeared to have a bud where a new arm was growing back in. It may have had an arm ripped off by a predator. I've seen others with six to eight arms. Maybe they are the result of the radioactive waste coming down our coast from the tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan in March of last year.

As I experience the joy of my young granddaughter Allison, and await the birth of my second grandchild early next year, I have begun to understand the attraction babies have for the older generations. Decades ago, a female friend of mine from high school sent me the birth announcement for her first born. It had a tiny footprint and the words "A baby is God's way of saying the world should go on." Looking out at all the baby sea stars in our kelp forests recently, I feel the same way about our marine ecosystems. I hope you do, too.

© 2012 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). 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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Tiny baby starfish on kelp blade, three babies on one blade; baby with eight "Fukushima arms"
and the proud parent down on the ocean floor.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2012 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia