I was itching to dive the last few days of the month after returning from spending Christmas with my son Kevin, his wife Mary and my granddaughter Allison. I just needed two dives to reach 2,600 since I unceremoniously left the Conservancy back in June, 2000. I'm averaging over 200 dives a year since that turning point for several reasons. Second, I want to make sure I see enough to write all these columns to share with you, my readers... but first is the fact that I am simply doing what I love to do... diving and enjoying the world of nature "down under!"
Years ago I came across mythologist Joseph Campbell's suggestion to the rest of us that one should "follow your bliss." Now Campbell was part of the party scene at Ed "Doc" Ricketts' lab on Cannery Row along with the likes of Ricketts' best friend John Steinbeck, author Henry Miller and others. Oh how I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of "Doc's" lab since so much wisdom emanated from those within (in vino, veritas?). "Doc" was not only a brilliant biologist, writing a text (Between Pacific Tides) I used as a Harvard undergrad, as a teacher at Toyon, and even today in writing these columns; but also an incredible philosopher (read The Outer Shores). However, he wasn't such a good writer so it was a good thing Steinbeck put many of his thoughts into words in books like Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and Log from the Sea of Cortez (among many others).
But I digress (as usual). On December 30th I decided that neither wind nor rain nor surge nor swell would keep Dr. Bill from his appointed rounds, so I followed MY bliss, suited up and descended into the dive park for two end-of-year dives. Water conditions were marginal with strong current, swell and low visibility but at least the temperature was a "balmy" 59 F and the thunderstorms forecast as a possibility did not materialize.
At first I searched briefly for the little whitetail damsel that appeared in the park earlier this year. It has been missing in action for over a week now.... possibly due to some hungry kelp bass. Hopefully it escaped and is just hiding somewhere I haven't checked yet. Given the poor conditions, I figured I wouldn't have much video footage to edit after my dives so I could just relax, read my latest book and head down later to karaoke. However, following my bliss did result in a very interesting find that day.
On my second dive I was looking for more octopus to film. Looking in crevices and under rocks along the Casino Point breakwater, the extremely dense stands of the invasive Asian seaweed Sargassum horneri made finding anything difficult, much less filming it. Then I saw it... out on the sandy bottom under a rocky overhang. None other than Holothuria zacae! I don't think I've seen more than a dozen of these fairly rare critters in all the years I've been diving Catalina waters.
Speak English, Dr. Bill! Oh, sorry. Holothuria zacae is a sea cucumber and no relation to Zacky Farms (nor is it packaged for consumption here in the States unless some Asian stores carry it as an aphrodisiac). Sea cucumbers are relatives of the starfish (or sea stars if you prefer) and sea urchins. Like their brothers and sisters, they have tube feet that use suction based on water pressure to grab hold to the substrate and drag their bodies along it. Slow and steady, just like my golf cart. And like sea stars and sea urchins, they have a skeleton of calcium carbonate, but one formed of many loose structures (known as spicules) embedded in the skin that allow them to be very flexible and retractile.
I checked my field guides to California and West Coast invertebrates and this poor species didn't even get an honorable mention. Fortunately Dan Gotshall's Sea of Cortez Marine Animals does list it. Dan does not mention any common name other than "cucumber." This poor echinoderm just don't get no respect. I knew Catalina was its northernmost location and it can be found south into the Sea of Cortez and down to the Galapagos (where I hope to go after I rob our local bank a few dozen times... hope they won't recognize me). I imagine this ability to stretch and retract is why many Asian cultures think they may benefit "performance."
Turning to Google, it was interesting to find that the scientist who first described this species back in 1937 was Dr. Elizabeth Deichmann who taught at Harvard when I was there. In fact she helped me with a few species IDs when I first came to Catalina in 1969. She described it from collections made by the Templeton Crocker Expedition in the Gulf of California. This "cuke" has a light gray body with dark, irregular spots and a number of "appendages" (papillae) that are dark brown and surrounded by a pale ring. Dr. Deichman's specimen was about 7" long but they are reported to reach a length of 12 inches and the one I saw was a bit longer than that.
Dr. Deichmann expressed surprise that such a large and striking "cucumber" had not been described already. I'm surprised that to this day no one seems to think it significant enough to include in field guides... but rarity sometimes has its perks. Of course this paparazzo knew exactly what he was seeing and I filmed it to my heart's content (or until my fingers froze, whichever came first). Interestingly the specimen Dr. Deichmann viewed was dredged from a depth of 360 ft on a mud bottom while the one I filmed was in 17 ft over sand.
So, following my bliss indeed led to a great dive despite poor water conditions. I know most of you probably wouldn't get too excited about seeing a sea cucumber, but I'm certain most of you have some personal passions (well, besides that one) that you crave. Perhaps it is watching the Lakers like Herbie, or playing great music like the many talented musicians we have on the island, or running your own business like my father and my son (that gene must have skipped a generation). Whatever your passion is, follow your bliss. You'll lead a much happier life if you do.
© 2013 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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Holothuria zacae filmed in the Casino Point Dive Park showing tube feet (lower left)
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