Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

056: Murphy's Law

The week before last was not my lucky "day." I managed to pull a wire loose while opening my underwater housing after my dives, rendering the housing inoperable. Fortunately I own a backup housing so I used it later that week. After operating fine for a few dives, it too failed. A few months back I had sent it to the manufacturer after a minor flood. They returned it saying the electronics were fine. I guess not.

It's late August-early September, the peak of black sea bass season, and I'm without a housing since repairs take several weeks. I've always said that the day I dive without a camera is the day I'll see something really special... like a great white shark. I think it's a corollary of Murphy's Law. Now I have to re-learn how to dive "naked" and try to use my aging eyes and cerebral cortex to record whatever I see. If only I could do a brain dump of my sightings to my computer as easily as I can use it to capture my video footage. However, diving must go on... I can't let my gills dry out for too long.

I was diving with a new buddy, Sage. Although an experienced tropical diver, she had not experienced temperatures colder than 72 degrees but adjusted quickly to our kelp forests. Visibility recently had been 5-15 ft (miserable for Catalina) and there was surge and current. We dropped down to the sandy bottom at 40 ft and the current soon "blew" us down to 65 ft where the visibility increased substantially... and water temperatures decreased to 56-58 degrees! Wearing my 3mm shortie, I didn't plan to stay there long... until I looked up into the kelp and saw a large black sea bass practicing its buoyancy control.

Not familiar with this species, Sage positioned herself behind me as I very slowly swam up to the large bass. It didn't spook and let me hover next to it within 2-3 feet for about five minutes. I was able to look into its eye and imagined I was communicating the fact that I would not harm it. The fish, a male, seemed to understand that... just as the Martians and Venutians I talk with on my radio at night do. Then it slowly swam down to where Sage was and checked her out before swimming around us in circles and slowly swimming away. Awesome!

The visibility was still bad in the waters above us, so I checked my compass and set a course back towards the murk and the Dive Park stairs. About 50 feet away we ran into a second black sea bass, the female, hovering a foot or two above the bottom hidden in the protection of kelp. I slowly swam over to it, allowing it to adjust to my presence. Then I gradually extended my arm towards it so it would see it wouldn't harm her. I was able to gently stroke her side and back a number of times and she didn't even flinch. I then hovered alongside her 1-2 ft away and looked her over carefully. We stared into one another's eyes (love at first sight?). I observed her features, the large mouth and the parasites on its head and side as closely as my uncorrected vision allowed. It was wonderful.

Then I backed off a few feet to where Sage was hovering. As we watched, we heard a sharp grunting noise from somewhere and she took off like a bolt of lightning disappearing in the murk. It is amazing how quickly these huge fish can accelerate. The previous summer I saw a female exhibit similar behavior following a grunt from a male black sea bass. Perhaps the males sensed I was a competitor for her hand, er pectoral fin. I'll have to reassure them I prefer partners a bit more svelte and humanoid in form.

The total encounter was 15-16 minutes and was one of the top two I've had with courting black sea bass. The other was in Lover's Cove last summer diving with Vicki Durst. When we got topside, Sage said the fish was a foot longer than me so it was probably 300-400 pounds. Two days later in the Park I heard a group of divers ecstatic about the "600 pound" black sea bass they had just observed. Since the location suggested it was the female we encountered, it sounds like another "fisherman's tale." Although the bass can reach this size (and more), people often misjudge their weight. Looking at the historic photos you can see even a 300 pounder is longer than a man (and heavier than most).

The following day, sans Sage and camera, I came across two giant kelpfish mating. The large female was embedded within algae which served as the nest. Her body quivered as she laid her eggs with the anxious and much smaller male swimming around her for protection. He finally realized I was no threat and I watched this mating ritual for more than 20 minutes in the relatively calm and clear water of the protected site. Once again I had to curse the corollary of Murphy's Law since I've only videotaped such an encounter once before... and that was in heavy surge and poor conditions. Then today I had my first recent sighting of Tylodina fungina eating an Aplysina fistularis (formerly Verongia aurea for us old-timers). Yep, a snail-like critter eating a sponge.

So your underwater columnist remains without camera until one of my two housings are repaired. This added and unexpected expense will certainly ensure that I remain a "non-profit" again this year. I hope the IRS will be understanding. Some day my ship will come in. Until then it's a good thing Lindblad Expeditions will be sending me back to the Sea of Cortez later this fall, and then Belize and Honduras in the spring. A small paycheck would be nice! A big one would be even nicer!! At least as a PhD I'm qualified to drive taxis. And the dark of winter approaches...

© 2003 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.

Image caption: Female black sea bass giving me the eye in Lover's Cove (love at first sight); male black sea bass
defending his lady against my advances ("I was only trying to get a better shot"); smaller giant kelpfish
male nuzzling female in their nest of seaweed; both male and female in the nest together

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia