Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#157: An Underwater Arts Festival
Sea Fan Grotto

This past weekend was Avalon's annual Festival of the Arts. Much as I enjoy this great event, I didn't attend this year. I was up early in the morning to catch Scuba Luv's King Neptune out to some of Catalina's best dive sites. Captains Bob and Tony chose well. The first dive, Sea Fan Grotto, was a virtual underwater festival of the arts. For those of you not familiar with it, this site is just north of the Empire Landing quarry and before the caves at Blue Cavern Point. It is a pretty easy dive since most of the really interesting things are above 30-40 feet.

The highlight of the Grotto, and the reason for its name, are the beautiful red, orange and yellow soft corals known as gorgonians or sea fans that drape the outer and inner walls of the small caves here. Although they may appear a bit drab in the low illumination of the caves, once some light is thrown on the subject they are absolutely beautiful. The bright colors remind me a bit of a Danny Peterson painting (I have several in my "vast" art collection). The shapes of these soft corals is at times reminiscent of something filmmaker Tim Burton would create, with grotesque contortions that actually have a sort of beauty to them (at least in the eyes of this beholder).

Why are the gorgonians so prolific at this site? That's a good question, and one I don't have an easy answer for. Although resilient in the face of mild swell and currents, they are fragile when confronted with significant water motion from storms. Good thing there are no Katrinas or Ritas affecting our local marine life, just the occasional nor'easter on the leeward coast where Sea Fan Grotto is located. There is also protection to the north and south from coastal features such as points which deflect currents away from the site. Gorgonians do need water motion since currents also bring in food, so there must be a happy balance between an environment that plays rough and one that is too placid.

Fiji is often referred to as the soft coral capitol of the world. I dove there four years ago, both in the Nadi area on Viti Levu and as a guest of Jean-Michel Cousteau at his Fiji resort near Savusavu on the other major island, Vanau Levu. I didn't have an underwater video camera at the time, but the sketchy memory stored in my aging brain conjurs up images of brightly colored soft corals... and an attractive Australian marine biologist (but that's another story). After diving, our most hospitable Fijian hosts insisted we stay for the nightly kava ceremony. This South Pacific tradition consists of drinking a beverage concocted from the root of the kava plant. The herb is said to be psychoactive with anti-anxiety and anti-depression effects. I must admit that the only effect of this somewhat bitter drink I experienced was a numbing of the lips. It tasted something like the coffee I make in the morning, but worse. Fortunately there were better after-dive drinks available on the King Neptune!

In the temperate waters of Catalina Island, we do not have the species diversity found in the tropics. The many different types of gorgonians in Fiji easily overshadow the relatively few species we have here in California. However, our soft corals include the red, brown, purple, orange and golden gorgonians which offers a reasonable variety of color. This more limited palette is still capable of creating quite a beautiful display at Sea Fan Grotto, especially when the video lights are trained on the hanging gorgonians. Besides, it is a lot cheaper to head for the Grotto than to catch a flight to Fiji! It's too bad you can only see this display if you are a diver. Those who live strictly topside miss much of the beauty of this incredible island. That's why I give all of you the opportunity to experience it by "diving dry" with me.

I mentioned earlier that gorgonians are somewhat fragile. This fact has been brought home every time I dive this site. Invariably I find several of the gorgonians freshly broken from their point of attachment and lying on the bottom near the entrance to the cave. Divers who are not well trained in buoyancy control often bump their heads on the cavern ceiling, or bump into the walls outside it. Here's an example of visitors to a site literally "loving" it to death. I hope divers who visit Sea Fan Grotto will practice extra caution with respect to the soft corals. Too many careless visits, and the beauty and appeal of this island site can be greatly diminished.

Yes, it was a shame to miss the Arts Festival in Avalon. But then these days I have no "disposable income" with which to buy new art work for my home. What little real income that comes my way gets disposed of at my mortgage bank, Vons and Edison. Fortunately it doesn't cost me much to bring home some beautiful video footage of sites like this that I can cherish, and share with my audience through my daily cable TV show. I hope you'll tune in.

© 2005 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. Buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis" DVD so you can take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Gorgonians or sea fans at Sea Fan Grotto. Upper left shows exterior and interior
of one of the caves, lower right shows gorgonians broken off by divers.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia