Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#209: Take Only Pictures!

Another gorgeous day out on Scuba Luv's King Neptune diving Italian Gardens to see the sea bass, Isthmus Reef and Twin Rocks. We had a nice group of folks out on the boat, fantastic weather... and a lovely Asian diver (and her instructor boyfriend, sorry Dr. Bill) who was as enthusiastic about diving as anyone I've ever seen. She literally shrieked when donning her equipment and after doing her giant stride into the water. I'd love to meet a (single) woman with that kind of enthusiasm about diving! Ming said she'd introduce me to one of her sisters if I get to Hawaii.

So what does that have to do with the subject of this week's column? Nothing, other than it sets the stage for what Paul Harvey used to call... "the rest of the story." Oops, wait a minute... I must be confused. The rest of the story concerns something that happened on a previous day's dives. I guess one day runs into the other for this "dive bum." However, Ming's enthusiasm about diving certainly was a wonderful thing to see.

Our divers on the day in question were also a nice group of people. One of the things that good instructors (like ours) tell people is to "take only pictures, leave only bubbles (not sure who Bubbles is or why we'd leave her behind)." However, the human mind often has this uncontrollable urge to collect things... postage stamps, coins, Catalina pottery, antique cars, or in my case rejection "slips" from lovely ladies. Divers underwater are no exception. They like to take momentos of their dives.

We've had a massive die off of certain species of sea urchins due to the unusually warm waters this year. These conditions enhanced the spread of a bacterial disease which became an epidemic. The more northern purple and red urchins have been hit hardest, while the southern black urchin has been relatively unscathed since it likes warmer water. When an urchin dies, and its spines fall off, all that is left is the hard exoskeleton known as the test (don't worry, you can "pass" it by and get an honors grade). There are tons of them out there just sitting on the bottom. Someone just had to take one... or a few... and put them in their BCD (buoyancy control device) pocket.

Once back on board, the diver emptied out the BCD pocket. The urchin tests sat on the console of the dive boat until we started heading back to Avalon. When the diver picked one of them up, a tiny octopus about 1" across with its tentacles spread, popped out of what it thought was a safe hiding place. After all, how many critters are interested in an empty urchin test? Those photographers on board brought out their cameras to document this diminutive octopod. Once they were through, I took my video camera out of its water tight housing and did the same.

This tiny octopus had tremendous appeal for the divers on board. Perhaps by virtue of their intelligence and behavior, octopuses are often very appealing to divers who can spend quite some time observing them. The size of this tiny tot made it even more appealing since, as one of our lady divers said, it was "so cute." Because of its appeal, almost everyone on board tried to keep it wet and out of the sun... and wanted it returned to the water. After we landed at Float 5, I took it and dropped it carefully into very shallow rocks where I knew a hungry kelp bass or garibaldi would not snag it as it drifted down to safety.

This encounter illustrates why we ask divers to "take only pictures." Most people would assume a dead urchin test is a safe thing to remove from the sea to bring home as a souvenir of the day's dives. Often times it is, but not always as we've seen here. On my underwater excursions I've seen fish like beautiful blue-banded gobies and island kelpfish use urchin tests as "safe" hiding places. Of course they'll usually escape if you pick the test up off the bottom. However, there are critters like this octopus who may not be so quick to vacate the premises. In addition, the test may have literally thousands of tiny critters such as bryozoa growing on it.

So I repeat the admonition to not take anything underwater except pictures... unless you really know what you are doing. Sure, you may only kill tiny bryozoans in numbers equal to the population of Avalon. However, as I tried to explain during our goat removal program... we all make decisions as to what we are willing to kill. Often these decisions are totally unintentional as in the case of taking an urchin test. Sometimes they are made based on the need to remove an ecological threat such as the goats and pigs. Sometimes they are made because of an irritation to us as in swatting a fly or slapping a mosquito. I myself often send hundreds of innocent ants in my kitchen sink to an underwater death sans SCUBA equipment. So, divers and snorkelers, please just take pictures next time. By the way... just where did we leave "Bubbles?" Hopefully she made it back to Avalon.

© 2006 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. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles" or "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

A mess of urchin tests on the bottom, an island kelpfish hiding in an empty test;
our little octopus that had hoped to be safe inside one and MissD's finger for scale.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia