Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lobster Cave

Today we find ourselves back at Anna Capa Island after numerous circles around each of the Channel Islands looking for better conditions. Clearly (forgive the wording) we have not succeeded. On the island, very near an area called the landing cove, I was told about Lobster Cave. Sounded intriguing and since we have stuck out on clean water and wide angle kelp shots, why not. After a detailed dive brief about the cave entrance, width, depth, etc Susanna and I splashed. Quite honestly after 10 days we had had offshore, I had no intention of being impressed. In fact, just the opposite. I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed after hearing all the stories of thousands of lobsters darting out of the darkness. I was betting that this was yet another “If you had only been here last week” dive site.

We surface swam over to the island and submerged to look for the entrance. As the ambient light of the cave entrance faded, the fissure was illuminated by the powerful HID lights from the 3D camera. As we penetrated, the walls began to come alive and crawl. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands lobsters began shying away from the bright lights that had invaded there lair. It was straight out of a science fiction movie. Cramming into ever smaller cracks and crevices trying to escape the intrusion. Soon the critical mass was too much and they begin to launch away from the walls, ceilings, floors in a last ditch effort to evade us. The first lobster that crashed into you in the darkness was unnerving. Then the impacts came a faster and faster rate. Soon they were pelting us at a rate of several per second. As I was concentrating on the shot through the monitor I felt an antenna brush against my face. A couple crustations had landed on the camera system and were around on 3D rig. The deeper we got into the cave, the greater the level of panic and the more barrages we took. A couple hundred feet into the cave, past a slight constriction, the tunnel opened up and you could surface in an air chamber. The lights on the camera illumination the roof of the cave to reveal a rainbow of colors on the roof. Spectacular.

As we submerged the visibility got worse which signaled we were at the ending of the cave due to the turbulence generated from the slight surge on the sandy bottom. Gently we turned to head back to the caves entrance, following our fiber optic tether back. By this time the lobsters had been dispersed from the walls and were everywhere without pattern. Slowly we made our way back to cave entrance and exited. What a dive!

Birthday Dive

For the past couple years I have spent my birthday aboard the Sea Ranger II here in Channel Islands. The research vessel’s schedule has always coincided with the last trip of the year which in late fall. Last year I spent nearly two hours underwater in the kelp forests off the tiny Gull Island. A sea lion rookery teaming with a juvenile posse that roam the kelp like a gang frolicking and wrestling with each other, all playing for the camera. It still ranks as one of the most memorable dives I have ever done, birthday or not.

This year conditions have been about 180 degrees from last. Surge, green turbid waters. Earlier in the week we did a couple dives at Gull Island to try and recapture the magic of that place only to be skunked. The sea lions were there, however the visibility was not. They rolled and played as before but the surge was so great that it was next to impossible to shoot in the very shallow waters. In fact, between you and me the posse of pinepeds had a field day with us. They would strafe the camera, suckering us in shallower and shallower trying to get the shot. Suddenly we was racing across the very shallow water at warp speed as a set of large waves rolled in and built as they approached the island. Although fun while it lasted, I new it was only a matter of time before the waves crashed over us and dumped us on the rocky shoreline. Sure enough, into the spin cycle we went bouncing off rocks, trying to protect the bulky 3D camera and scrambling to get back to deeper water. Roller after roller broke over us. All you could do was cling onto any handhold for dear life while the waves attempted to beach us. As the energy of the water dissipated and withdrew from the shallows we would let go and dift temporarily into deeper water. Over and over again, wave after wave we would repeat, slowely making our way back into deeper water Finally, the crew regrouped in deeper water, our heads spinning and egos (and other things) bruised. As we swam back to the boat, the sea lions again strafed us with what could only be descried as a gleeful countenance about them. They win so I’m not interested in revisiting that place even if it my birthday.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In The Presence of Greatness

As we wrapped for the day and were motoring for a protective anchorage at San Miguel Island the team spotted some breaching whales in the distance. We slowed the boat to a drift and kept a sharp eye on the horizon. Again, a breach. It appeared to be three humpback whales in the shallows just off the kelp beds. A few minutes later the mist arose again and the whales had turned and where heading in the general direction of our drifting boat. As the whales continued their track along the southern shoreline of San Miguel we paralleled them several thousand feet off in deeper water. With each breach a flurry of shutters from the photographers on board trying to capture a signature shot of the lifted tail as the beast submerge. For several minutes the crew scanned the horizon looking for the humpbacks. Nothing.

We started to surmise that they had turned for deeper water at our stern and were heading off shore when we heard the deep, powerful exhalations just off our bow. The humpbacks had surfaced not 25ft off our bow. Two massive animals, presumably females and one small juvenile. They were the most massive creatures I have ever seen. Each one rose and exhaled with a mist rising into the golden sunset. Such amazing grace and beauty. Three times these giants surfaced just feet off our bow. Each time more impressive than the first. They were close enough to see their entire body through the water as they tracked along with our vessel. On a couple breaches they slipped beneath the surface with the signature shot of the tail raised out of the water. The image was so striking against the glow of the setting sun. Breath taking is all I can say to describe it.

The group surface a couple more times then turned for deeper water as our boat drifted past them. That last trace of them off our stern was a fully extended tail backlit against the sunset. In the presence of greatness - what an honor.

A Different Shade of Green

Today was another day in the pursuit of clean water. The weather has been amazing. The seas have continued to calm, the swell subside. Everything has come together for a great 3D shoot…except the water. Still green. We have spent the past five days chasing the Channel Island chain as far as possible to look for blue water, some 60 nautical miles from port. Today we added whole new level of suck. In addition to green mucky water we added billions and billons of mycid shrimp. Some of the most important base layers of the food chain I admit but not the most impressive sight when you drop down into the kelp and the vis drops from a pea green 15 ft to a pea green, shrimp soup of 6 feet. Time to work close up.

On the bright side, we did manage to drop into a clean water area amidst a kelp bed with hundreds of schooling blue rock fish. An inquisitive school of fish. First there was a couple, then more came in to see what the fuss was about. In about 15-20 minutes there were hundreds and hundreds of on lookers. I image we look like quite a sign to these Frisbee sized fish. Bright movie lights, funny looking large creatures in bright colored suits blowing bubbles. Interesting to imagine the other side of the coin sometimes.
The fish did there part and danced among the kelp for a long while. The shot developed and I think we walked away with a shot that wont be left on the cutting room floor (finally).

Still wanting a better shot, we surfaced toped off our tanks and dropped back onto the same sight with a tripod and different camera setup. The surge is always a factor in this environment. Sometimes it make the shot to have the camera swaying at the same pace as the content in the frame. Sometime it’s a better look to lock down the camera and the let the movement play out in front of the lenses. I find this more appealing in 3D than normal television because the minds eye is always focusing on a different subject swimming at different depths in the screen. Best not to overload the brain with too much movement.

Anyway, as we dropped through the kelp canopy my heart raced as a sea lion bolted past me about 60mph. He continued to dive bomb the dive team as we set up the tripod. The thought of actually capturing this action on camera didn’t even weigh heavily on my mind. After so many days of frustrating sea lions I know better than that. What I did see happening was the schooling blue rock fish were darting frantically as the sea lion approached an the school was dissipated. Shot gone. With no fish, clouds of mycid shrimp and a camera avoiding sea lion I knew we were sunk even before we finished setting up the tripod. Still we pushed on, set the 3D system up and rolled on a few minutes of less that spectacular (or even good) kelp footage. I’m tired of a different shades of green. I want shade so clear blue. Maybe tomorrow?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Me and Koza Between Dives

Shooting Elephants...Seals

We have anchored up behind Santa Rosa Island for some protection from the swell and wind. In a last minute decision late in the evening we decided to mount a 3D landing party on the island to film elephant seals. As the sun was rising we launched our little dingy. Not knowing the terrain or ability to actually make a land fall we took only the essential personnel. Myself (the director), Lou Lamar (a very talented 3d shooter) and Maryann Keith (the WHOI 3D specialist who is on all my films) all boarded the small craft destine for greatness. Greatness is what we got! 

As the sun rose higher and the morning light was spectacular we filmed the most majestic (and easy going) animals I have ever seen. The beach was covered with 50-75 young juvenile elephant seals that were for all that we could tell were living the good life. Even as juvenile they were massive animals weighing around 500 lbs. They were basking in the sun until the urge to play spar or frolic in the surf overtook them then they would so indulge. There lives seemed so laid back. I can relate to that level of lifestyle. As an apex predator the concerns within the food chain were pretty minimal. Short of an occasional great white the life was pretty good. As we filmed set up on a high ledge overlooking the beach they rolled and wrestled in the pools below with each other 15 ft below us. Every now and then they would look us over and give a growl out just to let us know they were checking us out. It was one of the most memorable of adventures. Very wild and untamed.

Shooting in Kelp

Koza wrangling fiber optic tether and kelp

Friday, November 12, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Underwater Wonders In The National Park Service Channel Islands National Park, November 5-19, 2010

The final location in the Underwater Wonders in the National Park Service production is a spectacular group of islands lying just off one of the most populated areas in the world – Los Angeles. Channel Islands National Park offers the both the ocean diversity and remote islands ecosystem that is signifies the very mission of the National Park Service – to preserve and protect for future generations. Without that level of safeguard, who knows how far afield the shores of the Malibu crowd would spread and this vast resource would be available to the highest bidder and not held in trust for the American people.

To this photographer, Channel Islands is all about the kelp and sea lions. Sure the park offers a vast diversity of sea birds, endangered island mammals and plants. There are even a number of shipwrecks in the waters adjacent to the rugged island coastline. Although historical significant set against the proper context of westward expansion economical development of our West Coast, as a collection they lack the relief or visual appeal to focus the 3D cameras on. I was here a year ago shooting stills and captured the beauty of this place during a week long scouting trip. A selection of those images still remain among my favorite. I’m hoping lighting strikes twice, only this time in front of the 3D cameras.

Fellow NPS Submerged Resources Center members Susanna Pershern, Jim Koza arrived with me by Suburban by way of Lake Mead National Recreation Area where we were running a two week dive training. Maryann Kovacs and Lou Lamar from the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution flew into LAX last night. We departed Ventura Harbor this morning for Anna Cappa Island only to arrive and find green turbid water. Setback? It would seem that we have arrived on the back side of one of the largest swell events in recent years. 15-20ft swells rolled in and trough the five islands not even a week ago leaving unsettled waters and torn kelp in its wake. Everything seems to be unsettled.

Not to be discourages, we press to the west hoping to find clean water, hardy kelp and the frolicking seals and sea lions we have come here to shoot. It cant be this bad for next 10 days…right?