Monday, March 7, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: the yin-yang of the sea

Last night, my long-standing dive buddy, Budd Riker, and I did a night dive at Shaw's Cove in Laguna Beach, California. Budd had been out to this dive location two nights before and was amazed at the range of sea life he came across. One round stingray after another, large mantis shrimp strolling across the sandy bottom, and surprisingly good visibility considering the flat sandy bottom of the cove.

But as can, frustratingly, often be the case when you come across an unusual occurrence, Budd had not brought his digital SLR camera that particular evening. And so here we were on Sunday, hoping for a repeat performance. On this dive, I kept my video camera at home (not much fun dragging a 70-pound rig through the surf) and was going to act as Budd's scout, using my underwater light to search for subjects to shoot.

We arrived as the sun was beginning to set. Some dark clouds were rolling in, but that did not matter to us (whereas in a daytime dive, losing the sun's ambient light would be a bit disappointing). Shaw's Cove has a large rocky reef structure to the right side that extends perhaps 200 yards out. At the moment, the tide had much of the top of the reef exposed and so Budd and I spent some time combing over the tidepools and recalling some of the many dives we had made here.

Budd has done literally thousands of dives at Shaw's Cove both for pleasure and when he used to be a scuba diving instructor. I had not done anywhere near as many, but still knew many of the contours of Shaw's Cove's reef structure. We talked of the "Crack" and grotto that runs across the reef and how much fun it was to investigate its many passages - always mindful of the occasional swell that could rush through, sending you on a roller coaster ride and slamming you against the rocks or a wall of spiny sea urchins if your timing was all wrong. Ah, the good times.

And so we waited for night to fall, reminiscing over past dives and noting how so many formations seem unchanged after all these many years. There seemed to be a consistency to the sea, a familiarity at Shaw's Cove that said, no matter what the ocean has been through, there are some things in life that never change. Now, with a black sky above, Budd and I suited up and waded through the very calm surf. Budd was ready for images of the many creatures he saw just a few nights ago. And I was ready to be his hunting dog, pointing them out to him.

That was the plan. The ocean saw things a bit differently that night.

We swam on the surface for a while before descending to 18 feet to begin our dive. Shaw's Cove has a wide sandy plain that drops off slowly, so one can travel quite a ways and still be relatively shallow - at several hundred yards off shore you can still only be at 25 to 30 feet in depth. We moved out slowly, keeping our eyes alert for those multitudes of stingrays and mantis shrimp.

But tonight was to be a very different night. First, I saw, through the beam of my light, what first appeared to be a considerable amount of particles floating in the water; sea grass pulverized by wave action perhaps. "Well, this loss of visibility won't make Budd very happy," I thought. Then I realized that the particles had an interesting dancing movement to them. Plankton! A multitude of minute larvae gyrating about - I felt like I was trapped in a goldfish bowl full of sea monkeys.

Next up on the changing menu was the contour of the sandy sea bottom itself. What was very flat a few nights ago, with small ripples in the sand, was now transformed into deeper ridges and valleys of sand, exposing purple sand dollars and allowing small ghost shrimp or juvenile halibut or flounder to find safe haven in the deep sandy depressions. Only a couple of small rays appeared and there were no mantis shrimp to be seen. Several types of crabs were scuttling about, raising their claws in defiance of the bright lights that gazed down upon them. We came upon two small crabs in the throes of conjugal bliss and while Budd snapped photos, the male slowly dug into the sand, holding fast to his mate and taking her with him. Oh, no. Hounded by the paparazzi once again.

And so what was familiar was now different. The sea can be a very fickle place. Some things can appear unchanged, dependable - this will last for eternity. And yet, below the waves, there is a very fragile and constantly evolving world taking place. Set into motion by waves, currents, temperatures, and the bio-rhythms of thousands of sea creatures, the yin-yang of the sea is susceptible to all of these influences and those imposed upon it by man.

Eventually feeling the chill of the early Spring water temperature, Budd and I surfaced and made our way back to shore. More surprised than disappointed that his hoped-for quarry had eluded him, Budd still had some great pictures from our dive. As we stepped out of the surf, we found that the dark clouds from earlier in the evening had now turned into a light rain; another reminder that our world is ever-changing.

It was a good dive and a reminder that we can never take the ocean and all that live within it for granted.

See more at Budd Riker Photography and Budd's blog.

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