Words and photos by Phil Garner
One of my favorite things about diving our local waters is sharing the beauty of the sea with others. On many occasions I exited the water, only to have a curious beachgoer ask me what I saw down there. After trying to explain how wonderful slugs, worms, snails and algae can be, my fiance and I began printing identification cards with our underwater photos. Like a religious convert I love sharing what I have found with others.
South Bay residents are fortunate to have so much shoreline available for recreation. Each weekend the beaches are filled with those who wish to get away from life inland and relax on the sand. Others swim, surf, paddle and fish from the shore. Whale watch and fishing boats take others out to experience more of what the sea has to offer.
There is nothing like the sound of a boatload of people cheering every time a whale dives, lifting its fluke toward the sky. So many amazing animals visit our area. From the majestic Blue whale, the largest animal to ever inhabit the planet to one of the smaller marine mammals, the sea otter, I have been blessed to witness wonders never imagined by most Californians.
Our local waters are home to deep canyons, sandy plains, shipwrecks and rocky reefs that provide food and shelter to millions of life forms unimagined by many of those who look out over the sea and wonder what is down there. I have spent the past quarter century exploring the world just off our coastline.
I still find new animals to photograph on most dives, causing me to spend many hours looking at books and the internet to learn about them. If I have my camera setup for macro photography, I am almost guaranteed to see Mola Molas being cleaned of their parasites or sea lions performing their underwater ballet to the delight of divers. Fortunately, there are enough small finds to keep me fascinated during those dives.
One of my favorite animals is the opisthobranch, an order of marine animals that include nudibranchs, some snails and other gastropods. It has been said that if the snails in our gardens looked anything like the ones underwater many divers would never leave home. There are over 3000 species of nudibranchs. Hundreds of them are found in California. They come in a rainbow of colors, some resembling the imagination of a parade float designer. In a world where colors fade as you descend there is an incredible hue on the reefs.
Fish that may be familiar to you look completely different in their natural environment. When stressed in an aquarium or on the end of a monofilament line fish will exhibit faded color. Some of our local fish resemble those you might expect to find in tropical waters. Rockfish have common names like Olive, Vermilion, Rosy, Blue, Black and Yellow, Canary, Copper and Green Spotted. We have red octopus, green, red, black, white and pink abalone. Even the same species of corynactis anemones come in several colors. Some animals change colors as they age. Some can even change colors at will.
Many animals have color and texture that closely matches their food source. They become practically invisible to predators. Others seem to show off their garish garb as a warning to potential meal-seeking enemies. Giant kelpfish and certain flatfish will change their color to match their surrounding as does the octopus. Color plays an important role in the marine environment.
People go to zoos to get a glimpse of animals from far off lands. When you become still underwater the animals there come to check you out. Skittish fish will slowly approach you. Some will come up to your mask and follow the movement of your eyes. Octopus are extremely curious and will reach out to grab your camera or anything else they can get a grip on. Even watching snails crawl is exciting underwater.
The next time you look out over the waves and see blue water with brown seaweed, remember that it is just a disguise. There is another world down there. A wonderful world of color.DZ