Sunday, September 14, 2008

First Underwater Explorations

This post is by expedition team member Alan Dynner.

As the open boat zipped through the Sea of Cortez towards the El Bajo seamount, Greg Stone, Jeff Gale and I checked our dive gear with eager anticipation. Although I have made thousands of SCUBA dives all over the world since I started diving at age 16, each new dive is magical. When we dive we enter an alien world, with strange and beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) animals and plants, devoid of most sounds. And best of all, we are flying through the 3 dimensional space of the ocean. So as we splashed into the water and descended 80 feet to the summit of the seamount, we were again thrilled.

Inhabitants of the seamount.

The seamount is totally different from the colorful coral reefs that divers usually frequent. It is volcanic rock, but not totally bare because some corals and other flora make their homes here. El Bajo is also an apartment house for green moray eels, with their beady eyes and vicious-looking teeth. Actually they are not aggressive and can be easily approached, but don't try to grab one. At certain spots where plankton was upwelling from deep currents, clouds of little anthius fish were feeding along with a school of lovely surgeon fish (so called because of the scalpel-like spike hidden in their dorsal fin). But there were no large fish around and no sharks at all. Commercial fishermen have taken most of the large fish.

Divers once traveled to the Sea of Cortez primarily to see sharks, and especially huge schools of hammerhead sharks. Our dive master, Alfredo, lamented at how fleets of Asian boats seeking shark fins for Chinese shark fin soup had over the years nearly extinguished the species. As Alfredo put it, "they have murdered the soul of the ocean." [Interestingly, Alfredo, who did not know about the New England Aquarium's role in helping to create the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, said, "I've heard of a marine protected park in the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific. I wish we could establish such a park in the Sea of Cortez to save our marine life."]

Our second dive was in the shallow waters surrounding a huge structure of rocks, looking like ruins of Classic Greece, but covered with birds up high and down low inhabited by dozens of sea lions. We entered their realm and were welcomed like old friends. The females and their pups soared playfully around us, up and down and staying just out of reach. They seemed intrigued by the red faceplate of my dive mask (a color correction device for diving, where the color red is lost first as one descends). They would come up within six inches and stare at me eye to eye. We moved over to a group of females in a rock cove, and suddenly out came the male "beachmaster," defending his harem. He swam up to us and grunted menacingly.

A playful sea lion

That evening we met with the owner of ARGOS, the ship that will be our home for the active expedition. With him were two of the pilots of the submarine that will take us down to 1,000 or more feet, well below the depth safe for SCUBA diving. Avi, the owner, has over 30 years experience with dive ship operations, and the two Israeli navy veterans who will pilot us to the depths inspired confidence. We are looking forward eagerly to our other expedition members joining us and to the ship getting under way.

-Alan Dynner


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