by Bridget McDonald
B.S. Environmental Studies (emphasis: Sustainability, Energy & Society)
Class Rank: Junior (Class of 2012)
It’s hard to believe that we graced the grounds of USC’s Catalina Wrigley Institute nearly three months ago, yet it feels like yesterday that we were taking our first “giant strides” into the crystal clear cove that hugs the island’s coastline.
We were greeted with a crisp, warm day with clear skies and beautifully fresh air. We unpacked our luggage and were pleasantly surprised to hear that we would be staying in the posh new Boone-circle homes. After unpacking, we headed down to the dock and dive lockers and reentered the mindsets of scientific-divers-in-training. As we reoriented ourselves with our gear, we began to remember the intricate and unforgettable steps that were necessary to perform before submerging ourselves into the water.
Mask & snorkel? Check.
Weight belt? Check.
BC inflates and deflates? Check.
Regulator receives and dumps air? Check.
Octopus receives and dumps air? Check.
No leaks from the tank to the regulator? Check.
Pressure gauge at or around 3000 PSI? Check.
Compass working? Check.
Dive computer working? Check.
Defog mask? Check.
To the non-SCUBA eye, one might be utterly confused at the terminology used in the checklist above. However, for divers, each step is vital for a safe and successful dive. Once we completed our checklist, we squeezed into our wetsuits and loaded on the 80+ pounds of weight onto our bodies. We waddled over to the dock and “giant strode” into the familiar waters. Our bodies were greeted with the initial shock of the chilly Pacific Ocean, yet, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was slightly warmer than the less than 60 degrees F waters that we initially trained in.
Soon, we entered the underwater world where we were greeted with some familiar faces and some new faces. Native to Catalina, one can always guarantee on seeing the bright orange garibaldi lazily swimming in the shallow waters of the cove. In addition, sea bass stake their positions under the dock where they wade and float while ominously feeding in the shadows. One can also expect to find zesty senorita fish, as they quickly zip and dart through kelp. Lastly, one must not forget the lush kelp forests that so many of these native species call home. Stretching for several feet from the sea floor to the surface, these kelp forests are crucial in keeping this aquatic ecosystem balanced. Not only do they provide a food source for some, but they also provide protection as well as shelter for others. The kelp forests ostensibly grew since the last time we were here, and thus, looked more beautiful and mysterious.
As we made our way through the waters, we began to notice some new underwater faces that we did not see last time. Dusted with a thin layer of sand, several 4-foot long bat rays lay motionless and nearly camouflaged on the sea floor. Finally disturbed by the wave of a flipper, the massive rays slowly left their spot on the floor and glided away. We were used to seeing smaller bat rays during our training in April, however the opportunity to swim in the presence of such magnificent animals was a true treat. Another fortunate encounter we had included a few run-ins with Catalina’s local leopard sharks. These fish, 4 to 5 feet long, swam only a few inches above the sea floor — gliding in one direction and then swiftly darting to the next. Almost identical in color to the sand, the sharks swam peacefully underneath us and did not seem phased by our presence. Despite popular stereotypes surrounding sharks, they are truly peaceful creatures that kindly allowed us to swim about in their homes.
The two following dives involved a little more work, as we were instructed to lay down a 100m transect line and perform fish and vertebrate counts. In order to perform a fish count, one must divide the area into 5 x 5 x 20m segments. Thus, every 25m was broken into four separate parts. Fish were accounted for in each part. For example, if a diver witnessed a senorita fish between 25-50m, he or should would note that. If a diver witnessed two garibaldi fish between 50-75m, he or she would make a note of that as well, and so on. Additionally, we were asked to take an invert survey, which requires the diver to divide the transect line into 5 x 20m segments. Furthermore, the diver must swim in an “S” shaped pattern around the line, in order to account for any and all invertebrates. Local invertebrates include, but are not limited to, sea cucumbers, sea stars, gorgonians, wavy turban snails, etc. We were fortunate enough to see plenty of these unique creatures.
Finally, on our way back, we were greeted once again by a plethora of rays and sharks. One of our instructors, Tom Carr, astutely pointed out, “There are so many rays and sharks down here that we need someone to direct traffic!” It was a joy to swim amongst such unique organisms. As we rinsed off our gear and put everything away, we were reminded of the wonderful times we spent together in April. Now, as more experienced divers, we had the opportunity to put our skills to the test while meeting new underwater faces. Catalina has always been a large part of USC’s Environmental Studies Program and it is a pleasure that we have been able to revel in everything it has had to offer.