Once again, dawn found me driving along on the Pacific Coast Highway, the back of my car full of gear. Like many countless mornings before, I was headed to another port, some place on the map held a ship that would take me out on the ocean. About 70 miles off the coast from the chaos of Los Angeles, CA, the Channel Islands National Park (CHIS) comprises 5 of the 8 Channel Islands. An extension of the Santa Monica Mountain Range, the Channel Islands rise out of the Pacific Ocean to block inclement weather heading towards the populated coast.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, I have always been captivated by the mysterious apparitions visible only the clearest of days. The Channel Islands represent a California that once was, but will never be again. It has always been a dream of mine to dive into the kelp forest around the islands, and now I would finally get my chance.
After making it to the CHIS annex, where I met the field crew I would be accompanying for the week, we immediately began loading gear and food onto the boat for the week. For 6 months out of the year the Park Service’s marine ecologists and technicians embark on 11 5-day long research cruises to the remote islands. Their job is to add an incredible amount of data to an Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) project 34 years in the making. While my background is in kelp forest ecology, I knew I would have my work cut out for me.
After steaming out to Santa Rosa Island, we wasted no time in assess the first site we would be sampling. The Kelp Forest Monitoring project, or KFM, has 33 sites they must visit every season, and when you factor in potential weather issues, that doesn’t leave much leeway in terms of sampling each site. Dive teams identify and count fish, invertebrates and algae, and even quantify substrate. After dropping anchor the first team of divers hit the water immediately to lay out the baseline 100-meter tape and to film the site before the rest of the team gets down.
From there, each buddy pair has a specific set of tasks to complete before a site can be checked off for the season. If conditions, both abiotic and biotic, cooperate, then a site can be completed in about 3 or 4 hour long dives. The Inventory and Monitoring data that the KFM team collects is extensive. Some divers place 1m2 quadrats at regular intervals along the baseline and count every organism found within, while others take band transects perpendicular to the baseline and count another slew of organisms. Because I was only there for a week I had the relatively easy job of counting every giant kelp plant found along the baseline (within 10 meters of the tape and only plants 1 meter tall or taller) and counting their stipes (like the stems on a plant).
However, one of the most fun samples techniques we employed was my personal favorite, the roving diver fish count. Usually before substrate data is taken, buddy pairs swim the 100m transect, and out 10 m on each side of the transect, counting every fish on the substrate, in the canopy and the midwater. That’s 2000m2 and the water column Not only do you have to count the fish, you also have to identify (ID) them. There are several indicator species that the team specifically looks for, but because everyone swims the transect (but starts at different parts), there is definitely a competition to see who can ID the most fish. Oh, and you only have 30 minute to swim the whole 2000m! So you’d better swim, count, ID and record fast if you want to get your numbers even close to a seasoned KFM divers counts.
Our first day and the next morning we wrapped up our site on Santa Rosa Island. The visibility wasn’t great, and the site wasn’t the most glamorous, but I felt like I was being welcomed home to my old life as a kelp forest technician. However, the highlight of the trip came on our midday steam from Santa Rosa to San Miguel. In the foggy afternoon haze our captain spotted a dorsal fin sticking up out of the water. The team had spotted a small ~8ft great white shark the week before near Santa Barbara Island, so everyone got really excited (we kelp forest ecologists tend to hold white sharks in high esteem). But what our captain had seen was something even more rare. As we slowly approached the protuberance, it grew larger and larger. This was no white shark. We killed the engine and drifted close so we could get a positive ID. Even from afar we knew what we had stumbled upon; a basking shark! These shy and elusive open ocean fish feed on plankton. Like baleen whales they have massive jaws that open wide, allowing the slow moving sharks to swallow great mouthfuls of water. However, basking sharks were hunted to near extinction almost a century ago. This was the first shark seen by park biologist since 1991 and the two sharks observed that year were only several miles away.. This basking shark was huge 25ft long. It didn’t stay around us for too long, but did come and check out the boat on his way out. What an incredible experience! You can view some underwater video taken of this shark at https://www.facebook.com/channelislandsnps/videos/977368515647396/.
After the excitement of seeing the shark, we dropped anchor at our site on San Miguel Island. The weather patterns were strange, preventing us from sampling some sites while allowing us easy access to others. The site on San Miguel Island we sampled on our second day is usually buffeted by strong winds and large swell. Fortunately for us the water around Hare rock was dead calm that day. However, as we dropped down into the green murk it soon became evident why a basking shark was seen so close to the island. The water was a healthy shade of pea soup green due to a seemingly endless cloud of plankton! While swimming in murky water doesn’t exactly make for the best diving conditions, green is typically associated with a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. And that’s just what we saw at Hare Rock.
I’ve never before lived on a dive boat. Typically at the end of a long field day you get to go home, wash your gear and take a shower. Life on a research vessel takes on a similar routine, but your world is reduced to the deck, the galley, your bunk and any open space (which typically gets filled up fast). While some people might find these conditions to be claustrophobic, I had an absolute blast. When the scope of your world is narrowed to diving, eating and sleeping things become a little bit clearer.
For the next three days we cruised to different dive spots, checking the conditions, sampling our sites and occasionally a team of divers would descend into the depths to switch out a wave meter or two. Fortunately most of our days were fairly short. Though on Thursday we had an extra long surface interval while waiting for the current to slack. During our first dive in the morning at Gull Island the kelp was standing relatively straight up, with the canopy splayed out on the surface. By the end of our second dive the kelp was leaning over, the canopy down 15ft below the surface. So we waited on deck, watching on the depth sounder as the kelp dropped lower and lower with increasing current. Sunburnt, and tired we occupied ourselves by napping, eating, or reading. Slowly the current began to slack later that afternoon. We anxiously watched the depth sounder, as the canopy started to rise. As the first kelp blades became visible we eagerly donned our gear and jumped back in the water to finish monitoring for the day.
On our last day we got to do something a little different. As part of I&M the KFM team has deployed ARMs, artificial recruitment modules, which are essentially a stack of cinderblocks held together via metal wire. However, they’ve proven to be an invaluable tool that the KFM uses to monitor the recruit of juvenile organisms to a kelp forest. Because the ARMs are encased, settling invertebrates, and occasionally a young fish, will take shelter in the 3-dimensional structure provided by the cinderblocks. Then, once a year the KFM will disassemble the ARM at a given site, underwater of course, and measure the individuals either at depth or back on the boat. Any organism removed from an ARM is promptly returned before too long. I promise, the sea urchins don’t mind. At our site on Anacapa Island we spent our first dive disassembling, sampling and reassembling the ARMs. After an extended surface interval counting and measuring the organisms we removed, we dropped back down to replace them and spent the rest of the dive exploring the natural beauty of our dive site. It was really refreshing to do a fun dive in a kelp forest after an aggressive week taking data all day long.
I really lucked during my week at CHIS. While the weather could have been a little more cooperative, the cloudy evenings and drizzly mornings showed off the islands in a dramatic light. It can’t all be sunshine and clear water. Also, I doubly lucked out with the weather because we got to dive at 4 of the 5 islands in the Park! Typically a research cruise is contained to one or two islands to reduce the time spent steaming in between. But I was really pleased to have been able to see a wider swath of the Park, and to compare sites across the islands.
While it was definitely a blast to cruise around the Channel Islands, this I&M project is one of the largest and most strenuous within the Park Service. In 5 days we racked up 6202 minutes or 103 hours of bottom time! The data we gathered on our trip has been added to a much lager data set, which can be used by the public and researchers alike. Because of the dedication of the KFM team we have a very solid baseline understanding of kelp forest dynamics. The dataset has been sampled to show trends in oceanographic changes such as El Niño, natural history and ecosystem dynamics. Without programs like this we would have a poor understanding of these vital ecosystems.
I had an incredible time on the cruise, but by the time we hit the dock on Friday I was exhausted. I have to commend the 2015 KFM team for their dedication, unwavering optimism, charisma and their warmth with which they accepted me for the week. I’d like to give a big thank you to David Kushner, the guy in charge of this whole rodeo, Josh Sprague, Captain Keith Durran, Jaime McClain, Ben Grime, Michael Civiello, Amanda Bird, and Ashley Kidd. Now I get another day of R&R before heading up to the high alpine altitudes of Crater Lake, Oregon.
Thanks for reading!