Channel Islands Confidential

  • Kelp

A Forest Tale – The Channel Islands National Park

By Gayle Hudson

At the February general meeting, Mike Boom guided us through the beautiful kelp forests of The Channel Islands National Park.

Mike shoots underwater video for Laughing Eel Productions and we were treated to his stunning work that made to hard to believe we were not there diving with him. Every year for the past five years, Mike Boom and his wife Lynn have joined Howard and Michele Hall on a Truth Aquatics live-aboard dive boat for five days of diving in the Channel Islands out of Santa Barbara. They schedule trips in late August through September, which affords the best conditions.

First, some background about this incredible national park.  The eight islands are located off the coast of California, opposite Santa Barbara. The most famous island is Catalina, which historically was a big social scene and located closest to Los Angeles.  San Clemente is known for tremendous kelp forests, while Santa Barbara is the smallest of the islands.  San Nicolas is known for its lobster population but is military owned and operated by the U.S. Navy.  A famous resident of San Nicolas was the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” who, for unknown reasons, was left behind by her Native American tribe and survived alone on the island for 18 years.  She was named Juana Maria by missionaries, who brought her to the mainland in 1853.

Anacapa is a marine reserve, rich in marine life, and famous for its arched rock formation.  Santa Cruz is the largest island, while Santa Rosa is the site of the oldest human remains found in North or South America, known as Arlington Man.  In 2016 a complete mammoth skull was excavated, although not the pygmy species previously found, named Mammuthus exilis.  San Miguel has the coldest water, beautiful reefs and is less visited by divers because of weather conditions.

This particular trip Mike presented was aboard the Conception, which is on of three live-aboard boats owned by Truth Aquatics.  The boats open in the afternoon to arriving divers, who have until late evening to carry aboard gear, lash down camera equipment on the galley tables, and settle down into the bunkbeds below deck for the overnight crossing to the islands.

The first island Mike showed us was San Clemente, where the conditions were calm, and the water clear.  Two days were spent at Pyramid Cover because of the excellent conditions and marine life.  We enjoyed close-up footage of Giant Kelp Fish, Garibaldi (the world’s largest damsel fish, so they pack plenty of attitude), Kelp Bass, and a large Terminal male Sheepshead.  Mike’s wife, Lynn, wiggled her finger at the big fish, a brave move, considering the sharp little teeth.  Next up was a five to six-foot long Giant Sea Bass.  The close-ups were so good we could see the tiny parasitic copepods on its face.  Nearby was Howard Hall with his giant Gates camera, along with his dive buddy, who use rebreathers and stay underwater ‘for hours.’

The next island was the sea lion rookery of Santa Barbara Island, and the marine life was abundant, especially with Mike showing us where to look.  First off was a Bat Ray, generally a pretty shy animal but this one was hanging out in the kelp blades. Mike theorized it was hunting Turban Snails and we got a close-up look of the ray’s underside and mouth.  A beautiful Harbor Seal came close to Mike’s camera, and he pointed out their beautiful cat-like eyes and shy nature as the seal hunted in the grasses.

Mike then took us to the reef and sand where surf grass and red grass provide hiding places for the bottom dwellers.   We saw three Sea Fans in a row (each of a different color), as well as a ‘glory hole’ of California Spiny Lobsters, and a Southern Kelp Crab.  A large Moray was curious but Mike said they are not generally aggressive – unless of course you try to reach in their den thinking you might find a lobster.  We saw beautiful closeups of Rainbow Scorpionfish, Catalina Blue Bar Gobies, Yellowfin Fringehead, and a Spanish Shawl Nudibranch.

An extreme close-up showed a beautiful fringe of some type and when the camera pulled back, it was revealed to be a green abalone.  Most unusual was an Argonaut Shell, a delicate and beautifully ridge white shell, which is made by the female Pelagic Octopus in which to lay her eggs, then the shell is discarded.

We saw a Two-Spot Octopus who in turn spotted Mike’s camera and reacted by coloring and spreading itself out to appear larger.  Most fascinating was its oscillating spots, which look like the eyes of a larger animal.  Most amusing was a large lobster casually strolling along the bottom and completely out in the open, apparently oblivious to its precarious situation.

It was time for a surface interval, and we saw where the crew takes care with cameras as the divers make their way up the large swim step.  Dolphin frolicked near the boat and took up surf position at the bow when the Conception moved to another location.

The landscape on the next dive changed to a Sea Urchin barren, where the sea stars have declined in number so the urchins don’t have enough predators. These urchins are not being harvested for restaurant use as they are starving with the lack of kelp, which is theorized to be affected by the warmer ocean temperatures.  Intertwined with the urchins were Brittle Stars, who bury their central disk and float their legs above the sand.

Prolific in this area were Sea Hares, feeding on algae.  Amongst this community was an Angel Shark, known to be a torpid variety of shark; in fact, this one even had moss growing on his fin.  He slowly swam away, revealing two claspers, which revealed this one to be a male. Because of this feature, Angel Sharks are the easiest sharks to sex.

We next saw Strawberry Anemones, which fluoresce, so even at a 90’ depth they still appear a beautiful red. Amongst the anemones was an Acorn Barnacle, Lemon Nudibranchs, and Orange Cup Corals.  Decorator Crabs wandered about, and an old little Sea Pansy, which has retractable stinging cells.

A large Navanax appeared along with its egg mass; this slug eats nudibranchs but won’t eat the beautiful orange and purple Spanish shawl because of its bad taste. We were treated to a view of a beautiful bubble snail (which is actually a slug), and then a red octopus.  Female and male Sea Hares were engaged in an orgy, with large spaghetti-looking egg masses lying about.  Contrasting sharply with the Sea Hares were much larger Black Sea Hares, which can grow three feet in length.

A Sand Dollar ‘bank’ showed a large area of the filter feeders moving about, with Sheep Crabs nearby, and then we saw a newly hatched juvenile Horn Shark.  An Orangethroat Pikeblenny showed off to attract a female, which found him to be lacking in the qualities she was seeking in a mate.

A very entertaining segment showed a territorial fight between two very grouchy male Scarcastic Fringeheads, which opened their mouths wide to display open jaws.  Eventually one pushed himself onto his opponent and was almost able to swallow his opponent’s head.  Mike broke up the fight and they retreated to their respective dens.

Mike Boom’s presentation entertained, enthralled, and enlightened members on the beauty of The Channel Islands National Park and we look forward to a future presentation of his beautiful videography.