On Becoming an Inadvertent Naturalist
Scuba diving offers an opportunity to develop a level of respect for non-human life that few other activities do. It puts the individual into direct contact with it and is more often than not governed by training agencies that encourage “do not touch” policies.
One of my most important learnings has come about perhaps in part because of what diving allows for—the ability to hover in a state of neutral buoyancy. When perfected, the diver is able to survey his small world from a god-like stance, to watch the comings and goings of the crabs, to watch the fish inspect the anemones.
As a consequence of prolonged observation and realizing there is an entire alien world ripe for discovery, I have learned you can never look for long enough. The more time you spend in one area examining just one rock or tide pool, the more there is that reveals itself. For anyone with an ounce of curiosity, this type of deep observation becomes immediately addictive.
I was chartering the Lois Ann, a dive boat operation out of San Diego, when I first understood the immense value of being able to maintain neutral buoyancy, and a patient “slow” mindset.
Much to my dismay, the trip I had really been interested in had been cancelled and the day’s dives were scheduled to take place in much shallower water at sites billed “all level kelp dives,” rather than on the imposing wreck of the Yukon. In an attempt to quash my disappointment I thought back to the Channel Islands and the abundant life I had seen there on my last liveaboard dive trip—dense kelp forests stretching forty feet high, bright bursts of sunset orange garibaldi damselfish darting toward us when we breached their fiercely-guarded territories, dozens of rocks embellished with purple urchins. I envisioned a similar scene below and slowly settled into the anticipation of what I would surely see, as well as the familiar bout of pre-dive nerves.
When the boat anchored, my dive buddy and I geared up and did giant strides into the water, kicking through the surge in search of the downline.
Upon reaching the bottom, it was immediately clear that this site was nothing like the tropical-blue fantasy world I had experienced a month prior. Here, visibility was barely fifteen feet and more akin to what I was used to diving in Oregon’s river mouths. The kelp was sparse, looked somewhat bedraggled, and stretched ten feet at most from the sandy floor. For that matter, there didn’t even appear to be much bottom structure. A few rocks made themselves apparent as we dove but other than that, I had a hard time finding something to really get stuck into. Whether we’d put in at a bad location or I was simply too disappointed by not having had a chance to dive a well-known wreck, the result was that I didn’t see much beyond the stray lobster. After the first dive I shared my feelings with my buddy.
To my surprise he disagreed with my sentiment and offered to point out all the life that I would surely otherwise miss.
Our second dive was eye-opening in spite of its similar topography. Although surge had picked up, the site we had moved to, not far from the first, had many of the same features—intermittent growths of kelp, a straggly seaweed-covered bottom, occasional boulders, and poor visibility.
This time, however, my roving eye stayed focused on a single large rock no more than five feet in diameter. First my buddy made the sign for “lobster” by wiggling his index fingers on either side of his head like antennae. I nodded and looked to where he then pointed at a large black lobster huddled beneath the rock.
The surge was making it difficult to see what else might be hiding there so I rested a single finger on a bare section as I had been told to.
It was then, right next to my finger, that I saw a tiny Spanish shawl—the nudibranch common to southern California waters. In spite of its lurid color—a mane of yellow cerata against a neon purple foot—I had almost crushed it. Taking the refraction of light through the water into account, I guessed it to be no bigger than an actual fingernail, smaller even than it appeared to me at that moment.
Keeping my focus on just this one small section of rock, I began to adjust to the scale. With each passing minute, I noticed something new. A sculpin I couldn’t name, dozens of tiny starfish, clams, an abalone, a chiton sitting on a barnacle—something I later learned it preyed upon—and my favorite, a decorated warbonnet that stayed inside its tiny hole, nervously looking out at us, a fringe of twig-like growths atop its head and a set of pronounced lips. It looked like something out of a cartoon. I had never seen a fish like this, and as with each new life form I discovered, I hungered to understand it. Did it live in holes like this one? What did it eat? What were those strange branches on its head used for? Was it native only to California waters?
In just one dive, everything had changed. I had become a proponent of “slow diving”. I inspected single rocks for longer periods of time. I put more effort into improving my trim and finning technique so as not to damage any life, and I bought a monstrous encyclopedia of invertebrates, seaweeds and fish.
Once I could attach names to the things I was seeing, I felt as though I owned them. I grew as greedy as a child collecting candies at Halloween, and I spent hours scouring my encyclopedia, researching marine life online, and relating what I had learned to increasingly bored friends.
Insatiable as I was, I was also perplexed by others’ lack of interest. Not even the peculiar sailfin sculpin could rouse much curiosity. Was I ever as ambivalent to these otherworldly creatures? It didn’t take a lot of careful consideration to realize that yes, I probably had been. These organisms, while interesting, had seemed so unreal, so distant; like creatures from a country I would never have the luxury of visiting. I saw them only on documentaries and in books. They felt as unreachable as Mars.
When I learned to pay attention while diving, that all changed. The ocean brought that distant planet to my back door. Now I could run my own camera, be my own filmmaker and interpreter of what I was seeing.
In early May of 2017, I spent three days diving in the Hood Canal relearning this lesson.
I was part of a group of instructors and divemasters who were training the latest batch of students to scuba dive. While I relished dives in these comparatively clear waters, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that I had been charged with the care of a young boy who seemed only able to concentrate on the very smallest lifeforms, utterly mesmerized by the tiny shrimp that played in our flashlights at night, and by the smallest hermit crabs scuttling over the sand.
Where usually I relished slow diving, here where there were bigger things to see, I wanted to cover more ground. If we could get to at least forty feet we’d have a chance of seeing a wolf eel or an octopus, or even just a lingcod. When I did manage to get him deeper and point out a small octopus under a boat, he seemed disinterested. I wondered at this. Had it been because I’d led him to it? Was it because he hadn’t discovered it himself, or did his lack of interest have to do with the fact that many other students had already seen and talked about it? It was a known entity and therefore, of only mild interest. I decided that for the rest of the weekend I would keep my eyes focused on the macro, and I would let the boy make his own discoveries.
On our very last dive of the weekend, shortly after exiting the water, the boy called me over and pointed to something on his drysuit. At first glance I thought it a stray piece of seaweed, or a twig. I was about to say as much when I remembered the importance of paying attention. I peered closer. The small twig was very much alive, and not a twig at all. It moved as though operated by clockwork, up and down, bending like a marionette on strings. We both stared, fascinated. It would have looked more at home on a Men in Black film set than out here in the cool waters of the Hood Canal. A little brown stick hinged in three places, it moved with robotic stiffness. It had the tiny pincers of a crab, and antenna almost half the length of its body. It was thinner even than a toothpick and no longer than a quarter piece.
“What is it?” the boy said, unable to tear his gaze away, the whole weekend of small fascinations culminating for him right here in this one joyous moment of macro marine life at its finest and most obscure.
Like him I could do little but stare and wonder. I had no idea. I had never seen anything like it, and I had dived this site dozens of times before. I turned to one of our instructors. She didn’t know either. No one did.
When I returned home at the end of the weekend, I pulled out my encyclopedia and flipped through its pages. There, at last, at the very bottom of a page that listed sea fleas and sea lice, was a picture of what I had seen. The Alaskan skeleton shrimp. This alien-like creature was known to hook itself onto the neoprene suits of divers, and although rarely noticed, was supposed to be abundant.
“Abundant”. I said the world aloud. It was abundant and somehow I had missed it. For that matter, so had all the others. I wondered if next time I dove in that same spot a closer inspection of intertidal life would reveal what I had been missing all along. Would this skeleton shrimp be something I could see with little effort now that I knew it existed, and now that I knew where to find it—latched onto neoprene, or onto seagrass? For this, I had the boy to thank. Although I knew to slow down and look carefully, even I was capable of losing my sense of wonder if I did not continue to cultivate it. I thought back to the boy watching the shrimp play in his flashlight beam and I smiled.
Terrible photography due in large part to an outdated GoPro and no lighting equipment. Or maybe just the writer. Who can say?