The continental shelf of the California coast is relatively narrow, a short five-to-ten mile boat ride can put you into waters more than 300m deep. Words and photographs by Richard Herrmann
The continental shelf of the California coast is relatively narrow, a short five-to-ten mile boat ride can put you into waters more than 300m deep. Here, during the spring, summer and autumn months, currents from the eastern Pacific and Mexico push warm, blue, clear water north into California’s southern coast. With these currents come more tropical and exotic creatures, making it a prime site in which to dive the open sea.
Drifting many miles from their origin, kelp paddies provide a kind of oasis in the open sea, a place where one can see animals that are found only with drifting kelp. Some species of deep-water rockfish (Sebastes sp) have only ever been seen in their juvenile form under drifting kelp. When they reach the size of between 70 and 100mm, they make the descent to the bottom where they spend their adult lives.
Kelp paddies function as a fish attraction device – predatory fish such as the blue shark (Prionace glauca) above are drawn to the kelp paddies in search of smaller schooling fish.
Kelp paddies are also a good place to find the ocean sunfish or mola mola (see previous page), which is often attracted to the drifting kelp to find cleaning stations. The mola mola carries many external and internal parasites, and are often seen under kelp paddies being cleaned by halfmoon fish.
Until fairly recently, good images of mola mola were hard to come by. Most molas will turn and swim away from a diver, especially if the mola is smaller than the diver. However, very large molas and those at open sea cleaning stations are often approachable. In fact, one particularly large animal tried to eat my weight belt while I was wearing it! I was eventually able to hand-feed the creature. This particular mola mola acted like a family dog. It would follow me around and give photo opportunities I had only dreamed about in the past. My buddy Randy Morse and I were each able to shoot four rolls of film on the animal, and we could have shot much more. We finally left the mola mola after a four-hour encounter.
Although I have seen tuna many times underwater, they generally do not come within the range of photography. I have been lucky to be able to dive once in a seine net (a large net which hangs vertically in the water) with 45kg yellowfin tuna (see above), and in the pens of a commercial bluefin tuna operation. It was incredible to swim closely with these heavily muscled predators and witness their impressive and explosive bursts of power as they close in on their prey. Yellowfin can reach speeds of 40 knots. They are warm-blooded and maintain a temperature above that of the surrounding sea water.
The amount of blue sharks attracted to bait outnumbers makos by about 20 to one. In the early days of filming in the open sea, mako sharks were considered very dangerous. The approach of the mako is often bold and fast (see opposite page, top). It has the appearance of a large torpedo with a face full of teeth that are always visible, and looks very threatening. However, after many encounters outside the cage by photographers with medium-size makos, it is no longer considered a shark that will necessarily attack a person in the water. Nevertheless, spearfishermen who have encountered large makos of more than 110kg or so, say they have felt the animal was about to attack them and were eventually forced to shoot the shark.
It’s very unusual to get images of open-sea sharks feeding in the wild. Perhaps 99 per cent of published photographs of mako and blue sharks are of baited animals. However, if you spend the kind of time I have spent in the open sea environment, you will occasionally get lucky. One day Randy Morse and I found a large bait ball of anchovies being fed upon by seven very large blue sharks (see above and opposite page, bottom). When we had found this situation in the past, the bait and the sharks moved quickly away from us as soon as we got in the water. But, in this case, the bait had nowhere to go because the sharks had the bait surrounded and birds were hammering the anchovies from the surface. First, the blue sharks had their way with the anchovies swimming through them with mouths open and gorging themselves on the helpless bait fish. We had seen a bait ball the size of a Volkswagen Beetle reduced to the size of a volleyball in three hours.
Sadly, the number of blue sharks has been decimated in recent years, especially with the advent of gill nets and the soup fin trade. While 20 years ago it was not uncommon to see 100 fins on the surface in one outing, we sometimes see none for days on end. The early pioneers of blue shark photography, Howard Hall and Marty Snyderman, often had days of 100 blue sharks or more in a baited situation. Today, it is not unusual to get one, two or even no animals after hours of baiting.
Zooplankton are the jewels of the open sea. As they drift, ctenophores (see below, left), salp chains (below right), and some species of jellies light up like Vegas at night. These animals do not create their own light (bioluminescence) but rather refract the ambient light as they move through the water. Beautiful large jellyfish such as the Chrysaora (above) and the Pelagia colorata (right) wander the open seas drifting with the currents.