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Maggie Amsler
Research Assistant

A Whale of a Flower Picking Seal Tale

Journal By Maggie Amsler

Posted On 3/31/2004 3:04:58 PM

After too many consecutive days of unrelenting high winds that prohibited field work, Tuesday dawned with a fluttering 5 knot wind, mostly cloud covered sky and modest air temperature of –2 C (28F). At our routine morning meeting, it almost seemed foreign to be discussing intended dive plans for the day. To make up for lost time, we decided to do two dives in the morning and a dive in the afternoon.

Our first dive site would be the wreck of the Bahia Pariso targeting sponges for Kevin and me and bryozoans for Hla. We would proceed directly from that spot to Kristie Cove to check on Anne’s substrates and get another light level reading. The afternoon would be an algal dive for Chuck, with intentions of doing some video filming of a particular algal community.

Just as it was time for me to head to the dive locker and start getting my gear ready, I noticed several people training cameras and binoculars in the same direction. Hmmm- something must be out there in the harbor. Thar she blows! Yes- it was hard to miss the behemoth black humpback whale lolling on the surface and its accompanying misty spout. It was no more than 200 yards off shore and apparently not in any hurry to leave.

I watched the morning matinee for awhile, adding to the awed audience’s chorus of wows, ohhs, ahs and the whirs, beeps, clicks of cameras. I was sorry to have to leave the show – my kind of big box office hit!

Tenders Kevin, Glenn Grant (town tender for the day) and Doug Fink (remember our stellar boating coordinator) dealt with loading and launching the zodiac. Doug, with the aide of a mobile crane (SkyTrak) had pulled all the boats out of the water a few days ago because of the high winds and subsequent heavy surf at the dock. Kevin and Glenn were able to put all our heavy gear in the zodiac while it was dry docked on the road. Much easier than the loading procedure I described in an earlier entry.

Once loaded, Doug craned the gear-laden zodiac back in the water and did the pre-flight checks. A very efficient system, but this morning slowed somewhat by the occasional intermissions to whale watch. No worries though, a show like this will probably not have a repeat performance so let’s enjoy it!

A thin band of brash ice had moved in close to the station during all these preparations. The whale moved further from station, out to the edge of the ice. The cloudy skies gave way to bright morning sun and the brash ice sparkled as Kevin plied the zodiac slowly through it. Our turtle pace allowed more whale viewing. Why had I not brought a camera? The whale was stretched out on the surface, maybe napping! In clear sight on its glossy black body were the bumpy barnacles on its head, the paired orificed blow hole and a patch of barnacles just before its not quite triangular dorsal fin. Impressive!

One benefit of brash ice is that it dampens surface waves and swell and this was immediately evident once we were free of the brash. It would be a lumpy ride into the swell to reach our dive site about 0.5 miles straight off the station. The wreck of the Bahia rests on the bottom between two islands (Janus and DeLaca) that would provide a lee from the seas- still pretty active after days of being driven by the wind. In a future entry Chuck will write about this shipwreck.

Following standard operating procedures, Kevin motored around the shores of Janus and DeLaca looking for seal activity. Chuck and I were especially keen-eyed and gave Kevin good-natured grief for his last tending duty. In a previous pre-dive scouting at Eichorst Island, I spied something that Kevin said was a rock. In short order that rock porpoised directly behind us in the wake of the zodiac - just feet from where forward searching Kevin was manning the tiller. The rock’s head was huge and reappeared instantly beside the zodiac for all to see. We dove at another site that day! All aboard were satisfied that the vicinity of the wreck was free of large moving rocks - discounting the whale - so Chuck and I started the final gear donning.

The last few dives I have been using three finger lobster mitt gloves. They are harder for the tenders to put on the diver and the diver has significantly less dexterity but they are soooo much warmer. Even when I wear the five fingered gloves, I often have trouble dealing with some of the snaps and buckles securing my gear. The three fingered gloves make me feel like even more of a klutz at the surface and down below collecting but I am getting used to them.

Chuck and I slipped into the water just above the stern of the wreck. We dropped to 60 feet and were alongside the decks and railings of the Bahia Pariso, now lush with encrusting, draping, swaying growth. Chuck and I swam single file, poking our heads into small overhangs, swimming beneath larger ones. Chuck stopped at a small overhang and I watched as he harvested several hand fulls of one of our target critters for Hla - what we call the electric yellow bryozoan.

I soon swam beneath a larger overhang and found a small field of another collection target for Hla - ‘hydrangea blossoms’ - a calcareous bryozoan. We first found this bryozoan last year and gave it a floral common name based on its appearance. Check out the photo of our hydrangea bouquet (yes I miss flowers!)

A science intermission here, bryozoans are marine invertebrates. Like most of the critters we study, these organisms are sessile and live their lives attached to a substrate. In this case, the substrate is the metal hull of a sunken ship.

Bryozoans are colonial, made up of a bunch of minute individuals or zooids. Each zooid lives in its own house and the walls of each house are strengthened with calcium carbonate. Bryozoans are very diverse in their appearance depending on the amount of calcium carbonate in the walls. If the walls are lightly calcified bryozoans can resemble small soft shrubs with branches of connected zooids, like the electric yellow bryozoan. Other relatives may have much sturdier walls due to a greater amount of calcium carbonate and are referred to as calcareous bryozoans. The zooids are typically arranged in sheets that can be flat or folded into various shapes. Our ‘hydrangea blossom’ is a calcareous bryozoan.

I picked a bunch of the calcareous bryozoan by scraping it carefully off the hull overhead and allowing it to drop into my open collecting bag poised underneath the blossom. I was quite pleased with my ability to handle my knife, open and close my bag, etc without dropping anything! Getting accustomed to using just 3 fingers! When I swam back out of my garden spot, I spied Chuck’s fins disappearing just out of view much further ahead than I expected him to be. Hmm - guess I lost track of time flower picking. Oddly though I didn’t remember Chuck’s fins being so thin and also was puzzled why it looked like he was much shallower than me. Water plays tricks I decided.

Just as I was about to swim on ahead after him, I was startled by the appearance of a small fish just beyond my mask! It looked as surprised as I must have and skittered off as I silently laughed at myself. My laughter and any conscious bodily activity instantly froze though as the grinning face of a leopard seal suddenly appeared at arms length distance from me. In disbelief I watched the elegantly sleek body swim gracefully by me. I turned around slightly and viewed those long thin fins that I had just mistaken for Chuck. Conscious activity roared back on line, as did my heart rate. Where the heck is Chuck???

I looked ahead and up and still saw no sign of my best buddy - not even his bubbles! As I swam forward and ascended slightly I felt something tugging on my fin. Its ok, I told myself, you just kicked something on the wreck. Another tug, followed by a strong yank and I was now face to face with Chuck. He had been in the overhang just ahead of me, his bubbles trapped by the ship superstructure. Based on my intent searching, he thought I might have been looking for more than just him and I immediately confirmed it when I gave him the leopard seal sign. Just then our uninvited buddy swam by again.

Chuck and I huddled together and swam toward the surface along the wreck hull. The seal circled back and was right over us at 15 feet impeding our ascent. Side stroking its long body down on us the seal pressed us back down to 20 feet. We were at the edge of one of the decks and stopped amongst the large brown algae swaying in the surge. Chuck and I were facing each other as I watched the seal approach.

My pounding heart skipped a beat or two as the seal did not stop until it was at Chuck’s ear! Chuck did not know the seal was so close and when he exhaled the seal veered off for yet another circle. I decided that now would be a good time to put away my knife and consolidate my collecting bags. The algae of course made this much more difficult but I really wanted a distraction just then.

Still fumbling with bags like I do on any normal dive, we decided to try ascending again. The seal circled but did not force us down again. At this time I was aware of the constantly revving zodiac engine, the tenders signal that a seal has been spotted. No kidding I thought but looked up and saw the reassuring shadow of the zodiac just above us. Chuck was in the boat in no time.

I had drifted away during the ascent and had a bit of a surface swim before reaching the zodiac. I handed up my blossoms to Kevin asking him to be gentle with them. Helpless (but very warm!) with those three finger mitts, Kevin barehanded pulled the quick release on my weight belt hauling it in double time and then unsnapped and unbuckled my tank. Glenn tells me the seal popped up 10 feet behind me during this operation!

Whew! Our 16-minute swim was very productive and we certainly had lots of air left for our next uneventful dive at Kristie Cove. Hopefully, this is my first and last leopard seal tale!


TitleFromClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Re: A Whale of a Flower Picking Seal Talemary ellen4/1/2004 10:50:32 PM

Maggie, I'm glad you got your flowers, but - please, you do not all need your leopard seal tales! I am glad you are all safe, I cannot help but wonder about these creatures. Kevin says they are beautiful- Do they want each of you to have your own story? Sounds like a cardio vascular work out to me! Is this their mating season, or are "babies" around - why did they leave when Kevin and Chuck came out into open water to ascend? but that didn't happen when you did? Flower picking is a lot easier in Alabama, but my thoughts will never be the same when I do it! Mary Ellen

From Maggie Amsler, Posted On 4/1/2004 10:50:33 PM

Hi Mary Ellen, Yes, my close encounter at the Bahia initiated me into the leopard seal recall club. Obviously, none of us care to be a member in this club but given the amount of time we spend in the water it is bound to happen. I agree with Kevin that leopard seals are beautiful and I would add stunningly elegant. I wish we knew the answers to your seal behavior questions. I like to think it is just simple curiosity. Since we have no clues what drives their behavior, we will continue to abort dives in their presence. When in your garden, focus on the sheer beauty of Mother Nature's blossoms, disregard the pests.

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