Category

Catalina

Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas, in the California Kelp Forest

Catalina, Underwater Photography

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8' in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest, Stereolepis gigas, Catalina Island

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8′ in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest
Image ID: 33354
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33355
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

I recently spent several hours alone amidst a large aggregation of black sea bass (Stereolepis gigas, aka, giant sea bass) and managed to shoot some nice photos. I’ve been diving in California for almost 30 years, with 1000+ dives in the kelp forest, but until now had only been able to see black sea bass a few times and then only fleetingly. Hammered hard by commercial fishing through the 1970s, black sea bass were nearly wiped out. In the early 1980’s they received protection and began a long slow recovery. In the 1990’s, when I did most of my diving at San Clemente Island, black sea bass were still relatively few but we did see them, usually one or two here or there. It was a big deal to glimpse one of these volkswagens cruising over the reef or emerging from a thicket of kelp, and we would be stoked to share our sightings with one another when we all got back on the boat. I took the next 10 years off of diving, but fortunately black sea bass continued to recover, with more and more being seen every year. Around 5 years ago I started getting back into it and kept my ear to the ground for black sea bass news. I would hear that Catalina, especially, seemed to be the place to see them, and often in aggregations during summer.

We were recently vacationing for a week near Avalon, and I took one of my underwater cameras to do some available light photography of the kelp forests, which have been thickening again after two years of hardship with all the warm water southern California has experienced. I did a little tank diving, and a little freediving, in a beautiful kelp forest. After two days I was satisfied with the images I got:

Sunlight streams through giant kelp forest. Giant kelp, the fastest growing plant on Earth, reaches from the rocky reef to the ocean's surface like a submarine forest, Macrocystis pyrifera, Catalina Island

Sunlight streams through giant kelp forest. Giant kelp, the fastest growing plant on Earth, reaches from the rocky reef to the ocean’s surface like a submarine forest.
Image ID: 33433
Species: Giant Kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Sunlight streams through giant kelp forest. Giant kelp, the fastest growing plant on Earth, reaches from the rocky reef to the ocean's surface like a submarine forest, Macrocystis pyrifera, Catalina Island

Image ID: 33434

Sunlight streams through giant kelp forest. Giant kelp, the fastest growing plant on Earth, reaches from the rocky reef to the ocean's surface like a submarine forest, Macrocystis pyrifera, Catalina Island

Image ID: 33436

Sunlight streams through giant kelp forest. Giant kelp, the fastest growing plant on Earth, reaches from the rocky reef to the ocean's surface like a submarine forest, Macrocystis pyrifera, Catalina Island

Image ID: 33446

On the last full day of our stay on Catalina, I decided to make an early morning dive and head out a little deeper than I had been freediving, to range far and cover lots of ground on a tank in the hope of seeing a black sea bass. I had seen one the day before as it buzzed me, sneaking up behind me and swimming over my shoulder as I was holding my breath in a kelp forest grotto. So I knew at least one was around, but honestly did not expect to see another. No sooner did I get to 60′ then I found myself among a group of at least 12. The most I was ever able to count at once was 12, but I think there were a few more. I spent the entire hour with them, alone. I was sort of in a state of shock, not really believing what I was seeing. I was elbow to pec fin with these giants. They were slowly moving about the kelp, following one another, gently bumping each other and me. A few would be hovered in the kelp, really wrapped up in it and hard to see, with their nose headed into the current that was bending the kelp over. Occasionally there would be a sudden popping grunt-like sound. The first grunt I heard startled me, it was quite loud and I felt it in my bones. I could not attribute it to any one fish. Eventually, after hearing it a number of times, I decided that a few of the black sea bass that were following others were making these sounds since the moment the sound was produced the “follower” would give a big kick and pursue one of the other fish with vigor. I believe what was going on was a form of courtship, or an interaction among the fish to establish dominance. In my experience, there is little socializing like this that goes on underwater, among any marine species, that is not somehow related to procreation. I felt lucky, and privileged in a way, not simply to be witness to this gathering but to hover amid the kelp with it happening all around me. I was surrounded by circling giant sea bass. These fish were large, several of them 4′ to 6′ long, and were so near to me at times I had to push myself back to frame them properly with my camera. More than once I would be photographing one in front of me and would be bumped from the side or behind by another. Full grown black sea bass are massive (up to 8′ and 500 lbs) and while at no point was there any kind of threat or danger, it was still adreneline-producing to be so close to something that could easily smack the mask off my face or the camera out of my hands with a flick of its tail.

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8' in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest, Stereolepis gigas, Catalina Island

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8′ in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest
Image ID: 33356
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33357
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

I came ashore, emotionally spent and hoping that I did not screw up the photos. I figured that was it, I would never see it again. We went for a hike to the top of the island, then had a nice lunch in Avalon Canyon at the taco place. I asked Tracy if I could sneak in another dive, I thought maybe the fish would still be around? She was all for it. I switched out my fisheye lens for my widest rectalinear lens, zipped down to the spot in our golf cart, got back in the water on a tank around 4pm. The light was getting low and the water was milkier and with more particulate than it had been earlier in the day. I swam back to the spot and sure enough, all of the black sea bass were there. I recognized many from earlier in the day by the scratches or spots they had. One in particular had come up to my face and opened his mouth several times in the morning, and sure enough he did it again. Was he expecting me to clean his gill plate? As tempting as it was (I’ve cleaned molas in the open ocean before, it was gross and fun), I didn’t want to become part of what was going on around me, so I refrained from relieving this fellow from the lice that were plaguing his face.

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33361
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33362
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33364
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8' in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest, Stereolepis gigas, Catalina Island

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8′ in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest
Image ID: 33370
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8' in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest, Stereolepis gigas, Catalina Island

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8′ in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest
Image ID: 33378
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8' in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest, Stereolepis gigas, Catalina Island

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8′ in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest
Image ID: 33358
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33359
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8' in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest, Stereolepis gigas, Catalina Island

Giant black sea bass, endangered species, reaching up to 8′ in length and 500 lbs, amid giant kelp forest
Image ID: 33363
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating - courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island, Stereolepis gigas

Giant black sea bass, gathering in a mating – courtship aggregation amid kelp forest, Catalina Island
Image ID: 33368
Species: Giant Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

After another hour among these beasts, I had spent my tank and bottom time and swam back to the surface. This time I knew the catbird seat was mine, for the day at least, as I had had out-lasted lady luck and finally seen black sea bass as I had always hoped, indeed, far better than I had ever hoped.

Catalina Island Aerial Photograph

Aerial Photography, California, Catalina

Aerial photograph of Catalina Island

I was very fortunate recently to have the opportunity to fly over Catalina Island, and was able to take a few photographs of the West End of the island. Growing up in Newport Beach I used to visit Catalina fairly often as a kid, and as an adult I have been diving around most of the island, but I have only seen Catalina clearly from the air a few times. Catalina Island is one of California’s jewels. It is one of the Channel Islands and shares the rugged Mediterranean appearance of its siblings. Santa Catalina Island (as it is properly known) lies less than 20 miles offshore from the Los Angeles area at its closest point. Catalina is 22 miles long and reaches of height of 2,079′ at its summit. Seen here is the west end of the island. The brown patches just offshore of the island are the upper reaches of “kelp beds”, or submarine kelp forests, which are some of the most beautiful marine habitats anywhere in the world and a major attraction at Catalina Island. Eagle Rock is seen next to the largest kelp bed (for the curious: here’s a photo underwater at Eagle Rock)

Aerial photo of the West End of Catalina Island

Aerial photo of the West End of Catalina Island
Image ID: 25978
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

Interesting fact: down there on somewhere on the West End lives a family of bald eagles whose nest can be observed by webcam.

California Golden Gorgonian, Muricea californica

California, Catalina, Marine Life

The California golden gorgonian (Muricea californica) is a common gorgonian species in southern California. It is typically found growing on rocky reefs from 40′ to 200′ deep. The California golden gorgonian is a colonial organism composed of thousands of individual polyps, each of which secretes calcium to form the structure of the colony. The individual polyps feed on plankton and detritus floating by in the current. The fan-shaped colony is usually oriented perpendicular to prevailing ocean currents to optimize this filter feeding. Most of my photos of California golden gorgonians were taken at San Clemente Island and Catalina Island, two of the beautiful Channel Islands offshore of southern California.

California Golden gorgonian polyps.  The golden gorgonian is a colonial organism composed of thousands of tiny polyps. Each polyp secretes calcium which accumulates to form the structure of the colony. The fan-shaped gorgonian is oriented perpendicular to prevailing ocean currents to better enable to filter-feeding polyps to capture passing plankton and detritus passing by, Muricea californica, San Clemente Island

California Golden gorgonian polyps. The golden gorgonian is a colonial organism composed of thousands of tiny polyps. Each polyp secretes calcium which accumulates to form the structure of the colony. The fan-shaped gorgonian is oriented perpendicular to prevailing ocean currents to better enable to filter-feeding polyps to capture passing plankton and detritus passing by.
Image ID: 03481
Species: California golden gorgonian, Muricea californica
Location: San Clemente Island, California, USA

California Golden gorgonian in kelp forest, Muricea californica, Macrocystis pyrifera, San Clemente Island

California Golden gorgonian in kelp forest.
Image ID: 03486
Species: California golden gorgonian, Muricea californica, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: San Clemente Island, California, USA

Garibaldi and golden gorgonian, with a underwater forest of giant kelp rising in the background, underwater, Muricea californica, Hypsypops rubicundus, Catalina Island

Garibaldi and golden gorgonian, with a underwater forest of giant kelp rising in the background, underwater.
Image ID: 23432
Species: California golden gorgonian, Muricea californica, Hypsypops rubicundus
Location: Catalina Island, California, USA

California golden gorgonian on rocky reef, below kelp forest, underwater.  The golden gorgonian is a filter-feeding temperate colonial species that lives on the rocky bottom at depths between 50 to 200 feet deep.  Each individual polyp is a distinct animal, together they secrete calcium that forms the structure of the colony. Gorgonians are oriented at right angles to prevailing water currents to capture plankton drifting by, Muricea californica, Macrocystis pyrifera, San Clemente Island

California golden gorgonian on rocky reef, below kelp forest, underwater. The golden gorgonian is a filter-feeding temperate colonial species that lives on the rocky bottom at depths between 50 to 200 feet deep. Each individual polyp is a distinct animal, together they secrete calcium that forms the structure of the colony. Gorgonians are oriented at right angles to prevailing water currents to capture plankton drifting by.
Image ID: 23439
Species: California golden gorgonian, Muricea californica, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: San Clemente Island, California, USA

Garibaldi and California golden gorgonians on rocky reef, below kelp forest, underwater.  The golden gorgonian is a filter-feeding temperate colonial species that lives on the rocky bottom at depths between 50 to 200 feet deep.  Each individual polyp is a distinct animal, together they secrete calcium that forms the structure of the colony. Gorgonians are oriented at right angles to prevailing water currents to capture plankton drifting by, Muricea californica, Hypsypops rubicundus, San Clemente Island

Garibaldi and California golden gorgonians on rocky reef, below kelp forest, underwater. The golden gorgonian is a filter-feeding temperate colonial species that lives on the rocky bottom at depths between 50 to 200 feet deep. Each individual polyp is a distinct animal, together they secrete calcium that forms the structure of the colony. Gorgonians are oriented at right angles to prevailing water currents to capture plankton drifting by.
Image ID: 23443
Species: California golden gorgonian, Muricea californica, Hypsypops rubicundus
Location: San Clemente Island, California, USA

See my full collection of photos of California golden gorgonians and photos of Muricea californica.

Keywords: California golden gorgonian, Muricea californica, underwater, California, sea fan.