Tag

Kelp Forest

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.

Photographing Macrocystis in La Jolla’s Beautiful Forests of Giant Kelp

La Jolla, Underwater Life, Underwater Photography

I have been photographing kelp forests in California with a passion for 25 years, from the Mexican border on up to Monterey including all the Channel Islands. Usually when I go diving in kelp its to San Clemente Island, which arguably has the most beautiful underwater scenery anywhere in California. In doing so I have bypassed the large tracts of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) just offshore of La Jolla and Point Loma because the water is just not as clear as I would like in those places. During the last couple years, however, the kelp forests at San Clemente Island have thinned out incredibly due to overly warm water, while those along the coast are still thick and healthy. Recently while out with a friend on his boat, I was able to do a little freediving in the kelp beds just off Point La Jolla and managed to get some nice photographs. The light was great, the visibility “good enough” and I was reminded again just how beautiful a healthy kelp forest is. As is done with a lot of my underwater photography, these images are made with only the available light — no strobes or tricky equipment. In other words, this is what you would see if you put on a mask and fins and went for a swim off in the kelp beds off Alligator Head or Children’s Pool. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2' per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found throughout California's Southern Channel Islands, Macrocystis pyrifera

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2′ per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found throughout California’s Southern Channel Islands
Image ID: 30986
Species: Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2' per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found throughout California's Southern Channel Islands, Macrocystis pyrifera

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2′ per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found throughout California’s Southern Channel Islands
Image ID: 30989
Species: Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2' per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found through California's Southern Channel Islands, Macrocystis pyrifera

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2′ per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found through California’s Southern Channel Islands
Image ID: 30996
Species: Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2' per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found throughout California's Southern Channel Islands, Macrocystis pyrifera

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2′ per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found throughout California’s Southern Channel Islands
Image ID: 30998
Species: Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2' per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found through California's Southern Channel Islands, Macrocystis pyrifera

The Kelp Forest offshore of La Jolla, California. A kelp forest. Giant kelp grows rapidly, up to 2′ per day, from the rocky reef on the ocean bottom to which it is anchored, toward the ocean surface where it spreads to form a thick canopy. Myriad species of fishes, mammals and invertebrates form a rich community in the kelp forest. Lush forests of kelp are found through California’s Southern Channel Islands
Image ID: 30992
Species: Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The Disappearing Kelp Forests of San Clemente Island

Aerial Photography, California

I was recently diving at San Clemente Island. The profound lack of giant kelp forests was a striking contrast to what I am used to seeing over 25 years of diving at the island. Under ideal conditions, giant kelp can grow about 2′ per day (the fastest growing plant on Earth), but it does require relatively cool water to really flourish. In 2014, water temperatures were higher than normal, leading to poor growth conditions. The kelp has not recovered, and if an El Nino that is predicted to occur in 2015 comes to pass, it is almost certain to cause whatever kelp forests are at the island to recede considerably. Here are two images, from above the southeastern tip of the island (“Pyramid Head”) looking northwest along the axis of the island, shot in September 2010 (top, healthy thick kelp forests appear in brown, from Pyramid Cove in upper left around Pyramid Head point and up the eastern side of the island) and July 2014 (almost total absence of giant kelp forests). These two images are crops, click on either to see the original composition.


See more photos of San Clemente Island, photos of giant kelp forests, and aerial photos. Cheers and thanks for looking!