Words and photographs by Michael Zeigler and Todd Winner
Weird and wonderful marine photographs from the American West Coast
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This could not be more true for the habitats and inhabitants of the temperate waters of California. Vast, eerie, beautiful, breathtaking, and even magical, the kelp forests of California are home to thousands of marine species. The diversity is such that we, as divers, all too often pass over critters that are considered to be common or even mundane. A closer look may reveal delicate structures, textures, or vibrant, perfectly placed colours. Sometimes it may reveal creepy appendages such as those of an amphipod, which instantly make you glad that they are nearly microscopic in size.
The giant kelp forest are in-your-face gorgeous. The tall, flowing blades of amber are mesmerising and are home to many other colourful and beautiful sessile species. Countless species of fish, crustaceans, and mammals rely on the kelp forests as a place to find food and shelter. Other environments such as the steely, ridged and cold structures of an underwater oil-drilling platform can instantly instil a sense of unease, but can then be the stage for some of the most amazing behaviours and animal gatherings you may ever encounter underwater. Exploring the vastness of the open ocean offers its own possibilities of producing heart-pounding and unforgettable experiences. Whether you come face-to-face with a curious and amazingly gorgeous blue shark or an oddity such as a Mola mola, the deep, open waters offer a degree of the unknown that is difficult to find elsewhere along the west coast of California.
Arguably the most common and iconic nudibranch of California, the Spanish shawl (Flabellina iodinea) is also one of the most beautiful. Its brightly coloured cerata warn predators of a potentially poisonous meal, while its reddish rhinophores and brilliant purple foot and oral tentacles offer a contrast that is hard for other native nudibranch species to match. MZ
GIANT SEA BASS
Patrolling the edges of the kelp forest, the giant sea bass is known to most divers as a gentle giant. While quietly exploring the kelp forest, you may suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a 300kg fish. And although they may silently slip out of view, they usually circle back for a closer look… and bring their friends. MZ
Unknown to many local divers, Southern California is home to mantis shrimp more often seen in tropical waters. They spend much of their time cleaning up the burrows they build in soft sand bottoms. The mantis uses an inbuilt club tohunt, and throws it with the force of a .22 calibre bullet. TW
CHRISTMAS TREE WORM
Christmas tree worms are often passed over in search of other, perhaps more interesting, subjects. Upon closer inspection, the penetrating colours and delicate design of the Christmas tree worm’s feeding plume definitely make it worthy of a second look. Ranging in colours between red, blue, white, orange, green, and any combination in between, they can be found on many of the rocky reefs that line the California coast. MZ
The telltale sign that you are in the presence of a bat ray is the sudden appearance of a silt cloud near the bottom. This is the result of a bat ray hungrily chomping at the sandy bottom in search of crustaceans and the like. Capable of growing to a wingspan of 1.8m, bat rays are often seen swimming in the water column in and around the kelp forest, or feeding in large numbers on a sandy flat. They are quite a sight during a night dive, as their bright reflective eyes bounce your torch light right back at you! MZ
At 3-5mm in length, these Podocerus cistatus amphipods are not too scary. It’s their ability to mimic nudibranchs thatmakes them really interesting. This one has taken on the coloration of a Spanish shawl (Flabellina iodinea) to ward off predators. TW
Seldom seen anymore without intentionally baiting them, the west coast is home to a number of shark species. This graceful blue shark is one of the more photographic. They are typically found in open ocean near the surface. TW