The Science of Sustainability

Diving in Cordell Bank

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Around us at Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, blackfooted albatross dip and veer, blue whales spout and humpback whales breach and lunge feed.

Over the past five days I have had the incredible experience of diving on a location few have ever had the opportunity: the Cordell Bank.

One of the four California National Marine Sanctuaries, this undersea granite reef southwest of Bodega Bay is frequently washed by huge waves and howling northwest winds. Although it is only 22 miles from Bodega Bay, it feels as if it were a thousand miles from shore. Around us Blackfooted albatross dip and veer, blue whales spout and humpback whales breach and lunge feed. The deep green waters are a cornucopia of life and literally squirm with small fish and krill.

Below the deck of the NOAA vessel Fulmar rests the mysterious Cordell Bank, and video camera in hand I was able to assist the team of technical divers from Sanctuaries across the nation.
Diving the bank is well, unearthly. It feels like exploring the moon. First discovered by sailing vessel in 1869 by Edward Cordell, the weathered mountain of granite has been visited only a few times over the decades. The first to dive Cordell was an ad-hoc team of divers and adventurers known as the Cordell Expedition and lead by Dr. Bob Schmieder. Beginning in 1977, this team of intrepid divers made the drop and recorded sea life, sampled the biota and helped map the reef’s surface. This remarkable achievement has lead to important knowledge of the Cordell bank and was instrumental in forming the Sanctuary.

The deep green waters of Cordell Bank are a cornucopia of life.

Over several days, Bob and others from the original team have joined us, sharing their first hand perspectives, viewing video footage brought back by the team of divers from the Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary (NMS), the Thunder Bay NMS, the Monitor NMS and the regional Marine Heritage Office. Bob’s eyes shine and his hands grip the rail and you can feel how badly he wants to join the second team of divers as they plunge in to re-assess the health and make up of the reef system two hundred feet below.

The early divers marvel at the multiple bottles of tri -mix, oxygen and nitrox gases, as well as the sophisticated dive computers and dry suits. Despite the technical advantages, the modern team still has their work cut out for them. Diving into the limited visibility, the cold water and currents is still a challenge, but everyone onboard realizes what a feat it was to first dive the Bank.

The images brought back are extraordinary, and what strikes me most is that these veteran NOAA divers who have dived all over the world, experienced natural beauty and rare submarine artifacts of our maritime heritage are as blown away by the Cordell Bank as the original expeditioneers.

The few specimens brought up are carefully handled by my colleagues at the California Academy of Sciences to describe, and with the originals from the Cordell Expeditions, will become part of the Academy collections. The Bank is covered with bright red Corynactis anemones, purple and red styaster corals, and white sponges. There is not an inch uncovered by life and over the sessile assembly swarms a cloud of rockfish, the juveniles so thick that they nearly black out the camera lens.

In an ocean of change, from overfishing to acidification, the Cordell Bank is a repository of information and a savings account for future fish and invertebrate populations, as well as an assembly point for the krill and whales above. Being able to participate in and document this expedition, to be among these ocean explorers past and present, and to see the richness of ocean life has been one the highlights of my ocean life. We are so fortunate to have the richness and abundance of marine life so close to our shore, and have the wisdom to protect it. With the abundance of high definition footage I have collected, and the tales that have been told, I intend to share this experience with the world, so we can all appreciate the Cordell Bank and support our National Marine Sanctuaries.

To learn more about Cordell Bank and other National Marine Sanctuaries, visit KQED's Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Adventures website.

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David McGuire

About the Author ()

An avid writer, surfer and ocean voyager, David McGuire is the founder of the conservation non profit Sea Stewards and is an advocate for a healthy ocean. As Captain, Dive Master and Cinematographer, David has explored the world ocean on numerous sailing voyages collecting media with an emphasis on ocean awareness.Educated in Marine Biology, he holds a masters degree in Environmental Health and has worked in education and public health at the University of California at Berkeley for over a decade. David is the writer, producer and underwater cinematographer of the award winning documentary Sharks: Stewards of the Reef, and was writer and cinematographer on a film on California Marine Protected Areas, and Palmyra Atoll. David has written, filmed and produced a new documentary on the Sharks of San Francisco Bay and has worked as cameraman on feature films such as 180 South and A Beautiful Wave. His underwater filmwork on San Francisco elasmobranches and ecosystems continues and he frequently donates his work for conservation causes. As Field and Research Associate with the California Academy of Sciences, David is Project Manager of a shark research program on the San Francisco Bay and has initiated a new sharks awareness campaign: Shark Sanctuary San Francisco. Through expedition sailing and video production, Sea Stewards is exploring and explaining our ocean world, influencing policies and practices from sustainable fishing to marine protection. Through Sea Steward Studios, our Media Production work is used to influence sound policies and sustainable ocean practices. Current work includes a series on Sea Turtle Conservation in Mexico, a film with partners Team Fish Finders using local fishermen to promote catch and release and a documentary on local sustainable seafood and a Cordell Banks Expedition.