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Blog: Oct. 8, 2010
Fear and Anticipation: A Diver's Journey

By Tane Casserley, National Maritime Heritage Coordinator, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Cordell Bank
Tane Casserly. (Photo: Kaitlin Graiff/CBNMS/NOAA)
If I said I wasn't nervous about diving at Cordell Bank I'd be a liar. I researched the Red Triangle, I read the news reports of great white shark attacks, I googled the images of gnashing teeth and white foam. My dreams for weeks before were of rolling black eyes, like a doll's eyes, lifeless...staring...hungry. Guess what Cordell Bank is right next to ladies and gentlemen? The Gulf of the Farallones! Isn't this the location of every Shark Week special from as long as you can remember? Oh and new surprise, they leap out of the water! Suffice to say, I had a bit of trepidation before this expedition began.

original cordell expedition divers
White Shark. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Scot Anderson)
But that being said, I had heard other tales of Cordell Bank as well. Reports from the original Cordell Expeditions led by Robert Schmieder in the late 1970s and early 1980s of marine life so abundant it was difficult to discern the bottom because of the thousands of schooling fish, the amazing kaleidoscope of colors from the soft corals, sponges, and anemones in a profusion rarely seen in this section of the California coastline, and the spectacular pinnacles and plateaus reaching towards the surface from hundreds of feet below. In one word it was supposed to be...beautiful.

My first real impression of Cordell Bank began on the aft deck of the R/V Fulmar as I assisted the morning dive team, preparing for the first dive of the expedition. As I helped attach decompression stage tanks and rinsed masks for my buddies I found myself staring at the ocean. There was a disturbance in the water about 100 yards away, like a giant mass moving just under the surface. This is it, the moment I dreaded. Yes...I can just see it, it's...a blue whale!

blue whale
Blue Whale. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Holly Fearnbach)
Absolutely incredible! I was staring open mouthed at the largest mammal in existence today. And there were two of them swimming in tandem! Now the blue whales were being joined by feeding humpback whales, and out of nowhere a large group of California sea lions swam towards the boat to investigate us. From this point on it was as if my veil of fear that I had wrapped myself in since the day this expedition was conceived was ripped away. Somehow I've stumbled upon a sort of marine mammal resort location, an oasis of life off the coast of California, which of course, is exactly what makes Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary such a special place. I was hooked.

Now it's time for my first dive. Am I still a little nervous? Yes, but also excited after hearing the first divers ecstatic reports. As I'm gearing up, I can hear them talk about the colors, the sheer abundance of corals and sponges, and schools of fish so thick you could barely see your dive buddy next to you. It's go time, and my dive team and I walk to the swim step in preparation to dive.

Cordell Bank pinnacle
Divers getting ready to descend onto Cordell Bank. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Don Dvorak/NOAA/CBNMS)
We jump in with a splash of white water and start descending. I quickly look around to make sure my team was with me and everyone was descending, and down we go. There's nothing, there's nothing, and then I can see the top of the pinnacle emerge out of the murk below and we angle towards it. Touchdown! Our dive team makes it down safely and we start deploying our cameras and lights. And that's when I'm literally frozen. Not in fear, but in wonder. It was absolutely gorgeous! There are few words that describe the sheer beauty of the marine life on Cordell Bank, but gorgeous, truly gorgeous is one of them. As I swam through the thousands of juvenile rockfish and videotaped the corals and invertebrates below me I felt like I was exploring a different planet, which in essence I was.

Cordell Bank specimens starfish
A kaleidescope of colors on Cordell Bank. Click the image for a larger view. (Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA/CBNMS)
The red, pink, and yellow colored life covered every square inch of the top of the pinnacle. Bizarre looking sponges protruded out here and there. Strange looking crabs peeked out from below sponges and fish darted in and out of anemones tentacles. Marine life so profuse, it was almost on top of one another. And the sheer drop into the abyss was breathtaking.

A quick glance at my dive computer showed my 25 minutes on the bottom was almost up and I had to force myself to start wrapping up my camera gear to prepare for our ascent to the surface. As our dive team slowly lifted off the top of the pinnacle I kept staring downward at one of the most magnificent sites I had ever had the privilege of diving on in my life. I started this expedition with fear and apprehension, but I ended it with my view of Cordell Bank profoundly changed. Cordell Bank is a place of incredible beauty and a wealth of marine life. It is a fragile and dynamic environment only 50 miles northwest of San Francisco, one of the nation's largest cities. And it's a place I have a great sense of anticipation for because I'm living my childhood dream of exploring new lands and environments, and perhaps on my next dive I'll see something no one else has seen before.

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