By Tane Casserley
National Maritime Heritage Coordinator/Diver
Of all the challenges that I knew our dive team would face during this years project, one that I never counted on was the biological factor.
Footage from the first dive day on the HMT Bedfordshire. Click here to view. (Video: Courtesy of UNC CSI and NOAA)
When we arrived on site, the water was peaceful and calm. As we rolled over the side of the boat, I noticed the water was a beautiful endless blue, but strangely devoid of life. However, as we continued our descent to the Bedfordshire, the situation quickly took a menacing turn. The water turned darker, murkier, and the temperature dropped several degrees. And then we saw them. A phalanx of jellyfish appeared out of the gloom, forcing us to navigate their seemingly murderous intent, as they hurtled themselves at us.
Diver descending to the Bedfordshire amidst a school of jellyfish. (Photo: NOAA)
As I glanced left and right, my fellow divers were waving their arms in a windmilling flurry to remove the tentacles that continuously fired nematocysts into exposed arms and legs. I chuckled slightly to myself at their winces of pain, until a searing agony suddenly shot across my forehead and lips. I had been attacked! It seemed karma had caught up with me, as I too fell victim to our gelatinous foe. Screaming like a 12 year old, I quickly removed the tentacles from my face with as much dignity as I could; hoping all the while that I had kept my masculinity intact and that nobody heard my yelps of pain.
After barely escaping the jellyfish horde with our lives intact, we continued our descent to the wreck site that finally revealed itself out of the shadow. I carefully glided my way towards the ships boiler, where Ive been mapping the past few days, to begin work. I unhooked my tape and slate from my dive harness to begin documenting the boiler face, when my world suddenly went black. Quickly grabbing my mask, I calmed down and realized that I was still breathing and the world hadnt disappeared. I looked backwards and to my sides, and I still couldnt see a thing. I looked up and my regulator nearly popped out of my mouth. Above me, a gigantic bait ball of Spanish sardines was covering nearly the entire shipwreck.
The HMT Bedfordshire is teeming with marine life (Photo: NOAA)
The ball ebbed and pulsated with a life of its own. Amber jacks and snapper darted back and forth and the sardines scattered and reformed in a timeless predator-prey dance. It was a mesmerizing display, and I was literally caught in the middle. As the terrified sardines looked for shelter, they ran to the largest object in the area, which unfortunately was me. Now I had hundreds of sardines swirling around me and the predators were shooting by just inches from my face. My tape measure was yanked out of my hands, as two amber jacks fought over the metal tip at the tapes end. I was smacked in the chest, as a snapper took a header into me and a tail slap hit me in the gut. I tried to fight back in an explosion of insults to their ancestral line, but it was an exercise in futility.
I glanced at my watch, and with a disappointed sigh, noticed that my 25 minutes of bottom time was about up. It was truly a wondrous experience to have a firsthand view of the circle of life under the sea; and even through the pain of jellyfish and bullying amber jacks, I knew I had been a part of something very special. I begrudgingly gathered up my gear and began my ascent, but vowed that Id be back, nematocyst stings and all.