August 30, 2016

Divers Tough Out Challenging Conditions on Big Sur EcoExpedition

By Dan Abbott, Reef Check California Central Coast Manager

Left photo: Andrew Beahrs
Right Photo: Malcolm Hobbs


At 2:00 am on June 27, 2016, just one month after the successful completion of the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for this year's Big Sur and Channel Islands EcoExpeditions, the MV Vision pulled away from the dock in Morro Bay, California. On board was a hardy team of 18 Reef Check California certified divers who over the next three days would collect data on over 70 indicator species at sites along the Big Sur Coast. Surveying along this stretch of coast is always challenging as ocean conditions can be unpredictable. At the beginning of the trip no one knew how much we would be able to accomplish.

The ride north from Morro Bay was rough, and within minutes of leaving the protection of the harbor and striking out across the open ocean, everyone awoke in their bunks as the boat repeatedly heaved over waves only to come crashing down with a bang. No one was able to get much sleep that night, and it wasn't until we pulled into the protection of Lopez Point, just south of our first survey site, that the boat calmed down and we were able to get out of our bunks and eat some breakfast. The plan for day one was to survey three sites around Big Creek Marine Protected Area.

Ocean conditions the first day were manageable with moderate wind and waves, and visibility right around 3 meters, our minimum for being able conduct fish surveys. Our tired but dedicated team of surveyors got in the 50°F water and began surveying the area. On last year's trip, we counted more juvenile sunflower stars in this area than in any other region of the coast, a species that has recently all but disappeared due to Sea Star Wasting Disease. By the end of the day, we had surveyed two complete sites and partially completed a third, but had not seen a single sunflower star.

Day two we headed north to survey sites around the Point Sur Marine Protected Area. Our sites in this MPA were the most exposed of any on our trip. Upon reaching the survey coordinates, we assessed the conditions and called the dive off. The team was disappointed as not only did we fondly remember the beautiful kelp forest and abundant fish at these sites, but the water was crystal clear, just too rough to dive in. We headed south and completed two reference sites outside of the MPA, including a new site we had not previously surveyed, and finished our half-completed site from the day before.

The third and final day of our expedition was promising as we headed to the southern end of the region to our sites around the White Rocks MPA, where conditions were forecast to be calmer. Unfortunately, though calm on the surface, a deep southern swell had stirred up the bottom sediment reducing visibility to only around a meter, not enough for us to collect fish data. We collected information on invertebrate and kelp populations at one site and then headed further south to Point Buchon to complete our site there. Ultimately we were able to return to this area on a smaller boat out of Morro Bay to finish our other three sites in and around the White Rocks MPA.

In the end, our dedicated team of volunteers successfully completed nine surveys at sites clustered around the Point Sur, Big Creek, and White Rocks Marine Protected Areas. We found evidence that populations of recovering fish stocks were doing better inside the three Marine Protected Areas along the coast. But we also documented a decline in sea stars due to Sea Star Wasting Disease, especially sunflower stars which were completely absent at our nine sites. Purple urchins – voracious grazers of kelp forests and whose populations have boomed in some areas in the last year, turning previously lush kelp forest into desert-like “urchin barrens” – do not appear to be increasing along the Big Sur coast and were recorded in either similar or lower densities than last year. All of the data we collected on this expedition has been uploaded and is available for free on our Global Reef Tracker for scientists, marine managers and the general public to use.

A big thank you to everyone who backed our Kickstarter campaign and made this effort possible, and to all the hard working volunteers who worked to collect this data in less-than-ideal ocean conditions!

Left photo: Andrew Beahrs; Right Photos: Malcolm Hobbs