Diving the Star of Scotland

Today’s blogger is staffer Vicki Wawerchak, the director of Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

I could hear my Mr. Coffee beginning its drip in the room next door and I knew it would be mere minutes before the repetitive chirp from my bedside alarm would alert me that it was 5:30 a.m. It had been a few rough weeks at work; long hours at the Aquarium and my body resisted the notion that I needed to get out of bed. Not many things get me up at this hour—a plane ride to a distant exotic location, an early morning training walk (albeit begrudgingly), a drive to pick up out of town friends—but this morning I was diving the Star of Scotland, a former gambling ship that sunk just off the Santa Monica Pier in 1942.

There is a romantic eeriness surrounding the subject of shipwrecks that has piqued my interest since I saw a Titanic exhibit at the Queen Mary when I was eight years old. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by wreck diving and allowed my imagination to soar as to what went on before the ship found its final resting place at the bottom of the sea. I wondered about the conversations that took place behind the closed cabin doors, the shoes that were worn while ascending stairs to reach different decks, the food served to satiate the crew and guests, the color of the hand towels used by people decades ago and the unfortunate lives that were sometimes lost during its descent through stormy waves.

I first heard of the Star of Scotland about a year ago and was even more surprised to hear that it was situated so close to the Santa Monica Pier. We had talked about organizing a collection dive on it for months, but schedules had never cleared until now. Our dive team included Jose Bacallao (HtB Senior Aquarist), Seth Lawrence (HtB Aquarist), Sarah Sikich (HtB Coastal Resources Director), and Zack Gold (longtime Aquarium volunteer, Santa Monica High recent graduate, activist and friend). We met in Marina Del Rey, geared up and met up with Ron Beltramo from Eco-Dive Center to board his biodiesel vessel, the Bat Ray. Eco-Dive Center has supported the Aquarium and Heal the Bay for years—offering gear rental, tank fills, monetary donations and access to dive boats—and Heal the Bay is grateful for their continued partnership.

As the Bat Ray motored north the divers set up their gear, talked about their dive plan and discussed what needed to be collected for the Aquarium’s exhibits. Conversations circled around the site’s notorious sightings: lumbering, critically-endangered giant sea bass, nudibranchs so big you would think they were on steroids, and the colorful carpets of anemones that decorate the metal remains 80 feet under the surface.

We anchored at the site and were delighted that water conditions looked great—glassy, good visibility and no wind. We put up the dive flag, discussed our dive plan one more time, passed out collection gear and entered the water ready for our underwater adventure. On the surface we were pleasantly surprised at water temp–about 66 degrees–and the aquarists were laying breakfast burrito bets on how many thermoclines (temperature gradients) we were going to pass through on our descent.

As we descended, the plankton was thick and it appeared before my mask like a gelatinous viewing screen filled with various shapes and sizes. We bottomed out at a cold 55 degrees at 75 feet and colors exploded everywhere we looked. The ship was broken apart into various sections and covered a larger area than I had anticipated. Much of the surface was covered with pink, magenta and coral-colored Corynactis anemones and in some areas it was so densely populated that you could barely see the metal frame the anemones adhered to. The amount and size of nudibranchs was like nothing I had ever seen and I set out to collect some various species and had no problem finding Triopha, Peltodoris and Flabellina.

Our team moved with quiet precision, looking in window frames to find kelp bass, sheephead and blacksmith lurking inside. We swam towards the bow observing the size and abundance of cabezon, sand bass, scallops and cowries. We found an open area of the wreck that was large enough to carefully enter, allowing us to examine what had moved in and called it home. 

Jose and I communicated underwater about the number of species we needed for our exhibits, showing each other how many we collected and the various types of animals in our collection bags to ensure we weren’t taking more than was needed.  In the distance I heard a muffled regulator yell of excitement that usually meant something incredible was spotted but I couldn’t find the source and looked forward to the download when we got topside. 

The dive continued for about 30 minutes before we all regrouped and made the ascent to our safety stop before breaking the surface squealing and screaming in enthusiastic delight. Many of us were talking at once–not believing the size of the animals nor the abundance, the overwhelming sight of lost fishing lures, weights and fishing line, and hearing that the excited yell was because Seth and Zack spotted a giant sea bass.  I was excited for them but a bit jealous.

We loaded animals in coolers of salt water and started talking about how we wanted to organize an underwater cleanup for all the fishing gear that littered the wreck. It was a distracting mess amongst the natural beauty of the organisms that populated the habitat and we were all looking forward to further talks about making this happen. (Ron set up a Facebook page calling for help with underwater cleanups ongoing throughout October) Our surface sit time was about an hour so we lunched, watched pods of bottlenose and common dolphins cruising by, changed out tanks and were ready to embark on dive No. 2.

We decided that the first dive was fruitful enough with our collection, so we agreed to leave most of the gear bags on deck during this round. Jose asked if I wanted a light to explore the nooks and crannies of the dive and I practically knocked him over when I blurted out “No!” The thought of diving with nothing in my hands—no gear bags, no baggies, no rubber bands wrapped around my wrists—was amazing. I couldn’t remember the last time I went on a dive just to dive—to observe the liquid environment without the mission of collection sounded wonderful.

The second dive was amazing, visibility was a bit better and we ended up seeing four giant sea bass. To see a three- to four-foot fish suspended in mid column, looking straight at you, not moving a fin, parasitic copepods hanging from its scales, brought everything together for me.

Getting in the water that day was the best thing I could have done. That connection to the ocean recharges me. The reason I sit in front of my computer until all hours of the evening was right there, all four feet of it. To be immersed in this environment and see the ocean thriving because of the work we do every day with Heal the Bay is extremely rewarding. We do have to get back there to clean the site up, and we will, because that is what’s needed and that is how we work. We don’t stop until the ocean is clean. I came to the surface; I had one of the best mornings I have had in a long time and realized the giant sea bass and all the other beautiful animals we saw down there in the deep weren’t the only creatures thriving.

Sign up for an Eco Dive Center Star of Scotland cleanup here.