It’s happened to all of us. We’re flipping through a magazine or scrolling through social media, and BAM, there it is — an amazing underwater creature, an unbelievable event — something we absolutely must see for ourselves. We plan trips, expensive ones, hoping to witness these things for ourselves. And then we arrive all excited, cameras ready, only to encounter sketchy weather, poor visibility or “invisible” marine life.
My husband has a saying: The ocean is not a zoo. And I have to agree — experience has demonstrated this cruel truth again and again. But there are certainly ways to maximize success in the hunt for… well, pretty much anything.
What I’m talking about is using a targeted-approach to maximizing your marine encounters. The prospect might seem daunting, especially when travel is involved, and it’s certainly easiest to sign up for the first subject-specific trip you see advertised, but what if you don’t know anything about the trip organizers? Worse yet, what if no one has an organized trip? That’s okay. With a bit of perseverance, some research, and a flexible timeline and mindset, these guidelines may help you to get close to your underwater obsession in no time, organized trip availability notwithstanding.
It’s only natural to be obsessed with a creature that can be found off of the beautiful California coast, since we are lucky enough to have access to some of the most incredible marine life and underwater vistas on the globe. And you may even be able to view your subject with minimal time and effort.
Ask around about the object of your obsession. If it’s an offshore creature, get in touch with local freedivers or offshore charter operators. If it likes the kelp forest, then contact divers who frequent those sites regularly. If it’s a sand dweller, then speak with instructors or shore divers who are commonly visiting shore sites with sandy sea floors.
In some cases, getting a glimpse of your subject may be a simple matter of joining local email listserves (Divebums and OC Diving are my Southern California favorites) and keeping your eyes open for the latest dive reports. If something pops up that grabs your interest, it is often quite easy to get more information. These communities are filled with active local divers who are enthusiastic about our local dive sites and ocean inhabitants, and you can generally find someone who is willing to share knowledge or even to buddy up with you.
Understand Your Subject
First off, I’m sorry to say that you’re gonna have to get a little science-y. The Internet is helpful here as well (preferably biology-based sites), as are ID books. Search out details of your subject: what does it eat? What type of habitat does it prefer? What time of year does it spawn or mate? Is it social or solitary? Is it more active during a particular time of day? Does it tend to be more common at a certain water temperature or during a particular season?
Clearly, this step can get a bit nitpicky, but it might help you narrow down the best way to execute your plan — and it might give you an idea about the type of diving you’ll be doing so you can make sure you’re properly trained and geared up.
I am asked most commonly about uncommon local subjects or subjects that tend to be around for only a few days. The advice I always give is to try to keep a free vacation day or two on tap for this purpose. When you hear that something spectacular is happening, make every effort to get out and see it immediately. And to be perfectly frank, a midweek dive to view a newly reported creature might be a lot more pleasant (from a diver-density perspective) than a weekend one.
This might not seem critical since many photo captions and social media posts provide location information. But when you’re hoping to view a particular animal, this step is imperative. It’s the norm that a single place gets all the attention when it comes to certain marine life, but keep an open mind. Maybe there is a quieter place to view certain subjects, a place not over-run by (other) obsessed divers. Before you book any travel, spend time on your favorite Internet search engine nailing down a possible destination or two. Check websites of dive shops, making sure to investigate associated blogs and social media feeds for photos and videos from clients and staff. Don’t forget to look closely at dates. If a dive shop’s feed only contains a single video of your most-wanted marine life from three years ago, no matter how amazing that interaction appears, you may need look elsewhere for your epic encounter.
Just as you must sometimes wade through a bit of hype when a dive operation is posting on every social media site or featured in every editorial outlet, don’t automatically overlook operations that lack a major web presence. Tourism websites may reveal lesser-known options, as might websites and posting boards that feature dive trip reports and reviews. Know anyone who has been to one of the destinations in question? Ask for their input.
Once you’ve got a few ideas about the destination, the time of year to visit, and the type of diving involved, it’s time to make some phone calls or send a few emails. Make sure you discuss your possible plan, asking questions about whether your research is correct and your plan seems viable throughout the conversation. Ask about pricing, but try not to get obsessed over little differences: Cheapest is not always best! Ask questions and keep a list of pros and cons for each operation: inquire about the number of divers on the boat, the number of dives done each day, and whether you will have time limitations. Find out if you can guarantee sites or being grouped with divers of similar experience level. A more expensive two-tank, six-diver trip with unrestricted bottom times may be a better value than a less expensive three-tank, 25-diver trip with 50-minute bottom times. Finally, consider the possibility of hiring a private guide if time is very limited. Nothing is more expensive than having to repeat your trip to achieve your goal.
Cover Your Back
Consider the season of your travel and the potential for iffy conditions or lost dive days before you solidify your plans. If the best time to view your subject takes place during the stormy season, make sure you add on an extra day or two to allow for weather-related cancellations. The worst-case scenario is that you’ll have more time to dive.
After all this detailed (we won’t call it obsessive) planning for your adventure, there are just a few more steps you can take to be sure the time has been well spent. First, if it has been a costly endeavor, buy travel insurance. This way, if something goes wrong, you might be able to recoup enough cash to rebook the trip or at least to recover losses. Second, consider bringing backup gear, especially if you are headed to a remote location where you’ll be unable to easily replace or repair items. This is especially true of computers — it’s a good idea to use a traditional pressure gauge, even when using an air-integrated electronic computer, and you may wish to consider diving with a backup computer (we recommend getting input from your local dive shop on the best ways to do this safely). At a minimum, bringing backup batteries is a must. If you’re a photographer and know that you won’t be happy going home without an image or two, bringing backup equipment is always a must; think about bringing along a lightweight compact system if space or weight is limited.
Mind Your Manners
First, be effusively thankful to everyone you contact. It doesn’t matter who you are — a successful dive instructor, the head of a large dive club, the owner of a successful shop, or a well-known photographer — a little gratitude goes a long way. Demonstrating kindness and appreciation can open doors that a poor attitude will slam shut.
When it’s your turn to share information, share it willingly. Diving is a social endeavor. We do our best diving when we build relationships that foster community spirit.
And most importantly, be a good guest when visiting the underwater world. No interaction or photograph is worth harassing a marine creature or damaging the environment.
Whether your diving is done as a passionate observer or an avid photographer, creating a “wish list” of the marine animals you’d like to encounter can turn your diving adventures into underwater quests. It’s a great way to learn more about the creatures you admire and want to meet, while adding more fun to your diving adventures. Happy hunting.