First divers tell story of Cordell Bank

07/26/2012

The members of the first dive team to explore the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary in the 1970s and 1980s are still the only known divers to have seen the reserve with their own eyes—and are now sharing their stories of the experience through the Cordell Expeditions Oral History Project.

The sanctuary is named after surveyor Edward Cordell, who was drawn to the area in 1869 after noticing the abundance of birds and marine mammals attracted to it. It had been discovered in 1853 by George Davidson of the U.S. Coast Survey, but it was Mr. Cordell who first plumbed its depths, lowering a lead weight over his boat’s edge until it hit bottom.

Although it was known to be a good spot for fishing, the bank kept its secretes for another 100 years until the first underwater exploration in 1977 by Cordell Expeditions, a nonprofit research association. During the next 10 years, divers investigated and documented the organisms living on and above the bank. Photographs of the bank’s biological diversity were released to the public for the first time, and were instrumental in creating Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary in 1989.

Now, local historian Dewey Livingston has collected recordings of these men’s unique stories of discovery and challenge. Excerpts of the interviews, along with the transcripts, can be seen at cordellbank.noaa.gov, and the full interviews can be heard and downloaded from the website’s Voices of the Fisheries Database.

In his interview, Cordell Expeditions founder and physicist Robert Schmieder said he was first drawn to the site when Oakland Tribune reporter Fred “Skip” Garretson published a series of exposés about the radioactive waste being dumped near the Farallone Islands.

“[I]t led to quite a stink if you like, a public response and eventually government response with submersibles to go out and find these drums of waste,” Mr. Schmieder told Mr. Livingston in the recording. “There were inflammatory reports about giant sponges growing on warm drums containing radioactive materials. I knew that was all nonsense because I had worked not only at Berkeley, where most of the material had come from, but also at Livermore […] As a physicist I worked with radioactivity and radio chemistry, so I knew that these were not really dangerous materials.”

Mr. Schmieder said that, as a physicist and a diver, he felt he was in a unique position go out and take stock of the situation, collect data and make measurements.

“We could find out if this [was] a problem or not, and that would be a useful thing for me to do. It was a nice project,” Mr. Schmieder said. While looking over sea charts to see where the waste could be located, he noticed the spot marked “Cordell Bank,” labeled as 20 fathoms, or 120 feet, deep.

“I kind of abandoned Skip Garretson and the Tribune and the radioactive waste and I got interested in just asking the generic question, what is Cordell Bank?” Mr. Schmieder said. He joked that usually that question was met with, “Well, um, I don’t know. I use Wells Fargo myself.”

When he found that almost nothing was known of the bank, he decided to be the one to explore it. He organized a team of six additional divers—Dave Cassotta, Jerry Seawell, Dave Walls, John Walton and Steve Williamson.

“The predictions were that it would be a pretty boring dive,” Mr. Schmieder said. “It’s too deep and too dark. In other words, I was discouraging people who would call, because I knew that most of them were enthusiastic sport divers and that’s not what I needed. I needed a patiently prepared and willing-to-prepare-extensively, scientifically oriented diver.”

Once the team was assembled and on the water, they had a hard time finding a depth shallow enough to dive. The weather and waves were rough coming out of Bodega Bay, but as they neared the bank the water was flat and calm. Finally, Mr. Schmieder remembered how Edward Cordell had found the bank—by following the birds.

“After hours of frustrating, unproductive searching, right where the birds were was where the shallow water was,” he said. “Bingo, we got 20 fathoms. Pulled up that 20-fathom mark just like that.” From that point, the men began the very first dive of the Cordell Bank.

Team member John Walton recalled the pre-dive jitters.

“Boy, I remember being really nervous sitting on the side of the boat,” he said. “Because you’re 20 miles out to sea and there’s usually a fog bank. You can’t see shore, so it’s pretty intimidating looking down.”

Jerry Seawell was a little nervous about that first dive, too.

“I remember jumping off—basically being pushed off the boat,” he said. “There was a good current, and I had to pull myself down at least 30, 40 feet. As I got closer [to the peak of the bank] I noticed the current decreased. It was [just] awe-inspiring, and then the amount of fish! The first thing, I saw stuff moving just like amoebae. Didn’t know what it was, and then as it got clearer and clearer, I saw all these rockfish, and literally had to push them out of the way. [Then] I saw the hydrocoral, and I just—it would just inspire. I had to sit there for a minute… It was probably the most impressive dive of my life.”

“[Mr. Schmieder] wanted us to collect as much as we could,” Mr. Walton said. “Typically, fist-sized pieces of hydrocoral or tunicates or any of the sponges, anything that we saw, and to try to cover the whole transect line.”

Mr. Walton said he was amazed by the pelagic life found along the bank, the salps and ctenophores, jellyfish and other cnidarians that would float by. “[They were] just amazing, beautiful, like creatures from another planet,” he said.

The men continued their expeditions throughout the 1980s, amassing a sizable collection of photographs and specimens from the biological hotspot.

“Bob Schmieder became passionate about sharing the information and getting it protected,” Jennifer Stock, the outreach coordinator for the sanctuary, said. “He is the one who recommended it for marine sanctuary status, and succeeded in getting it designated in 1989.”

Ms. Stock first came to work with the sanctuary, whose offices are in Point Reyes Station, in 1999, and became interested in the Cordell Expedition artifacts.

“I realized over the years, meeting with Bob, that these were precious stories,” she said. “These are the only people to date who have seen the Cordell Bank, and played a big part in its designation.”

So, with the help of a small project grant, Ms. Stock began the oral history project with the help of Mr. Livingston. They have just wrapped the final interview, which is now being processed. The interviews can be experienced through the Marin County Library in addition to the website. All of the specimens collected from the bank, along with photographs, are archived at the California Academy of Sciences.

Beginning in June 2013, the Oakland Museum of California will have a gallery devoted to the Cordell Bank, and the oral history interviews will be part of the exhibit, Ms. Stock said.

Even on the surface, the Cordell Bank is difficult to visit. The Point Reyes National Seashore Association’s Field Institute organizes annual boat tours to visit the bank, with a preparatory classroom seminar to brief visitors on what they will see. “So they can really get the specialness of seeing a black-footed albatross,” Ms. Stock said.

“It’s 20 miles offshore, in pretty rough conditions, and very few boats go out there,” she added. “But it is great to have way for people to learn about this beautiful offshore oasis.”

And while few may venture below the waves to see Cordell for themselves, they can now imagine its wonders through these firsthand accounts.

“When I hit the bottom, the bottom was crawling, and it was…” Mr. Walton marveled in his interview. “I mean, the bottom was alive… at that depth, to see that—those brittle stars—it’s kind of hard to get a grasp of what you’re looking at. Thousands of little arms sticking up out of holes in the bottom. That was really something. I’ll never forget that.”