Umarex Gauntlet


CALIFORNIA'S ONLY SPORTSMAN'S NEWS SINCE 1953

Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Captain Merit McCrea is our Saltwater Editor. He covers the Southern California beat for Western Outdoor News.McCrea has been an active USCG licensed captain since 1978. For more than two decades he owned and operated partyboats. He served as a Sportfishing Association of California Board Member and is well-connected within the industry.


In 2000 he transitioned into academia, earned several academic honors and now concurrently works as a research biologist with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute with the Milton Love Lab. His skills include: ecology, fisheries, marine management, technical mapping (GIS), statistical analysis, oceanographic processes, ichthyology, technical writing, modern technological application, data management, small business management, experimental design, mathematical modeling, research diving and journalism.


A resident of Santa Barbara, McCrea is also a skilled boat operator including trailer boats, larger single screw, twin screw and water-jet driven vessels. He can find fish, run a rod and reel and is the current IGFA all-tackle world record holder for catch and release calico bass. Recreationally he has a passion for fishing and hunting.


It is his desire as your Saltwater Editor to assure that we support our advertisers that support us. He can be reached by voice or text at (805) 687-3474 or via email at merit@wonews.com


Platforms on the short list or already decommissioned
There are 3 offshore platforms and an oil island on the short list for decommissioning and several more that have been already torn out. I’ve already covered the process piece for those on the list, but not much about fishing, and diving the places themselves. There are some greats here.

These are all in the Santa Barbara Channel. Farthest east on the teardown list is platform Gail. I’ll follow the oil platform terminology introduced in prior weeks in this series, rather than start from scratch.


Gail is a big 2x4 approximately 150 feet by 300 feet at the surface. Standing in 740 feet of water, with a 7-degree spread in the legs, it’s roughly 330 by 580 feet at the bottom. It’s the largest of those on the decommissioning short list.


She’s in the east end of the Santa Barbara Channel, due north of Anacapa Island and halfway between Ventura and Santa Cruz Island. She has 25 conductors/wells on her east end and upper levels at 40 and 100 feet.


That upper level holds lots of marine growth, but is cleaned periodically, so the major scallop sector starts below there. Fairly far offshore, there are calico bass but not the huge numbers seen on some platforms closer to the coast.


The usual mix of blacksmith and perches flit between the structure’s legs there too, along with some sheephead. For what it lacks in bass, it makes up for in rockfish at deeper depths. And it has been shown to be a major rockfish nursery at that 100-foot level.


Some summers there are many, many thousands of baby rockfish amongst the crossbeams and conductors. Down deep, some major bottom monsters lurk. Out in over 100 fathoms, this rig has been off limits to bottom biter baiting for almost 2 decades.


We’ve surveyed the jacket from top to bottom seasonally in years past. Other scientific work includes some of the first deep water barotrauma work. The Chris Lowe Lab (CalState University Long Beach) tagged a few fish, less than 10, with pinger tags in 2004 an

most survived. The following seasons I worked with them to tag dozens more.

Some of these Kim Anthony, then a grad student at Cal Sate Long Beach with Lowe, moved to Anacapa Island and released. Several swam right back. One lingcod stayed at Gail all year, then went missing for several days, only to return. In the meantime, it had pinged a pair of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research’s receivers out at Cavern Point, Santa Cruz Island. This was a remarkable testament to the fish’s mobility and navigation.


We at the Milton Love Lab deployed an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler there for a season. It looked at water flow in the upper 100 feet. Dr. Mary Nishimoto found the biggest numbers of baby rockfish came when the current flowed into the Channel from the southeast.


Three pipelines connect platform Gail to platform Grace, a little more than 5 miles northwest. In 310 feet of water and 10 miles offshore this platform also has similar fish and invertebrate populations to Gail, yet perhaps a few more of the warmer water shallow species.


At the bottom the bigger rockfish lurked but they were mostly “steamer sized” at 1.5 to 2 pounds. Reds were the most common I recall. Kim Anthony, with the Lowe Lab, tagged and trans-located those too, and had fish make it back from Anacapa. Those that were released there tended to stay there. A few even showed up Gail on their way back to Grace I understand.


Rincon Oil Island is along the coast off Mussel Shoals, between Rincon and Pitas points. This manmade island has a boat landing and a half-mile long, one-lane bridge to it. Surrounded by big rock riprap and fronted by what looks like giant concrete jacks, this island is a reported lobster heaven.


Yet the area it’s in is known for its murky waters. Natural reefs run the bottom to the northwest of it and flank the down-coast shallows a few hundred yards southeast. It’s in about 45 feet of water and would make a great public fishing spot.


The little island itself is roughly 400 feet by 400 feet. State Lands is in charge of the decommissioning project and has just completed plugging its old wells. The environmental process, which gathers public comment on what to do with it is just about to start up.


It’s time to keep an eye open for the public meeting notices and be ready to put in a bid for sport fishing.


Farther up coast are the sites of the “4-H” platforms, removed in 1996. These were premier calico bass fishing sites in the years leading up to their removal. We’d anchor up-current to the conductor sides and cast into the structure with live bait and hang on! You had to be quick to wind them out of there.


Sometimes the bass would be so thick the huge school would swarm the boat and you could see them by the hundreds in the water, wide-open bite.


We’ve since reconned those sites to see what was left — the shell mound. What we found was a sad situation — some low lying plumping, dust-covered old mussel shells and a few small rockfish.


We’re not sure but it seems perhaps the shell mound just melts and settles over time so plumbing previously buried becomes exposed.


We found the sites of past platforms Helen and Herman — up off the Gaviota Coast and dove those too in the past few months. Each was reported cleared of debris at the time but today show a low lying jungle gym of pipes and such crisscrossed along the bottom, with a few shell crumbs lying about.


Herman was epic for bass fishing back in the late ’80s — some of the most wide-open bass bites I’ve ever seen.


Currently starting the process of plugging and abandonment of its 30 wells, platform Holly is just off Coal Oil Point near U.C. Santa Barbara. In 216 feet of water, it’s in the middle of a vast area of natural oil seeps. It seems, since ceasing production after the Refugio Spill from a ruptured pipeline ashore, some 11 miles up coast, the natural seepage has increased markedly as oil and gas bearing formations below have slowly recharged pressure in the surrounding strata.


Along the west edge of this platform the water is filled with bubbles of natural gas and oil. That’s just a tiny fraction of what comes up from the many fissures in the surrounding waters.


We’ve surveyed this platform’s fishes many times over the years, top to bottom and tested out our invertebrate survey methods here as they were developed. The closest platform to UCSB and having an ideal dive layout, it’s served as our survey methods testing ground over the years.


One fall I surveyed one of the seafloor seep vents in the Delta submarine. As we pulled up, there was a cauldron, a huge crater in the seafloor large enough to swallow the sub. It was maybe 20 feet across and too deep to see the bottom. Crabs had lined up along its edge, some rockfish too. The crabs looked stoned just sitting there, and a few looked like they’d stayed so long they’d starved and died.


As far as fishing Holly, it can be picky to pretty good — mostly half-day grade rockfish. But back in 1975 a bunch of bocaccio had moved in, pretty nice ones of 2 to 5 pounds. It was wide open. I heard a commercial hook and line boat from Ventura came up and whacked it hard and the bonanza was over.


Aside from the oil smell and sticky mess at the surface, platform Holly is a pretty dive — very colorful with good visibility — 15 feet to over 100. The current tends to be fairly strong but workable. It flows from the east here.


Its jacket has upper levels at 30, 65, and 115 feet. A small 3 by 4, the up-coast or west side has the conductor bay with 3 rows of 10 each.


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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


• • • • •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


The Big Picture
Oil platforms, shipwrecks and artificial reefs

It all started when offshore oil platform operator Venoco threw in the towel on its 3 California oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. That company had big plans, but then the Refugio oil spill happened. A pipeline operated by Plains All-American burst, spilling oil in a gulley, which then drained into coastal waters.


This shut down production of their state waters platform Holly, as well as 3 of the most productive platforms on the coast, operated by Exxon-Mobil in federal waters just up the Channel, plus 3 more production platforms located off Point Conception, operated by Freeport-McMoRan.


State waters run to 3 miles offshore, and when Venoco declared bankruptcy, it gave a 22 million dollar bond and the decommissioning responsibility for Platform Holly, back to the State of California. The bond was not nearly enough to do the work required.


Venoco also quitclaimed two more platforms in Federal waters — those waters from 3 to 12 miles offshore — platforms Gail and Grace. They are in the Santa Barbara Channel off Ventura County.


While Exxon intends to do what it can to bring its big 3 back on line, Platform Holly — in state waters, and the 5 others are currently on the block for decommissioning. In the interim, Rincon (ARCO) Oil Island was handed back to the state (State Lands Commission) by Rincon Island Limited Partner­ship in similar fashion as Holly.


In the coming weeks I hope to fill in the details on each of these sites, including specifics and what we know of the locale and sea life living at each.


There are a total of 27 offshore platforms, all in our WON South zone. Of these, 4, including Holly, are in state waters — the three others are off Huntington Beach. In addition, there are 4 oil islands including Rincon — the other three are off Long Beach/Seal Beach.


Decommissioning dynamics


The big question that faces us is what to do with the structures. These have become some of the most, if not the most productive reef sites in the region. Though they are not equal in that regard.


However, as a condition of the lease, they are required to be fully removed and the site returned to its original form. The current back-of-the-napkin estimate for removal of all 27 oil platforms exceeds 7 billion dollars.


This means leaving all, or a portion of the platform in place to continue to provide habitat for fish and the thousands of tons of sea life attached to them can represent a phenomenal financial savings, while allowing them to continue to provide some of the ecosystem services they have evolved to.


At the same time, paradoxically, the major environmental groups really want them fully removed as promised, and they want it to cost the oil industry as much as possible, in order to dissuade any future drilling. Bear in mind, only a small fraction of the known producible oil off our coast has been extracted.


In 2010 under Governor Schwarzenegger the California Marine Resources Legacy Act — AB 2503, also known as “Rigs-to-Reefs” was passed. It allows the state to permit partial removal of the structure instead of full removal.


However, the oil industry has heartache with being saddled with continuing liability for the structures as the bill is currently written, and the bill provides a diminishing fraction of the savings in the decommissioning process allocated to them over time, which has largely run by now.


If decommissioning happens after 2023, it provides 85-percent of such savings to be allocated to conservation projects that would be administered by the state. A larger fraction with more savings inuring to the industry the sooner decommissioning was happen was scheduled, but the that decreasing fraction of the savings schedule has largely already passed. Industry would like to restart that timeline.


A major piece of the cost puzzle is also simply getting the gear to this hemisphere. This incentivizes the several responsible parties to piggyback de­commissioning projects to­gether, in a pan-company campaign, rather than wait to produce those final few barrels available.


And finally, there is the responsibility piece. While one of the majors may have erected the platform and punched the initial wells, more often than not, once the play started to lose production, the major would sell off the asset to a secondary operating company.


While Mobil installed Holly and punched the initial 23 wells, it has since merged with Exxon and the asset was sold to Venoco. Venoco went bankrupt leaving the State holding the bag beyond the bond. Law along the Gulf States has held the initial installer remains responsible for the removal, where the subsequent owner cannot.


Exxon and the State continue to apportion the costs, the state finding 58 million and Exxon currently estimating its portion at 305 million dollars. At the same time, Chevron, who initially installed Venoco’s two federal waters platforms has essentially said, “We got this.”


Platform Basics


Oil platforms are sub-divided into components, and although we tend to call them “oil rigs,” the actual drilling rig is a removable tower mounted on the drilling deck, and often the entire drilling deck is mobile.


This enables the rig to be positioned over any of number of wells. For example, platform Holly has thirty such wells, and a single well can have multiple terminations in the oil-bearing formations.


Between the topsides and seafloor, each well has a conductor casing, within which the well casing and drill line run. With Gulf Coast rigs to reefs, these are often removed, but our preliminary results point to these structures being a large portion of the reef life and fish holding habitat.


Science aside, the apparent difference between the side of the platform having the conductor bay and not is night and day.


The base of the platform, not including the conductors is called the jacket. It’s like the legs and seat of a chair. Mounted on this is the topsides and it houses living quarters and galley, supports a helipad usually, along with housing much plumbing which can include produced water separation systems, power generation and tankage.


The topsides support the flare boom and cranes among other equipment. In fact, of the twin platforms off Long Beach, Elly and Ellen, one supports the drilling functions, while the other supports all the related pre-processing plumbing and gear. A pipeline runs between Edith and these two.


In my scientific survey activities, I’ve surveyed Edith from sea surface to bottom, and that pipeline between it and Elly. We’ve surveyed down to the 100-foot level on SCUBA as well as from 40 feet to the bottom via manned submersible (submarine). To be continued…


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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


Told you so!
It was mid-April when my offshore report came out, and in it I made a few predictions of what would come, based on what was happening in our waters mid-Winter. And although the prediction was not all that different than what we'd seen the season previous, I'd guessed the north to south gradient would be even farther outside the realm of normal extremes.

From what I could tell it seemed like we'd see a perverse coupling of warm waters, and strong cold water upwelling with persistent west winds along the Central Coast and extending down the Bight's outer edge at the same time.


Warmer than average waters would suck up into the inner Bight and meet the cold at the Northern Channel Islands along a crazy extreme — double digits temperature break.


sstanomalyepng
THE SST ANOMALY shows the entire northeast Pacific much warmer than normal. Yet, unlike an El Niño event, there is upwelling along the coastal areas where it normally appears in spring and early summer, only lasting into the fall in La Niña years. This suggests the hot water is a thin layer on top, at least along the coast. In comparison to an average year, by September the upwelling plume of cool water has already dissipated. Deep red is 5 degrees above average for the date and location. Gray to light green is average, while deep purple is 5 degrees below average. NASA IMAGE

The El Niño warm waters science says turn coastal waters blue all the way up into the western Channel Islands. West winds fade, upwelling ceases, kelp dies, bait fish suffer, sea lions suffer, rockfish babies suffer due to a lack of primary production — food, plankton.


But my call was surface warm water layers were thin, so yes on the hot water deep in the Bight, but strong cold water upwelling along the usual line along the Bight's western edge. We'd again see those big bluefin, and there would again be a split decision between fishing them in U.S. waters and much more catchable yellowfin to the south.


Now, warm waters usually kill off the seabass bite early in the season, yet I went out on a limb and predicted a prolonged and strong seabass season with extended cool green water at San Miguel, Santa Rosa and San Nicolas islands. It happened.


At the same time, I also thought we'd end up seeing some surprisingly close to the coast tuna opportunity pop up for the southern sector — in the same season as waters favorable for salmon in the spring in our northern sector — Morro Bay and Port San Luis.


Well, it actually happened. The salmon bite in our northern corner was the best in years, with cool waters and biting fish even into July. This past week we saw the jumbo bluefin pop up in waters right along the coast from Dana Point south. The north 9-Mile has already seen some hot tuna snaps.


Of course, Cow Town out near San Clemente Island was ever tempting as those specialist anglers continue to haul in fish over 300 pounds and hook fish with an average weight in the high 100s. Yet, when it came to putting lots of anglers into the success sector, the yellowfin bite from just outside the Coronado Islands — south to the lower 500 was the target. That came to pass too.


There was so much anchovy micro-bait in the waters, there were times when it was tough to draw a tuna's attention off of it, even with the best bait possible in the tank. Warmer than average waters filled the inner Bight. They extended on up to Santa Cruz Island, where the southern heat clashed somewhere along the island chain with the cold stuff.


But beyond San Clemente Island, waters were back at seasonal averages, and yet a couple hundred miles west of that were waters fully 5 degrees above normal, a thousand or more miles of it.


They're calling it the Blob II. But unless you're looking at the map of the difference from normal, you can't tell it exists. It's as if the entire Eastern Pacific temperature gradient has simply shifted north by hundreds of miles.


At the same time, normal to stronger than normal La Niña style oceanographic dynamics persist along our coast — strong northwest wind flow, upwelling waters — big plankton blooms in the usual places like along the Central Coast, the Santa Barbara Channel — extending south through the waters immediately west of San Nicolas Island — down to the Cortes Bank.


North of Newport, green waters along the beach have been persistent late into the season — even as inner Bight SSTs hit 70-plus degrees.


In the yellowfin tuna area, it's been dark-water fishing for tuna. Even now, the really blue water in the Bight is confined to transient small sections. Currently, the area around Santa Barbara Island has it.


Even now, in fall, there's no big expanse of crystal blue water north of the Cortes anywhere, nor east of the 60-Mile Bank. Yet the tuna are on tap in the grey and green stuff just a few miles off the coast.


In fact, at the latitude of the Cortes one would have to run another 200-plus miles west to see aqua blue water. That's how wide the upwelling plume of plankton water extending south from the Central Coast is still.


It's cool too — 64 degrees, while waters inshore of there are closer to 72. Those pelagics are tucked up into the Bight behind that cool plume.


Honestly, looking at the oceanographic dynamics alone suggests a typical — even a cold water year, but with the actual temperatures involved ramped up by several degrees across the board.


Here's something to ponder. Back in the late '70s what we looked for while fishing albacore from San Diego, was 62 and blue. When it hit 66 degrees, that was crazy-hot water. I can't even imagine 62-degree water being any color but green now.


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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


Land vs. water
The question here is which produces the most food, both when left in their natural state and when modified by agriculture/aquaculture. Then, how does wild and natural water do when compared to agriculture.

So what do plants do for a living? Some are single celled and float in water. Others are immense, with root systems reaching deep under ground and tops towering over 300 feet in the air with trunks as big around as a garden shed.


But all do one primary thing. They bust apart water and carbon dioxide with the sun's energy and make sugar — glucose. And those glucose molecules are then strung together to make either amylose, which is starch, aka food, or if linked a little differently, making cellulose, which is what wood is.


Now, starches and all the different stuff living things make by reprocessing sugars and starches are easy to process as food.


As for cellulose, it's a challenge. And those linkages are so difficult to bust apart — take so much extra energy that few animals can digest it — usually only with the help of specialized bacteria in their digestive tracts. And when they do the process is painfully slow and they don't get nearly as much food value back out of the deal.


First, the land. Plants are all about air, water and sunlight. That's really just about it, but for a little nitrate and phosphate. But on land, the competition for sunlight is fierce and plants are ruthless. Almost every green plant on earth isn't satisfied to have just the light that hits the dirt where they sprouted. They have to reach out and up — take all they can get — beat their neighbors to it, shading others out as they race for the sky.


Some grow fast for a year, or maybe just for a few months while the ground remains wet from winter rains. Others invest hugely in supporting structures that dig deep for water and high over all others, allowing them to last from year to year. Some cheat and climb other plants to get to the treetops without building a trunk.


But all of them are hell-bent to use all they produce to grow woody stems and support structures that are all about fighting gravity into the sunlight. They only grudgingly give up primary production to produce anything really worth eating.


Sugars and starches and proteins have to be available in their seeds and some in leaves. Some make fruit to induce animals to cart their seeds off with the fruit and distribute their progeny far and wide. Others sacrifice extra seeds for the same purpose.


Those that do the best job of making food rather than simply stems are the ones agriculture cultivates, and yet these plants still make far more leaf fiber, stems and trunks than food. Ranching cattle and such that eat grass allows the conversion of some of that cellulose back into food. And though their presence changes the natural ecosystem to grassland dotted with bigger trees, a great variety of wild animals share such range land, unlike the land under the plow.


Nevertheless, we've wiped out nature on almost every patch of flat dirt where water can be obtained, to grow those special food producing plants. That's agriculture.


In the marine environment, there's no gravity to fight. By far the greatest bulk of marine plants are tiny phytoplankton. Almost no marine plants make cellulose, aka wood. The rare exceptions are the few coastal ones which are descendants of terrestrial plants, and they don't make much of it.


It's all easily digested food for marine critters. Very little of it hangs around uneaten the way land plants’ woody carcasses do ashore.


So primary production doesn't pile up as deadfall. It almost all gets eaten — eventually becoming part of an edible fish or other critter. Wild marine environments blow away wild terrestrial ecosystems for food production.


Wild oceans even beat most agriculture when it comes to producing high quality protein. And while fishing does change the marine ecosystem, this change is trivial by comparison to what agriculture does to once wild terrestrial ecosystems ashore.


When it comes to being eco-friendly, fishing is by far the winner over agricultural meat production. So what about aquaculture? Is it an eco-winner too?


The answer here is it depends. Growing seaweed is a winner. So is growing filter feeders that eat wild plankton, stuff like mussels and oysters.


Growing fish can be an economic winner, even though it might not be the least impactful on nature. Feeding and caring for fish can mean less fuel and work than going out and catching them.


But fairly often the deal is they're catching wild fish to feed aquaculture fish, or at least growing grain to feed fish like tilapia.


The top winners as far as protein production goes are wild-caught fish, aquacultured filter feeders like oysters and mussels, and range-fed animals that eat grass and bush. These are the major protein sources which require the least bulldozing and plowing to produce and allow the greatest level natural ecosystem function and diversity.


Hunting would count too, but for the fact wild terrestrial ecosystems could never produce enough wild game to feed the masses. Those ecosystems make mostly tree trunks, deadfall and brush piles that ultimately catch fire instead. Without agriculture and fishing we'd never be able to feed ourselves.


Nevertheless, seriously reducing the number of top predators to support excess production of game is a far cry from eliminating every living thing but feed corn, or garbanzos, or grapes, etc. the way big ag. does.


What's surprising is the crazy driver of the difference between wild land and wild sea, is simply terrestrial plants' need to defy gravity as they compete for sunlight.


It's darned hard to beat the natural food production of marine environments — even with agriculture which ploughs under all that was once wild.


Fisheries' impacts on wild marine ecosystems are absolutely trivial as compared to what we do with fence, plough and pesticides ashore. The price nature pays to feed us is far less at sea.


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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


•   •   •   •   •

We hope you enjoyed this article on our no-charge website wonews.com. Of course, this site contains only a small fraction of the stories that Western Outdoor Publications produces each week in its two northern and southern editions and its special supplements. You can subscribe to the print issue that is mailed weekly and includes the easy flip-page full-color digital issues, or you can purchase a digital only subscription. Click here to see the choice.


Sorrow and grief
Friday morning, 6 a.m. walking down the path toward SEA Landing in Santa Barbara — kind people had woven flowers into the fence all along the walkway. There was a solid wall of tokens of sorrow and grief in honor of the victims of the tragic fire aboard the dive boat Conception, stretching for some 50 yards.

The sun remained just below the horizon to the east as the scene was lit by dawn's early glow. Here, that meant the brilliant superposition of sun behind both land and sea. Sol lights up, then peeks over the Santa Monica Mountains, low in the far distance — spilling across the Channel waters. Just to the left, the very tips of the tallest peaks in the towering Santa Ynez are afire with the chiaroscuro pattern of the sun's earliest rays — splayed across just the very highest ridges with shaded canyons between.


Along the path to the landing are several national news crews, gearing up for their morning broadcasts. The morning prior a similar scene had played out, but with fog shrouding the harbor and out to sea. Yet, over land and mountains had been clear and crisp.


Already, a few people had come early to place additional offerings to the spirits of those passed mariners and divers lost in the tragic events transpiring early Monday morning.


Down on the docks the Stardust had a few anglers already aboard, one of the lightest loads in recent weeks — understandably. It was the week following Labor Day at the home base of the Conception. We waited for a large party to arrive, which would represent 13 of the just 17 total anglers.


Winds already building in the Channel promised gale force conditions the following day. We would fish the coastal areas, strike out in the deeper zones and have to break out the axiomatic rabbit-bearing hat — saved for desperate times. A tiny inshore spot surrounded by miles of mud was loaded with mixed rockfish that day.


Back at dock with limits early, the news crews had retired to their vehicles in the parking lot, or nearby hotels. A now steady stream of onlookers and contributors filed past, lingered over and added to the impromptu memorial along the walkway. A vigil was set for the coming evening, at Chase Palm Park, just a half-mile down the beach.


Some people came to share the grief and contemplate the lives lost. Others came to share the grief and get noticed — dressed to the nines and such. And mixed among those, almost indiscernible in the gathering were a few family members and close friends of those lost.


Down on the dock, mostly away from the public, was the tiny true memorial, attended only by those most familiar — a place of reverence, contemplation and sadness for landing crews, close friends and family of the lost. At the base of the Conception's empty berth was placed a heart shaped wreath of flowers. On the Conception's dock steps sat just 4 small bouquets.


From up above, there was no way to know it existed. But for families and close friends, it was clear there was no peace, no closure without seeing that dock space. In impromptu secrecy, her empty slip offered a moment of relative solitude, free of news crews and the public.


Those lost were members of one of Truth Aquatic's most long-time regular charter groups — since the company’s inception. For crews working that day, having known those lost as acquaintances at best, it somehow seemed our job to be as we ever were, part of the very fabric of the landing, just there, enduring as ever, a promise of eventual recovery.


And while there were unavoidable moments of silent contemplation of events, it seemed part of the job to be strong, to continue forward as if it were just another day at the dock.


The few who instinctively knew where to come, had suffered the loss of a family member or close friend. No matter how deeply affected we were, it paled by comparison and had little standing.


With outer waters already rough and gale force winds promised for the following day, the launch ramp docks hosted a small fleet of recovery vessels and post major marine incident craft — a couple of vessels with the initials FBI emblazoned across their cabins, sheriffs' dive team.


In the launch ramp lot a small cordoned-off tent city was still growing that afternoon, with additional agency tents/shelters being set up within. Several large team support vehicles, like the Governor's Office of Emergency Services converted RV, were behind additional screened sections of portable fencing.


While news crews had earlier seemed overly eager to paint the darkest picture possible of events as they had unfolded, the truth had finally hit the street, by now some 5 days later — as much as could be released. Virtually none of the sins major media had so eagerly earlier implied had proved correct at all.


In fact, a day or two earlier I'd received a call from a gentleman claiming to be a reporter for CNN, seemingly in search of dirty laundry with respect to the Conception's operation. When it became clear that I, as all others familiar he'd spoken with, considered Truth Aquatics as setting the bar within the dive boat industry on dive safety, vessel maintenance, crew experience, training and client care, he lost interest.


The fire had ultimately forced 5 of Conception's crew into the water after escaping the wheelhouse. The skipper risked life and limb to quickly get a mayday out with the vessel's location, nature of distress and total number of people aboard before the wheelhouse burned. They were forced back by the flames in every attempt to access the boat's interior spaces. Both bunkroom access points were blocked by fire.


Saturday's fishing charters re-scheduled for a later date — hopefully for calmer waters and a brighter day.


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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


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