Diver Neal Matthews' favorite photos of San Diego sea creatures

I realized that it was the little things in the ocean that were most captivating

Garibaldi, Hypsypops rubicundus, March 12, 2015, in the rocks covering the outfall below the Pt. Loma sewage treatment plant
  • Garibaldi, Hypsypops rubicundus, March 12, 2015, in the rocks covering the outfall below the Pt. Loma sewage treatment plant
  • Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photograph #1: Garibaldi

Garibaldi, the California state marine fish, are so common around San Diego that most underwater photographers avoid them, as I did for decades. So why is this one image so important to me? It is the final picture I shot in the ocean, outside San Diego Bay.

Photograph by Neal Matthews

As a frequent invader in their grottos, bombarded by their aural thumps raspy teeth, I was worn down by the garish Garibaldi, which was named after the red shirt-wearing 19th Century Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. Observing their feisty confidence in the bluewater wilderness of San Clemente Island, 70 miles offshore, I grew to love these damselfish, whose body style is more suited to tropical seas. Long ago, they got marooned here between Southern Baja and Monterey Bay. Now, they’re parochially common but nonexistent outside California waters.

Ten minutes after I freedove down to make this image, I was back at the stern of Flipper, my dive buddy’s 18-foot runabout. For 20 years, we’d climbed onto this vessel by standing on both sides of the outdrive, just above the prop, reaching up to a grab bar on the sloping stern, and standing up. But this time my legs wouldn’t lift me, even after I’d hoisted my weight belt over the gunwale. It was the first moment of panic in the water I’d felt since I started diving in 1972, and part of the shock was the instant realization that my diving days were over.

Just using arm power I was able to scramble awkwardly aboard. The sneering sea cliffs of Point Loma hissed in the cool breeze.

I flashed on how this moment was foretold in 1978 by Wally Potts, a spearfishing pioneer and one of the founders of the Bottom Scratchers dive club. In an interview he said he was in his 60’s, as I am now, when he had hung up his fins after struggling to pull himself into a dive boat. Now my own fall from grace with the sea had arrived, on one of those perfect days when the briny air and warm sun conspire to make humans feel blessed. That sublime sense of a personal place — weaved just for me by sun, wind, and water — evaporated.

Strawberry anemone, Corynactis californica, June, 1975, off
Boomer Beach, La Jolla

Strawberry anemone, Corynactis californica, June, 1975, off Boomer Beach, La Jolla

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photograph #2: Strawberry Anemone

Toward the end of my one hitch in the Navy, I realized that it was the little things in the ocean that were most captivating. These tiny polyps are the sea’s Legos; in the tropics they enliven giant coral reefs, but in our waters they clone themselves into soft beards that decorate rocky ledges and soften twisted deck plates on shipwrecks. This picture is actual size, the animals fitting the exact width of a 35 mm slide on Kodachrome 64.

Sometimes it takes many years before you can demystify your preferences. Everything in the ocean, with the exception of orcas, which attack whales, eats smaller prey. Underwater (man I love that word), there aren’t many creatures bigger than you. Yet the whole smorgasbord absorbs you in upwelling clouds of plankton or along the bottom with the tube worms, ghost shrimp, and periwinkles. These critters matter immensely to life in the ocean, but only in the last few years, as I spent more time on the bottom of San Diego Bay during frequent swims, have I realized why they induce so much longing, almost envy, in me personally: the earth needs them in a way that it doesn’t need me, doesn’t need any of us. What ecological niche have we ever filled?

Bay Blenny, Hyposoblennius gentilis, June 22, 2016, San Diego Bay

Bay Blenny, Hyposoblennius gentilis, June 22, 2016, San Diego Bay

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Spotted Bay Bass, Paralabrax maculatofasciatus, March 3, 2016, Glorietta Bay, snoozing belly-up beneath the green buoy

Spotted Bay Bass, Paralabrax maculatofasciatus, March 3, 2016, Glorietta Bay, snoozing belly-up beneath the green buoy

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photographs #3 and #4: Bay blenny and bay bass

Swimming in San Diego Bay is a pathway to constant renewal. I always check under the buoys to track the growth of tunicates — sea squirts, sponges, and sea lettuce — through the seasons. In early summer off Stingray Point in Glorietta Bay, the marine growth is so thick it obscures the bottom of the yellow buoy. So one morning, I was surprised to see a bay blenny living belly-up and patrolling a sizeable clearing. The fish was less than four inches long, with an especially beautiful pattern of root beer-colored camouflage war paint on its face, as well as two thunderbolt antlers, called cirri, projecting above plum brown eyes. He looked, comically, to be living on a ceiling.

Finding an upside-down fish in the sea wasn’t a shock. I’d seen spotted bay bass sleeping belly-up on a bed of sea squirts under the green buoy, over by the Naval Amphib base. But that made sense, because it was dusk and sacking out under a buoy was smart: it got you off the teeming bottom, where night terrors lurk even for the especially thick-shouldered spotties.

But this blenny was dynamic; I shot about 50 pictures before I got a couple keepers. He had a mission, and it seemed to involve the tiny golden pearls he was guarding. Was he farming? Between swims to see him on several successive days, I was able to do some research and found that he was indeed a male (the antlers), and he was also husbanding, but not food. He’d cleared that patch, attracted a mate, and was now tending a large clutch of blenny eggs he’d fertilized. And every night he was probably fighting off spotted bass trying to bed down in the nursery. And you think you’re tough?

Blue Shark, Prionace glauca, June, 1993, 30 miles off San Diego

Blue Shark, Prionace glauca, June, 1993, 30 miles off San Diego

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Packaged shark fin

Packaged shark fin

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photographs #5 and #6: Sharks and their fins

Blue sharks may be common in the global seas, but no doubt there are far fewer of them today than in 1993. Look how attractive those pectoral fins would be to the pirates behind the slaughter of shark-finning. Selling shark fins was finally outlawed in California in 2013, a few months after anti-finning activists protesters showed me a photo (#6) of packaged shark fin.

There is still a thriving black market for shark fins in California. It’s not as easy now for shark divers to chum up enough sharks to charter a large boat. But in the early 1990’s the Bottom Scratcher, one of the original live-aboards focused on diving, was still based in San Diego (it’s now in San Pedro). The Union-Tribune assigned me to write up the new shark-diving stunt of baiting sharks to a cage in the water so photographers could get shots of the animals attacking a diver wearing chain mail over his wetsuit. Kind of embarrassing now. But it was really funny when a blue shark snuck behind the guy in the suit, which luckily included a chain mail hood, and tried to swallow his whole head. One of many shots I regret missing.

Australian Spotted Jelly, Phyllorhiza puntata, October 14, 2015, San Diego Bay

Australian Spotted Jelly, Phyllorhiza puntata, October 14, 2015, San Diego Bay

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photograph # 7: Jellyfish.

The 2015 El Niño didn’t produce a lot of rain, but the warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures still lured in odd creatures. One morning as I swam out in the middle of Glorietta Bay, a stand-up paddleboarder warned me that he’d seen odd-looking jellyfish here the day before. He paddled on, and soon caught my attention by pointing down into the water. I swam over and was astounded to find a large, polka-dotted, short-tailed jelly pulsating near the surface.

This wasn’t one of the gangly purple-striped jellies or brown sea nettles that live in California waters. These were invasive Australian Spotted Jellies that drifted from afar in the warm currents and were washing up on beaches up and down the coast. A kind of Telltale Heart ominously signaling a warming sea. I have to admit it was fun playing around with these harbingers of doom the few weeks they were here.

Blue Crab, Callinectes sapidus, September 9. 2016, near the Coronado Ferry Landing

Blue Crab, Callinectes sapidus, September 9. 2016, near the Coronado Ferry Landing

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photograph #8; Blue crab

You see a lot of molted crab exoskeletons in the bay, so it was thrilling to find one very much alive, and carrying a mass of eggs under her tail flap. When I first spotted her outline on the bottom I thought she was dead, but when I poked her she started flying in circles before landing close to where she started and snapping her claws at me. Two quick shots is all I got before she scuttled into the eel grass forest behind her, which is a nursery for about 30 different types of fish, most of which depend on those eggs as a food source.

Blue crab molted, not dead

Blue crab molted, not dead

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Pregnant stingray, Urolophus halleri, September 9, 2016, near the
Coronado Ferry Landing

Pregnant stingray, Urolophus halleri, September 9, 2016, near the Coronado Ferry Landing

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photographs #9 and #10: Crab carcass and pregnant stingray

This was the same lucky day the pregnant crab found me. The eel grass between the Ferry Landing and the aircraft carriers on Coronado is especially lively. It has a strong tidal current, and it’s near the old Spanish Bight, the open channel that used to separate North Island from Coronado until the beginning of WWII. The sea has a long memory.

How does a stingray become pregnant? Glorietta Bay, where stingrays go to breed in early spring, showed me that secret

Mating stingrays, March 8, 2017

Mating stingrays, March 8, 2017

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photograph #11: Mating stingrays

It was another beautiful surprise. At about 10 on a March morning, I could see a commotion as I swam away from the beach at Glorietta Bay Park. Something kept shooting up from the bottom, and as I drew closer I realized it was a stingray, seemingly being chased by other stingrays. They didn’t seem to care that a voyeur had moved into their midst, maybe because they’d seen me so many times. Then, right in front of me, one streaked for the surface with the white belly flashing in the waterlight; another came up and they met belly to belly, hooked up, then drifted down to the bottom and settled on a bed of sea squirts. It was a precious moment gifted to me, one that I knew not to disturb. Which was the pursuer, male or female? I could probably look it up, but I’d rather preserve that mystery.

Seagull feather, November 4, 2016, San Diego Bay

Seagull feather, November 4, 2016, San Diego Bay

Photograph by Neal Matthews

Photogram #12: Seagull feather and downtown

I used to think it was imperative to shoot pictures in the ocean in order to document what we are rapidly losing. When I could no longer venture past Point Loma, I soon came to accept that there are many younger and better-equipped underwater photographers who can fill that role. One morning in November of 2018, I swam back to the beach in Glorietta and discovered I could no longer stand up in the shore lap. As I crawled across the beach the realization that my swimming days were over was similar to what happened three years earlier when I couldn’t climb back into the dive boat. I’m molting again. No living thing lasts forever, and somehow all the underwater birth and death has made me less fearful of losing all I love. And at least I have the pictures to swim in for awhile.

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