Diving the wreck of the S.S. Avalon and the nudibranchs that make her a great place to dive. Okay, okay, so I misspelled nudis?but you're the one who took the bait!
July, 2004, approximately three quarters of a mile off Palos Verdes Peninsula, Southern California
The sky was overcast, lead gray; the wind was calm; the surface of the Pacific Ocean was flat except for a few long, heavy rollers from out of the West. George and I back-rolled into the water off Scott and Margaret's Popeye Maru, then we surfaced briefly for Scott to hand us our cameras before heading down the anchor line. Visibility near the surface was very poor, the remnants of a red tide colored the water like weak cafe au lait. Dropping lower, we hit a thermocline, some forty feet below the surface; and the temperature dropped at least ten degrees into the low 50's. Below the thermocline, visibility improved greatly, opening up to thirty feet or more, helped by an upwelling of cold, clear, nutrient rich water from the nearby Redondo Canyon. Did I mention cold? I love my dry-suit.
The bow of the S.S. Avalon (photo courtesy of Roger)
Our boat, the Popeye Maru, a 22' Arima Sea Legend Hard Top.
The rocky bottom, laid out in low, parallel ridges at 70 - 75 feet below the surface, slowly came into view as we drifted deeper. A dark shadow loomed at the edge of visibility near the anchor chain on the rocks, the bow section of the S.S. Avalon, still intact more than a century after its construction and more than thirty years on the bottom of the ocean. The bow that had been cut off the ship during World War I so that she could pass through the St. Lawrence locks on her way to war, arriving too late to help.
U.S.S. Blue Ridge
Me on the bow of the S.S. Avalon (photo courtesy of Roger).
Leading away from the bow section, great iron plates, pieces of the ship's hull long since collapsed, littered the bottom and faded off into the dark water. A school of sargo stood sentinel near the bow; lingcod, Garibaldi, cabezon guarded their nests; and groups of rockfish hovered here and there waiting for some baitfish to make a fatal mistake. Small strands of kelp clung to the rocky bottom, silently swaying in time with the surge.
Lingcod (Ophiodon elongates)
We added some air to our dry-suits for warmth and buoyancy. Floating a few feet off the bottom, we swam away from the bow, following the fallen sections of hull. One steel plate was pierced along one edge with a row of large dark holes where long-gone starboard portholes once rested. How many travelers, first on the Great Lakes and, later, on their way to Catalina Island, had looked out these same windows during the ships's service as a passenger liner?how many celebrities?
The wheels/tracks of the crane. (photo courtesy of Roger).
Further along, boom sections from the crane, fitted to the stern when the S.S. Avalon was converted into a salvage barge after being retired from her runs to and from Catalina Island, lie in their final resting places next to some large wheels and tracks sticking up from the bottom, covered in Corynactis anemones - red, pink, and yellow.
Periodically, we noticed flashes behind us, off in the gloom, Scott, Margaret, and Roger's strobes firing.
Painted greenling (Oxylebius pictus)
Finally, we came to the end of the wreckage, a large bulkhead section with schools of fish underneath and more steel plates pierced for the portholes below the stern cabin.
Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus)
Photo taken by Margaret
Half way through our dive, we turned back towards the anchor, traversed the wreck once more, made our way up the line to a safety stop at fifteen feet and hung for a few minutes to off-gas some of the extra nitrogen we had picked up during our sojourn on the bottom. A purple jellyfish floated by; life is good.
Purple jellyfish (Pelagia panopyra)
Sixteen nudes...er, make that nudis.
Margaret speculated that we had observed ten species of opisthobranchs on the Avalon; I thought more, maybe twelve. Roger said, three! After looking at our pictures and sorting them out, we discovered that we had seen at least sixteen different species of branchs on this one dive site! There are probably some that we missed.
Peltodoris nobilis previously known as Anisodoris nobilis
Triopha catalinae "Clown nudibranch"
Flabellina iodinea "Spanish Shawl," is the most common nudibranch at this site. There are dozens of them on the bow of the wreck.
Dendrodoris fulva no longer called that, now Doriopsilla albopunctata
another, slightly different Dendrodoris fulva no longer called that, now Doriopsilla albopunctata
Flabellina trilineata photo taken by George (regtek)
Hermissenda crassicornis "Horned nudibranch"
The future, nudibranch eggs.
And, a seventeenth, unknown nudibranch! Cadlina sp? John Moore has provided the identification: Doriopsilla spaldingi. Thanks John!
The dive site:
Location: Southern California, three quarters of a mile off Palos Verdes Point Depth: 65-80 feet
1,985 gross tons; 269 feet long, 38 foot beam
1891 - Built by the Globe Iron Works, Cleveland, OH, and Christened the S.S. Virginia; she was operated by the Goodrich Steam Co. carrying passengers between Chicago and Milwaukee on the Great Lakes.
1918 - Requisitioned by the U.S. Navy for use in WW I as a troop carrier and renamed U.S.S. Blue Ridge, it was necessary to cut off her bow in order to get the ship through the St. Lawrence locks.
1919 - Decommissioned from the U.S. Navy (she never saw service in the war).
1919 - Purchased by Wilmington Transportation Co. to ferry tourists to Santa Catalina Island, and renamed the S.S. Avalon.
1951 - Retired from passenger service.
1960 - Sold for scrap to Everett Stotts, who removed the superstructure and machinery.
1960 - Sold one last time to Al Kidman, who converted her into a salvage barge by cutting down the hull and placing a crane on her stern.
1964 - S.S.Avalon sank, September 16, in a storm when her anchor chains parted.
Today - The Avalon broke in half when she sank and much of her hull has since collapsed, littering the seafloor with steel plates. The bow section of the ship is still more or less intact. Lying near the stern are the tracks and arms of the crane that was fitted to her deck and used in the salvage of the S.S. Dominator. Numerous schools of fish, starfish, strawberry anemones, lobsters, and myriad other marine animals now call her home.
Photo courtesy of Roger.
In addition to nudibranchs and fish, the wreck is also home to some interesting small stuff:
Abalone (Haliotis sp)
Coon stripe shrimp (Pandalus danae)
Blood star (Henricia leviuscula)
Chestnut cowry (Cypraea spadicea)
You will find more pictures and information about the history and diving the S.S. Avalon on these two websites:
A sister ship to the Avalon was the S.S. Catalina. Both were used to ferry tourists to and from Catalina Island and were know as the Great White Steamers.
The California Wreck Divers site has more pictures and history of the S.S. Avalon.
We are lucky, here in Southern California, to have an active diving publication, The California Diving News. Their website has links to local dive operations, as well as a calendar for most of the local dive boats.
Blue banded goby (Lythrupnus dalli)
Diver.net bulletin board is a great place to find out what's happening in the local dive community. The homepage lists lots of useful links to local boats, weather conditions, etc.
ladiver.com has links to every conceivable web site that has anything to do with diving around Los Angeles.
Two local dive boats that frequently take divers to the wreck of the S.S. Avalon are the Island Diver and the Pacfic Star.
Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus)
All pictures were taken with Olympus c5050 cameras, Olympus PT-015 housings, and Ikelite DS-125 strobes. The majority of the pictures are mine, but my wonderful dive buddies, Roger, Judy, George, Scott and Margaret kindly filled in the spaces.
Jim (jlyle) Roger (rogerc) Judy(judyc) George (regtek) Scott & Margaret (Seniorweeb)
A post script: We found another nudibranch species on the wreck, Okenia rosacea (formerly called Hopkinsia rosacea)