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Making Waves: Episode 112 (March 7, 2013)

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch. Today, you're going to hear something that I know you're really going to like. It's the first episode of a new occasional podcast series from our National Marine Sanctuaries program. It's called 'Sanctuary Shorts.' In this episode, host Matt Dozier tells us about a pioneering effort to dive on Cordell Bank in the late 1970s and a returning mission nearly 30 years later. Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1989. It's located off the west coast of northern California, just north of the Gulf of the Farollones. What so special about diving on Cordell Bank? It's highest point is 115 feet below the ocean surface. It's not an easy place to get. Let's listen in.

Sanctuary Shorts

MATT DOZIER: My name’s Matt Dozier, and you’re listening to Sanctuary Shorts. Our story today begins off the coast of California, around 50 miles northwest of the bustling streets of San Francisco, at a place called Cordell Bank.

Now, this isn’t the kind of “bank” where you deposit money — it’s an undersea mountain, perched at the edge of the continental shelf. It’s also a hotbed of marine life, teeming with one of the richest assortments of ocean creatures on the planet, including vast numbers of fish and seabirds, and frequent visits from migrating whales.

In short, Cordell Bank is a national treasure. But for more than a century after the bank was discovered in 1853, we didn’t know that — we didn’t really know anything about it, since no one had ever laid eyes on it.

DAN HOWARD: Probably, the reason for that is that it’s a pretty crazy place to dive. It’s 20 miles offshore, the northeast Pacific typically is a pretty rough place to dive in.

MATT DOZIER: That’s Dan Howard, superintendent of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

DAN HOWARD: In addition to the depth and the cold water, we get really severe currents out there, which is a real challenge

MATT DOZIER: The first person to take on that challenge was actually a physicist by the name of Dr. Robert Schmieder.

ROBERT SCHMIEDER: Here we are, I’m awake and so are you.

MATT DOZIER: That’s Bob Schmieder — in the late 1970s, tired of being cooped up in the lab all day, he decided to undertake a new project involving his love of scuba diving. In 1978, Schmieder organized a team of volunteer divers to go explore the bank for the first time.

They had no idea what they would find when they got there — in fact, almost everyone Bob talked to said he was wasting his time; that getting to Cordell Bank wasn’t worth the effort. And on the first day of the expedition, Bob started to worry that they might have been right.

ROBERT SCHMIEDER: On that particular day, the fog came and went, and when the fog would come and the visibility would drop to 100 feet or 200 feet, I was very nervous. You can’t safely dive in the fog; if the visibility had really been zero, we couldn’t have done anything!

MATT DOZIER: To everyone’s relief, the fog did eventually clear up, and Bob Schmieder was the first one into the water. He dove more than 100 feet down to the top of the bank. What he found was like something out of a dream.

ROBERT SCHMIEDER: I saw below me this extraordinary colorful, exquisitely beautiful, astonishingly bright landscape.

MATT DOZIER: Now, remember — this is the 1970s, before high-tech deep-water scuba equipment was widely available, so Bob and his colleagues were forced to improvise. They used the same gear as recreational, or “sport” divers, and even cobbled together makeshift tools like an “underwater vacuum cleaner” to help with sample collection.

ROBERT SCHMIEDER: One thing that we did differently was that we decided to use twin tanks. That was available as sport diving equipment, but it was not normally used by sport divers because the normal rule for sport divers was never go below 100 feet. Of course, if we had only gone to 100 feet we never would have reached Cordell Bank.

MATT DOZIER: Even with two air tanks, their time on the bottom was severely limited — as little as 15 minutes to collect samples and take photographs before they had to leave. The trip back to the surface could take as long as an hour, with frequent stops to avoid potentially life-threatening decompression sickness, also known as “the bends.”
ROBERT SCHMIEDER: What we did then I think was never reckless, ever — it was never brave, but we were willing to take risks that would not be acceptable now.

MATT DOZIER: Over the next five years, the team, which called itself “Cordell Expeditions,” explored every inch of the bank and cataloged hundreds of species. Their last dive was in 1983, but their research laid the groundwork for the designation of Cordell Bank NMS in 1989.

To put things in perspective, after they packed up their gear and left Cordell Bank for the last time, nearly three decades would pass before another scientific expedition would follow in their footsteps. That was in 2010, when a team of highly trained sanctuary research divers led by Superintendent Dan Howard embarked on a mission they called “The Return to Cordell Bank.”

DAN HOWARD: My thinking was, well, one, we have the technology now to get back to some of these places; two, we can use this information to assess how the bank has changed over time, and help us do a better job of managing the sanctuary.

MATT DOZIER: Instead of breathing air, the sanctuary divers used a finely tuned mixture of gases that allowed them to stay on the bottom longer, and surface more quickly. Even just locating Cordell Bank was made easier by modern GPS technology.

DAN HOWARD: It’s just a lot easier and more accessible now than it was 30 years ago when Bob and his group dove on the bank.

MATT DOZIER: The sanctuary brought in several members of the original Cordell Expeditions team, including Bob Schmieder, to help plan this journey back to Cordell Bank — a place they knew better than anyone else on Earth.

DAN HOWARD: To me, that was one of the most fascinating elements of the whole 2010 mission was the interaction between the original Cordell Expedition divers and the newer, younger sanctuary technical divers.

MATT DOZIER: Schmieder says the experience was rewarding, and only a little bit surreal.

ROBERT SCHMIEDER: I just had this extraordinary feeling of pride… it was a bit strange to be a spectator!

MATT DOZIER: In the end, everyone agreed the mission was a resounding success. Results from the dives conducted in 2010 seem to indicate that really not much has changed on Cordell Bank since 1978. And that’s good news for the sanctuary. I asked Dan if there are any plans for follow-up dives on Cordell Bank in the coming years. He said don’t count on it.

DAN HOWARD: Certainly, we’d love to get back to some of these places and do some more in-depth sampling, but you know, it’s a big operation.

MATT DOZIER: It may be a while before the underwater residents of Cordell Bank see their next human visitor. But thanks to the intrepid men and women who have delved into its depths — whether in 1978 or in 2010 — we know more about this amazing national marine sanctuary than ever before.

Hope you enjoyed. Check our show notes for links to the Sanctuary Shorts first episode, to NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries, and to Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

If you have any questions about this episode, about our oceans, or about the National Ocean Service, you can reach us at You can find us online at And you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and in the iTunes education store, and we have an RSS feed available for Making Waves and for our sister podcast, Diving Deeper. I hope you know you can reach us at on the Internet. And if you are socially inclined, you can catch up with us on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Youtube.

You’ve been listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. We’ll be back in two weeks.