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Artificial reef in Morro Bay Harbor is full of life

Less than 30 feet under the surface in the Morro Bay harbor, divers have discovered unexpected signs of life.

The toilets are probably the most surprising. But there are also bottles, rifles, pipes, old tires and what looks like an automobile transmission.

“For some reason, people throw a lot of boom boxes in there,” said Ken Bondy, who has been diving in the harbor for 20 years.

While all that junk represents a sad reality about humans polluting the ocean, ironically, an impressive variety of sea life has taken a liking to it.

“The junk is really what has created the artificial reef here,” Bondy said, noting that creatures such as octopi and nudibranchs have taken shelter in pipes, bottles and tires. “It wouldn’t be as rich as it is without the junk.”

The nudibranch — a colorful sea slug — has become particularly abundant here, said Bondy, who has made thousands of dives in the world’s most popular diving destinations.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in California — or maybe anywhere in the world,” he said of the sea life in Morro Bay. “This thing in Morro Bay is really priceless.”

Bondy lives in Bell Canyon near Los Angeles. But twice a month, he meets his diving companion, Gary Powell, who travels from Modesto, to explore the harbor’s floor and take photos.

Many years ago, the two were married to sisters. While those marriages didn’t work out, the former brothers-in-law continued their friendship.

“He and I are the only ones that lasted,” Bondy said with a laugh.

By coincidence, the two started diving around the same time, in 1980. Bondy discovered Morro Bay through his daughter, who began diving there while attending Cal Poly in the late 1980s.

Eventually, Bondy introduced Powell to the area, and both have been documenting sea life there through surprisingly colorful photos ever since.

Their photos will be on display in an upcoming exhibit at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History; a date is still in the works.

During a recent trip to Morro Bay, the pair left home early to catch the tides at just the right time.

“This morning, I got up at 3:30,” said Powell, a retired international businessman.

The key to diving, the two said, is to arrive between a high and low tide, when it’s easiest to navigate.

“You want to catch it right when things are more or less neutral so it’s not pulling on your equipment in any way,” said Powell, who has dived in Australia, the Virgin Islands and New Guinea, among other places.

The deepest part of the harbor, Bondy said, is about 60 feet. But mostly they dive in waters that are between 25 and 30 feet deep.

After suiting up — Bondy in a dry suit, Powell in a 7-millimeter wetsuit — the two headed for the T-pier behind the Harbor Patrol and Coast Guard stations.

Even most divers don’t know what all is down there, Powell said, because they hover four or five feet from the bottom. To see the really interesting things in the harbor’s murky water, you have to dive all the way to the bottom.

“It is kind of an acquired skill,” said Powell, who recently won first place in the statewide Thank You Ocean photography contest. “If you know how to look for things, they’re there.”

The nudibranch, one of their favorite subjects, comes in a variety of shapes and colors.

“There are very beautiful nudibranchs — and there are thousands of them here,” said Bondy, a retired structural engineer, who has also dived amid sharks, whales and dolphins in places such as Indonesia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. “For some reason, there’s been an explosion for the last four or five years.”

A look at their photos shows brightly illuminated nudibranchs, octopi, crabs, sea anemones, horse neck clams and tube worms. But even more interesting are the photos of creatures living in trash that lines the edge of the pier.

In one shot, there’s a fringehead fish living in a Parrot Bay rum bottle, in another there are two metridium anenomes on a Budweiser beer bottle, and in a third photo, you can see various creatures living on a discarded tire.

“You go 10 feet away from the pier, and it’s just sand,” Powell said.

Given the amount of sea life that has clung to the trash, Bondy and Powell are concerned whenever volunteers offer to clean the harbor floor of nontoxic items such as bottles.

“It’s hard to argue against cleanups because they’re generally good,” Bondy said. “But these people don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no benefit to taking a bottle out that has fish living in it.”

Like many coastal towns above water, the sea has a shortage of housing, said Jim Covel, senior manager of guest experience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

That shortage, he said, makes junk highly desirable as shelter.

“There’s a lot of animals all looking for a place to live,” said Covel, noting that artificial reefs will often feature old tires.

In Monterey, he said, astute otters have become aware of this, and they will shake out discarded cans and bottles seeking edibles living inside.

But the trash does create a dilemma, Covel said: While no one wants junk in the ocean, removing it threatens the creatures that have made it home. So he advises anyone removing garbage to give it a good shake first.

“Just make sure the animal stays in the water,” he said.

Despite the presence of garbage in the harbor, Covel said the abundance of life there is a good thing.“It’s often a sign that you’ve got a good, diverse marine community,” he said.

Because of the shifting currents from the harbor mouth, there’s always new wildlife coming in, Powell said. So even though he and Bondy have been diving here for more than 20 years, it never gets boring.

“It just changes so rapidly,” Powell said. “The life there is just never the same.”

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