Uncovering the Underwater World at Point Lobos

May 23, 2014

Gary Banta stands near his 3D dive model of the Point Lobos State Marine Reserve. It's now on permanent display at Whaler's Cove.
Credit Krista Almanzan
3D model of Point Lobos State Marine Reserve
Credit Krista Almanzan
Whaler's Cove at Point Lobos
Credit Krista Almanzan

Point Lobos State Reserve, just south of Carmel, is often called the crown jewel of California’s State Park system.  It’s known for its scenic hikes and striking views, but it also has a lesser known underwater reserve that’s now more accessible thanks to local divers and scientists. 

Gary Banta stands near the boat ramp at Whaler’s Cove in the Point Lobos.  The cove’s water is dark, covered with sea kelp.  On days when Banta comes here to go scuba diving, he can almost guarantee he’ll get this question from a passerby.  “Why would you want to go out there?  It doesn’t look all that attractive,” Banta recalls being asked.

Banta is with the Bay Area Underwater Explorers, a non-profit dedicated to the exploration and conservation of underwater regions.  He says underneath the water’s dark surface is a deep canyon with steep pinnacles that’s rich with sea life. “Right now I know exactly where to go to find giant Pacific octopus,” said Banta

For years, if he wanted to tell a fellow diver how to find something, like that giant octopus, he’d use his foot to draw a map in the sand.

“The problem is if it’s just something you draw in the sand with your foot, you don’t really know where you were.  You don’t really know where you went when you actually went on the dive, so it’s very hard to actually build up an experience base that allows you to continue exploration,” said Banta.

He wanted to solve this problem by building a 3D model of this underwater world that divers and park visitors could refer to, but he didn’t have the data.  Existing maps were fuzzy or incomplete, and an attempt to map it with the help of fellow divers proved impractical.

The solution, it turned out, was just up the road at CSU Monterey Bay, KAZU’s parent institution.  That’s where Dr. Rikk Kvitek runs the Seafloor Mapping Lab and where he recently built a one of a kind boat to map areas near shore.  “It’s a hybrid vessel that’s both a jet ski and an airboat,” said Kvitek.

The KelpFly, as it’s called, is designed to overcome all the near shore obstacles that can be a problem for most boats.  It can glide over kelp, bounce off rocks and roll with the near shore waves. And with the KelpFly’s side scan sonar and other equipment, it can also map the seafloor.

So with funding Banta raised, Kvitek mapped Whaler’s Cove.  That gave Banta the data he needed to build the 3D model now permanently on display at Point Lobos. 

“He did a spectacular job, so it realized both of our dreams,” said Kvitek.  That is Kvitek has always dreamed one of his seafloor maps would be made into a 3D model because he thinks it can go a long way toward explaining the complexity of the ocean to the average person.

“They stand out at the beach, they look out on the water, it all looks the same, but underneath it’s just as varied as our terrestrial habitat. And so now I can show them printed maps of our habitat, which helps a lot, but when you can actually see a 3D map which you can run your hand over and feel it.  It really conveys how habitats, particular sea floor habitats can be quite variable,” said Kvitek.

Accompanying Banta’s 3D model is a dive map highlighting the areas of interest, like pinnacles, channels and reefs, in Whaler’s Cove and beyond.  Gary Banta says he hopes divers will see this as the ultimate tool for expanding their exploration of this underwater world.

“So people can talk about their visit to Beto’s reef, their visit to Taco and everybody is speaking the same language.  That’s an important part of the diving experience, is to have a common language and people can find their way to these sites,” said Banta.

And now passersby will know what divers see in the dark water at Whaler’s Cove. California State Park Interpretive Specialist Patricia Clark-Gray says docents will use the model during school tours and when talking with visitors about the underwater reserve.  “I think when people just look out at the water, they don’t’ realize that there’s this whole underwater canyon, it’s kind of like the Grand Canyon.  When you see a visual model, it just helps them understand what they’re looking at better,” said Clark-Gray.