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Lessons of the Sea Turtle: Maximizing Your Chances of a "Once in a Lifetime" Encounter

Scuba diving is without a doubt an absolutely incredible experience in itself. I would probably scuba dive even if it weren't for the amazing scenery. However and pleasantly, that is not the case.

We are so fortunate to not only get to breathe underwater, but get to encounter so much incredible flora and fauna under the surface. And as an avid daily diver in San Diego and tour guide operator, I get to have these encounters with wildlife very often.

I remember when I first began diving in La Jolla Cove, I was mesmerized with it's beauty. I was addicted (Truth is I still am). I remember feeling eager to see if I could get used to diving this site. Curious if I could memorize all of the names of the local inhabitants. If I could learn to predict the conditions.

A couple years into diving this site, and I am happy to say that am still discovering new animals and that the ocean is far more complex and dynamic than I would have ever imagined.

My eyes have become sharpened to identifying shapes and textures within the patterns of surf grass and red algae covered rocks. To be a good spotter in diving, one must always be scanning both the micro and macro world in front of you.

You learn this by making mistakes. By conditioning and training. I just recently was the only diver on a dive to not see a Black Sea Bass because I was filming Nudibranchs that I film all the time. You learn lessons.

I am constantly learning about what I can best describe as my optimal placement for an animal encounter to take place.

- My position. Where's the best place to be?

- My pace. Am I going slow enough to actually see what is here?

- Where is my breathe control. Am I relaxed? No... Am I really relaxed?... Go deeper. Deeper still.

- My demeanor and intention while I am under the water. Am I aware of how incredible this is and I am I actually open to receiving the abundance of what is actually here in front of me? Are my eyes actually wide open?

These concepts all play a role in how animals engage and interact with you when you are in their environment. And yes, you have to learn how to approach different animals differently. What are you looking for?

And understandably there is a certain amount of sheer luck that plays a part in getting these encounters. Or is it luck? In a sense, you do not happen upon these animals, these animals happen upon you. Many simply allow themselves to be seen. They reveal themselves onto you. They let you in on a small glimpse of themselves. Understanding this helps the process.

Truth is, the one major thing you can do to maximize your chances of an animal encounter is by putting yourself in their environment as much as possible. My advice is to think of it like a lottery. To maximize your chances of winning, you have to play. And you are going to want to play a lot.

By diving good dive sites in high frequencies, you are maximizing your probability for that "once in a lifetime" encounter. If you want to see something extraordinary underwater, be underwater often. One of those days, you will run into something so spectacular and rare most divers never get to see.

And for me, that was swimming with this Green Sea Turtle at the cove on November 15th, 2019. To put this in perspective, I have dove La Jolla Marine Park hundreds of times, and I have seen a Sea Turtle only four times now. This last time was the one I was waiting for. And the experience was beautiful.

On our second dive of the day on a tour for Zach's Scuba Shack, headed Southeast from Razor reef headed toward the sea caves. We had already had a few Sea Lion encounters that day, which is a ten out of ten for any guest.

So all I had to do was safely navigate my regular route and show my guests the sea caves, hopefully a Horn Shark and some more Sea Lions and call it another successful day.

Five minutes into our dive I was focused on my breath. Big, deep slow breaths. Visibility was a little choked up in this section which is normal, but there was significant debris being churned up. It was near this location that I have seen a pretty big Shark before (which I did not get on camera; another lesson), so I was keeping my eyes on the horizon around me as well as the rocks below.

Out of my periphery at the edge of visibility I saw a shape. Not far off, maybe 15-20 feet from me. Indistinguishably not a shark, not a sea lion, not a fish. It was grey. It was slow. It was big. It was a Green Sea Turtle. It was the moment I have been waiting for.

First thought that came into my head was camera!!!! Turn it on. I thought to myself "If I do not capture this, it does not happen for anyone but me." I want to show people this. Did I charge my battery? Was I about to spook this turtle? Go slow Brian. Slower. Earn it's trust and show it you are not eager beaver over here. Stay cool.

Sea Turtle did not spook. Good. OK..... Calm down. Now to see if I can get a better shot. This animal is BIG! It's gotta be two and a half or three feet wide. I am imagining (I don't know why I feel like I could fathom its mass) it was close to two or three hundred pounds easy. Can I get parallel to capture the size of this animal? Yes. There she is. I got it.

She has a huge chunk missing out of her back right fin. She has algae beginning to grow hair-like on the back of her shell. She has a small dent or hole about a quarter inch maybe from a shark or boat accident? She is beautiful. She is looking right at me.

The moment I saw her my mind threw out any directional navigation I was doing prior to get us to the sea caves. Where we were going did not matter anymore. The objective of this dive instantly became this incredible animal in front of us.

We followed her for as long as we wanted. She just ate the red algae off the rocks and didn't really seem to mind us at all. We ran into the right turtle as I have heard they are not into the noise of scuba divers here. This is amazing they are marine reptiles living in such cool water most of their life. Fascinating.

I got video of her from all sides. I even got some video of the guest in the picture which honestly kind of killed me at the time because I wanted it to be like National Geographic; with no humans.

The experience became comfortable. It was glorious. It reminded me of Hawaii, how comfortable this turtle was with us. We swam with this creature for six minutes and I can be sure I was the most giddy of the group over our discovery. I knew it was time to say goodbye when I looked back at one of the guests and they weren't even looking at the turtle anymore.

So I did what I had to do. I let her go. I bid her farewell. It was like a well developed relationship I had been waiting for for years, and I was consciously having to rip myself away from something I knew I may never have again. Something that brought me so much happiness so briefly but still for so long. It was like letting go of young Love. Like letting go of someone you cared about immensely.

Full of ecstatic gratefulness I knew I had the experience, I had the video proof, and I gave my guests this experience. For a scuba instructor, the feeling was stupendous.

And inside I knew at that moment it would not be the last time I would see the Sea Turtle. It would not be the last time that I would have some once in a lifetime encounter with an endangered animal.

I am so fortunate, blessed, and highly favored to call this my job and passion. To have San Diego as my home. And to have the opportunity to be shown some of life's most amazing biological treasures right in my backyard.

As we surfaced back on the beach at the cove, we talked about our encounter among each other. We were ecstatic. So happy. As we walked up the stairs we were asked by several snorkelers, divers and the lifeguard (as we commonly do): How was the visibility today? What are conditions? What did you see?

"Visibility was ok, maybe 12-15 feet or something, but we saw a Sea Turtle!"

The snorkelers' eyes light up as they are about to go on an adventure, full of hope and wonder that they may too be the lucky ones at the cove that day to have an encounter like we'd had.

The Lifeguard says, " I have lived in San Diego my entire life and I have never swam with one."

Later on I posted the video on Instagram and was told that the Sea Turtle I encountered was named "Chop." It's sex is unknown, so she will remain a she for now. But she can be easily identified by her chopped back fin and a deep scar in the right of her shell.

If you see her, tell her I said hello. If you know anymore information on Chop or Green Sea Turtles in San Diego, feel free to comment or get this in touch with me.

I will never forget that day. I will never forget Chop. I will never forget these lovely, amazing encounters with so many other animal species and my adventures under the sea. For the lessons in each of them.

In short, maximize your chances of an encounter with wildlife and be in wildlife often. Dive safe with a good team of friends that dive. Take your conditioning seriously. Be thankful we are living in a time where we can breath underwater right here on our doorstep. Go diving, wherever you are. Explore. Live, and Let Live. Enjoy. For these are all just some of the Lessons of the Sea Turtle.

Here is the actual video footage of the encounter. Be sure to Subscribe to our channel and feel free to Share. Enjoy everyone!

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