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Underwater mountain of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary is haven for sea life

  • Cordell Bank Reef Crest SCUBA diver cruise onboard R/V Fulmar. Dives took place October 7-9, 2010. Cruise number 2010_7

About 25 miles southwest of Bodega Bay, just beyond the horizon on a clear day, a huge rocky mountain rises from the muddy ocean floor to within 120 feet of the blue Pacific surface.

The 93 million-year-old formation, once a chunk of the southern Sierra Nevada, sheared off and slowly edged along the San Andreas fault to the North Coast. It lay undiscovered until the 1850s and wasn't seen by human eyes until 1978.

But the 26-square-mile granite mass known as Cordell Bank is a smorgasbord for scores of species of seabirds and whales that fly and swim thousands of miles to feast on an abundance of food procured by the wind, the Earth's rotation and a southbound current that sweeps along the California coast.

Nutrients drawn from the ocean's frigid depths provide the base of a food chain that sustains life forms ranging from microscopic plankton to the world's largest creature, the blue whale, with a profusion of finned, feathered and furred animals in between.

On Cordell Bank's rocky ridges and pinnacles closest to the surface, a dazzling array of sponges, corals, sea squirts and sea stars are layered one on top of the other, while vast schools of groundfish swim close by.

The organisms at Cordell Bank are served by one of the world's most productive ecosystems, known as an upwelling system, that literally manufactures food and delivers it all year long.

"They just sit there and gobble as the food floats by," said John Largier, an oceanographer at the Bodega Marine Laboratory who describes the upwelling as "a perennial fountain of youth."

Bob Schmieder of Walnut Creek, who says he is the first person to see Cordell Bank through a scuba diver's mask, said "the place just grows like a Sunset magazine garden ... complicated, colorful and alive."

Cordell Bank, a place unknown to most people who aren't fishermen or scientists, is in the news because of the 529-square mile marine sanctuary that surrounds and protects it from harm, such as overfishing and energy development.

(On Google Earth, the bank is labeled and its underwater contours are visible, with depth below the surface shown wherever the cursor rests.)


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