>Several years ago my friend Luis Lamar, a cinematographer, came back from an expedition with National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry to document an underwater mountain range in New England that very few people knew existed. Lamar spoke of mesmerizing kelp, caves filled with lobster, and schools of fish unlike anything we had seen in the area before. He spoke softly and eloquently, almost reverently, about Cashes. The trip had been sponsored by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which seeks to photograph and protect unique and beautiful places around New England. Fortunately for me more trips were in the works, and they wanted to expand the underwater efforts to include high-resolution 4K video.
>Getting to Cashes Ledge is an adventure unto itself. Diving nearly 100 miles off shore from relatively small boats can be a challenge and not suitable for those with delicate stomachs. Fortunately for our dive team, Priscilla Brooks, CLF's vice president and director of ocean conservation, had chartered the RV Tioga from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and it made a wonderful dive platform. Most important, it cruised at 16 knots, which allowed the team to sneak in dives whenever an appropriate weather window presented itself, which was not very often. South of Newfoundland's Grand Banks and still susceptible to many of the weather patterns that can create very dangerous conditions (remember The Perfect Storm?), we spent many days waiting. Over three years of diving, we made it out on only six of the approximately 30 potential days and were rarely out for more than a single overnight at a time. But in the many hours of sitting at the dock or in a quaint little home in York Harbor, Maine, I met and listened to a passionate coastal biologist who has become the heart and soul of Cashes Ledge: Brown University biology professor Jon Witman, Ph.D.
>Compared with other coastal regions in the 1980s, Cashes Ledge was an outlier, in a good way, and word soon got out. By the late 1990s destructive fishing practices had devastated the area, and fish populations were collapsing. Laudably, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) imposed a ban on the most detrimental practices — bottom trawling and dredging — though it left the area open to others such as midwater trawling. With the ban in place, the populations have slowly started to rebound.
>Hearing Witman tell stories about Cashes Ledge in the '80s — when schools of cod, pollock, cunner and other fish could be seen with myriad sharks, whales and other pelagics among the kelp — was both poetic and disheartening. He had the privilege of studying Cashes in its modern heyday, and he helplessly watched its subsequent destruction to the brink of collapse. Now he is documenting and quantifying its recovery with the help of CLF. The recovery, however, is not guaranteed; the ledge could be opened to all fishing and other exploitative activities at any time. CLF's mission was clear: They wanted to showcase the underwater world through imagery to reveal the magic of the ledge today and its potential for tomorrow.
>A scientist measures kelp to document its health. The biomass of kelp at Cashes Ledge is 50 times greater than that of other sites in the region.
>Diving Cashes Ledge had been built up so much in my mind by Lamar, Skerry, Brooks and Witman that I was afraid it might be a letdown, like so many underwater places are these days. But it was a surreal dream of swaying kelp, playful cod, schools of pollock skirting the edge of vision and scenes of life I could barely have imagined. My eyes never left the camera screen, and before I knew it I found myself beneath the kelp, filming its soothing dance backlit by the blue-green sea. I was rolled and tossed among its long golden-red stalks in harmony with their ebb and flow. In a blink it was time to ascend. Wide-eyed and transformed I surfaced, and for the first time ever I felt a need — an obligation — to help protect a place.
>What sets Cashes apart is its extraordinarily high density and sheer biomass of kelp — 50 times that of other nearby coastal areas. It is continually fed by cool, nutrient-rich water generated by a standing wave that occurs with great regularity at the site. This wave has been called a productivity engine; it creates constant upwelling and changes the water from cool with good visibility to warm with reduced visibility. It can be a strange and disorienting yet marvelous part of diving here. As the kelp thrives, it provides food and protection for the many fish that call it home. Then during its seasonal die-off, the detritus feeds species deeper in the water column.
>Marine mammals of all sorts flock to the ledge, and there is evidence that it may even be a breeding ground for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. On any given day on the ledge you might encounter five or six different whales, schools of dolphin and even basking sharks. At the end of diving days we often wondered what was more unbelievable: the growing schools of cod and pollock playing in the kelp or the whales and dolphins feeding all around us on the surface?
>North Atlantic right whale.
>CLF continues to urge legislators for permanent protections at Cashes Ledge. One of the biggest challenges it faced in the past was trying to protect an area that no one had heard of. With incredible foresight and in the spirit of older journalistic traditions of using science and imagery to create a movement, the efforts of Brooks, Witman and Skerry on behalf of CLF are slowly making headway in the push for protection. Because of their tireless efforts and with a little help from the images and story our team created, many people are now aware of Cashes Ledge's exquisite beauty and vital importance for our future fisheries.
>For more information or to learn how to help Cashes Ledge, visit the following:
>Watch these videos to learn more about Cashes Ledge and why it's important to protect it.
>© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2016