Encounters with Catalina Island

August 12, 2022, Yannick Peterhans

The sun is beginning to dip behind the hills of the western end of Catalina Island when a western gull drops down into the water just an arm’s length away from my camera lens. I turn around in shock, knowing shore birds are often friendly but have never been gifted a subject in perfect golden light within spitting distance. I would spend the rest of the early evening with this gull, enjoying the last ounces of light before both the sun and the bird left for the night.

This experience in Big Fisherman Cove wonderfully encapsulates my summer. Ethereal moments with wildlife with beyond-stunning landscapes that make my job as a photographer frankly extremely easy.

a man in a wetsuit holds a camera as he stands on a boat ramp next to the rocky shore of a cove
Ready for a photo dive on the shore of Big Fisherman Cove this summer

I started this adventure with wildlife some four months ago and half a bowling lane length’s away from a heron’s nest on the southern end of Big Fisherman Cove. The afternoon started uneventful, with their empty nest and my sleeping cell phone, leaving ample time for me to think and wait for the birds to return. An hour into my daydream my afternoon fun started abruptly, as first a female and then a male heron landed on their perch and began a distinctive dance of pecking and plucking before accepting one another into their home. 60 minutes later, competition arrived, and the accepted male was forced out of the nest. The next 20 minutes were filled with squalls and squeals, as the female heron made her feelings abundantly clear to the intruding male. These demands to vacate worked, as shortly after the competing male left the original male returned to the nest just as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Not three weeks later, I entered Big Fisherman Cove again to the delightful sight of a moray eel. With a deep breath in my lungs and my camera in hand, I dove down to investigate as a shadow entered my peripheral view. Startled, I quickly ascended trying not to swallow any water and frantically turned around. Behind me, a 500-pound giant sea bass was swimming in water just a few meters deep. A curious and inquisitive fellow, he seemed to wonder what I was doing there as I gawked in my luck of stumbling upon this gentle giant. And curious he was, as the next 90 minutes were spent swimming together along the shore of Big Fisherman Cove, me diving below, around and sometimes right at this massive fish. He was never bothered and always came back for another look. Once our evening ended, the sea bass ended the dive right where I started, going back to his fish obligations as I exited the water.

a giant sea bass hovers in shallow water as it gazes at the camera
The giant sea bass that followed me around Big Fisherman Cove

These experiences are just a few snapshots from the hundreds of hours I have spent photographing life at the USC Wrigley campus. And they barely scratch the surface of the summer I have had. They are three of over 70 individual photo assignments in just under four months. A small glimpse into the life of over half a terabyte of data and over 100,000 photos taken. This summer has been both exciting and lonely, transformative and yet a reaffirmation that I am on the right path.

From the Maymester to Storymakers, the Bay Foundation to the Scientific Diving Discovery program, and to every single person, experience and animal that has made this summer so special, thank you. Thank you for letting me into your life, giving me the opportunity to do what I love to do, and teaching me so much along the way.

Watch Yannick’s video about the USC scientific diving program