Friday, July 16, 2010

San Clemente, Catalina, Santa Cruz on The Vision

The second day of a three-day Channel Islands dive trip is always the most relaxing. You seem to just spread out into the day like melted butter knowing that you get to dive all you want, then eat a great supper that someone cooks for you, hang out, have a beer, and go to sleep knowing that there is still another whole day in the water.

(photo by Linda McDowell)

Near the end of the third dive on Catalina, July 12 - the second day of my three-day trip on The Vision to the Southern Channel Islands - I had fully relaxed into my second-day trance when my dive buddy, Michael, grabbed my arm and animatedly pointed off to the left through some big kelp stalks. I thought someone was in trouble, and began to fold up my camera to clip it off and deal with whatever it was. Then I saw what he was so excited about: a huge Giant Sea Bass, resting motionless and partially hidden in the kelp forest. His stillness seemed that much more simple and clear than my own second-day quietude. I unfolded my camera strobes and inched toward him from the left rear. I took a shot and he moved a bit. Then I slowly flanked him to get in front as he began moving away. I got one picture of him before he disappeared. I felt a bit guilty for having disturbed such a magnificent creature, but glad too that I'd got a shot of him.

That Sunday at Catalina began under a thick overcast as we arrived at Farnsworth Banks from our first-day overnight anchorage at San Clemente. We were a bit disappointed to see that The Peace had already anchored on Farnsworth and sent divers down. Not wanting to get in their way, we moved in closer to the island to Pedestal Rock, a large round pinnacle jutting up off 105 feet and cresting at about 40 feet. My dismay at missing Farnsworth evaporated immediately as my buddy Greg and I found the east side of the pinnacle and dropped around counter clockwise to the bottom at the north side, which at that depth consisted of a large overhang with lots of frilly gorgonians, encrusted invertibrates and a fish haven. Our plan was to get to the bottom and then slowly spiral our way back up the pinnacle, as though climbing a staircase around it, except of course we floated in zero gravity just off the rock face, marveling at the tiny bits of life crowding and competing for every inch of surface as we slowly ascended. Visibility was about 50' and the water temps were warmish at 57-60˚. The sheer majesty of this structure, along with the richness of marine life made this my favorite dive of the trip. Farnsworth will have to wait; I was very happy the way it worked out.

The wind was coming up hard and the east side of Catalina was getting blown out by the time our divers were back on the boat. We ran for a long while around the top of the island and around the east side down to Ship Rock. But the wind was still making nasty chop and current so we moved a bit further in toward the island to dive Bird Rock.

Bird Rock has a long wall running east west, a sheer cliff face from about 20 feet of depth down to a bit more than 50'. We dropped about 200 meters northeast of the actual rock itself and descended through the lush, green kelp forest along the wall to the bottom, heading west. Visibility remained at around 45 ' and water temp stayed in the high 50s. The wall was completely draped with purple, red, and yellow sea fans or gorgonians. Bright orange Garibaldi were flitting about running up and down the wall and protecting their territories. Sheepshead and calicos wove in and out of the kelp forest that stretched out seaward from the wall.

My calm was momentarily broken as a group of divers dropped upon us out of nowhere. A knee crashed into the back of my right shoulder and then my camera housing. Another diver close behind the first landed on my back and kicked furiously while I veered off to the left to try to get out of the way.

My buddy, Kathryn was having her own troubles. More divers were on a collision course with us, but I saw them and began deflecting them away from me, as I continued to move left away from the wall into the safety of the kelp forest. Finally clear of the group, Kathryn and I waited out in the shadows. The great 40 foot visibility had been cut in half with all the sand and silt that had been kicked up. I was determined not to let this spoil my second-day dive trip mood, but it reminded me that people underwater can be very much like people topside, except more dangerous.

Kathryn, and I meandered further along the wall until we reached our turn pressure and then slowly made our way back toward the boat.

As we began to angle up toward our safety stop near the end of the dive we found a lovely sunny platform of eel grass and small kelp. Garibaldi were all around as were Calicos and Sheepshead. The colors were magnificent that close to the surface and we hovered over the tableaux well past our three minute stop time. But then I had 600 PSI and needed to end the dive.

We surfaced precisely where I thought the boat was but it wasn't there. I looked around and, over the wave tops, found the boat at least 200 meters away. Did I blow the navigation that bad?!?! I thought to myself. No. There was an anchor buoy just behind us. It marked the spot where the anchor line had broken and the boat had to move off and get under power. I took a picture of the boat over the waves, and felt my faith in my navigation skills a bit restored.

OK, live boat exit, was my thought at this point, but then I saw that the crew had sent the inflatable skiff out to retrieve divers and take them back to the boat. A conservative move that was going to take time but probably the safest thing to do. I didn't want to throw my camera and long-hose rig into the boat with all those people lurching around in the skiff, so I wasn't disappointed when they told me to wait for the next group. I noticed that the current was taking me away from the buoy and toward the boat and decided not to fight it too hard. Sure enough, when I was about 25 meters away from the boat one of the crew asked me if I wanted to just climb up the swim step. I was on in a flash and up the ladder as fast as I could go.

So far this doesn't sound like the most relaxing second day of a three day dive trip, but it really was. Wherever you go there you are was sort of my mantra, and despite the chaotic moments the peaceful feeling kept washing back over me like an incoming tide. My restored calm was in no small part due to the beauty of the rich, green kelp, which seems somehow a bit different and more lovely to me than the same stuff we have in Carmel. Maybe it's just the light.

Aside from the fine Catalina diving, the greatest improvement of the second day was that the sun came out.

Our first day on San Clemente was mostly overcast and cold. I was glad I'd brought two sets of drysuit underwear: one 300 gm polartec and a super warm 450gm thinsulate. I put on the polartec the first morning figuring I could handle 60˚ water, but what I didn't see coming was the drysuit flood that happened near the end of the second dive of the day, at Neptune's Wall. I just felt a sudden rush of very cold around my waist, sort of like if I peed a gallon or so of water right out of the fridge.

I was close by my buddy Gregg at about 40 feet or so and I signaled I needed to go up. I still had buoyancy from my wing so I folded up the camera and figured I'd just have a cold safety stop. On the surface waiting to get on the boat I thought, "maybe you're just cold and the polartec wasn't enough." I didn't think so, and once on the boat and peeling off the drysuit it was clear that my undies were indeed soaked. Seals were all OK, so WTF? In a way it was a blessing that I wore the polartec because the thinsulate would have been a lot harder to clean up. I shrugged, stuffed the drysuit in its bag, complained a bit, and went downstairs to dig out my backup wetsuit and hooded vest. On to plan B. I like wetsuit diving anyway.

It had been two years since my last cold water wetsuit dive and I shuddered a bit after my giant stride into the water at Bill's Hairy Crack, just off the southeast end of San Clemente. As soon as we descended onto this magnificent, fluted wall I forgot all about being cold. There were massive cracks and buttresses and overhangs with delicate gorgonians everywhere. Sheepshead and Garibaldi flitted in and out of the kelp, and painted greenlings hid in small holes in the wall face. We went left along the wall and then angled up from 70 feet when we turned. There was current going left to right that got stronger as we continued toward open ocean, and when the kelp was getting bent way over I thought it would be a good idea to stop and head back to the boat. We'd overshot the anchor line a bit and had about a 50 meter swim back to the boat.

I knew that the forecast called for increasing NW winds Monday and Tuesday, and we had a long trip that night back to the northern islands for a last day of diving on either Santa Cruz or Anacapa. Sure enough, all night after we'd got underway, The Vision was leaping off the crests of waves and crashing down with a shudder. It was fairly entertaining, and we had to be making no more than about 8 knots, so it went on for a while. I didn't sleep much.

Tuesday morning I awoke to find the boat in calm glassy seas, anchored just outside of Yellow Banks on the south side of Santa Cruz. Anacapa was out due to wind and current. So we wandered a bit west just past Albert's to a spot called Coches Prietos. It was a small cove with kelp and a fair current was running west around a small point. There was a good bit of kelp. Normally I would want to dive to the right, swimming first against the current and then drift back to the boat. This time, because Capt Tommie had said there was some interesting structure out by the point, my buddy Greg and I decided to head out around the point for 10 minutes or so, then beat back to the boat allowing lots of extra air for the return kick. This plan worked pretty well. On the way out I counted 7 Sea Hares, a few painted greenlings, and some cute little gobies. But on the way back in Greg and I stumbled onto a Sea Hare orgy. There must have been at least a dozen of the creatures all in a pile enjoying themselves. Most of the other divers who went this way saw them too. It was hard to miss. Current kept picking up and I had to stay very close to the bottom to make headway. This worried me when I thought about our safety stop, but when it was time to ascend there was a lot of kelp around so we just hung onto a few stalks and looked at each other stretched out like flags in wind.

Our last stop was at Little Scorpion, a site I'd dived a few times before. It's a lovely, easy dive in zero current to the south east of Scorpion Rock. Very shallow and sunny, with lots of purple urchins strewn about on the rocky bottom and in the cracks and rubble pile near shore. We saw a beautiful Spanish Shawl nudibranch, some sea hare eggs that look like plates of spaghetti (see pic), and all the usual fish suspects.

Looking out beyond the point from Scorpion Rock into the channel I could see big whitecaps and the wind was really whipping out there. It was going to be a fairly hairy crossing, with 6 - 8 ft wind waves hitting us at a 45˚ angle. This creates motion in four different directions of pitch and yaw, and soon after we were underway the bonine packets were coming out in the galley. Too late at that point, but whatever makes you feel better is good for you. Some people went down into the bunk area to lie down. This would not have been good for me; I was happy to sit in the galley hanging onto a table to ride it out. Anything not tied down was flying around the cabin.

The crossing took longer than usual since we had to go slow, and I was happy to see the oil rigs and pass the four mile mark to shore. The seas began to calm a bit and divers began packing up their stuff as soon as it was safe to move around the boat.

As usual, I was the last one off the boat - I don't know why I'm slow at this, except that I rarely leave anything behind. And if anyone else does leave something I'm usually still on the boat when a crew member finds it, which helps get stuff back to their owners.

The last surprise of the trip was to be reminded at the parking gate that they only take cash or checks. D'oh! I knew that. Yet I had only a credit card. The attendant took pity on me and gave me an envelope that I could use to send in the money, and I was on my way back up the freeway heading home.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Escape to Kona

I must have looked lost as I stood scanning the lava-rock shelf extending out into Honaunau Bay, wondering where was the two-step entrance to the water. It was a bit late in the day; I'd landed around noon and immediately pointed my rental car south, first to pick up tanks at Jack's Diving Locker, and then to drive to the Place of Refuge in time for at least one dive. A local haole was kind enough to show me where the entrance spot was and sure enough, it was a natural step into a small protected inlet area.

I picked a heading -- due west -- and kicked out across the shallow coral reef. It was bathed in sunlight and danced with hues of yellow, red, orange and white. Small butterfly fish and Moorish Idols darted in and out of the coral heads and I could see the bottom from the surface as far in any direction as I looked.

My heading took me straight to the bowl-shaped wall that dropped on about a 45˚ angle to a sand bottom at about 90 feet. I descended at the edge of the wall and eased down the incline to about 50 feet where I leveled off and headed south along the wall. Immediately I saw a crown of thorns star eating coral. Ornate Butterflys were everywhere, along with trigger fish, and many other types of butterflys.

I crossed a large underwater canyon extending back toward shore and saw another larger canyon further to the south west. On the other side of this canyon there was a magnificent cascade of plate coral, a massive buttress of coral slabs cascading from near the surface all the way to the bottom. This was my turn spot, but I lingered a bit just to take in the size and beauty of the structure as sunlight spangles animated the coral through the slight blue tint of the crystal clear water.

On the way back I took a detour across a set of coral heads into another branch of one of the canyons and found the "aloha" sculpture in the sand at about 20 feet. It is a bunch of cinder blocks arranged to spell "aloha" and had been one of the sights I'd come to see.

Exiting the water at Honaunau at low tide was a bit of a challenge, and I lost my emt shears from my waist webbing after taking off my rig in the water and dragging it ashore after I'd climbed out. So it goes.

The next day I had four boat dives planned; two in the morning and two at night. The first dive of the day was a return to Lone Tree Arch, which was the site of my first ever OW dive, a checkout dive that was part of my initial Scuba Diver cert with Lynn. It was nice to be able to see more of the site than just the rock bottom, and swimming through the arch was exciting and fun. On that dive we saw three octopus! and also a juvenile rock mover wrasse flitting about under a coral head.

At one point I felt cold, even with my 5mm jumpsuit, and found out later that what I'd felt was fresh water upwelling. Since Kona has no rivers, all the water that falls on that side of the island percolates down through the lava rock and comes up ofshore as spring water. You can actually see it shimmering in the water column.

The peak moment of the whole day was the night dive with the Mantas at Garden Eel Cove. When we got there a bit before sundown only the Aggressor was anchored at the site, but by the time we came up from our first dive there were many boats moored around the campfire area. In the fading light we saw a number of large white-mouthed eels extending from their holes.

The bottom of Garden Eel cove is a lot like any campfire pit area. Desolate, black, sandy and sooty. But at night, with the lights blazing in the pit and divers kneeling around the circular arena, the scene becomes otherworldly and surreal. Then the Mantas arrive.

Slowly their numbers increase as the plankton gathers in the beams of the many lights pointed up into the black water. A 12 foot manta picks you out and soars directly toward your head, a kind of underwater chicken game, but the manta veers upward at the last second, often grazing your hair as it scuds past you into an upward arc that brings it right back down in front of your light. The mantas do lazy loop-de-loops like that right in front of you, their eyes passing within a foot of your eyes and their massive open mouths scooping up plankton.

After about ten minutes we had 11 mantas looping and soaring in their underwater ballet about the campfire area. They seemed so numerous that all you could see was swooping white wings and huge maws forming an Escherian tapestry of underwater life.

The next day I took one of Jack's advanced three-tank charters, and this made for an extremely relaxing and rewarding day. We only had five divers, all of them extremely competent underwater, so you didn't have to keep one eye out for the next out of control person on a collision course with you.

The highlight of this day was the drift dive at LAX. There was a big current at the site and we had to drop twice just to get to the entrance to this wonderland. Once headed down-current we entered a series of lava tubes that reminded me of Palancar Caves. The underwater structure was amazing and covered with healthy coral and reef denizens. We saw a frog fish and a couple of leaf scorpionfish.

But the unbelievable part of the dive was when we emerged from a lava tube ina a canyon full of little snow flakes: juvenile plate coral. This coral growth appeared everywhere on the rock faces and valley floor of the canyon, and looked for all the world like twinkling lights or flakes of small crystal spread out as far as you could see. We moved carefully above the coral and swam through gaps into other canyons likewise covered with the tiny polyps. Our guide, Jim, said that there was nowhere he know of in the world that you could see such an expanse of juvenile plate coral like that. I felt truly lucky to have been able to be there.

My final day of diving put me in a group with guide Elaine Blank, who is the PADI course director at Jack's. She took us to Kaloko's Arch, another great spot with collapsed lava tubes and ta'ape schools hiding just under the overhangs. The fish would skitter away as you swam past and then return to resume their positions under the arch.

This small taste of the underwater world off the Kona coast just got me thinking, on the flight back home, of my next trip to these waters. I think the plan then will be to do more shore diving, and also do some diving up on the northern side of the west-facing coast.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Beating the Heat off Carmel

With inland temps hitting the 100s last weekend it was a great relief to sit a quarter mile off Carmel's "Butterfly House" in a cool capsule of fleecy white fog. The sea was calm and glassy, and there was no wind early Saturday as the Silver Prince dropped anchor over a pinnacle near the lip of the Monterey Undersea Canyon.

Silver Prince was crowded with groups of divers from both southern and northern California, in town for a "meet and greet" in Monterey. The agenda called for a dinner later and then shore dives Sunday, though I had to get back home Saturday night. The picture is from the ride out of the bay. That's Robin and Mark.

Anne and I dropped onto the pinnacle, and I followed the anchor chain over a few little peaks at about 50' to see it resting on the sand bottom at the base of the west wall of the structure in about 110'. Visibility was good at about 25-30'.

We dropped over the side and through the stalks of giant kelp and down the face. Anne aimed her light at the wall and it exploded in bright reds, purples, and oranges of big blooms of strawberry anemones, hydrocoral, and sponges. Immediately I saw a lemon nudibranch. In addition we saw lots of sea stars on rocks and in cracks and rock fish diving in and out of the kelp. We contented ourselves to traverse the wall at about 80' and after a while reached the north end of it, following the curve to the east.

On the way back we saw a blue ringed top snail on a blade of kelp. I tried to get a picture but it was always moving out of the frame.

Just about that time we saw
Michelle and a few other divers converging with us on the anchor line. I took the opportunity to get a couple of photos which were closeups due to the fact that we'd swum into a narrow canyon that barely had room for all of us. Everywhere there were beautiful undersea gardens of hydrocoral, worms, corynactus, and palm kelp.

The water was 57˚! I can't remember it that warm in Carmel, and the warm water combined with the 70˚ sunny conditions topside made me glad I ditched the drysuit for the weekend. Diving wet in such warm conditions is simpler and very comfortable, though I do prefer the trim I get with the drysuit.

As the boat moved we sat in the sun eating Cliff Bars and drinking water. Soon we were positioned over the outer Pinnacle off Pescadero Point. This structure, one of three or so pinnacles out there, had a number of tall spires jutting up from the depths.
We dropped into the midst of these steep peaks at about 75' and marvelled at the lush profusion of invertibrate life competing for every millimeter of rock face. Palm kelp waved gracefully in the light surge. Hydrocoral reached with pink and purple branches everywhere, towering over the beds of corynactus.

This would have been a better first dive of the day, since the pinnacle's spires jutted up from greater depths that would have been fun to explore but for the fact that divers on air, following the earlier deep dive at Butterfly House, had very short no-decompression limits at the upper reaches of the spires at 75'.
We elected to cruise around at that depth to get as much bottom time as we could, and it was fun swooping around through the spires like birds dodging mountain peaks.

After an hour or so boat ride back to Monterey we turned the corner and almost immediately dropped anchor on Outer Chase Reef. This was to be a nice offgassing dive at about 30 - 40' on a nice reef with a kelp forest to the south. But the visibility was not good, maybe 5-8'. Anne and I elected to simply follow the rock dike we'd dropped onto. It ran roughly parallel with shore at about 40', and we wove our way through some nice structures and canyons, headed roughly back to the east where we could ascend on the stern of the boat.
At one point we ran out of rock; it just dropped off out of sight in the crummy vis, so we shrugged and went up with around 1200 psi left. We'd timed it about right, though, because there was the stern of Silver Prince just to the north of us past a little kelp patch which we ducked under on our short swim to the boat.

On the way back into the harbor we chatted with the SoCal divers and made new friends. Now there is already a plan for a get-together next year on Catalina. Sounds like fun.

Here's one last photo of one of the incredible living rock faces near the Monterey Submarine canyon.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pipe dreams

It was a perfect time to head over toward the big pipe that extends into Monterey Bay in front of Reeside just north of the breakwater. Anne had just nailed the skills part of her second Nav Specialty dive, and the three of us, including her instructor, Bob, and I, had lots of air left.

We had picked the open area of San Carlos Beach at the foot of the steps where you enter to get to the Metridium Fields because classes had completely overtaken the area by the breakwater. In contrast, our spot, maybe 50 meters north, was completely clear and the vis looked inviting in the morning sunlight.

We were not far out; depth was about 15fsw, so we surfaced and kicked out a ways past the first few kelp beds to where the inner white rock to the north lined up with the small building on the breakwater just past the bathrooms.

We dropped, dialed in 330˚ and headed out.

Earlier that day we'd gone over to the big pipe from further inshore and had transected the jumble of smaller pipes. Lots of half moons were swimming around the small pipes as we passed. Back on the sand we began to see lots of tube anemones, and there were little sand volcanoes shooting up from shellfish under the sand.

Further out, vis was opening up to about 20 feet (it had been better earlier), and soon we could see the dark shape of the big pipe materializing ahead of us. The sunlight was streaming down and the pipe was full of color as we began our easy swim out the pipe on 30˚.

The pipe is an interesting dive because the topography varies from flat sand to rocky downslopes, and occasionally inshore there is kelp. We wandered out past the section of pipe that is more than half-buried in the sand to the little down-slope at around 35fsw where there are some rocks and the pipe angles down. The bottom drops away a little to form a small arch, too small to swim through, but good for finding things hiding in among the tube anemones there. I looked and saw a juvenile ling cod who skittered away as I moved in for a closer view.

I think there was another series of rocky outcroppings further out that were festooned with bat stars and sun stars. I saw a medium-sized sheep crab on the pipe.

Soon we were at the end of the pipe, and I faced around and dropped to shine my light in side the opening. Nothing there. We had planned for the possibility of hopping out the the metridiums, but an air check at the end of the pipe made it clear that, while safely doable, our return from the met fields would probably not be as leisurely as the trip out the pipe had been.

We decided to turn the dive right there and cruised back along the pipe. Anne saw a Dirona on the right side of the pipe near the down-angle with arch section, but I didn't see it because I was over on the left side of the pipe looking for nudis.

Our slow, relaxed pace had continued, and it was a joy to constantly see my buddies close by, checking me visually, and signalling if they saw something interesting. Anne found another sheep crab in the sand which I did get to see, but was sad I'd missed the dirona.

We turned onto 150˚ at the half-buried part of the pipe and headed out across the sand, then angled in on 210˚ after a while and picked up the little pipes, which we followed into a wonderful little grove of kelp. After nagivating single file through the kelp patch we came again out into a very sunny patch of sand in about 10fsw where we surfaced just a little north of our entry spot. Here is the view inshore from right on top of the big pipe.

This dive reminded me of how peaceful and relaxing it can be simply to follow the pipe out and back without even going out to the met fields. It also reminded me of how much fun it is to dive with skilled, reliable buddies content to slowly cruise, taking in every little detail of wherever we happen to be.

Friday, July 18, 2008

San Clemente Island Dive

As I positioned myself at the stern of the charter boat, waiting for divers in our group to assemble at the anchor line for our first descent on the walls southeast of San Clemente Island last weekend, I glanced at my computer. The temperature reading was 70˚, almost tropical! I felt very warm in my 7mm jumpsuit and hooded vest, and felt a pang of sympathy for the drysuit divers sweating in the hot sun up on the dive deck, hustling to get in the water in vain hope of cooling off.

The weather and swell had been perfect for a week, and I was anticipating epic conditions. Indeed, the water was dead calm and glassy, and the Giant Kelp was shimmering gold in the sunlight. But as we dropped onto the steep wall at Pyramid Rock I was a little disappointed with the visibility, which was about 25'.

The anchor chain was draped over the top of the south-facing wall, but under the boat, less than 30 meters to the south, the depth was probably beyond recreational limits. Someone dropped a weight belt doing a giant stride off the port gate, and nobody was going to go after it. If it had fallen off the stern it would have only been in about 94' of water and retrievable.

These steep walls, dropping sharply into the abyss, are a feature of San Clemente, and it was fun to glide down the anchor line until we could see the face of the wall jutting up from the depths.

Later that day we anchored on a more conventional Channel Island rock pile onto sand bottom site called "Crevasse of Death." I glided onto the wall hovering at about 35 feet. Kelp was all around, and the fluted spires and crevasses of the wall were fun to wander through.

The place was thick with Garibaldi, female sheephead and a very gregarious
Calico Bass who hung around me posing for pictures.

One Garibaldi was continually chasing the sheephead out of his territory, but they just swept back in, interested in something on the rock face.

Visibility had improved to about 40 feet and the rock faces were blossoming in color.
Below me near the bottom other divers would cruise by. I would know this when a curtain of bubbles would envelop me for a moment.

During the late morning of the second day of our three-day trip, at a site called "Octopus's Garden," I swam through some kelp into the middle of a broad, concave depression in the irregular boulder field. Sunlight streamed down into the bowl, about 30' in diameter and curving down to about a 50' bottom from the lip at about 35'. The rock faces were alive with coraline algae and fish were everywhere. The color was vibrant and had a warm tint from the golden hues sparkling off the kelp at the perimeter.

I stopped in the middle and descended about halfway until I was directly in the center of cylindrical water column. I sat up vertical and drew my legs up under me, trying to become as motionless as possible. Then I waved my hands just enough to set up a rotation so that I could sit there and pan around the whole structure, getting a 360˚ view.

At that point time stopped for me, duality evaporated, and I sat there stilling myself to a singularity. It was an interlude of utter completion and peace that I will always remember. It is the experience I am always looking for underwater, but you can't arrange for it to happen. It just does. Sorry, no pictures, but if I'd had my camera I would have been busy and the moment would not have been there.

Earlier we'd done a deep dive to Pyramid Cove Arch, a large pinnacle rising out of a sand bottom at 110 feet on the north side and probably 140 feet on the south side. It features a 20' wide archway, really a hole in the wall accessible at about 80 feet.

I was with a class, but was able to sneak away for short distances to try and find the arch. I didn't find it, but then the class was finished and the instructor began a tour. I was thinking we'd find the arch after all, but within about 2 minutes someone signaled that they were below 1000 psi, so we all headed back up the anchor chain to make our ascent, including a deep stop.

By the third day we'd migrated north to Santa Barbara Island and anchored for our last dives at a spot on the south side called "Sea Lion Rookery." This was a shallow, flat sand bottom with small reef dikes running east west and protruding maybe a meter or two off the sand. On these reefs were some anemic corynactus, all withered and sick looking. Maybe the water was just still too warm for them, though 60 miles north at San Miguel they are certainly robust.

Visibility was the best we'd seen, probably 60 feet.
But the main attraction at this spot were the Sea Lions. Most of the divers were taking pictures of the marine mammals darting around in all directions, but I was dialing in my new drysuit so didn't have my camera.

I was practicing my hover just off the sand bottom when a young Sea Lion spiraled up to me and gave me a soft bite on the right arm. For an instant I thought, "Great, my first day with my drysuit and I get a puncture." But the soft bite did not damage the tough trilaminate material, though there are still some teeth marks on it.

I was the last diver out of the water, and as soon as I was aboard the crew pulled up the swim platform and we got underway for Santa Barbara.

We had some increasing weather on the way in, and the ride was bumpy. I'm always a little sad to see the oil platforms materialize out of the mist, which are, for me, kind of the gateway back to the mainland, leaving behind the exquisite marine ecologies of the Channel Islands.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A fine, murky day at Gerstle

As we unloaded the van at Gerstle Cove Sunday I quipped, "it's a mud-hole, but it's *our* mudhole." We had actually anticipated decent conditions, but as soon as we descended for our first dive we realized we were wrong.

We'd decided on a 200˚ heading to the right, sort of splitting the wash rocks, and see how far we get before turn pressure.

On the way down I absently glanced away from Anne to pick up the bottom. Nothing but deep, textured green noise. When I reacquired Anne she was reduced to a shadowy sillhouette, even though she was only 4 feet away from me at the time.

One of those days in the local mudhole. "OK," I thought. "So it's a nav dive." We'd practice the no-visibility skill of swimming out on a heading and swimming back without ending up in Antarctica. Actually, we were going to have to alter return heading to 330˚ at some point on the way back to get to the beach. So paying attention was going to be a virtue.

Earlier, just before we went in the water, Denise and Joy from had told us that Andy, Kevin, and Sean-Paul were at South Gerstle hunting around the wreck of the Norlina, and that they'd be along around 10am. Despite the foggy, cool weather, there were families arriving and kids playing around on the rocks.

After about 5 minutes of skimming across the rocky terrain, hugging the bottom so as not to lose sight of it, we entered an area with lots of baby bull kelp reaching upward on lone, slender stalks. There were the usual large abalone, urchins, and sunstars, along with lots of tealia anemones and palm kelp, but not many fish.

As we ranged deeper and further out the gloom increased gradually so that you couldn't see large rocks ahead until you were right on them. Going slow was a plus for a number of reasons, this among them. Another, of course, was so as not to lose your buddy. Anne and I assumed a wing on wing position to make staying in touch easier, and out we went until the curtain of gloom became almost opaque, punctuated only by billions of wriggling krill and the dark outlines of kelp stalks. Here's a shot of a blue rockfish and lots of krill.

I think we ended up turning at about 2500 psi, after about 10 minutes of this, and immediately things began looking brighter.

After we'd surfaced in about 12' inside the cove we immediately encountered Andy swimming out with a float for use by his advanced class. We told him what he already knew: crappy.

On the plus side, we'd nailed our navigation, and the water had been a tropical 50˚f.

As we hauled out of the water I was sure we weren't going to do another dive. Some days are like that. But then the damn sun came out and everything got bright and warm. The wind hadn't really come up yet and the surface of the cove looked inviting. The warm was welcome to those of us in wetsuites, and i sat down and ate my sandwich, still skeptical about another dive.

My skepticism increased when Denise and Joy popped up 20 meters from the beach reporting, "murky, way murky!"

A couple of hours later, after we'd gone back and forth on whether to get back in the water, Anne and I realized that it would never be easier to go do a dive than it would be right then. All our stuff was right there, all put together and ready for use. And, ever optimistic, I thought, "maybe it's gotten better."

Here's Anne as we were on our way out of the cove. You can see Kevin with his back to us on the beach.

Actually, as we dropped for our second dive it was clear that things had gotten better, if only because the sun was out and enlivening the colors of the coraline algae and bat stars on the bottom. Vis had improved from 2-4 feet to 4-6 feet. Whoopee! Temps had dropped a bit from 50˚ to 48˚ but it didn't feel that cold.

We went straight out on 150˚ to make it easy and were thinking of finding the metridium wall out in about 45 feet of water.

One the way out we started seeing fish, mostly blue rockfish, and Anne found a small kelp crab.
That's her finger pointing to it. I found a Lemon Nudibranch, but the photo was destroyed by surge.

More tealia anemones and sunstars, but outside the cove we reentered the massive krill cloud and vis once again dropped to practically none. So, we turned.

On the way back we swam right over a medium sized Cabezon who wasn't afraid of having his picture taken. And by the time we'd got back into 25 feet of water or so the sunlight began opening up our path.
Having escaped the plague of krill, we lazily kicked back into the cove and the rocks, algae, bat stars, and kelp blazed with color. I remembered why I think Gerstle Cove is such a beautiful place to dive.

We congratulated ourselves on doing the second dive and persevering to see some pretty animals and underwater life. It was a feeling of completion which made the day worth it for us, having actually had fun underwater afterall. Once we were drying off in our lawn chairs on the beach, in the sunshine with other divers, all of whom had managed to have good dives despite the conditions, the sight of our four used (though still half-full) tanks made the beer taste that much better.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Memorial Weekend on the Channel Islands

As usual, I was the first one up and in the galley of the Truth Saturday morning, May 24. The sun was just barely up, and the low light was glowing gold on the east-facing cliffs of Santa Cruz Island, 18 miles off the California coast.

We'd been underway since a little after 4 am (the reason we left late to be revealed in a moment), and were approaching the north side of the island for our first of three days of diving.

I reached up to extract my 1/2 lb of Peets Major Dikason from its hiding place above the soda dispenser and pulled a filter out of my pocket. I'd learned to bring my own coffee on these trips. No offense, Truth Aquatics, I love you guys and you are the best boat crews anywhere. But I'd rather brew my own coffee.

But there was a problem. As I reached for the hot water spigot, Dennis, the crew chef shook his head: "there is no water."

I let this sink in a bit. No water. No drinking water, no water for washing hands or showers. No water for coffee.

Dennis had just come in with two cases of bottled water. "We'll have to drink this for now."
Dennis did, however, have a bucket of water heating on the stove. He said, "In a few minutes this will be hot enough for you. We can draw water from the tank, but the pump blew a seal last night as we were about to leave and we had to patch it. The patch isn't dry yet so there is no water except what we can draw by hand." Perhaps, he suggested cheerily, there will be water later this afternoon if the patch holds.

No problem. I always think of these trips as camping anyway, and who has running water on a camping trip? But mainly, i was ecstatic to have, regardless of the emergency, an opportunity for a cup of coffee. All I needed was sufficiently hot water, which was moments away on the stove. Everyone else who didn't bring their own coffee, of course, was screwed.

Once I had brewed my coffee I sat at the far corner of the galley watching the steam curling up out of my cup. Others finally emerging from the bunk area saw it too, and they grabbed cups only to learn from Dennis that there was no coffee. At least not for them. This stunning inequality between the have coffee person (me) and the have nots did not bode well for my popularity right out of the gate, and I continued to collect dark glances from those newly informed of the situation.

The Truth was slowing as we approached Santa Cruz just west of Frye's Anchorage, which was to be our first dive site called "West Wall."

Back in the galley, Dennis was still busy explaining the no-coffee situation to individuals one at a time as they arrived, and at the same time he was making breakfast. You could tell he was muttering to himself, "I don't have time or patience for this," but he remained cheerful as ever, a true professional.

Here is a shot of the galley area on Truth. You can see my still-warm coffee cup near the bottom of the shot.

Regardless of the blown water pump, the main reason we were all there was to go diving on the Channel Islands for three days, and people began unpacking their gear and putting on their wetsuits and drysuits.
The site we anchored offered a nice Santa Cruz boulder field dive in a rubble pile of slide debris tumbling down to about 50 feet on a sand bottom.

The sea was dead flat calm and there was no wind. I'd never seen it so calm and glassy. It looked like conditions were going to hold through the long Memorial Day weekend, and if so it meant we might have a chance to get out to the westernmost islands, beyond the shadow of Pt Conception and completely unprotected from the north west swell: Santa Rosa and San Miguel.

After a couple of dives on the north side of Santa Cruz, the last one at one of my favorite spots, Emerald Gardens, the skipper told us we might take a chance on heading for San Miguel that night. Everyone was pretty excited to hear this. San Miguel is closest to the open ocean and very deep water. The marine life out there is very robust and fish are huge and tame. But because of rough conditions, open ocean swell, current, and wind San Miguel is diveable only very infrequently during the course of the year.

This was a stroke of extreme luck for the Open Water certification class onboard for the weekend. They enjoyed the prospect of having their first logged dives as certified divers on the western islands. Here is the class with instructor (second from left), a certified diver who pitched in to help (third from right), and divemaster (bottom).

As this good news made its way around the boat a young sea lion hopped up on the inflatable skiff and jumped around being cute and entertaining.
Here is a shot of him taken just before he decided to lope up onto the swim platform and onto the dive deck. That was about enough, and crew members gently ushered him out the starbord gate as we got underway for the western islands.

We headed out after supper and anchored half way on Santa Rosa, then continued at dawn to San Miguel for the first morning dives at Wyckoff Ledge on the south side of the small island.

Temps were a bit cooler at 50-52 than the water on Santa Cruz, and there were no Garibaldi, which don't range farther than Santa Cruz Island. But what we did have was 70' viz, and a magical underwater amusement park, full of deep canyons and walls covered with explosions of corynactus and other inverts, plus some of the biggest sheephead and rock fish I've ever seen.

We hung around the south side of San Miguel, jumping all day into the glassy
flat water and dropping into mystical kelp forests harboring sea lions, huge fish, Sun stars, arches and tunnels, cowries, nudis, and horn sharks. Depths ranged from the hundreds off Wyckoff Ledge to the 60s on the boulder fields and kelp forests.

After Wyckoff Ledge we had an afternoon of marvelous kelp dives at Rainbarrel and East of Wyckoff. Each of these spots featured fantastically interesting boulder fields and rock walls, all under a thick canopy of kelp. Gliding among the kelp stalks, watching the rockfish and snooping for nudibranchs, you never stop noticing the quality of light filtering down from the openings in the kelp forest that let shimmering sunlight down into the depths. It's very much like cathedral light.

Meanwhile, the crew had jury-rigged a way for the water pump to work, sort of. You could be taking a shower and the water would shut off due to an overload of demand. then you just had to stand there all soapy and either wait for the water to come back or towel off and come back. It was like reverse russian roulette, except with the showerhead.

We were wondering if the incredible conditions could possibly hold through the next day, which would maybe allow us a rare treat: a visit to the pinnacles to the west of San Miguel between Wilson Rock and Richardson Rock, an area of treacherous shoals called the wilson Rock foul area. These pinnacles are in the open ocea and usually undiveable due to extreme swell and current.

We anchored at about 7:30 am over the last pinnacle before the underwater range dropped into the abyss and the skipper, Chris, took a look.
There was a ripping current but the sea was just calm enough to allow a relatively advanced dive for those who were just drooling to get in the water.

The bow anchor had been flipped over the edge of the north wall, near Heebie
Jeebies, and divers were going down hand over hand on the line to get to the summit of the pinnacle in about 17 feet of 52 degree water. The current was washing over the top of the pinnacle requiring you to get right to the edge and kick forward and down the vertical wall.

I was diving with Jeff, an adventurous robust individual who was on his first Channel Islands trip. We got past the lip of the precipice and soared down the dark north side of the wall.
As we drifted down the wall we could see shadowy divers way below us, beyond recreational dive depths, and we slowed our descent, stopping at around 70 feet to examine the face of the wall. Viz was probably around 50-60'.

Illuminated by my LED light we could see that there was a 10 meter vertical band of fantastic small white anemones so tightly packed onto the wall as to look just like snow. Not Metridiums, they were like albino corynactus, except not. I didn't know what they were but they were unearthly beautiful in the dim north side morning light. On each side of the band of white anemones, extending right and left to the ends of the wall were huge plumes of regular strawberry anemones, coraline algae, sponges, and other inverts.

Turning to
the open ocean we could see huge sheephead and vermilion rock fish. They were the biggest I've ever seen. Looking down, we saw the sheer north wall gradually disappear straight down into the blank depths, punctuated only occasionally by faint bubble trails emerging from divers somewhere out of sight below.

We decided to peek around the east side of the wall thinking of swimming
around the pinnacle, but the current was just howling around the edge and we backed off content to simply zig zag our way back up the wall, inspecting holes, cracks, and overhangs with my light.

Back at the summit we let the current lift us over the top and onto the anchor line which we grabbed and stood out like flags in brisk wind doing our safety stop. Arriving at the surface, we rode the water to the stern of the Truth, and hooked onto the swim step. There was a quarter mile of current line out, and thank god we didn't have to use it.

As we pulled anchor we saw the Vision heading out to the pinnacles.
Apparently Truth Aquatics crews had heard about the conditions and had taken the boat to sea for a "staff outing" that would perhaps be possible maybe a half-dozen days a year.

Seeking shelter from the current and wind that had sprung up, we headed in
toward the north side of the island to a spot called Hare Rock. Hare Rock is a dome like rock jutting out of about 60' of water and featuring huge fluted spires and buttresses of invertibrate festooned walls falling nearly vertically off the rock to the bottom.

The vis was spectacular, about 60' and in sunlight finally, so we could really see everything. More huge rock fish and sheephead, and I found the biggest Treefish I've ever seen sitting in a crack. When I approached to get a picture of him he always just flipped his tail around and disappeared into the wall. Above is a shot of a Copper Rockfish that was a bit less shy.

Intensely beautiful were the bouquets of corynactus that billowed off the
rock in huge patches. Here are a few photos.

Life is so plentiful out on San Miguel, and so infrequently visited, that you have to see it to believe it.

The run back to Santa Barbara from Miguel is a long one, and divers had
plenty of time to pack up their stuff and log their dives.

At one point
during the return Capt Bob spotted humpbacks slapping the water out in front of us and breeching gloriously, often completely out of the water.

All across the dive deck people with sunburnt faces smiled and talked about the conditions, their dives, and the incredible luck that allowed us two days on San Miguel. Nobody even remembered the intermittent shower failures, or that they had had no coffee the first morning.