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.