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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Getaway to Oahu

With Summer almost here and the kids watching movies in school it seemed like a perfect time to sneak over to Oahu for a long weekend. We stayed with friends, but the real reason for the trip was to get in a few days of diving.

There are a lot of dive ops on Oahu, but I knew I'd made the right choice to go with Island Divers in Hawaii Kai as soon as I pulled into the parking lot, saw the Sea Fox parked right behind the shop and L&L Drive-In right next door.

For those of you who don't know L&L Drive-In, it's one of the very best places to get great local food in the islands. We ended up having lunch there every day. I recommend the garlic shrimp, and the teriyaki beef plate lunch is hard to beat.

Dive ops on Oahu offer both morning and afternoon boat dives. So we had the option of sleeping in, having a relaxed breakfast, and then heading over to Hawaii Kai at about 11:30am, just in time for lunch at L&L.

When we got to the islands the weather was hot and muggy from Kona Wind, and there was a lot of vog in the air from the Big Island volcano. However, Kona Weather is really great for diving, with calm seas and basically no wind.

Here is the Sea Fox loading divers on Sunday afternoon.

We dropped Saturday onto the sunlit, circular porches of low reef off Hawaii Kai called "Koko's Crater." We descended onto intermittent sand channels and reef in about 35 feet of 77-degree water with about 50' viz, and wandered around looking at leaf scorpionfish, three different types of eels, and the usual assortment of colorful butterflies.

About a third of the way into our dive the DM, Judi, brought us to the large reef platform on which sits a Buddha statue. Naturally we all had to rub the Buddha's belly.

Our next dive was at "Turtle Canyons," a site featuring large reef walls with sand channels in the hollows between. We were rewarded for snooping around under ledges when we found a very large turtle trying to get some solitude. We moved on across the reef and immediately we stumbled on a very large Eel sitting about 8 inches out of his hole. He was waving in the current like a garden eel, except much bigger and with a very large mouth, which he didn't mind displaying to anyone dumb enough to get too close.

On Sunday the trade winds had come back up a bit and brought relief from the mugginess of the preceding days, but not enough to disturb the surface so the water remained calm until a small chop appeared in the late afternoon.

We took advantage of the great weather and Captain Scotty pointed the Sea Fox toward Diamond Head. We stopped just on the Kahala side of the extinct volcano at a spot called "Fantasy Reef." This was a spectacular site featuring large outcroppings of coral and rock with sheer walls and extending roughly north - south. In between the coral ledges were white sand channels.

We swam with our DM, Matt, on about a 30 degree heading toward the island and along one of the large coral dikes. Suddenly ahead we could see a hole in the wall where two expanses of reef came together. It was a very small arch, actually, providing the tiniest clearance off the bottom.

A bit later in the dive we encountered a cylindrical depression in the reef. A lava tube, and like the ones at Sheraton Caverns on Kauai, it had a branch tunnel leading off under the rock. On the other side we emerged into a small canyon with steep sides. Ahead of us on the north wall was a turtle pressed up against the coral.

After turning back we cruised along one of the walls and marveled at the intricate patterns and texture on the coral and rock face. Inside little holes were small eels, a zebra eel and a snowflake eel. I came around a corner and out from under an outcropping swam a large puffer fish.

Current was getting stronger as we approached the boat, and divers were grasping at the tag line. Eventually everyone pulled their way to the stern, climbed up the ladder and began the process of organizing their gear for the ride home.

Later that night we dined on take out from Mekong II, that we'd picked up on the way back to the house. Have I ever said that diving makes you hungry? There wasn't much left for the cats that night, and we slept without packing for the trip home the next day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sparkling, clear vis in Gerstle Cove

Dive stats:
Me, Anne, and Michelle

First dive
max depth: 46 fsw
time: 58 minutes
temp at surface 48
temp at depth 46
Gas: O2 29%
Vis: 25 feet

The forecast was for a perfect storm of good conditions this weekend. No swell, no early wind, sunny and warm, basically a diver's wet dream.

Annoying weekend work was behind me by Sunday morning, and Anne and I headed north on Hwy 1 along the Sonoma Coast. Surfers were getting good rides on 2-3 foot glassy waves. The ocean looked great.

After our arrival at Gerstle Cove, and before we had even peeked over into the cove, Michelle drove into the parking lot directly in front of me as I walked out of the bathroom. What a great surprise! The three of us schlepped our gear down to the beach and by 10:40 were in the water. Here's what the cove looked like when we arrived.

I had equipment issues. My Air Source 2nd stage was leaking a steady stream of air so i unplugged the low pressure inflator hose from the corrugated hose coupler. This stopped the leak but also put me in the position of having to inflate my BC orally. OK, we're trained for that.

Here's a shot of Anne and Michelle in the background as we got ready for the first dive.

On the way out to the boundary I wondered why Michelle was swimming with her face in the water and then realized that she could see the bottom! Vis was the best I'd ever seen it in the cove. You could just see the entire bottom and it was utterly beautiful, aflame with red and orange bat stars and red and white telia anemones. Blue rockfish swam lazily around as we descended, and as we reached the bottom a very large Ling cod skittered under a ledge. Immediately after the Ling retreated we stumbled onto a big, black-grey Cabezon. He or she didn't run away.

We skirted the rocks on the right side of the cove on a 210 heading for about 8 minutes and then switched to 180 and headed out of the cove into deeper water. There were billions of krill in the water and this hampered vis a little bit. Still, the sunlight lit up the rocks and made the colors of the coraline algae, grasses, palm kelp, and inverts come alive. We began to see lots of corynactus the further out we got.

Finally, we ran into a huge rock dike running roughly perpendicular to the shore. It had large overhangs and went up in two pinnacles with a notch in between. I looked up at the top of the wall, about 10 feet above me and saw a crop of very large Metridiums. The were striking all backlit against the sun. Michelle took pictures as I swam through the notch to the sunny side of the dike. The wall on the other side was brightly lit and covered with Metridiums. They were huge and took up almost the entire wall. The bright sunlight on them, even at 45 feet, made them positively shimmer while the rocks they clung to were full of saturated color from corynactus and other invertibrates. It was magnificent.

We hung around the wall just marveling at the beauty, but then hit turn pressure and headed back. I neglected to switch to 330 degrees on the way in, and so 15 minutes on a due north heading bounced us off the east point of the cove. Dumb. We poked up like little water prairie dogs and then ducked back down for the promenade back up through the cove to the beach.

Second dive:

Surface Interval: 1:35
max depth: 50 fsw
time: 44 minutes
temp at surface 50
temp at depth 46
Gas: O2 29%
Vis: 25 feet

This dive was to be an out and back to the big rocks and (hopefully) the swimthroughs on the left side of the cove. We took a 150 heading from the boundary, dropping once again in the clear water, scanning the entire bottom of the cove on the way down.

I was happy to have somehow fixed my leaking alternate second stage connection and very much enjoyed automatically inflating my BC. I gave it a few bursts as I descended and heard the satisfying little hisses. No more blowing air and water into my BC for bouyancy adjustments.

We cruised out in the 46 degree water moving down the contour past large boulders with curious small circular pockmarks all over them. I'd seen these before and wondered what made those marks. Soon we were on the flat, slabby rock bottom heading into about 45 deet or water. I guess we weren't close enough to the shore to hit the swimthroughs, but it didn't matter. Suddenly in front of us was a massive pinnacle jutting up from the bottom. We swam around it finding lots of ledges and irregular rock faces covered with corynactus and anemones. Around the south side of the pinnacle we again saw a crop of huge Metridiums glowing white in the sun.

I'd never seen metridiums at Gerstle before, and this was a special treat.

Half way back into the cove I looked up and saw Michelle to my right and Anne to the left and all around us, swimming slowly among us, was a large group of blue rock fish. It was as though they had identified with us, and we were just more blue rock fish as far as they were concerned.

This time we hit the middle of the cove and swam all the way back to the beach.

After the dive we just sat in the sunlight warming ourselves and taking in the splendor of the North Coast. Some families were out in boats and kayaks, and we watched them play around in the still-glassy water of the cove.

As i climbed back to the parking lot to bring down my van I saw Michelle taking a picture of the cove from the bluff. I walked over to where she was standing and realized I could see almost the entire bottom of the cove as though it were just covered with clear glass, at least out about the first hundred yards or so. The purple coraline algae was beautiful and you could see every little sand patch in among the gold and purple rocks.

Once in the parking lot to retrieve our vehicles, we could see the wind rising over the water and the fog coming onshore. it was suddenly chilly, but the memories of a perfect day of diving at Gerstle Cove remained warm and inviting.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cozumel 5th day: Cedral Wall, Chankanaab

"This will be the last time I'm doing this," I thought, as I spun the combination lock dial and swung open my locker near the lower rinse tanks at Scubaclub Cozumel. It was Tuesday, my last day of diving, and the good weather had returned.

I liked the lower rinse tanks because there is a nice shower right there, and after your morning dives you can get everything off and cleaned up including yourself, at least enough to go have lunch. Food, of course is very important for divers, especially those engaged in activities as arduous as drift diving. It is a fact that on a typical drift dive you will burn as many calories as PSI of compressed air you breathe from your tank. Since on a normal dive you'll consume around 2500 PSI, that's as many calories as you have depleted and must restore. Really.

Cedral Wall was a ripping drift dive and as soon as we dropped onto the abruptly sloping contour of rubble reef and sand patches I knew I was going to have to have a big lunch.

Instead of the massive block and buttress structures of the more southern reefs, Cedral Wall featured small rocks and ledges with outcroppings of coral that formed a habitat for a huge population of fish. For the second day in a row the reef was fairly bustling with a variety of Angels, Parrots, Grunts, Spotted Drums, Wrasse, Filefish, and Butterflies. There were many juveniles wriggling around the bases of coral and sponges, never venturing far from their holes.

The sloping shoulder of this wall angles down at about 60 degrees for around 60 yards from the crest, and then plummets straight down. I wandered over toward the drop off but Nestor motioned me to come back to where the group was near the reef about half way up the shoulder. A good soldier, I obeyed and abandoned my quest to look straight down into the vacant blue depths one last time.

The first part of this dive was very fast, and the reef was like on a conveyor belt rolling along beneath us so fast that if you wanted to take a picture you had to see the shot coming, ready yourself, and then shoot as it was closest to you. You didn't get two chances.

Later in the dive the current slackened just in time for us to gather around a young sea turtle who was feeding on a sponge. Unperturbed by the sudden company, he continued snapping off morsels and I took pictures. Here he is.

Soon after out of the corner of my eye I noticed a huge fish moving directly toward me from the left. It was the biggest Grouper I'd ever seen, and he veered off at the last minute and took up a position in the middle of the circle we'd somehow formed above the reef. The grouper swam up to Nestor and halted about two feet away. Nestor made some hand motion that the Grouper ignored, and then it abruptly swam away out into deeper water.

Here's the video.

When we ascended after our safety stop I was with Nestor and one other diver. I stayed with Nestor because he had shot a marker bag to the surface and that was how the boat was going to find us. Nevertheless, as we rose to within 10 feet of the surface I spotted a group of about 8 divers on the surface and swam toward them, thinking they were in our group. Not. Instead, when I hit the surface I realized that I didn't know any of them, and I also noticed that one of the diver's had lost his tank, which had apparently fallen off his BC due to a too-loose tank band. His bottle was bobbing just behind him tethered to him only by the low pressure inflator hose. Scary. I got out of there fast. Looking around I'd found our boat about 50 yards to the south picking up the last divers from our group, so I beat it in that direction and gave a little blast from my whistle so they wouldn't drive off without seeing me.

On the boat Nestor asked me, "where'd you go, buddy?" I laughed and said I was just happy to get on the right boat.

Next, we stopped near the bouy marking the resting place of the Felipe, and I asked if we were going to dive the wreck again. "No," came the reply, we were there to do an opposite direction, north to south, drift dive on Chankanaab Reef.

Just offshore of the Chankanaab Park, this reef is a macro photographer's dream. Formed of low slabs of rock and coral, there were countless small attactions, mostly beautiful sponges, antler coral, and fish. One fish, not so small, that swam pst us was a fairly large barracuda. Here he is. I tried not to look too shiny in the dappled sunlight, but he ignored me, so far as I could tell.

We cruised along the west side of the low reef, that jutted up only about 15 feet from the sand bottom. There were numerous overhangs creating refuge for large schools of grunts. As we cruised along the edge of the reef I found myself secretly enjoying my 36% nitrox blend. Sweet air.

On the way back toward town you could see the big cruise ships gathered around every available deep draft dock, and some where waiting offshore. Easter Week must be a busy time in Cozumel.

There are a lot of very good places for divers to stay in Cozumel, and Scubaclub is one of them. Another that I'd like to try someday is Caribe Blu. Here it is from the water. A nice cozy place.

The one day I walked into town while the ships were in port the scene reminded me of the raucous pirate shenanigans that must have characterized Caribbean ports 300 years ago.

Horse-drawn carriages coursed up and down the main road along the water, and taxi cabs blasted out of side streets faster than seemed prudent given the fact that the roads were awash with tourists, some of them decidedly unsteady. Forget it Jake, it's Mexico.

As a final and unexpected treat, as I was returning my weights to the dive shop counter, I looked right and saw Ray Simon, from Scuba Center in Camp Pendleton, CA, whose group I had joined on a Channel Islands trip last June. What's more, many of the divers on this trip with him were people I'd dived with last summer.

What are the odds of running into people on a remote island off the Yucatan Peninsula that you dove with off the California coast? Apparently, not vanishingly remote. So we had a lot of fun together that day, and I saw them off on their day of morning dives after I'd gotten all packed up to leave Wednesday morning.

As the boats receded to the south, I turned and headed back up to my room to bring the last of my things down for the cab ride to the airport, stealing one last look at the hammocks at the water's edge.