Monday, March 10, 2008

Return to Coral Reef and more Anacapa delights

I'm always up before 6am on these Channel Islands boat trips. I like to get up to the galley and have some coffee before there is a big crowd. It's very peaceful, just like underwater, except with coffee.

Sunday morning, March 9 was the first day of Daylight Savings time and it was still dark when I arose, presumably the daylight was being saved for later. Soon enough there was a glow in the east. Here's what it looked like from the dive boat Truth, anchored on the south side of Santa Cruz Island at Blue Banks.

It was a two-day trip, and Saturday's dives had been good but not spectacular. Mostly, we'd dived on the south side of Santa Cruz, at places like Heart Attack Rock, Albert's Wall, and Blue Banks. Santa Cruz has a lot of sites that are rockslide rubble that has fallen from cliffs and formed a series of stepped walls gradually falling to a sand bottom at around 50 feet. These are great habitats for fish and invertibrates, and they usually have some fun caves and spires to swim around in and through. Saturday had been very sunny and the rocks had been alive with color, especially on our first dive at West of Pedro, where we also found a very large cave, but couldn't see in because I'd forgotten to bring my light.

Visibility, however, was less than usual on the Channel Islands, varying from 15 to 40 feet depending on where we were diving. There was some surge and current but little swell.

The boat was less than half-full and divers had a lot of room to stretch out and get comfortable. Above is a shot of the dive deck late Friday night before departure. By Saturday most of these stations had been filled; here's what it looked like in the morning before the first dive.

Saturday had been busy. We'd all had three or four dives by the time evening fell, and we arrived at Blue Banks, the location of our overnight mooring and the night dive.

I'd planned on doing the night dive and had looked forward to it, but as I stood on deck in the twilight looking at the surge on the rather exposed point we were anchored by and the rising wind and chop, I decided to thumb the dive and have a beer. About half a dozen divers, led by Bob DeFeo, the instructor on board, went in, and it was fun watching their lights glowing in dim pools of ghostly luminescence filtering up from the depths.

I was on my second beer as they came up and boarded in the wind. Here's Bob getting checked back on the boat by Captain Bob.

Sunday morning, as I stood brewing coffee and looking out at the sea, I hoped we'd head for Anacapa which was just across a small channel from us and offered some of the most spectacular dive sites I've ever seen.

After the magnificent sunrise Donnie pulled anchor and headed back to the east. I could see Anacapa dead ahead of us and went up to the wheel house to ask if we might be going there. Sure enough, we were. "Maybe Coral Reef?" I asked hopefully. Donnie turned in his chair and said, "yeah, that's where we're headed." I was elated. Coral Reef was one of my two favorite spots last trip, and I was excited that we were headed back to Anacapa.

As it turned out we had to go dive the north side of the island due to ripping current on the south side, and we had a very nice dive at Deep Goldfish Bowl.

It was a sand bottom at almost 90' with little rock gardens all over the place overgrown with gorgonians and invertibrates. We'd heard in the briefing that there was a wall to the north down to over 100' and we originally planned on going down this wall and hanging out at the bottom for five to seven minutes. As it turned out we never found the wall but had a hugely entertaining encounter with a young harbor seal who darted in front of Anne and me and did spiraling figure eights in front of us for 15 seconds or so.

Back on the boat I was feeling better about the trip. The seal encounter had gotten me excited in a way that Santa Cruz hadn't the day before. As Truth powered back around the western tip of the island we could see that the sea was calmer and more inviting. Meanwhile divers rested in the galley eating snacks and logging their dives.

We anchored just west of Cat Rock near shore at a place called Channels. It was a nice kelp garden with sand patches perfect for the OW class dive Bob had to teach. It was the last dive for the class, and the students had to remove and replace their gear on the surface, do a navigation exercise using their compass underwater, and perform an ascent sharing air with their buddy.

My job was to help Bob by accompanying students on their navigation run and by going up with the first pair of air-sharing buddies and staying with them on the surface. There was still some annoying current, and the skills were not easy, but the students all performed and within 20 minutes of entering the water there were 5 newly certified divers on the planet. We all celebrated with peanut butter and bagels, and the boat moved a couple hundred yards seaward. The new spot was called Underwater Island.

I was excited because my role as helper was finished and I could just dive. I'd been itching to get in the water with my new camera rig, which for a day and a half had sat in the galley unused.

If I was going to take my camera in the water for only one dive on this trip, Underwater Island was the perfect choice. It is a long, relatively narrow outcropping of rock rising out of a sand bottom at about 60' and cresting to about 25'. The entire east side of the structure is a huge, vertical wall with many crevasses and holes for fish to hide in. The wall was covered with strawberry anemones and sponges. Spanish Shawl nudibranchs were everywhere as were sea cucumbers, limpets, sea hares and urchins. Garibaldi swam out of holes to look us over and Anne and I found a big Ling Cod who unfortunately bolted before I could get a picture.

Here are some shots from this dive.

One of the most interesting things we saw at Underwater Island was man-made. It was a memorial stone that had been placed at the base of the east wall. Someone name T. Meloche is memorialized at 60' off the south side of Anacapa. Here's the stone. As we continued past beautiful, fragile pink and purple gorgonians we found the south end of the rock and turned back north traversing the west side of the rock. This side of Underwater Island was much different than the east side. It was a rounded series of hillocks with brittle stars everywhere.

Later, finally arriving at Coral Reef, we saw billions more brittle stars waving their tiny tentacles in the current. The entire west ridge of the outer Coral Reef is a blanket of brittle stars, so dense they look like a kind of thick grass. Only when you get up close do you see their millions of tiny tentacles waving in the current seeking nutrients.

Coral Reef was just as beautiful as before, even in diminished visibility that obscured the view of the broad swales that lead like great canyons to the south into very deep water. We hovered over the precipice at the south end, where big rock columns jut up from over 100' to about 35' at the top. We had to stay above 50' on this dive because our bodies had absorbed a lot of nitrogen earlier in the day, but it was breathlessly fun to hover out over the edge or down the wall, always fascinated with the textured explosion of life competing for every square millimeter of rock surface.

Coral Reef is like an underwater theme park with different rides and attractions depending on which direction you go. I'd asked one of the crew if you could swim all the way around the structure and he said he doubted it given its massive size and breadth. You could come back and dive this spot every day for a month and still not see everything.

Finally it was time to head back to the mainland. Everyone got busy breaking down their gear and gathering up their belongings. Here's one last image, a shot of Anne at the bow anchor line as we descended onto Underwater Island. Goodbye Anacapa, we'll be back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that sounds so wonderful daddy. i'm glad your having a good time.