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.

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