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.

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