Diving the Channel Islands

Mon, June 30, 1997

Dive trip to Channel Islands, California

Diving is something like returning to the womb: there are noises you don't quite understand, you're floating, the water is salty, and you're connected by a crucial umbilical to life support. Going underwater for any extended period of time leaves indelible memories; fragments of images that resurface time and again from the unconscious.

Over the past three days, Harry, Tom and I managed to spend almost 12 hours underwater, ensconced in neoprene, and floating through dreamworlds of color, light, texture and sound. It was a wonderful way to spend a few days.

Truth is a dive charter boat that runs out of Santa Barbara Harbor. One of a fleet of three, it's 65', sleeps 40, has three hot water showers and full galley on board. We went on the three-day live-aboard excursion to the Channel Islands just off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Thursday night we picked-up our dive gear at the shop, stowed it and found a bunk to sleep in for the duration. Since there were only 15 divers aboard, we were each able to pick double bunks and live in the lap of luxury. While the space is still fairly small, the singles are quite enclosed by comparison.

We sat up and talked until 1AM, then fell asleep to the gentle lapping of waves against the hull.

At 4AM, the engines came on and we began motoring out to the islands. The ride was gentle, the sound of the turbines a gentle drone, so we all fell back asleep.. only to awake at 7 to a gray dawn, quiet engines and middle Anacapa Island 100 yards off the stern.

All the Channel Islands are fairly desolate, with just scrubby vegetation and grasses growing on the highlands. For the most part, each of the islands rises up out of the water on sheer cliffs, with only an occasional dip down to the sea. They are nothing so much as island repositories of original California.

We take a giant-stride into the water at 8AM. Cool, but not anything like the chills of northern California waters. You definitely want the hood and booties to keep warm enough to go on more than one dive.

The visibility was good. Not quite up to tropical standards, but decent at 40-50'. The usual California flora and fauna were there: brittle stars in abundance, giant black sea bass, brilliant orange garibaldi and kelp around the edges. We reveled in the sheer exuberance of the place! Finally, after a long drive down the coast from Palo Alto, and after weeks of waiting, we were here -- in the ocean, diving freely again!

This trip was the initial "Optiquatics" trip for one of the local dive operators. This means they brought along a suite of four cameras, some with macro lenses, some with wide-angle and all with film and developing on-board. We could borrow the cameras (for free), take a roll of film, and have it developed there within two hours. It was an excellent way to compress a lot of time and energy into a short span of time.

I shot a roll of 36 exposure, 100ASA film each day; and with each iteration, significantly improving my skills. James, an underwater photo pro was on-hand (and generous with his time) to explain what we had to do for each kind of picture and what went wrong with each image we messed up.

Even better, a NOAA naturalist was also on-board as part of this deal to help us understand what we were looking at, and why. Laura also brought on-board a pile of reference books covering everything from fish behavior through nudibranch identification.

Armed with the cameras, armed with knowledge we went forth: five dives the first day (2 in the morning, 2 in the afternoon and a night dive). We looked, we saw, we photographed... and in between times, we lounged, reading about reef ecology and California's fish population.

The three days varied from good to spectacular. The first day we dove three sites on Anacapa Island, each site as different as could be. Middle Anacapa varies from flat deep places, absolutely covered with brittle stars (the bottom was *moving*!) to small harbors filled with lines of kelp alternating with stripes of sandy bottom. Here we saw bay rays flying through the water, and at night we found lots of lobsters and sand living rays and a single large guitarfish.

The second day turned out to be spectacularly brilliant, beginning with a perfect sunny dawn and seconded by a dive site with utterly invisible water. I've dived a lot in California, and that's about as clear as I've ever seen it -- 70' visibility easily.

Coral Reef is on the southern side of Santa Cruz Island (in the middle of the chain) and feels more like an aquarium than anything else. Again, alternating stripes of rock with kelp with sand running parallel to the shore.

All throughout the space we found male garibaldi tending to their patches of algae. Males "farm" small algae patches that look like 2 or 3 foot diameter lawns of reddish moss against the sides of gently sloping rock faces. These patches are sexual attractors for the discerning females who come by, do a little dance with the males and then (if they like the patch) deposit their eggs into the algae. The males then rush over to fertilize them and, voila, another generation of garibaldi comes into being.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all aboard the boat (and pretty good!); occasionally augmented by fish that was caught by the crew. On Saturday, we had tri-tip barbeque AND halibut, courtesy of a long line fish hook.

Throughout the entire trip, everything worked as smoothly as could be. The equipment was all top-notch, the crew did their work efficiently and happily (not *always* true!) and everyone made the atmosphere aboard very comfortable. No one made you feel dumb for not knowing how to work the decompression tables, or if you'd forgotten to zip up your suit before wading into the water -- they'd just come over and fix the problem with grace and good humor. It was a happy, easy-going boat. The captain was a diver himself (who dove several times during the trip), so he really understood that diving is best when it's not so structured and pretty relaxed.

He'd open the dive gates for a set amount of time, depending on the location, local conditions and how bad the swell would become. Once the gates opened up, it was up to you to choose if you wanted to go, or stay, or just snorkel around the place. It's your dive profile (and your nitrogen load!) -- so pay attention!

We also dove a wreck site of an old WW-II minesweeper. Wrecks are usually fun, and this one had its share of big fish lurking deep in the shadows and lots of nudibranchs all over the place. I *even* found a pair that was mating! So, voyeur that I am, I hovered overhead and watched for a while. Imagine two slugs side-by-side, each with a three-pointed blunt-end fork. The forks sort of try to interclasp, but never quite get down to it. Between the tines, there are small openings from whence tiny white eggs come forth. (Or what I assume are eggs.) When the egg emerges, a fork tip from the other nudibranch comes down and touches the egg. One at a time, very slowly. (Not exciting, exactly, but fascinating in slow motion.) No, I didn't have my camera with me, damn it! It would have been a great photo op.

Since so many of use were taking pictures, they had a kind of contest late Saturday night after the day's shots were in. I was lucky enough to win 4th place (and a very nice poster of the Islands), but my buddies Tom and Harry each took a place as well. As luck would have it, a 16 year-old kid took first place with a spectacular photo of a harbor seal that came down to play with us. I also got a picture of it, but it wasn't anywhere nearly as good as the kid's. Right time, right place, *excellent* shot.

It wasn't all perfection. While I'm an easy target for motion sickness, I'd managed to put it off for most of the trip... but the ride back to the harbor in the high afternoon swell was just a bit too much for me. It only took two hours, but they were a thoroughly unpleasant two hours. Next time, I'll remember to double-dose before we head out.

All in all, a magnificent time in a beautiful place. I highly recommend the dive trip as a good place to spend some time and regain some mythic sea karma.

Last edit: 6/25/07