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March 1999 Vol. 25, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Swirls and Surges in the California Kelp

Catalina, Farnsworth Bank, and the Channel Islands

from the March, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you’re the right age and in the mood, put your favorite Jimi Hendrix CD on the headphones and read on.

We’ll watch the sun rise from the bottom of the sea...

I’m hanging onto the top of a seamount at about 80 feet, and around me the terrain quickly drops off well beyond the limits of my 75-foot visibility. I’m hanging on because a medium-strong current wants to take me where it’s going, while ten meters away the current is going in the opposite direction. Directly behind me, a mildly unsettling downdraft is sliding over the wall and down into infinity.

Overhead a wall of silvery baitfish blocks out the sun, and another, slightly smaller, school of different fish swims past. A dozen or so jacks cruise through the scene looking for a quick meal. A 40-lb. tuna passes by, waiting for one of the baitfish to zig when it should zag, while a barracuda swims lazily through the mix, all business. When I stop to peer into the reef, a gorgeous purple and orange aeolid nudibranch parked next to a scorpion fish beckons for my attention.

Palau? Papua New Guinea? Welcome to Farnsworth Bank, a few miles from Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California. If you think of Bonaire as a Mozart quartet, easy on the soul, and Cozumel as Vivaldi, bouncing along in the gentle current, then California diving, especially in the Channel Islands, is Hendrix, with complex forms swirling all around. The kelp is the guitar, demanding your attention, but you’re also aware of the surge’s rhythm keeping time, the pulsing backbeat.

There must be some kinda way outa here...

The trip began at the Santa Barbara Yacht Harbor, where I spent the first night aboard the Vision, an 80-foot long (26-foot beam) boat that can theoretically sleep 46 divers, but generally takes about 30-35 out. If you’re used to tropical liveaboards, this seems like a lot of people, and it is. But the boat is well laid out, and getting in and out of the water never seems to be a problem. The only time you may feel at somewhat close quarters is when you’re sharing the bunkroom with the rest of the passengers.

At midnight, the boat pulled out and made the long run to Catalina--plan to have some seasickness meds in your bloodstream by then. When I awoke around 6:30 a.m., we were cruising the backside of Catalina, the cooks were fixing breakfast, and people were suiting up for the first dive.

The first dive at Bird Rock was representative of the three-day trip. The crew, taking their first chance to show off their talents, parked the boat just a few yards from the large guano-covered rock and anchored it bow and stern. A quick step off one of the side gates three or four feet above the surface, and I was in the water. (Six- to eight-foot entries off the bow are more exciting.) Theoretically, you’re expected to have a buddy, but if you seem competent, nobody will say anything if you dive solo. Visibility was 60-plus feet, and sunlight poured down through the kelp, which grows down to a depth of about 70-80 feet. Sardines, senoritas, and rockfish played in the kelp, and my buddy yelled into his reg to point out a bat ray winging its way past. Poking our lights into the rocks, we found lobsters, nudibranchs, and octopi.

I could spend entire dives just watching the garibaldi. Their bright orange color provides a delightful contrast to the muted tones of most temperate water fish. And their typical damsel aggressiveness means that you can get a macro framer right around their faces. But, oh, the juveniles—now here’s a fish that the guitar master himself would appreciate. They’re the same orange shade as the adults but speckled with stunning iridescent blue spots, rivaling anything the South Pacific has to offer.

Kelp diving is like a walk in a redwood forest--sunlight dappling through the canopy. Small fish flit around near the surface, and the larger and groundbased animals populate the reef below. My buddy got to see his first horn shark on this trip, carefully tucked, as is their wont, into a rock crevice. Other divers found a huge school of Pacific sardines and played in the school for an entire safety stop. (Don’t expect weighted lines for safety stops; California divers are used to making their safety stops on kelp.)

Not all night dives were good; I ended one after only 15 minutes. The urchins, which hide in the rocks during the day, come out at night, and, as is common, we were dealing with surge. Urchins and surge simply don’t mix. Swirls and Surges in the California KelpFrankly, the boat crew blew it on this one--they should have taken us to a better spot for a night dive or simply canceled.

On the last night, we made the bumpy crossing back from Catalina up to the northern Channel Islands. (Take two Dramamine and a Benadryl, crawl into your bunk, and turn out the lights.) Our first dive of the day was at Coral Reef, near Anacapa Island. I followed a ridge at about 45', surrounded by fish. Here the kelp was groundcover, coming up only 3-5' from the bottom but still creating plenty of habitat for the critters. I found nudibranchs, a small horn shark, and an octopus who had just finished giving a reef-walking, color-changing show to other divers. He was in his hole resting up for the next performance.

The Channel Islands provide some of the best diving that California has to offer, and that’s pretty damn good. Yes, the water is cold--it was about 70 degrees in Catalina during late August, and 63 in the northern islands (Anacapa and Santa Cruz). You have to wear a thick wetsuit and hood and pack a lot of weight to compensate. I wear a 7mm suit, hooded vest, and 26 lbs. of weight. A handful of divers wore dry suits, which may be overkill for this area but guarantee a warm and toasty dive. The visibility averages 40-60 feet, unlike the 100+ foot visibility in the tropics. But when you lie on the bottom, watch the kelp waving in the surge, and have a huge school of sardines swim past with the sun making the entire school strobe and flicker as it goes by--well, it’s all worth it.

Strange beautiful grass of green with your majestic silver seas...

There are many dive boats that ply the waters of the Channel Islands; Truth Aquatics’ boats are probably the best known, and the Vision is their flagship. It has a main deck, below-deck area where the bunks and showers are, and a sundeck above by the wheelhouse. There’s little by way of entertainment, though there is a TV, VCR, and small collection of videos on board. But most people are tired after diving all day, and they tend to retire early.

Diving the Channel Islands is not like being on an Aggressor or Peter Hughes boat--there are no hot towels waiting for you on the dive deck, and there’s a bunkroom instead of a stateroom. You bring all your own gear, from sleeping bags and towels to weights and tanks, which are refilled on the fly. You’re expected to set up your gear, get into it, get off the boat, do your dive, and get back on, all with minimal assistance. Most of the time, there will be a crew member waiting to pull your fins off when you reach the swim step and prepare to climb the two-step ladder, but don’t expect him to take your tank and weightbelt from you unless you have an obvious medical need for that help. On the other hand, nobody looks at your computer to see how deep you’ve been. If you drink a beer and go back in the water, it’s your business. Dive times are your business, too; length of my dives on this trip varied from 15 minutes to over an hour. That said, they did a very professional job of looking out for (and taking care of) a diver who had no business on the trip.

I did ten dives in three days; they also run two- and one-day charters. During a day of diving, there’s no particular schedule of dives. The boat pulls up to a dive site, the captain makes a 30-second, mostly-intelligible announcement about the location over the P.A., and then the gates are open. Depending on how much people like the site, the weather, etc., the gates may stay open for up to two hours. While they’re open, you can do as many dives as your computer permits, assuming you can get your tank filled quickly enough by the on-board compressors. During slack times on the boat you can usually be back in the water in a matter of minutes, nitrogen permitting.

The Vision and all the other Truth Aquatics boats leave from the Santa Barbara Yacht Harbor, a beautiful two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. That puts them very close to the northern Channel Islands (Santa Cruz and Anacapa), but, as described above, it makes for a long trip to Catalina. Other boats leave out of the San Pedro Harbor in Los Angeles and San Diego. From there, they also have access to southern sites such as San Clemente and the Coronado Islands. The Vision maintains a “no wetsuits below” rule, so the group bunkroom stays clean and dry. Bunks were nothing fancy, just privacy-curtained berths with vinyl-covered sleep mats, about half of them singles and half doubles. But it was perfectly comfortable for the three night trip.

Two hard-working cooks prepare the food, and, while it’s not gourmet cuisine, it is delicious and filling. We had fish one night and steak the other. Lunches were sandwiches and roll-your-own burritos. Breakfast was cooked-to-order, but most divers found that sticking to bagels and the like helped the food stay down when the boat rocked. Snacks such as cookies or chips with salsa and cream cheese are always available to satisfy the dive-induced munchies. Sodas, juice, tea, and coffee are complimentary and always available, and, although no alcohol is offered, divers are welcome to BYOB. Seating was informal: there are half a dozen tables seating six in the galley, and you sit wherever you plop down.

Weather is always a factor in California diving, so don’t count on any particular dive site. It was pleasant weather during my trip with temperatures in the 70s, but rough weather is common, and open-ocean locations such as Farnsworth Bank and Cortes Bank off San Clemente Island are particularly susceptible to getting blown out, although they make up for it with retina-searing diving when you can get there.

The crossing to and from Santa Barbara is over a major marine mammal thoroughfare; those trips are often interrupted by gray (and occasionally blue) whale sightings. If you knew Truth Aquatics many years ago, you recall boats filled with underwater hunters carrying weapons of destruction and chests full of dead fish being carried off the boat. While that has not altogether ceased, the emphasis is much more on taking pictures--a welcome change.

But first, are you experienced?

If not, I’d encourage you not to make this your first dive trip after getting your c-card in the Florida Keys. Have some California diving experience under your weightbelt before you do the Channel Islands; you’ll have more fun.

— K.L.

Swirls and Surges in the California KelpDiver’s Compass: Contact Truth Aquatics at 805-962-1127, fax 805-564-6754. They’re on the web at Truth Aquatics has a few open boats, but most are chartered by dive shops and dive clubs (they’ll give you the name of the shop that’s reselling the boat)...My threeday trip on the Vision cost $400, including all food and airfills....There’s a full-service dive shop on the dock that has some rental Nitrox is available...In Santa Barbara, consider staying at West Beach Inn, 805-963-4277; El Patio/Best Western, 805-963-9772; or Fess Parker’s Double Tree Resort, 805-564-4333.

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