Dive report: Santa Barbara Island with Pacific Star, 4/2/2005

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Posted by Dick Analog on April 04, 2005 at 19:22:37:

Jan and I both returned home from work last Friday evening with that ‘beat-to-a-pulp’ feeling one has after a tough week on the job. I lamely suggested that we check out a movie at our local cinema, or better yet, just veg out at home with a video. Jan said: “how ‘bout we go diving, instead?” My first thought was: ‘Is this a trick question?’ After all, it was April Fools day. Jan knows that I’d go diving at the drop of a hat, no matter how good, bad, tired, or sick I was feeling.

It turns out that Jan had been monitoring the diver.net BBS and knew there were some last-minute openings for boat trips the coming weekend (thanks to Chris and Elaine!). We checked out the BBS again and saw that the Pacific Star still had spots on a Saturday trip to Santa Barbara Island, and would be departing later that night. We had signed on for a trip to SBI earlier this year that was cancelled due to bad weather, so we were excited to get another chance. We called the phone number listed on the BBS, which turned out to be Sonja’s (one of the Pacific Star’s co-owners) cell phone; she was on the freeway headed to the harbor that very moment. We made a verbal commitment with Sonja to come along on the trip, and then set about packing furiously in order to get on board by 9pm and (hopefully) grab some good bunk space. It was Jan’s birthday the next day, so I excitedly pulled one of her gifts out of the closet – something that she had been dropping not-so-subtle hints about for a long, long time. She was still surprised and thrilled to see a shiny new pair of Force Fins.

It was a tortuous Friday night drive down the 405 freeway, but we managed to roll into King Harbor just before 9pm. We did in fact get a nice stateroom below deck. After stowing our gear and taking care of the usual pre-trip paperwork, Jan and I had a celebratory pre-birthday dinner at one of the restaurants a short walk from the Pacific Star’s berth. Enjoying a romantic dinner at a seaside restaurant before heading off on a diving adventure was waaay better than a ho-hum night in front of the telly!

In the pre-trip briefing we were told that, conditions permitting, the boat would cast off about 2:30am for the 4 to 5 hour crossing to Santa Barbara Island. We were tucked into our bunk by 11pm, and even though I was tired after a long day and week (and a little woozy after a couple of Coronas), each time I neared falling asleep I thought of the things we were going to see the following day: the rays of sunlight shining through the kelp forest, the varied and colorful reef fish, and maybe even a sea lion or two that Santa Barbara Island is so famous for. I was also fretting that the boat wouldn’t make it all the way to SBI because of the rough seas that are common this time of year, and we’d have to abort for an alternate trip to Catalina (not that diving at Catalina is such a bad thing). I kept checking my watch and the time passed ohhhh so slowly. I was expecting to hear signs of activity on the deck above as 2:30 approached, but except for the creaking of the mooring lines all was quiet. Two-thirty passed, then 2:45 and nothing was happening. I had resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to SBI, when a little before 3am I heard footsteps on the deck. Then, just after 3am the generator started. By 3:15 the engine was warming, and I felt the boat leave its berth shortly thereafter. We were on our way to Santa Barbara Island!

The drone of the engine and rocking of the boat had me asleep in no time. In fact, we slept longer than planned and by the time we tumbled out of our bunk and groped our way to the coffee pot, the deck was awash in sunshine. We could see Catalina Island far behind us and Santa Barbara Island a short distance ahead. Surprisingly, the closer we got to the island, the larger the ocean swells became, and by the time we began suiting up, the boat was really rocking. Even the dry-suit divers were hopping around the deck as they donned their gear, doing the rock boot two-step.

The captain took us along the island’s frontside, toward the northwest corner of the island, in hopes of finding a calm anchorage in the Arches area. The big surf crashing against the rocks in this area made for a spectacular sight, but did not portend good diving conditions. We rounded the west end of the island and headed for the backside of Sutil Rock, hoping to find calmer water on the lee side of the rock. As we approached Sutil, we could see that the Great Escape with the Sea Divers club on board had beat us to the punch. We found an alternate anchorage in the channel between Sutil Rock and the main island.

I think with Jan and I there were a total of 17 divers on board – a comfortable-sized group that kept the deck from feeling crowded. The divers who signed on for this trip were a very pleasant bunch. There was an all-women group of friends who were having a great time, and there was a healthy contingent from the local arts and entertainment biz including a commercial illustrator, a special effects cinematographer (with his 16 year-old son), and a writer from the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. We even saw a few divers from other trips we have taken this year, so I guess we’re becoming bonafide So.Cal. divers ourselves. This was the first boat trip we have taken without students on board, which made for very quick times getting everyone out the gate.

At this first site, the boat was anchored in about 35ft of water, with shallower water toward Sutil Rock and toward the main island. It was pretty surgy which hurt the visibility somewhat; I think the most interesting aspect of this dive was the large number of garibaldi which were fiercely defending their nests. We made our dive toward Sutil Rock and stopped just short of the breakers. It was a good site to learn how to deal with strong surge – watch your buoyancy and stay perfectly neutral, then go with the flow; don’t fight it. On our way back to the boat we were greeted by a single, playful sea lion which buzzed us a few times before getting bored and jetting out of sight. I turned my attention to a large jellyfish and was photographing it from different angles when our sea lion friend returned. It seemed annoyed that we were so interested in the jellyfish and made all sorts of loops and turns around us as if to say – look at me! look at me! – not that silly jellyfish!

Our captain picked up anchor and moved the boat from Sutil Rock to the main island’s backside for the second dive, adjacent to one of Santa Barbara’s famous seal and sea lion rookeries. Before the boat could even drop anchor a large group of barking, frolicking sea lions formed a welcoming committee, repeatedly swimming up to the boat, under it to the opposite side, and then back again. For many on board, this was the primary reason for making the trip – to dive with sea lions. Most divers stationed themselves on the sandy bottom near the boat and watched the sea lion show unfold around them. Sea lions are certainly curious creatures, but I can’t imagine what they find so interesting about divers. Is it the bubbles, or their comparatively awkward movements with gangly appendages? Because the combination of sea lions, divers, and surge had stirred up a lot of sediment, Jan and I decided to skip the show and swim toward some small, rocky coves near the shore. The number and variety of reef fish increased the closer we got to shore. We found some interesting grottos that were fun to explore and spent most of our air time in the shallow end of the pool. We even picked up a few good-sized scallops along the way. Because we had been in the shallows for most of our dive, our tanks out-lasted nearly everyone else’s, and as we returned to the boat we found that the sea lion spectacular was desperately short of spectators. And the sea lions knew it. To get back to the boat we were going to have to run a gauntlet of show-off sea lions. Up to a dozen or so swirled around us, over us, under us, and straight at us. It was fascinating to see how they interacted with each other, in addition to wanting to include us in their fun. They playfully bumped and nipped each other, wrestled, and rolled round and round like puppy dogs. I did take a short video clip of some sea lions playing cucumber football, which can be found at this address:
(this is a 5MB .AVI file, dial-up Internet users beware)


It was obviously lots of fun for the sea lions, a lot less fun for the sea cucumber. And no, I fumbled that last pass.

As we continued moving toward the boat, unbeknownst to me, Jan had been adopted by the sea lion clan as one of their own. Maybe it was the shape of her fins, or maybe just because she’s so darn cute. When I turned around I saw that she was getting bumped and nipped like everyone else. It was all in good fun, but I could see that Jan was more than a little un-nerved. I swam back to her, she grabbed my arm, and we continued to make our way toward the boat arm in arm. For a few moments I was in the weird situation of having Jan pulling me by one arm in one direction, while a sea lion had my other forearm lightly clamped in its mouth, trying to pull me in the opposite direction. I guess when they saw that we couldn’t play as hard as they wanted to play, they gave up on us and went on playing amongst themselves. We made it back to the boat without further incident, happy to have shared the experience with our furry friends.

The third and final dive site turned out to be a special place indeed. Capt.Harvey wasn’t sure what its official name is, but it is located about 3/4mi. off the extreme southwest corner of Santa Barbara Island. It consists of an isolated, rocky reef surrounded by a sandy bottom – the sandy bottom being in about 60ft of water. From the boat it didn’t look like much, but once beneath the surface you knew right away that it has a lot to offer. There are many grottos, pockets, and mini-walls to explore. And lots of beautiful kelp groves, and large red and gold gorgonians. We saw several good-sized lobsters that seemed quite brazen – sitting far out on their front porches, basking in the light of day. Word of the end of lobster season gets around fast, I suppose. Based on my relatively limited experience diving in the Channel Islands this site, in my opinion, has all the characteristics of the ideal offshore reef. And it looked to be very extensive – we only explored a small portion in the course of a 45-minute dive.

This dive trip will remain in our memories for a long time. We’ll definitely come back to Santa Barbara Island when we get the chance. And we’d do it again with the Pacific Star, without hesitation. The captain and crew give careful attention to divers’ needs, and are extremely helpful with small but important things like getting gear on and off the boat, or storing a few scallops in the fridge during the trip back to port. And last but not least, they serve fantastic meals!

We saw many garibaldi at the first dive site, some of which were fiercely defending their nests.

Small creatures. The mini-urchins are my favorite.

This large jelly is approximately 15 inches in diameter, and was swimming about 15ft below the surface.

A colorful bat star.

I’m a real sucker for snapping photos of starfish. Of course, they do sit still while you photograph them, which is very nice.

A graceful water acrobat.

Caught in a swirling circus of fur and flippers. And no, Jan wasn’t adjusting her mask and regulator; she was genuinely afraid some critical piece of gear was going to get knocked (or taken) away by her rowdy playmates.

The newest member of the sea lion clan. A preliminary report on the Force Fins after 3 dives: at least equal propulsive power for same amount of effort, but with greatly reduced calf muscle strain; their reduced length and upturned ends also make the last few steps before the dive gate a real breeze.

Seemingly boundless, in-your-face curiosity.

Red gorgonian.

Cruising over the reef.

Golden gorgonian. If you took away the urchins, this could pass as a terrestrial photo of the local chapparal.

A brazen bug, out in broad daylight. Notice the effectiveness of the false eye-spots.

Another bold bug, way out on its front porch (we snuck up really close, from the side). Here you can see the real eye stalks quite well.

Farewell, until next time..

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