Diving the Front Side. Point 2.

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Posted by seahunt on March 15, 2000 at 09:54:57:

The pages in this site tell the stories of special dives or
a number of dives at special places. Some of the stories are of
the incredibly diverse and colorful animal life on exposed pinnacles
like Wilson Rock, Begg Rock or the seamount off of Point Buchon. The
vividly colored filter feeders grow like crazy in the nutrient rich
currents. There is another place that supports growth like that and
it is much more easily accessed. This essay is about that place.
Actually, it is really about a number of different places, with
similar conditions and beautiful diving. They are The Front Side.
It is hard to use works to describe things that are visual
excesses and moods. That is what diving the front side is
The Channel Islands run generally east to west, parallel to
the mainland coast. The coast turns south to north again at Point
Conception. This protects the islands from the prevailing swell
from the south. In many places on the mainland side of San
Clemente, Catalina, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, there is a
situation where the shore drops steeply to about 40 feet. It
then becomes sand or may encircle a rocky bottom cove. The term
"shore" used here may mean a sloping rocky edge of the island or
it may mean cliffs hundreds of feet tall, like at the north end
of Santa Cruz Island. The term "steeply" may mean a steep boulder
slope or a more than vertical rock wall. I have been ascending
along these walls and bumped my head on the bottom of the island,
where the rock actually overhangs. This situation also occurs at
some of the other islands to a more limited extent. Because the
areas are usually protected from the south swell, they can
provide very calm diving. The island shore is too steep for a
wave to break. The water just rises and falls back. There can be
currents though.
As you progress along the island shore, these cliffs make
small coves between points. Really, they aren't large. It's usually
less than 100 yards between points. What this does is make for many
small, very calm clear coves. You can't believe how fun the diving
can be here.
What these areas have in common is calm, clear diving with
a small area that extends from the highest intertidal zone to the
bottom of the intertidal zone. This area is filled with
micro-environments as well. Large algaes do not do well here
both because the wave action rubs them off against the rocks and
also because there are some animals, that are good space
competitors, on the rocks already.
As far as bio-environments are concerned, the intertidal
area is basically divided into zones that are delimited by if
they get submerged once a day, twice a day or are continually
submerged. A crack or channel that focuses wave action can make
distinct local conditions.

While currents can be swift along the islands, these coves are
often lake like. As the boat pulls into the cove and anchors in 40 feet,
you look at the kelp and follow it down with your eye. If your eyes
then focus on the rocks at the bottom, vis is going to be good. There
are often large schools of baitfish moving through the kelp or even
large purple jellyfish in summer.
Get your gear on and jump in. The water is calm, clear and warm.
Swim to the cliff. There are no waves, just a small swell lapping up
and down the rocks. Drop down along the rocks. The life is thick.
Every surface is occupied by algaes and invertebrates of every kind
and description. Look close and see the small ones. Look farther
away and see the big ones. Look shallow and you will see anemones,
barnacles, scallops, green abalone, black abalone, purple urchins,
mussels, stars, vivid green eel grass, coraline red algaes, tunicates
and other high intertidal life. Look a few feet deeper and you will
see a completely different variety of life specialized to the next
lower intertidal zone. Here are the red and green algaes. Over and
over, the thick life changes with every few feet of depth. Then at the
fully sub tidal zone starts the main part of the kelp forest ecology.
This is the domain of the brown algaes and laminareas. There are big red
urchins in the cracks (inky black to the eyes past about 20 feet) and
sea cucumbers sit on every rock between large gorgonian sea fans. Here
the water is completely still and just begs the diver to share the
stillness. Fish of all kinds are everywhere. At the outer edge of the
reef where the individual rocks meet the sand is the best place to
explore. Here is where you will find the unexpected. Also here is where
the pink abalone are at the base of the rocks, half buried in the sand.
The sand drops slowly into a darkness that beckons one to look a little
bit further. To look for another rock that no one has visited
Ascent is trivial. You can guess about where the boat is. You
slowly rise in a column of golden kelp through the near surface fish.
Then swim back to the boat to prepare to do it again.

I have held on to the rocks about 10 feet under the water surface,
below where a rock stuck out from the cliff just above the water.
Enthralled, I watched the waves break under the rock from under the

When at the islands on private boats I like to snorkel along the
shore, sometimes for three hours or more. I may swim from an anchored
boat, but it is more fun to have them drop you off and swim on to meet
the boat further on in a cove or have the boat come to meet you later.
It is easy to travel a mile or more, just exploring. I have told my
buddys come look for me after they got back from fishing, waterskiing
or a trip to Avalon. It's so peaceful just swimming up and down along
the lush shore rock through the fish and often with a curious sea
There is a trick I like to pull. There is an outfit that takes kayaks
to one end of Anacapa Island with a boat load of customers. The
customers paddle the kayaks through the calm water along the shore,
perhaps 7 miles to the other end of the island where they are picked
up. I've never done it, but it looks like incredible fun. When I see
them coming, I go to a point of some sort and swim out so that I am
outside of them as they pass the point. I figure it must seem odd for
them to find someone swimming that far from shore with no boat or
anyone else around. I've tried bumming a beer, but except for once, I
always got offered water or soda.

If you head along the edge of the cove to the points, they are
usually composed of boulder piles under water. There will be strong
surge and splash at the surface, you don't really want to play bump
with those rocks carelessly, but there are no real waves. Above water
the rocks are covered with mussels, barnacles, green anemones and big
colorful Pisaster starfish. Under the water, the rocks have enough
holes in them for an army of fish. Travel slowly and look in the dark
holes. There will be large orange sponges, scallops, gorgonian sea
fans and other filter feeders that enjoy the swift currents that go
past here. Big and small fish drift in and out of the holes like
ghosts. Then, do you have enough air to go on to explore the next

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