California Diving in the 70's - Point 3

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ California Scuba Diving BBS ] [ FAQ ]

Posted by seahunt on March 16, 2000 at 13:22:55:

In the 50's and 60's the infant sport of scuba diving
flourished on the beautiful California coast. At this time,
almost all diving was shore diving. There were no charter dive
boats and few people had there own personal boats that were
suitable for the sport. Besides which, why go to the islands?
At that time, the Palos Verdes peninsula had what may have been
the finest diving California ever had. Plus, both Laguna to the
south and Malibu to the north, had many miles of spectacular
untouched diving. Some of the offshore reefs and many island
reefs, had kelpbeds that covered square miles. Then as now,
shore diving offered the opportunity for a quick, cheap trip to
the reef, but it does mean that the diver has to be able to
handle a surf entry.
I started diving in the 1970 so I never got to see
much of this shore diving while it was still pristine, though it
was still very good when I did dive there. I spent an amazing
amount of time diving Malibu. Luckily, while these shore
locations had been heavily visited by the time I started diving,
these untouched conditions still existed at most of the Channel
Islands, especially the outer islands. Not only were there few
charter boats, the charter boats of that day were not robust
enough for trips to the outer islands except under the best of
conditions. This is what I saw when I went diving then. I think
you will be able to tell that I swim low through the rocks and

When you swam to the bottom, the first thing you were likely
to notice was the almost carpet of the big red urchins. Since
they carry their own defenses with them, they are the animal that
can most easily survive in the open. Maybe there were even more
urchins than were really needed. Not only did they fill every
crack and nook, they would bore their holes in the flat faces of
boulders. You would see boulders that were a solid barrier of
urchin spines on the outside. At this time the small purple
urchins were more restricted to the upper intertidal zone. They
couldn't compete well with the reds. At the same time, urchins
will not stay in any spot where the current does not eventually
bring them kelp leaves. In the areas off points, there are more
filter feeders living in the currents, instead of algaes. All
these urchins actually created safe spaces that were very
important intertidal nurserys and safe havens for a number of
other species. The space of the urchins was full of smaller life.
The way urchins protect themselves, with spines and pedicellaria,
works even better in groups and also protects those animals
within their spines
Reaching to a couple of feet above the urchins from the rocks,
were multi-colored sea fans. Some are gold, some pink, some white.
Close up, these coral cousins are tiny rows of orderly, colorful
delicate polyps.
Sea hares are these purplish rabbit sized blobs that can
only be described as giant slugs. They are interesting and common
enough to see, though there appearance does not invite one to
touch. One thing about them must be described as intrigueing. They
can orgy like nobody else every imagined. It is not unusual to see
giant balls of up to twenty five sea hares, all wrapped up in each
Also out of reach of the urchins were the laminarias. These
are small tough brown seaweeds that mostly have a single tough
central stalk going up to a few 'leaves' on top reaching into in the
current. Sometimes they are everywhere on the rocks only a couple
of feet apart. These are good to hold onto to ride the surge, but
only hold near the bottom holdfast so that they don't break.
The giant kelp, Macrocystis, could grow in large clumps,
dispersed like tree trunks which you just swam around. Sometimes
it would grow as many single strands on areas of larger flat rocks.
If it was single strands, they were usually spaced about six inches
apart. This could make the heaviest kelp canopy. It could get dark
in there. These super thick areas were not as common and usually
were not worth penetrating, unless you wanted a challenge. It's
one way to find out if you have swimming control.
It seems that the art of the kelp swim is disappearing with the
kelp. Kelp tended to be thicker and it was not unusual to cross
areas where the kelp on the surface might be more than two feet
thick. It's not hard to cross, if you know how to dog paddle
through it.
The most life though, the most interesting life, was in the
cracks and crannies. Every hole was a residence. There were cowerys
scallops, oysters, snails, stars, cucumbers, crabs, sponges,
anemones, hydrocorals. Look in the ledges. You may see anything.

On the higher parts of rocks or where there were currents, there
were lots of rock scallops and even occasional big ones. Giant 20
armed purple Picnopodia starfish could be seen moving fast over the
reef. These voracious hunters are the terror of the kelp reef.
If you look behind the urchins that fill the cracks between
rocks, you would see many large hidden scallops, cowrys, crabs,
cleaner shrimp, small mollusks and other shy creatures that
only come out at night or to feed.
Purple and orange Spanish Shawl nudibranchs are common out in
the open moving across the reef. Sometimes more discrete, sometimes
not, were numerous other, mostly larger nudibranchs. All were colorful
and bizarre looking.
The fish were thick. Swimming over the reef, look back at
any time and 10 or 15 sheepsheads in the 10 pound range would be
following in case you disturb anything. Numerous other fish and
smaller sheepsheads escort them. It's actually still that way at
Cortez Banks and some parts of the islands. There are numerous
different localized niches and in each are the characteristic fish
including various species of perch, bass and rock fish. Small
horned sharks were common and most dives you would see large
graceful batrays drifting through the kelp. Bright orange garibaldi
peek out of their holes or follow you looking for a snack.
Sometimes you might see a large lingcod. These big tasty ugly fish,
with their bright blue meat, used to be a common, dominent predator
of the kelp reef. Once, I even came upon a convention of them at
Santa Rosa Island. I didn't have any idea what they were, but my
buddy was shooting them. There was literally a large ling cod
every 10 or 15 feet over most of the reef.
Truthfully, there is no way that words can convey the what it
is like to move through such lush vital diving of the kelp forest
even today. Back then, it was overwhelming. You might just see

Well, it's not quite like it was. Many of the reefs are very
depleted. The abalone are gone, the sea cucumbers and red urchins
are thin. Two population increases seem recognizable. There are
more purple urchins deeper and there are far more brittle stars
visible. The purple urchins probably have more niche available,
but I'm not certain why there seem to be more brittle stars,
unless it is that there is just more room for them now.
I would feel bad if I thought that sport divers were
responsible for this depletion, but they are obviously not the main
culprits. There is essentially no sport take of sea cucumbers or
urchins, yet these are very depleted now. Only commercial harvesters
take them. While I must say that it seems that it was the
sport divers that finished off the abalone in many places, looking
at the harvest amounts of the commercial harvesters, clearly shows
that the sport divers took a tiny percentage of what the commercial
divers took. Most sport divers never saw what the abalone population
was like before the commercial divers went through areas. The
commercial divers were ahead of the sport divers. Since their minimum
size limit is just a bit bigger than the limit for sport divers, the
sport divers ended up taking the last few legal abalone from the
reefs. The case of the Sheepshead fish was a similar situation.
Sport divers put a fair amount of pressure on the Sheepsheads,
especially the bigger ones. But it was the commercial live fish
harvesters that depleted them and the commrcial fishermen that
depleted the rock fish and the ling cod. Nets have been devastating
to the bat rays as well as most other rays and skates.

The suggestion I have from this, aside from completely new
principles behind the regulation of commercial fish harvesting, is
something that individual divers can do. Much of reef ecology is
determined by the availability of habitat. If there are holes to
hide in, something will come to live in them. One thing divers can
do is to increase the available holes. Hunters all to often open
holes and don't close them back up. Aside from that, any diver can
make more shelter with little effort or distraction from their
diving. When you see a space between two rocks, drop another rock
on top of them and make a nice little fish home. Some places are
suitable and some are not. Some places like Malibu have very few
natural fish holes. Catalina, has lots of hidey holes. This is a
simple thing that divers can do to help the health of the reefs.
Enjoy the diving, seahunt
PS. To find more dive stories like this and some nice pics,
check out

Follow Ups:

Post a Followup




[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ California Scuba Diving BBS ] [ FAQ ]