Re: Golden Days of Cailifornia Diving

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Posted by seahunt on June 06, 2001 at 12:32:29:

In Reply to: Golden Days of Cailifornia Diving posted by Jon Davies on June 05, 2001 at 22:22:10:

I much prefer writing reports about a dive than anything else related
to diving, so here is a story I liked writing because it was about great
diving at its best.
If you don't know, there are lots of dive stories at
Some are by me and some are by others. You should be able to find some
dive stories to provide enjoyable reading there.
Enjoy the diving, seahunt

. .The SeaBee
When diving was young, the SeaBee was the hot dive boat, if
there was any such thing. I went on that boat for my check out dive
in 1970. It was one of the very few dive boats then and perhaps about
the nicest one in Ventura, near the northern Channel Islands. It
started out in Port Hueneme, right near the Navy's Sea Bee Construction
Battalion base. You know, the "First we dig em, then we die in em"
guys. I dare say there was a link in the name, but I don't know exactly
what it was. Art was the skipper. I was a newly certified, hyperactive,
immune to cold, complete dive nut. I lived for my new found love. It was
one of the best times of my life.
It was an less than 2 hours straight due south, to the tip of
Anacapa Island, less than 3 to Santa Cruz Island, a few points west. I
first dove on this boat when I was 15 and continued taking trips on it
for the next 5 years. A number of times, we went all the way up behind
Santa Cruz Island and crossed over to Santa Rosa Island. At this time,
Santa Rosa was almost pristine and was just starting to feel the touch
of the commercial divers. Santa Cruz was more impacted, but the diving
was still only lightly touched.
Diving then was a different matter, Nylon lined neoprene for wet
suits was relatively new. Divers would use talcum powder, soaps and a
lot of pulling to get in a "skin inside" wetsuit. It took a lot of
stretching, gyrations and some help from a buddy, to get out. Still,
skin inside wetsuits are the warmest. When I started, there were no
BC's or pressure gauges, only horse collar flotation devices and J valve
reserves with pull handles to give the last 300 to 500 pounds of air.
It wasn't all that important. We knew how much air we had... My second
hand, 2 hose, single diaphram regulator was another matter. It sorta
tended to say "No" when I tried to take a breath much past 80 feet.
In the LA area, many of the divers were actually aerospace
engineers fascinated by this fancy new technology. I have heard that
most of the rest were individuals rejected from motorcycle gangs for
being too rough and crude. At least that was a common image. It was a
young sport. You had to be in shape and there was little shelter from
the cold. You didn't ask if there was a shower, you asked if there
was a head. It all made for an interesting camaraderie.
One of the biggest dive areas at the Channel Islands, was
Yellowbanks, just around the south backside of Santa Cruz Island. There
are yellowish cliffs that rise about 100 feet above the shore that give
it the name. On a really clear day, it can be seen from the coast. It
was a common destination when the swell was out of the north. The nice
thing about this place was its size. The reefs extend about 3 miles
along the shore and make a much larger fan in the water, for sometimes
a mile out. They extend mostly to about 80 or 90 feet, but there are
deeper areas. Realistically, it doesn't get all that deep between Santa
Cruz and Anacapa Islands.
This was a 6 or 7 AM departure and Art would pick a spot to anchor
in the middle of the kelp somewhere. He usually picked a spot with
openings in the kelp. Though kelp can make a thick constant mat, those
are rarely that extensive. Normally the kelp is like large trees in a
forest with space in between them, rather than impenetrable brush. I
did a lot of summer and fall diving then. Hey, I was still in school.
It would be a beautiful, calm, warm, sunny morning with the kelp a
beautiful gold. If it was fairly clear, you could follow the kelp down
with your eye so that your eyes would be focused when they reached the
bottom. If you saw that, it was going to be fun vis.
We suited up with little urgency and did a stride off the side.
By the time I was 16, I was not a big buddy diver. The skipper was the
dive master and made any judgments about safety. While solo diving was
discouraged, especially officially, it was common and ignored. These
guys took their diving seriously.

When you went down, following along the kelp, the first thing that
you were going to see were the fish, especially the black, white and
red Sheepshead, with its large canine teeth for breaking urchins. They
were everywhere and 12 pounders were quite common. Many people hunted
them because they were so common and big, but cleaning them was tough
and preparing them in a tasty way was really difficult. Most divers
soon tended to leave them alone. There were lots of various kelp bass,
perch and rockfish all over the reefs.
There was no sea urchin industry, so as you got down to the rocks,
the first thing that you really saw were the large red urchins,
Strongilocentrotus franciscanus. They are black under water, without a
light, but light shows them to be a deep red. They usually have a ball
smaller than 5 inches in diameter. With the 5 or so inch spines that
they have though, they make a pretty big package. They were everywhere,
grouped together in ledges or burrowed into the rocks. Soft rocks were
commonly riddled with 5 inch holes that the urchins had burrowed into
the rocks with their under spines, for protection. Normally, these eat
loose kelp leaves and are very important to reef ecology in that under
their spines is a primary nursery for juvenile lobsters, abalone, crabs
and other species.
I would usually follow ledges, looking for what is hiding.
Survival in the kelp forest is about not being eaten. Most life is
dependent on protected hiding places in the rocks. Some carry some of
their own armor, like crabs, lobster, urchins and the mollusks, but
almost all critters need a home for survival. Then there are critters
like the Sea Cucumbers and Sea Hares that use a strategy of being
inedible or the stinging strategy of the nudibranch and anemones.
There are lots of big things like crabs and abalone to see. There are
actually more small things to see, like nudibranchs, feathers, rock
clams,,, You never know what you are going to see if you look. I had
great vision in dim light then and dive lights weren't that good then
anyway. Now I enjoy using a light to better show the colors of these
At this time, I got to dive almost weekly for much of the year. I
had todays dive planned. The intent on this huge reef area, was to swim
fast through one huge circle and come up under the boat when my air
was gone. I got a lot of practice at this and could do this fairly
accuratly. It would bring me through a number of different ecologies
in the distance of the dive. There is one ecology that I always loved
to look for.
The best view for looking at critters is to look up. Literally,
the most life is under the rocks. The seaweeds and bottom life aren't
near as fragile as the coral reefs and there are likely to be sand
channels in the lowest parts of the reefs. So the way to go is to swim
along the lowest edge of the reef, moving up when there is something to
look at. This both keeps you below much of the surge and also lets you
hang on when you are in the surge.
So I'd charge off across the reef. Everything was still so new to
me then.
Starting out in about 30 feet of water, the terrain was what I
call "Catalina like". It was warm and sunny, with lots of smaller
algaes, including reds and greens, thickly covering the rocks. There
are lots of different perch species including Buttermouth, Opal Eye,
Garibaldi, Surf Perch and others. Shallower than 15 feet, vivid green
eel grass would grow thickly on the top of rocks. Green Abalone,
Purple Urchins and Green Anemones were common in the shallower areas.
Hold on tight though. Things can get moving from the south swell.
Between 30 and 40 feet, there are still many of the delicate
algaes, but now there are more browns, especially Laminarias. It is
great to grab the base of these small, tough kelp plants, to pull
against for travelling or to hold onto to when the surge pushes
against you. They are quite pretty themselves and produce the
predominant golden color of many reefs.
In this area is where you will start to see more Sheepshead,
various Bass, White Fish, Pink Abalone, Red Urchins and small rock
fish. In the cracks behind the big urchins, large scallops could be
found hidden. Here, the Sea Cucumbers go almost unnoticed, because
they are so common. Under the big rocks is where many of the larger
fish hang out.
In these trips, I often would encounter playful Sea Lion. If you
pay attention to them, most would like to play. Spin in the water to
watch them and they will swim a circle around you faster then you can
spin in one place. What is really interesting is what I call the
Butterballs. In Fall, the newest generation of Sea Lions is going out
on its own. These 4 foot or so long juviniles are almost as fat as
they are long and their curiosity stretches easily a mile. They love
to watch divers with their huge dark eyes. They are skittish like
colts, but if spooked by a diver, they will be back in 30 seconds.
Then, I would find what I was mainly looking for. There would be
a channel in the reef that was 10 or 15 feet deeper than the rest. It
was cooler in the channel and there would be sand channels and small
areas of a fine white, almost gravel in the rocks. This is where the
laminareas grow on the flat rocks. I knew that I was likely to be able
to find some large Red Abalone in this ecology. They could be
anywhere, but most often they were horizontal in a ledge, upside down
or rightside up. Loose kelp leaves tend to get washed into these
ledges and this is what the ablaone eat. They don't have to go
anywhere and are relatively protected. At this time, the daily limit
was 5 abalone, 7 inches or over. There were still many of these and
the law did not then require a caliper measure and a smooth regulation
size iron. You just slipped your handy dandy, fairly useless and
easily broken, dive knife under them and pop them off. If you are slow
or clumsy, it will have time to get clamped on to the rock real good.
If they get time enough, perhaps 5 or 10 seconds, they may be hard or
impossible to get off the rocks, especially without cutting them. I
have even seen dive knifes cleanly break under an abalone.
After a short cruise here, it is probably time to think about
air. Head up just a bit into the warmer water and finish my circle to
come back to the boat. I was in no real hurry to return to the surface
and you could never guess what you might see if you got lucky. It is
not really good for the tank, but I saw no point in returning to the
boat with air left.

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