Posted by Trip report: San Clemente on the Great Escape, chartered by Ocean Safari on August 21, 2001 at 22:53:52:
We were supposed to make it to Cortez and Tanner Banks the first day, with the second day spent lollygagging around the backside of San Clem. But alas, we didn't! There was a large scale military closure that precluded our passage to the outer banks. I think it's because i have a curse put on me by the lobster gods or the calico bass gods...kinda like something out of Samuel Colerige Taylor's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Basically, every trip i book to the outer banks, San Miguel, Begg Rock, the oil rigs etc will get blown out, cancelled or whatever until the curse wears off or i sacrifice a chicken or something.
Nonetheless, San Clemente is not bad as booby prizes and backup destinations go. I awoke in wee hours of the morning to hear the engine running a little too low for too long to know that we didn't make the banks.. didn't even need to climb out of bed to figure that one out. But a cursory exam of the horizon showed the front side of San Clem, at a site called the Blockhouse, so named for, believe it or not, a little cinderblock house perched atop a small bluff. I hit the water with more DIR than myself buddy, Ben Martinez. We went to 86 fsw for a half hour or so, and because i left the camera and the gun on the boat, we saw the following wondrous things: A kelpfish with a Spanish cardinalfish in its jaws. The cardinal fish was desperately squirming to escape, but that kelpfish seemed to have other ideas, and it likely became dinner. Still, as i watch the spectacle i says to myself: "AAAARRGH!, why did you leave the camera on the boat you nincompoop!". Such a photo would be worthy of the cover of Ocean Realm or SkinDiver! Of course, four minutes later, a nice yellowtail of say 3 feet or so in length lazily cruises by and checks us out. It stays within spearing range for a good ten seconds or so, obviously mocking me for having left the Riffe back on the boat (fish are smart i tell you, they know things, they can sense when danger has forgotten to bring the spear). Well, a minute later a school of barracuda materializes out of the haze and then dissappears just as fast. This was a superb fish dive, with ribbons of juvenile jackmackerel filligreed about the kelp, clouds of blacksmith, both young and old, and lots of baitfish scooting around near the surface of the water. Not a bad way to start the morning eh?
Terry May joined us for the second dive at Mosquito Reef. We had a good 42 minutes of relaxing in the shallows checking out the local lobster life. Most were shorts but there were a few legals here and there, along with juvenile sculpin and a few ocean whitefish. I brought my camera but after 250 hard dives around the world, the focusing knob was too sticky to be of use, so i was kinda stuck with a fixed focal length...oh well, whose fault is that for not maintaining it properly?
The third dive, at East End Reef was magnificent as usual. We followed the outside of the reef at the top of the wall, looking for a cave or crevice of sorts. We never did find the hole we were looking for, but we found plenty of bugs, and some of them got their pictures taken. On the way back to the boat, i found a little prickleback or fringehead of sorts, perfectly posed with a nice background and got one shot off before the subject lost patience with the photographer and left. Of course, the whole shot only took a minute to set up and shoot, but when i looked up, Terry had disappeared and Ben was left wondering which way to go. I decide to head towards the boat because that's the last direction i saw Terry heading before i clicked the shutter. We head towards the boat, spy hop half-way there, and see what looks like an orange lift bag off to the south. We descend and head towards the lift bag and at 18fsw, the kelp gives way to a glorious shallow meadow of Eisenia kelp, with a big 4 + lb calico hovering in the midst of the clearing and at least two other shootables nearby. This was one lovely aggregation of fish! We head back to the boat for our surface interval by following the outside of the reef at the edge of the towering kelp...hopin' to see yellowtail is what we were doing! Or rather, i was dragging poor Ben along, forcing him to stay in the water for 53 minutes, in the hopes that I at least would see some yellowtail. Well, the yellowtail knew that one of us was armed and dangerous with a camera, so they fled.
The fourth dive was also at East End reef. Unfortunately, Terry was enslaved back on the boat and we were powerless to free him, so we entered the water minus our fearless leader. This time i dragged ben up the west wall of East End Reef and we followed a beautiful, sheer sided canyon into the shallows. Near the entrance to the canyon, there was a nice little swim-through at 83 fsw, and of course, we simply had to check that out! We exited the canyon in the big, shallow palm kelp meadow, and that 4 lb calico and his two legal size buddies are nowhere to be seen. It must have been that Riffe in my hand that scared 'em off! Oh well, lovely dive nonetheless, but hark! My sinuses are not behaving! My head is really hurting and that bodes ill for the rest of the trip.
For the fifth dive at Ordinance Reef we are able to free our fearless leader and we immediately head into the surgy shallows to look for brass and copper shrapnel fragments, and perhaps the occasional cluster bomb or other spent projectile that might look nice if cleaned and polished. We find a few goodies, nothing worth keeping though, but we have a great time getting maytagged in 8fsw behind the surf zone! It's good pratice for bug season, when it comes time to prowl the storm-tossed shallows for dinner. The nice thing about ordinance reef, besides the ordinance is that the place is not infested with purple urchins, so bumping around in the rocks, while bad enough for one's drysuit, is not likely to result in any puncture wounds to the diver. Damn, i sure wish i was there right now. That was fun!
My sinuses have taken a thorough crap by now so i sit out the 6th and 7th dives, and early the next morning, the sun is peaking through the clouds at the world famous Swiss Cheese Reef! We anchored in the wrong spot for the hoped for 70 foot long swim through, but we find a cave with a room or two in the back and sides at the base of the reef in about 78 fsw. None of us go in of course, but on the way there and back, i followed Terry as he practiced his caving techniques through cracks and crevices and overhangs (and even got my mask kicked off UNINTENTIONALLY). Lots of fun it was, although my camera didn't think so. Oh, and obviously, we stared long and hard at the bugs, just to let 'em know that we'd be back sometime in October.
The last two dives of the trip were made at Castle Rock; a site i'd never visited. Oh what a treat that was! Terry was put to work once again so it was just Ben and myself. We circled around in the kelp a bit, which is nice enough, but on the way back, i spot two VERY nice sized giant sea bass. We are heading back to the boat, at around 20 fsw, and as soon as i see the bass, i say "holy ****" and dive to 49 fsw, kicking like crazy to intercept the bass. Ben follows, probably thinking that i am crazier than he previously thought, and then i hear a muffled "oh s***" and i know that he too has made visual contact! They are really nice sized specimens, as long as we were, perhaps 350 pounds. They cruise lazily past us, perhaps slightly irritated at all the noise our regulators were making, or our excited gesturing, and as Ben corralled them back towards my position, i focused on them with the camera, but with the macro lens and the jammed focusing knob, just couldn't get a decent shot. Ha! Great dive by any definition. All that sawtoothing ruined my sinuses so the last dive was made in even more pain that the previous three. We took a northeast heading from the boat and headed into an algal forest so thick and wondrous, it was like nothing i'd ever seen before! This was one kelp forest that really truly looked like a jungle. There was feather boa kelp going every which way amidst the Macrocystis and other giant algae. There must have been quite a few different types of kelp here, and the growth was so thick, it really was reminiscent of lianas in a tropical lowland forest! It was thick, and dark and full of fish! Suffice to say, that was one drop-dead gorgeous dive! I didn't spear anything because by now i had a splitting headache and was in no condition to get stealthy on the calicos. My air consumption tanked as the pain got worse and at 39 minutes, it was time to call it a day. Who knows? maybe the sinus problem was punishment from the lobster and calico bass gods and now the curse will be lifted, after the pennance has been completed ;-) That algal forest at Castle Rock is as magnificent as anything i have ever seen, on either side of the Pacific, northern hemisphere or south, Asia or the Eastern Pacific! It is one world class divesite, and i for one, am going to make every effort to go back before this next year's predicted El Nino shows up!
Also, the folks from Ocean Safari were a good fun group, and i wish i was back on that boat anchored off of Castle Rock or Ordinance reef, with a bunch of quality buddies, getting ready to enter the water all over again.
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