Gerstle Cove Dive Report

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Posted by seahunt on August 30, 2001 at 10:14:05:

Gerstle Cove

In the early morning sunlight light and thin mists, it was a beautiful
drive through meadows and redwoods to Gerstle Cove. I had never been
diving here, but I had heard of this preserve over the years and was
looking forward to seeing it for myself.
Eric was waiting for me at the entrance so that made that part easy.
Until then I had only my impression of him by written word or by phone
conversation. Now I had a face to go with.
We drove on down perhaps 1/2 mile to the bluff parking and pulled in.
Divers like divers. I had a good impression of Eric and it got better
as I talked to him. He knew what he was talking about, besides, he
brought me a tank.
Eric had a very interesting wetsuit. It was an Italian made freediving
suit with an open cell inside surface. Skin-in is generally one of
the warmest kinds of suits because the neoprene slides right on your
skin. This open cell suit would just about stick to your skin. It would
compress some at depths, but for shallower scuba or free diving, it
would be the hard to beat for comfort, fit or warmth. Of course he had
his own hair conditioning and water concoction to make it possible to
get on. The suit had a pale camouflage pattern that looked like it might
well make a diver invisible while floating on the surface in a kelp
Once we got our gear arranged, he backed his van down the narrow road
to the end which was only about 20 yards from the waters edge. we got
our gear out and I started moving it near the water as he parked. It
seemed to take him almost no time to get back.
Gerstle Cove is deep enough to be well protected, especially on the north
side where the prevailing swell comes from. It's your usual North Coast
cove surrounded by raw rock cliffs sticking up at least 60 or 70 feet. Eric
had told me something of the extensive history of this cove, once used
as a logging port where schooners would pick up logs destined for San
Francisco. There were large steel rings sunk into the cliff that had
one time helped hold ships in place. Apparently the cove was full of
boulders that had been ballast on the empty logging boats and were
tossed overboard before the ships cargo was loaded. Further out in the
cove, Eric had found a number of large anchors that had probably
been for permanent anchor buoys as the ships waited their turn to be
It is hard to understand how remote this part of the coast has always been
historically. Bustling San Francisco was little more than 100 miles away by
sea, but it was quite practically out of reach for those that lived and worked
in this primeval place. That doesn't even mention how remote it was when it
was earlier visited by Russian fur hunters.
Now it is a protected place, off limits to any commercial or private
exploitation, carefully protected for visitors to see its vibrant life. That
is if they don't mind a bit of chill water.
The shore of the cove is perhaps 50 yards wide and the cove is quite narrow
for at least 70 yards out. Then it opens up past the point on the south. It
is probably 100 yards out to get past the protection of the point on the north
side of the cove. There are lots of shallow rocks along the southern side of
the cove, but the north side looks far more clear.
We were going to take Eric's float out to a buoy about 50 yards into the center
of the cove. We would anchor it there and start our dive. I planned to be the
lazy tourist and just follow Eric around while trying to get pictures. I'm
Talk about easy, I did my usual and poured a jug of warm water down my
wetsuit before going in. There are no waves, but crossing dry rocks like that,
then slimy rocks like that, is always to be done with great care or else great
The swim out was of no note except as the cold water seeped in. It turned out to
be right around 50 degrees brisk. Eric is conscientious enough and I guess that I
felt he was a good enough diver, that I was basically a space and just paid
attention to my surroundings.
We went down and immediately saw what makes North Coast diving some of the most
beautiful in the world. The cold water is so rich in dissolved oxygen and
nutrients, that life grows thick on every surface. Also, being in a reserve, it
was big. I immediately saw a California Sea Cucumber that was easily bigger than
a football. It's a bit of a strange sight looking like an animated goldish
pillow, covered with... well.. protuberances shaped like skinny Hershey's
Kisses. I didn't look long. Everywhere there were critters to be seen and try
to get a quick photo of before they disappear in the gloom behind us.
On the side of small boulders were pale Giant Green Anenomes too big for me to
figure out how to photograph with my close-up lens. Scattered everywhere like
leaves were bat stars and an occasional Pisaster star.
Eric was following his compass to deeper water in the entrance of the cove. I
was just merrily following, clicking away.
Everywhere were abalone. Big abalone. Bigger abalone. Abalone up in feeding
position, halfway off their rocks. Abalone seemingly asleep flat on their rocks.
Abalone with bat stars on their backs. Even occasional small abalone, though
most of those would be well hidden under rocks or in the intertidal nursery that
is the spines under the urchins.
There were many Red Urchins, though not as many as I have seen some places.
These ones did qualify as huge though. Many with their central shells (tests)
very near 6 inches across. Some were burgundy, some appeared deep black, but
all were different rich hues of red when a flashlight was played on them. Don't
bump these by swimming carelessly or they will most certainly teach you
manners. Overall, I saw few Purple Urchins, though there were some, deep in
their burrows in the rocks.
Then, under a rock, I saw a critter I always look for. It was an Orange Sea
Cucumber. Well, no, I didn't see it, because it was almost completely under a
rock, but its brilliant orange food filter, the size of a hand, stuck out into
the current to catch small specks of food that floated by. A couple of pictures
before I look up for Eric and go to find the next strange life. Besides what I
was finding, he was continually finding curious things and pointing them out for
me to take a shot of.
There were still lots of abalone and so there were many of the fast, 15 to 20
armed Picnopodia starfish as well. Everything from 18 inch adults to 2 inch
youngsters. I didn't see any in the 2 foot size range that can still be found
further south though.
Of course the bottom here was thick with short lamanarias. These brown algaes
are the true weeds of the deep intertidal. They are quick growing, thick and
tough enough to take almost any surge or wave.
I saw a 10 inch dull red Gumboot Chiton that looks and acts more like a rock
than anything else. There were more Giant Green Anemones near a foot tall and a
foot across. I saw one star that may have been a Rainbow Starfish, but I'm not
really sure. It was the only specie I saw that I did not see a number of
representatives of.
As we progressed on, every so often a golden juvenile Lingcod with brilliant
blue spots, would spook up and stay out of any camera range I could manage. I
tried though. At one point we found a small male with a mature mottled green
color. I don't know yet if I got his picture.
We were getting into deeper water, but the visibility was definitely getting
poorer. When you only start out with about 8 feet of vis, you don't want it to
get any worse. Eric signaled that he wanted to turn around to look for better
vis. That's OK, I was just blindly following where he led with all my attention
on the sea life, my camera or a very occasional glance at my gauges. We never
got deeper than 22 feet, so I really didn't care where we were.
Visibility got better and my feet were getting cold. That's the problem with
photography or buddy diving in poor vis. You can't swim fast enough to keep
yourself very warm. Still, it wasn't cold enough to be a problem. What was
becoming a nuisance was that I was a bit lightly weighted and as my tank became
lighter, that was becoming a distinct nuisance. I picked up a rock, but Eric
made it clear that that was a no no in the preserve.
Occasionally I would see a White Spotted Rose Anemone. These were something I
always look forward to because of their brilliant magenta color, but few were
open. They like waters that move far faster than what were in this calm
cove. Give them some 10 foot swell and they would perk right up.
Finally I had used up my film, so I was using my flash light and trying to
peer into the deepest holes that had no sunlight to illuminate them. With the
thick lush life on every surface, it was surprising how completely barren
the rock surfaces in these holes were. There might be a couple small barnacles
or a bit of bacteria growth, but not much else.
We just kept touring in this calm cove that was completely packed with life,
but I knew we were nearing our starting point and soon it would be the end
of the dive. We came up near the float and I figured it was just time to
swim to shore, but Eric had just a bit more to add for me. He said that the
shallow part of the south side of the cove was a really neat dive that was
well worth seeing. There tended to be more fish over there, especially at night.
He was going to go back the short distance to get the float and he advised me to
go on over to where the bull kelp was growing thick in the shallow, glassy water.
I swam a bit and went down to the bottom in about 8 feet. The top of the rocks
were covered with lacy coraline red algae, but there was lots of other life in
between them. I just worked my way in. Vis was poor enough to make buddy diving
meaningless, but it was very pretty viewing. Again, I was using my light to look
in the black cracks between the boulders and here there were some resting fish,
but it was a bit hard to see. Finally, I just swam up along some large rocks
that were well exposed at this tide and followed them most of the way to shore,
inspecting their iridescent seaweed covered sides to see who was crawling along
on their daily rounds.
Well, depth was now about 3 feet and vis was about 1 foot. It was certainly time
to return to land. I have gotten jaded enough going over rocks, that I tend to be
a bit cavalier about my rock exits. I doubt I impressed anyone with my sea lion
style flopping exit. I have a bad habit of not stopping and sometimes just keep
floundering on, but this time I stopped about 10 feet up the rocks from the water
and decided to act like a biped again. I relaxed a bit as Eric made a far more
dignified exit.
It was funny that as I exited, two divers were going in, one obviously far less
experienced than the other. The newer one mentioned that she was underweighted.
I said to get dry rocks from above the tide line and fill her pockets as full as
she could.
I really appreciated diving with Eric. I rarely have made a dive where I so
completely ignored the details of the dive. I found it interesting that the one
time I bothered to look at my compass, I had a perfect visualization of where I
was in the cove anyway. It's sort of automatic. I never bothered to register my
time or depth. I knew.
Ah, Gerstle Cove is a beautiful Park. I was just a bit out of place. I am more
at home in the more open ocean.
On a more subjective note, looking back at the dive, I found it curious, as I have
before, how I respond to any dive. I hunt less now than I used to. Now I use a
camera fairly often in situations where I really can't hunt, but in ways using a
camera can be just another kind of hunt. Hunting underwater is the ultimate high
for me. It is not just fantastically stimulating, it also releases ancient instincts
that I like to tap into. Hunting instincts are common in humans and if you can use
them, they give a fantastically heightened consciousness and awareness. I've learned
that related to this is how fast I am swimming. Swimming fast, swooping in and
out of the reef, riding wave and surge, is very stimulating as well. Here, there
was no hunt. It was just look at the next big critter and try to get the camera
lined up for the best angle you can come up with. It was far more peaceful,
perhaps bucolic, than I am used to from the North Coast, but I knew what was
coming next and knew that it would be plenty stimulating and challenging.
Next... Some North Coast freediving.
Enjoy the diving, seahunt
PS... If you don't already know, there are lots more reports like this one at

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