Posted by Franko on May 28, 2002 at 20:19:40:
Thursday morning I was sitting at my desk at work talking on the phone with my wife about what we were going to do over the weekend. "I wonder if we could get a room at the Banning House at Two Harbors," she asked, referring to the 90-year-old lodge at the isthmus of Catalina Island. I agreed to call and ask. Knowing that the place has only 11 rooms, I suspected they would wonder what we were smoking, calling the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend, but on the other hand I figured I could check on room availability for later in the summer. To my surprise, they'd just had a cancellation minutes beforehand. Friday afternoon we and our 7-year-old son were on a Catalina Express boat on our way to the isthmus.
As some of you know, although I'm scuba-certified I've been exclusively freediving for most of the past year. Unlike most freedivers, however, my hunting is with a camera rather than a speargun.
Saturday morning my original hope was to walk over to USC's Wrigley Center in Big Fisherman's Cove (where the hyperbaric chamber is located) to snorkel. The attraction here is that it's home to a community of leopard sharks, with snorkeling available by arrangement with the USC folks (usually by advance reservation; they like to control the number of people in the water in order to avoid scaring off the sharks). It's a bit of a hike from Two Harbors, though, and I realized that with a sometimes-crotchety first-grader in tow, we weren't going to make it. So I settled for just jumping in the water for the sake of getting wet along Two Harbors' main beach area. Here I found mostly small calico bass and a few opaleyes. To my surprise, though, I ran into a gang of three or four sea hares -- foot-long brown slugs grazing their way across the bottom.
At one point during the day, my son and I walked over to Cat Harbor, the harbor on the open ocean side of Catalina's isthmus. Sadly there were four or five carcasses of sea lions and/or seals washed up on the beach. They were pretty far gone, so I couldn't tell if they had large injuries (i.e. shark attacks) or if they'd died from other causes. Recently I'd seen sea lions that appeared to be suffering from the domoic acid poisoning that's been in the news the last few weeks (this is a naturally occurring poison in algae that gets into the food chain), and I wondered if these animals could have been victims of that.
Saturday afternoon we signed up to go out on the Garibaldi, a boat run by the Two Harbors Dive Shop. Apparently they generally go out for a two-tank scuba dive in the morning, and in the afternoon they do a run that they bill as either a snorkel outing or a one-tank scuba dive. Our boat was a mixture of some scuba divers, including several doing a tuneup class, and a few snorkelers. The Garibaldi is a bit different-looking from most dive boats, being a 45-foot motor catamaran. Dave Long, the shop owner, took us to a little place he called Bathtub Cove a little to the west of Fourth of July and Cherry Coves. There were lots of boats out -- the Sand Dollar and the Conception were at adjacent coves, and just about every tiny indentation along the coast had at least a sailboat tucked away in it. We dropped anchor in about 35 feet of water and the divers started getting on their tanks in preparation to get in the water.
My wife, meanwhile, who snorkels about once a year, got into her rental wetsuit, hopped in and started swimming over toward the shore. In less than a minute she spotted a bat ray. She then headed on into the kelp. Previously as far as I know she has only snorkeled in the warm waters of the Caribbean and Hawaii, so this marked the first time she appreciated what I saw in poking around in the kelp forests of California. She said she wanted to buy a wetsuit, so I gather she liked it.
Although my son has snorkeled among bats in Mexican caves, every winter he forgets how much he loves the water and so he has to get reacclimated bit by bit every summer. Thus although he enjoyed the boat ride, the furthest he would go was to dip a toe in the water off the swim step. My wife and I took turns hanging with him on the boat, while the other one went in the water. Fortunately for us the classes were a little slow in getting going, so we ended up spending about an hour and a half at the site.
When it was my turn, I headed into shallow water and took a quick test dive. I was thrilled to find out that I could actually get underwater for the first time in several months. In December, April and early May I went out on dive boats to freedive, but found that I got a shooting pain in the area of my left eyebrow whenever I tried to get deeper than about 6 feet. I tried all kinds of sinus medications to no avail, and concluded that I must have a chronic block of my left frontal sinus. Magically, however, it was not an issue at all this weekend. Now mind you I'm no Pippin Ferreras; my idea of a fun time is to get down to about 20 to 25 feet for 20 to 30 seconds at a time. On this particular day my maximum depth was 19 feet and max bottom time was 21 seconds.
My 7mm wetsuit is in for repairs, so I was wearing a 3mm full suit bolstered by a couple of rashguards. This was okay for a half hour at a time, but eventually I'd get slightly chilly. With 9 pounds of weights and a pair of 3-foot-long freediver fins, I'd just take a breath, point myself down, make a quick kick or two and effortlessly glide to the floor.
I cruised through the kelp for a while and noticed the usual Catalina fish. The male garibaldis seem to be getting more territorial, so I gather they're pruning their little algae gardens to prepare for mating season. One of my highlights of last summer was watching a female garibaldi laying eggs under the watchful eye of a male at Little Corona. The males prepare for this by fastidiously grooming a patch of a certain kind of algae, and then the females come and lay the eggs. The males fertilize the eggs and then stick around to watch over them until they hatch.
Midway through my first set of dives I noticed the divemaster take a running jump into the water. Apparently one of the snorkelers had a panic attack, and she helped him back to the boat. Fortunately he didn't seem worse for wear later, although a bit discouraged-looking.
After checking out a few kelp rooms, I headed out over the sand to start making my way back to the boat. I could very vaguely see a bat ray moving underneath me just at the edge of visibility in about 20 feet of water. I took a deep breath and headed down to get a couple of pictures. There were actually two medium-sized bat rays hanging out together. That was a nice touch to wind up the boat dive.
Sunday morning we walked over to the beach at the east end of Isthmus Cove. I believe this area, near the campground, is called Little Fisherman's Cove. While my wife painted a watercolor and my son hunted for shore crabs with kids from the campground, I got on my wetsuit and headed out along the rocky shore between Little Fisherman's Cove and Big Fisherman's Cove. Traversing the sandy bottom I noticed a small bat ray and swam down to get a quick shot. I then spotted a good-sized sheep crab ambling along across the sandy bottom. He didn't seem to know what to make of me as I descended a few times to photograph him from different angles. I then swam along the rocks and saw a goodly number of various different fish. Among these were the first bluebanded goby and black-eyed goby that I've seen in several months. (I have a special fondness for bluebanded gobys, as this was the first fish I saw on my first certification scuba dive a couple of years ago at Casino Point.) I also ran across another sea hare, and stopped to get a few shots of it.
Photography was a bit of a challenge, for although I was using a moderately wide-angle lens (28mm), I was shooting with available light with relatively slow films (Fuji Velvia 50 and Provia 100). Conditions underwater were not what I'd call bright, so I had to open up the lens, resulting in a shallow depth-of-field. Since the Nikonos V is a rangefinder camera, you have to estimate the camera-to-subject distance fairly closely to get anything in focus. As most divers know, distances are deceptive underwater, with things tending to look closer than they actually are. Although I prefer to travel light while freediving, next time I may try bringing along a strobe.
That was pretty much the underwater segment of our Two Harbors weekend. Water temps were in the low 60s (with pronounced warm and cold patches, both vertically and horizontally in places), and visibility ranging from about 15 to 25 feet. As mentioned, I was just thrilled to be able to get more than a couple of feet under the surface. (I saw an ear-nose-throat doctor today, who said that I may need minor surgery to straighten a deviated septum. Anyone ever had this done?)
P.S. Recently someone who had seen one of my postings asked if I was the Franko who produces Franko's maps. Not me -- I'm just a guy named Frank O.
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