Dive Report: Coronado Islands 11/6/05

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Posted by Dick J on November 10, 2005 at 17:18:48:

Every once in a while itís nice to depart from the same old same-old and try something new. For Southern California divers accustomed to the usual fare of Catalina Island , San Clemente Island, or the more northerly Channel Islands, one such opportunity for change is a trip to the Coronado Islands, just south of the US/Mexico border.

The Coronados are a group of isolated, rocky islands about 10 miles off the coast of Baja California, halfway between Tijuana and Ensenada. There are two principal islands in this group - North Coronado and South Coronado, plus a number of smaller, rocky islets located to the northwest of South Coronado. North Coronado is the smallest of the major islands, and for practical purposes is uninhabited; the larger South Island hosts an outpost of the Mexican Navy. Given the remoteness, and the desolate appearance of these islands, itís easy to imagine that being posted here is not on the list of Top 10 Favorite Places for Mexican sailors.

The close proximity of San Diego to the Coronados means that these islands are within easy reach of a day trip on a San Diego-based dive boat. Recently I took such a trip aboard the Lois Ann, operating out of Mission Bay. The Lois Ann is a relatively compact boat, carrying a maximum of twenty divers. What the Lois Ann lacks in spaciousness and amenities, however, is made up for quite nicely by the pleasant and helpful crew: owner/captain/cook/dishwasher Randy, and boat operations manager/divemaster/deckhand Carl. Captain Randyís site briefings were detailed, and given with contagious enthusiasm and humor. Carlís attention to customer service was no less than amazing: imagine having a dive boat offer to fill your tank and top off your pony bottle, AFTER the last dive of the day, while the boat returns to port Ė what a concept!

Itís about an hour and forty-five minute cruise from Mission Bay to North Coronado Island. On the day that I visited the Coronados, the sky was obscured by a low-lying cloud deck which hung around for most of the time we were there. It was exciting to watch the steep, rugged form of North Coronado slowly appear out of the mist as we approached the lee (East) side of the island. Our first dive was at The Arch, near the southern tip of North Coronado. Itís possible to go deep at this site Ė 100ft+ but given the overcast sky it seemed like staying relatively shallow would provide better opportunities for macro photography. After the obligatory swim-through of the arch, most of the first dive was spent searching for small creatures. Typical Channel Island reef fish species are abundant, and there are a few invertebrates to find for those with patience and a sharp eye. I spotted my very first Porterís Chromodorid nudibranch on this trip, barely a half-inch in length, feeding in a surge-swept crevice.

There was a fair amount of surge at all sites visited that day, so visibility was limited to 30ft maximum, and was often closer to 15ft if there were sea lions frolicking nearby. The water was surprisingly cold for being this far south Ė 56 degrees F; it was nice to be in a dry suit during these dives which lasted anywhere from 60 to 85 minutes.

The Lois Ann was repositioned to Lobster Shack Cove for the second dive, also situated on the lee side of North Island. This site has a number of interesting features to explore including mini-walls, and a small wreck in about 60ft of water, approximately 150 yards offshore. Most divers were fortunate to be entertained by the friendly and rather mischievous sea lions which inhabit this cove. The external strobe unit on my camera became the preferred chew toy for several playful sea lions, and they also seemed to get pleasure out of gnawing on the strobe arm and the camera housingís lens port. Itís hard to get upset with such endearing creatures: no harm was done beyond a few teeth marks in the soft plastic of the strobe casing.

After laying out a spread of sandwiches on the dive deck, Captain Randy guided the Lois Ann across the channel between the North and South islands and anchored in a shallow bay ringed by several rocky islets, off the South Island. We were given the option of doing two short dives or one long dive at this site, before picking up anchor and heading for home. I opted for the long dive and spent nearly ninety minutes poking my head into nooks and crannies from one end of the bay to the other. There were stretches of the reef that looked like prime territory for nudibranchs Ė feathery algae anchored to the rocks in areas with plenty of water movement. Sure enough, I found what appeared to be a colony of several dozen Stearnís Aeolids (another personal first) grazing across the algae-encrusted rock. Problem was, they were concentrated in a small area mid-way up a 20ft wall, in a surge channel. It was an exercise in utter frustration trying to photograph these colorful, one-inch long creatures while being swept along the wall by the swift surge. But as any nudibranch aficionado knows, tricky photography just comes with the territory.

Based on the broad smiles and happy chatter following the last dive of the day, itís a safe bet to say that this was a good day of diving for all on board the Lois Ann. I know that I felt a twinge of sorrow after leaving our last anchorage and watching the islands fade on the horizon behind us. Returning to the Coronado Islands sometime soon is definitely on my diving itinerary.

A link to photos taken on this trip is found below. All underwater photos were taken with a 60mm macro lens, including the sea lion shots.

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