A Time To Dive - Aloha

The Best Diving Ever

I was just a kid, but I already knew the diving was and would be the best part of my life. It just made me feel alive.

Sometimes I try to write about a place of beautiful diving or great hunting or great people or strange gear or some other thing that made a certain time or place special. This is about a time and place when all these things came together at the same time. This was the time to dive Aloha. It was a time that covered a number of years and a whole lot of diving. What I write here is memories of many people and events. If I am lucky, I will be able to communicate something of what a special time it was and how great the diving was then.

Aloha Dive Shop in Burbank, owned by Masa Wantanabi in the early 70's, was the kind of dive shop that had everything the diver could want, from the latest ScubaPro Mark I, single hose regulator to old Voit single diaphragm, double hose regulators. It was a comfortable shop cluttered with new gear, worn out relics, dive knickknacks and memorabilia, with chairs spread around to make the regulars comfortable. It was a friendly hangout for an active diving community. It had a comfortable personality that I have to think somehow came from Masa's Japanese heritage. There was a personal amiability of the community that was very special. I saw the same thing on the Golden Doubloon in the person of the skipper, Eddy Tanaka.

I remember that dive one Thanksgiving day at the north side of Leo Carillo with Baby John. It was overcast, cold and a bit rough. We both swam out with guns and floats. After a while of screwing around, we went in because Johnny wanted to change his gear around. We went out again. This time he had a pole spear and I had no gun of any kind. I had a surfboard for a float. This time it was another long screw around before we got under the water. It was an OK dive punctuated by finding this huge halibut sitting in the open. Johnny didn't want to shoot it with his pole spear, so I was going to try to stab it with my abalone iron. It took off which was probably lucky for me.
All in all, we had been in the water near 3 hours and as I was finally slowly going in on the surfboard, perhaps only 60 feet from shore when a large head popped up just in front of me. It was a large male sea lion giving me the once over. He dropped straight back down, leaving no ripple. I was so cold that I actually looked at the ring he left in some sea foam, to confirm that I had actually seen him.

I was certified at Cal Aquatics, but the nearest dive shop to where I lived was Aloha Dive Shop in Reseda. I went over there. Hey, divers love dive shops. I met Roddy Winton and his very charming wife Anita. That is where this starts for me, because it was their energy that did a lot a to make that diving community much of what it was.

Aloha Dive Shop in Reseda was the somewhat neglected child of the Aloha shop in Burbank. Roddy took it over and wanted to make it into far more. He attracted a lot of good divers and a lot of good people to the diving community.
They mostly chartered boats out of the dock in San Pedro at 22nd Street landing. Most often chartered were the Golden Doubloon and the Rio Rita. The Golden Doubloon was a big, slow boat that was the first dive charter boat on the west coast. It was first run by Mel Fisher. The only fame of the Rio Rita was that it had been a garbage scow. It was a bit fast too, which is nice. Both boats were quite comfortable for getting to Catalina, San Clemente and Santa Barbara islands.

Johnny and I went off the Golden Doubloon a short distance from the kelp bed at Eagles Reef. We had no idea how vertical that reef is, so we got close to the kelp and descended. At the bottom, my wetsuit was like a saltine cracker. Both Johnny and I were looking at our depth gauges. It's about 110 feet there.
At one point, I went under the elephant ear kelp at 60 feet. It was dark and all I saw was a bunch of sculpin, so I just continued the dive elsewhere. Back on the boat, only two divers had taken any abalone and they were all large greens. They had both gotten a good number as well. I had not seen any on the dive. Neither had anyone else. It turns out that both divers that had seen abs had found them under the elephant ear kelp. This was when I learned to dive where others wouldn't. That is where you find the interesting stuff. It was an important lesson I always followed. Go where other divers don't.
Later, I told Johnny I wanted to see how deep I could free dive and that he should go to 100 feet and wait for me. I made it down, but he was on the bottom, so I figure it was well over 100 feet. Swimming up against the cliff that is the side of the reef, I could easily see why it is often called Eel's Reef instead of Eagle's Reef. Every crack held a large moray eel.

The dive shop always seemed to be some kind of party. There was always activity there. They might be working on the big old aquariums in the shop to hold local sea life, including horned sharks and some huge lobsters. It could be trying out someone's latest efforts at smoking sheepheads. They might be having laughing fits over opening Cyulume light sticks and spraying them all over the bathroom walls to make a light show. Most often though, it was about dive gear. A lot of divers then were aerospace engineers and not only liked the adventure of diving for itself, but also liked the technology of dive gear. They had the tools and knowledge to machine or fabricate much custom gear themselves. Not only that, but dive gear had just undergone a revolution. Before about 1974, dive gear was simple with horse collers for floatation, J valves and no pressure gauges. A few people, including me, were still using double hose regulators. The USCG only allowed boat fills to 1800 psi, but even 2250 psi in a steel 72 seems like a pretty short dive compared to what we have these days. We still got by fine. 1974 was the year when ScubaPro released the first popular Buoyancy Compensator (BC). It was also the first year that Submersible Pressure Gauges (SPG) became common. This represented a revolution for divers.

We took Johnny's inflatable to Paradise Cove one evening just a bit before dark. He had rigged a hose so that he could fill it from a spare tank. That was fast. We headed out and made a night dive on a very nice reef. Visibility was great and there was a lot of bioluminescence. We didn't get any game, but that really wasn't why we were there. I had wanted to make my first night dive.

I guess there is another topic that I must address. I've mentioned the dive shops, boats, gear and some of the people, but to give you an idea of what this was about, I must also mention another topic, me. I probably first went to Aloha Dive shop, on a bicycle, when I was 16 or 17. It wasn't just that I was big, I was very big and I had an electric smile and that was enough to leave an impression even before I opened my mouth. I had an amazing energy. It was more than the energy of youth, which I had in full measure. I guess it's a nervous energy. It has allowed me to swim comfortably for hours in rough conditions in cold water and the excitement of it just increases my energy level. Still, the energy is there before I even think about diving and a lot of it came out of my mouth. Luckily, these folks were so excited about diving that they didn't have much problem dealing with me. These were folks I was gonna dive with.

It was the fourth dive of the day at Santa Cruz Island on the Sea Bee. I was with Johnny at about 35 feet just above the bottom of a cove. The water was green and the visibility was only about 15 feet, but there were sheepheads. We were standing on the bottom and it seemed like a constant supply of 12 or 15 pound sheepheads would materialize out of the green and we would shoot them. Because of the visibility and all the fish, it is one of the few times I have wondered about sharks. This is when I saw something Johnny had told me about, but I had trouble believing. He shot a sheephead like a bulls-eye. Not in the head, but dead center in the body. He shot it and it came down and bit him in the neck, then it was history. When he had told me what had given him hickies before, I couldn't believe it, but now I had seen it. We weighed the fish at Cisco landing in Channel Islands Harbor and there were about 225 pounds.

This was still the time of bumming rides to get to dive boats. I signed up to go on the Golden Doubloon to Catalina Island and Roddy was happy to help me out getting a ride. My ride met me at the shop and off the four of us went in a small motor home. The amazing thing was that I was family immediately. This was the thing about diving with Aloha. It was the most amazingly friendly group of people that I had ever met. I was always getting offers to help me with my diving and they were just nice people. Maybe diving was a smaller, more special thing back then.

Lets go back to the gear. I mentioned earlier that during the early 70's, scuba gear basically got revolutionized. Single hose regulators replaced two hose ones. BC's replaced May Wests and pressure gauges replaced reserve valves. ScubaPro Jet Fins were introduced as well as a lot of other new diving technology. These are what everybody else did. At Aloha, they didn't stop there. This was a NASDS facility with the motto 'dive with your brain, not your back'. That meant use your gear a lot. They had some characteristic gear that was very interesting. This was the time of the Fara Fin with the brace that went up your leg and clamped above your calf muscle. This was the time of the super thick and buoyant Baily wetsuit. It was like a uniform for a while. There were those stupid 3 sided Super Vision masks that sold so good because they were so big that they always got lost. This is when they had 'At Packs' that enclosed all the scuba gear in a streamlined package. It was nice enough, but with tank(s), BC, weightbelt, regulator and console all in one package, it made for a major load. That was no problem on the Golden Doubloon. They had a crane mounted on the back deck that was perfect for picking them out of the water. It was interesting to see and there was other weird gear, some of it commercial, some of it home made. One evening I went in and a guy showed me a set of 4 dive knives. He had milled them from aerospace stainless steel. These were god knives made for the diver that wants to fight great whites and giant squid hand to hand. With one of those knives, Mike Nelson would have just stabbed a hole in the bad guy's steel tank instead of cutting their regulator hose.

Talk about exotic, Aloha had a charter on the Golden Doubloon to San Nicolas Island. It was a rare boat trip that went all the way out there. It was a foggy morning on the west end when I entered with Chris and Larry. It was an awesome dive and I ended up with a big red abalone, a lobster that was about 9 1/2 pounds and a lobster that was about 11 1/2 pounds. Nice dive. Interesting trip.

The diving then was the best. Catalina still had abundant game. Even though the abalone harvesters had already been there, there were still plenty of legal ones left and places where the commercial harvesters had basically missed. This was before any urchin harvesting so the big red franciscanus urchin was as common as leaves on a tree. It made lobster hunting more of a challenge. The fishing was better in general and there were lots of rock fish that are rare now, but the biggest difference was the huge number of large male sheepheads and numerous large moray eels that were everywhere. On any dive, you could run into a 20 pound sheephead. I still didn't know diddly about hunting lobster, but I was quite willing to chase them like crazy and occasionally get lucky. At times, the fish could get thick and it was even better at the outer islands of San Clemente and Santa Barbara Islands. The kelp tended to be thicker then as well.
I remember when they discovered a seemingly untouched reef, backside of Catalina that they called Parasol Reef because of its shape. It was thick with calico bass, sheepheads, scallops and large abalone. I guess that shows the downside as well. Underwater hunting was challenging, fun and rewarding, but it was also depletive and reefs were cleaned out of game. It sure was great hunting while it lasted, but by 1985 the abalone at Catalina were mostly gone. Lobster diving could be great, but in ways it was similar to now. The big local reef masters were already gone. The populations of local reef lobster had been taken in the 60's. After that, mostly migratory lobsters were taken.

Johnny decided he needed a bigger spear gun. He got a SMG. That's a two shot speargun that uses powder cartridges like a regular rifle. It was supposed to be accurate to a 75 foot range. He put his finger over the barrel with no spear in it and fired it. He also had one of the huge black Sea Hunters guns, probably good for a 500 pound fish. Loading it under water made him do a back flip.
He sold me his old 3 band arbelet gun. The one that was too small for him. Not to say it was smart, but I can say it was big enough to shoot a 6 foot blue shark.

I did a lot of great diving in this period of years, but the best diving for me had to be at Santa Barbara Island. SBI is so small, something like a mile across, but it is an incredible jewel with large reefs around it in clear, azure waters. Game was thick and both pink and green abalone were common. Visibility at SBI is consistently better than the other islands and Captain Eddy Tanaka knew some great diving there.
We used to get there on the calmest days and anchor on which ever side of the island was most protected. I just liked swimming as far as I could before coming back to the boat. I'd swim through the lowest crack in the reef and look up at the life hiding in the ledges. This is when I got best at freediving and could comfortably dive to 70 feet. It is the essence of diving and past 50 feet, the fish just didn't know what you are if you are not blowing bubbles. These days I still tended to buddy dive, loosely speaking.

Buoyancy Compensators were new in 1974. Of course baby John had one. We were on our fourth dive at Pyramid Cove, San Clemente island. At 80 feet, it was deep for the last dive of the day. It was a nice enough dive, but there were no lobster to be seen. I ran into Johnny and since I was low on air, I signaled him to go up and grabbed his ankle. All I could see as we went up was his bubbles. I thought we were ascending a bit fast and we reached the surface in about 20 seconds. I took a compass on the boat and went back to 20 feet for the trip back.

On the boat was a fantastic camaraderie. Cooking game was part of the social landscape. A lot of it was simply fresh seafood with butter and spices cooked in aluminum foil on a small bar-b-que. Just don't let Masa take your tank to light his hibachi. Using a scuba tank, you can get a charcoal bar-b-que lit, all the way, in only a few minutes. This is what you call fresh seafood, spiced with sea breezes.
Boubaise was popular a popular project too and very tasty. Just about everything was put in the pot. We wanted to see if we could cook it with a whole abalone in it. So I cleaned one up, wrapped it in a towel and beat it on the railing of the boat. That quickly rips a towel to shreds. The boubaise was good. The abalone was, well, different.
Another menu item they came up with that is rarely seen was bar-b-que abalone. Take a large abalone, clean it up, cut a deep checkered (say 3/4 inch squares) and then just throw it on the bar-b. The fire down side gets charcoaled. At that point, pull off the checker pieces and eat the un-burned side. Well, it was interesting and different, if not real special.

My buddy Johnny
Somewhere, sometime, as these things go, I met Johnny. For some reason, he was called Baby John. This was an interesting name considering he weighed over 200 pounds. Baby John was about my age and if anything seemed to be even more obsessed with diving than me. He also was nuts about hunting. He liked shooting sheepheads. Well, he liked shooting everything for that matter. Hunting is one of the most recognizable instincts in humans. A lot of divers had that instinct in spades. This guy sure did. I did too. We talked about diving and hunting underwater and were so into the same thing that it seemed reasonable for us to be buddies. We weren't strict about staying together, but our styles were so similar that we would continually meet under water. Gads I had adventures with him. Driving to La Boefedora in Mexico for diving during a hurricane. Serious spearing and lobster hunting. Twice he shot a fish that was right next to me. I didn't like that part. We dove together at San Clemente, Catalina, Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands as well as at a lot of beaches.

I had incredible times diving with the people of Aloha Dive Shop. It was the best of people. It was the best diving. It was the best of times.

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