CopyRight @ 1997
In the 50's and 60's the infant sport of scuba diving
flourished on the beautiful California coast. At this time,
almost all diving was shore diving. There were no charter dive
boats and few people had there own personal boats that were
suitable for the sport. Besides which, why go to the islands.
At that time, the Palos Verdes Peninsula had what may have been
the finest diving California ever had. Plus, both Laguna to the
south and Malibu to the north, had many miles of spectacular
untouched diving. Some of the offshore reefs and many island
reefs, had kelpbeds that covered square miles. Then as now,
shore diving offered the opportunity for a quick, cheap trip to
the reef, but it does mean that the diver has to be able to
handle a surf entry.
I started diving in the 1970 so I never got to see much of this shore diving while it was still pristine, though it was still very good when I did dive there. I spent an amazing amount of time diving Malibu. Luckily, while these shore locations had been heavily visited by the time I started diving, these untouched conditions still existed at most of the Channel Islands, especially the outer islands. Not only were there few charter boats, the charter boats of that day were not robust enough for trips to the outer islands except under the best of conditions. This is what I saw when I went diving then. I think you will be able to tell that I swim low through the rocks and weed.
When you swam to the bottom, the first thing you were likely
to notice was the almost carpet of the big red urchins. Since
they carry their own defenses with them, they are the animal that
can most easily survive in the open. Maybe there were even more
urchins than were really needed. Not only did they fill every
crack and nook, they would bore their holes in the flat faces of
boulders. You would see boulders that were a solid barrier of
urchin spines on the outside. At this time the small purple
urchins were more restricted to the upper intertidal zone. They
couldn't compete well with the reds. At the same time, urchins
will not stay in any spot where the current does not eventually
bring them kelp leaves. In the areas off points, there are more
filter feeders living in the currents, instead of algaes. All
these urchins actually created safe spaces that were very
important intertidal nurseries and safe havens for a number of
other species. The space of the urchins was full of smaller life.
The way urchins protect themselves, with spines and pedicellaria,
works even better in groups and also protects those animals within
Reaching to a couple of feet above the urchins from the rocks, were multi-colored sea fans. Some are gold, some pink, some white. Close up, these coral cousins are tiny rows of orderly, colorful delicate polyps.
Sea hares are these purplish rabbit sized blobs that can only be described as giant slugs. They are interesting and common enough to see, though there appearance does not invite one to touch. One thing about them must be described as intriguing. They can orgy like nobody else every imagined. It is not unusual to see giant balls of up to twenty five sea hares, all wrapped up in each other.
Also out of reach of the urchins were the laminarias. These are small tough brown seaweeds that mostly have a single tough central stalk going up to a few 'leaves' on top reaching into in the current. Sometimes they are everywhere on the rocks only a couple of feet apart. These are good to hold onto to ride the surge, but only hold near the bottom holdfast so that they don't break.
The giant kelp, Macrocystis, could grow in large clumps, dispersed like tree trunks which you just swam around. Sometimes it would grow as many single strands on areas of larger flat rocks. If it was single strands, they were usually spaced about six inches apart. This could make the heaviest kelp canopy. It could get dark in there. These super thick areas were not as common and usually were not worth penetrating, unless you wanted a challenge. It's one way to find out if you have swimming control.
It seems that the art of the kelp swim is disappearing with the kelp. Kelp tended to be thicker and it was not unusual to cross areas where the kelp on the surface might be more than two feet thick. It's not hard to cross, if you know how to dog paddle through it.
The most life though, the most interesting life, was in the cracks and crannies. Every hole was a residence. There were cowerys scallops, oysters, snails, stars, cucumbers, crabs, sponges, anemones, hydrocorals. Look in the ledges. You may see anything.
On the higher parts of rocks or where there were currents, there were lots of rock scallops and even occasional big ones. Giant 20 armed purple Picnopodia starfish could be seen moving fast over the reef. These voracious hunters are the terror of the kelp reef. If you look behind the urchins that fill the cracks between rocks, you would see many large hidden scallops, cowrys, crabs, cleaner shrimp, small mollusks and other shy creatures that only come out at night or to feed.
Purple and orange Spanish Shawl nudibranchs are common out in the open moving across the reef. Sometimes more discrete, sometimes not, were numerous other, mostly larger nudibranchs. All were colorful and bizarre looking.
The fish were thick. Swimming over the reef, look back at any time and 10 or 15 sheepheads in the 10 pound range would be following in case you disturb anything. Numerous other fish and smaller sheepheads escort them. It's actually still that way at Cortez Banks and some parts of the islands. There are numerous different localized niches and in each are the characteristic fish including various species of perch, bass and rock fish. Small horned sharks were common and most dives you would see large graceful bat rays drifting through the kelp. Bright orange garibaldi peek out of their holes or follow you looking for a snack.
Sometimes you might see a large lingcod. These big tasty ugly fish, with their bright blue meat, used to be a common, dominant predator of the kelp reef. Once, I even came upon a convention of them at Santa Rosa Island. I didn't have any idea what they were, but my buddy was shooting them. There was literally a large ling cod every 10 or 15 feet over most of the reef.
Truthfully, there is no way that words can convey the what it is like to move through such lush vital diving of the kelp forest even today. Back then, it was overwhelming. You might just see anything.
Well, it's not quite like it was. Many of the reefs are very depleted. The abalone are gone, the sea cucumbers and red urchins are thin. Two population increases seem recognizable. There are more purple urchins deeper and there are far more brittle stars visible. The purple urchins probably have more niche available, but I'm not certain why there seem to be more brittle stars, unless it is that there is just more room for them now.
I would feel bad if I thought that sport divers were responsible for this depletion, but they are obviously not the main culprits. There is essentially no sport take of sea cucumbers or urchins, yet these are very depleted now. Only commercial harvesters take them. While I must say that it seems that it was the sport divers that finished off the abalone in many places, looking at the harvest amounts of the commercial harvesters, clearly shows that the sport divers took a tiny percentage of what the commercial divers took. Most sport divers never saw what the abalone population was like before the commercial divers went through areas. The commercial divers were ahead of the sport divers. Since their minimum size limit is just a bit bigger than the limit for sport divers, the sport divers ended up taking the last few legal abalone from the reefs. The case of the Sheephead fish was a similar situation. Sport divers put a fair amount of pressure on the Sheepheads, especially the bigger ones. But it was the commercial live fish harvesters that depleted them and the commercial fishermen that depleted the rock fish and the ling cod. Nets have been devastating to the bat rays as well as most other rays and skates.
The suggestion I have from this, aside from completely new principles behind the regulation of commercial fish harvesting, is something that individual divers can do. Much of reef ecology is determined by the availability of habitat. If there are holes to hide in, something will come to live in them. One thing divers can do is to increase the available holes. Hunters all too often open holes and don't close them back up. Aside from that, any diver can make more shelter with little effort or distraction from their diving. When you see a space between two rocks, drop another rock on top of them and make a nice little fish home. Some places are suitable and some are not. Some places like Malibu have very few natural fish holes. Catalina, has lots of hidey holes. This is a simple thing that divers can do to help the health of the reefs.
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