Copyright @ 1998
The hunters prepared at dawn. The sky had just started to show gold and
orange in place of gray fog and blackness. The air was crisp and still. Noises
were mostly from movement. Speaking now was not needed. Stories of past hunts
were told last night. Now it is time to think about the hunt that is immediately
ahead. Some were drowsy, but all were awake and moving. They would be very
alert soon. They prepared themselves with food and gathered their gear which
had been well checked already. Some carried spears for the hunt. Most though,
would hunt the bottom rocks with their hands in gloves.
This was a primitive sort of uncoordinated individual hunt, not
something organized to bring down a single big animal. It would be a melee. The
hunters went down the trail singly and sometimes, paired up. They immediately
vanished from each others sight as they dispersed over the wild and broken
terrain. They immediately vanished from each others consciousness as they
unleashed their instinctive nature and became the primitive hunting human,
moving within their environment.
There were many times for diving, but the Animals represented a special time and some special divers. Try this link if you want to read more about A California Diving Culture. I think that you will find it to be a bit different and something to think about.
The actual Animals page is a developing concept and should be completed before all that long. I think that you will enjoy it, but it will take some time to form in such a way as to do justice to the fun we had and give a feel for what it was like. Really, this kind of diving is so different from what most divers do, that to enjoy this, you are probably going to have to let your mind drift with current of the words... sorta like a flick. Let me tell you what we did for fun.
The story of the Animals must start with Bill Magee. Bill is a master diver and after a career of running his business in the Bay Area, did what many might dream of, he bought a dive boat, The Peace.
That's Bill with 7 bugs totalling 49 pounds...
I've never seen a score like that before or since.
They came from one dive in the Boilers.
When he got it, the boat needed some fixing up, which he did excellently. The 65 foot Peace was a great boat for short trips to the inner islands, but it was also big enough to make it to the outer islands with no problem. Bill brought his business expertise to the operation of the boat, which was a great help, but the most important thing he brought to the boat was his boundless enthusiasm for diving. He also assembled a crew as enthusiastic as himself. What he needed then, was divers to go along with the program. Soon, his reputation became known and most of the more serious divers in California were frequenting his boat, especially the Wednesday open boat trips.
Since he had the boat, crew and divers for it, he explored many areas of the islands that were not commonly visited, due to extreme conditions, including some of the deeper areas off the west end of San Nicolas Island. The goal was to find lobsters, or bugs as they were known to the hunters.
Well, he found them like nobody else ever had. His single and multi day trips were always filled. On the schedule, these were called the Animals Trips. They were nuts. This was some of the best diving and some of the best divers ever, having a great time. I'll see here if I can do some justice describing what this time was like.
These were some good divers on the Peace. It is a good boat for diving with a great crew.
When you board the boat, you glance up at the flag flying over Hornblowers. If it was showing light wind by 11 pm, you were probably in luck. Stash your gear and get in your bunk. You wake up to Raw Hide by the Blues Brothers. Everyone not already awake spills up onto deck. Nic is to port as the Peace headed up to the west end of the island. Nothing could be better than the flat seas and warm air of Santana conditions. Divers would be suited up and in line at the gate an hour before the gate was opened. By the time the anchor dropped, divers were ready to climb over each other to get in the water. When the captain called 'gate open', the boat was empty in moments. Even the entries were a bit frantic.
We all started out with your basic Giant Stride entry the way they taught us in class. Jump in, keep your fins out flat and scissor your legs together when you hit the water so that you quickly come back to the surface. The Animals tended towards modifications on this. What do you mean come back up to the surface? Didn't you adjust your gear properly before you entered? The first one down has a slightly better chance of finding that big bug. Just hit the water straight, turn over and go down. There was another variation on this. On one trip I was about third in line waiting for the Skipper to call 'gate open'. I was wondering about a couple of guys along the railing that were a bit away from the gate. Sure enough, the gate opened and they rolled in right over the railing. The best variation on entries that I saw was on an invitational. After a couple of morning tanks, we were getting geared up again for the next jump at the front side of San Nic. The deckhands were saying that if you are making this dive, go to the bow of the boat. We all moved up and arranged ourselves with masks and fins on, regulators in. There were about 20 divers arranged on the bow. The boat quickly went in along a point in towards a cove to where it was actually way closer to the island than the Navy likes. They stopped and hit reverse. The deckhands are just saying 'go go go' and slapping backs. Since the boat is moving backwards pretty fast, you can't really land on the diver in front of you, which is nice, because it is about an 8 foot drop. 20 divers hit the water in about 30 seconds. Nobody came back to the surface. I call that just good fun and good divers.
Racing off the boat wasn't where things always stopped. If you get in the water first you have a slightly better shot at finding something near the boat or selecting the terrain you want to follow. About 10 of us were tight in line at the gate to get in, with me about number 3. I jumped as fast as the diver in front of me was clear, turned over and headed straight down for the bottom at 75 feet. Son of a gun. I was at about 45 feet, going straight down, when this guy passes me moving in the same space, but below me. Well, I wasn't at a full sprint yet... and he was wheeling! This is stranger than it may sound. That was not easy to do.
Then we all dispersed and went our separate way trying to find the Big Bug.
It is not unusual for divers to get a ways away from the boat, especially when lobster or halibut hunting. Usually, they swim back, but not always. Sometimes it is matter of pulling oneself up the current line to get back... Hand over hand, sometimes for over 1000 feet, against a current, is always fun. Sometimes, it is just a matter of waiting for pickup by the boat. This is especially true in current areas, like the west end of San Nic or Talcott Shoal. I got back to the boat pretty quick after a dive. It seemed like most people were coming up fairly near the boat. At least within swimming distance, but there was one guy way out there and obviously heading south. He knew enough not to fight the current. He was going to have to wait out there in deep water for a while before there was going to be any pickup. Everyone else must get back to the boat before it is going to move. Well, well. It just so happens that the diver is Bill Magee, the owner of the boat. He's rapidly heading for Mexico and looking smaller every minute... Everyone else eventually got on the boat, so the Skipper, Mike Roach, immediately took off, heading north... Ah. It was just all in fun Bill. I guess we did have to turn around eventually, but it just seemed so appropriate to let him hang around out there just a bit longer. I heard a comment that he had been on the surface for 75 minutes before we got to him. That was plenty of time for him to get a fair ways around the island. He mentioned something about just as he was going to turn back, he got into some great terrain...
The crew had a neat trick to go with this. I had come up at one point from a dive. I was wearing double 90 tanks and came up way out there. I looked around to see if there was anyone with me to share the embarrassment and about 70 yards away was the float at the end of the current line. Unfortunately, I could see from the float that the current was screaming along. I sprinted for the float and just managed to make it. It was a long climb in, but that was better than the swim would have been. Well, later that day, I came up way out there again and sure enough I again saw the current line float. This time there didn't seem to be as much current as before. Even so, as I swam for it, it seemed like I wasn't getting to it. After a bit of sprinting and some solid swimming, I could see that I was getting to the boat, but no closer to the float. There wasn't that much current, it was just that the deck hands, Woody and James, were reeling in the current line in front of me... After a long swim, I climbed on the boat and gave them a seriously dirty look. I got a half hearted response of 'we just wanted to see how good you could swim'. I wasn't the only one they tested.
It should be noted that the Peace always had an excellent safety record. This was for a couple of reasons, including that the divers were very skilled and also, the crew was very conscientious. It was amazing how well they were aware of the direction that divers tended to be in after 45 minutes.
What was interesting though was the gear. In the 80's, divers were pretty much required to wear Buoyancy Compensation vests. Most used Aluminum 80 tanks or low pressure steel 95's (those were actually largely due to the Truth Aquatics compressors). By the mid 90's, many divers had ditched the BC's to reduce weight, lead, buoyancy and drag. Also, it made it easier to doff and don tanks underwater. Steel 72's started to show up fairly often too. In general, all the most avid divers went for minimal gear.
Not much to my liking, but I have to note that ScubaPro Jet fins were amazingly popular amoungst what I considered the best of the divers.
To give some idea of how tough and devoted some of the Animals are to diving, consider that on a half day trip to San Nic, we could make 4 dives to 85 feet at the badlands between 7 am and 12:30 pm, when we had to head home. But on the first day of a 2 day trip, it was common for a diver to make 7 dives and occasionally a diver could make 9 dives if they did the night dive. Every tank was a sprint. Gate times were usually no more than 15 minutes. If it was lobster season, the water temperature might well be around 55 degrees, plus or minus a tad. Very few serious divers even consider a dry suit. It is just too much gear to pay attention to or to swim with.
One of the best places to hunt at one time was the Boilers. It was known as "Bull City" in the early days. It was a shallow reef that actually stuck up some in one area, but went on for hundreds of yards to the south. It was challenging, surgy diving. It was even hard to get over the surrounding rocks, but it was a fascinating dive and great terrain for lobster. Unfortunately with a name like "Bull City", it got a lot of divers and there were not that many left. It had an interesting hazard that Chris found out about. The current on one side might be going the opposite direction of the current on the other side.
It is interesting that when you are at San Nicolas Island, you may get suddenly buzzed by a big 4 engine prop plane. These are the Orions from Moffet Field, up by San Jose. They fly up and down the coast collecting data from offshore buoys that are listening for submarines. They fly low and are quite impressive to see. I met a women that said she had made a bet with a deckhand about how many times she could get the plane to circle. She said that she was on the sundeck with her top off and got them to come around twice...
The Scuba Monster
It was a calm, warm afternoon, backside of Santa Cruz Island. We were pretty much all back up on board the Peace, when Bill looked over the side and muttered something about 'damn Wonderlungs'. Huh? Only about 40 feet from the boat, you could see the bubbles from a diver. Eventually, she came up. This was my introduction to Dee. She was the exception to the rule. Most of the truly serious hunters were guys. She seriously infracted that rule. A very happy mother (this is really funny) with the hunting instincts of a ferret, the physical toughness of a seal and the comfort of a masterful diver. She, without a doubt, was able to hunt with the big boys. I got to know her some and even learned a bit of diving technique from her. 'Don't you dare stir up the bottom when I'm taking a picture!!!' She was small and this helped with her remarkable ability to stretch her bottom time. A couple of times, she was on a particular large dive boat that tended to get blown out in the afternoon breeze, When she surfaced, she just headed for the nearest dive boat she could find. On different occasions this happened to be the Peace once and the Truth another time. Say hello to your friends, grab a cup of coffee and have them call her boat to come get her. She wasn't all that shy.
It was the Malibu Dive Shop, Wednesday lobster season opener, on the Peace and conditions were sorta sucky. Due to the swell, the skipper had opted for Santa Rosa Island and it was none too good there either. The Animals were aboard in force and we were doing what we could, but it was Dee that did the best that day. She got 2 nice bugs. The total for the boat that day was 4. Yah. She hunted with the big boys just fine.
Here is her own fun story of her encounter with some Black Sea Bass
For those that are confused, this is about intrepid diving, not macho diving. No one sees you and no one knows what you are doing down there. This is competition with a sea that does not care and the only one that will be impressed is yourself, or perhaps a very few others that share your sense of the ocean. If you can dive where others can not or will not, you will often see what they have missed. The challenge can only be personal. You can brag, but if you come to believe your own stories, the ocean will swallow you. Anyway, there are other women out there as well, that are doing some really adventurous diving. They are generally well accepted by the guys, because here divers are judged by the ocean, not by people.
Most of the stories in this web site, tell of excellent days and good diving, but obviously that isn't the way it always was, especially if you consider that lobster season is in winter. You learned to approach the dive ramp at the back of the boat with extreme care. On a rough day, it could be moving from 3 feet above water to 3 feet under water in an instant. Swim up to it. Wait until it looks like a pause, then grab and pull all the way onto it so that if it goes up, it takes you with it instead of smacking you or dumping you off. If there is a current, you have to hang off a bit on a rope until it's a good time to board.
One time I was near the galley when a wave hit the back of the boat and was large enough to continue up onto the deck some. Bill was nearby and said to no one in particular 'Welcome to San Nic'.
That's how a diver sees San Nicolas Island as they are suiting up in the morning.
The hot tub... What can you say? It was the first hot tub on a dive boat on the west coast and while not the largest, it would hold six or so friendly people. Like they say though, sometimes it's not the size that counts, it's how you use it. I have seen it filled with bags of lobsters when the game well was full. I've seen it foaming like a volcano after someone poured dishwashing soap in it. Mostly, it was nice for après dive. Just sit in it, relax and soak the warmth into your bones. Another dandy use that made it popular was before and during diving. Like any Jacuzzi, it had jets along the side. While wetsuits were not allowed in it, that didn't stop anyone from holding their wrist against a jet so that it shot warm water up your arm and into your suit. It was a great way to get ready for diving and to warm up some between dives.
Really, it would be in poor taste to get explicit about some of what went on in the Jacuzzi, especially under the soap bubbles, but the funniest thing I think I saw in it was Bill. At the time, he was unattached and he was sitting against the end of the tub with a comely young lady (half his age) on both sides of him. I don't think he was actively pursuing either girl, but they were definitely after him. He seemed a few stages beyond bemused. Finally, cap and all, he disappeared below the bubbles.
There was a lot of debate about diving and then going into warm water. The final expert opinion, seemed to be that it reduced the risk of DCS.
Some of the excesses of the Animals didn't stop at the waters surface. At night and on the trips home, were the poker games. We all should have been zonked, but we were young and... it's a bunch of guys out on a boat. Seemingly appropriate to this, the favorite game was One Eyed Monty. It wasn't the original 3 Card Monty used by the river boat gamblers to fleece travelers, but it was a charmingly vicious game on its own. It had the worst features of both stud and draw. It allowed for high, low and pig. It usually had card passes. It was not for the faint of heart or the newbie. It claimed more than sleep and money. Bags of bugs, dive gear and other things were accepted as stakes at different times. Then if that didn't hurt enough, there was smilin' Bill Magee with his credit card machine at ready. On one of the occasions when I had pissed off Captain Roach, I was told to come up top when I finished my game. I managed to play all the way from San Nic to the Harbor.
Speaking of pissing off people. That is something I'm good at. When I am happy, most people are happy. When I am sniveling, many people are unhappy... Hmmm... Actually, when I open my mouth, some people tend to be unhappy. Well, that was OK that one night. I don't remember the occasion, but we were parked backside the east end and I had annoyed many people for dinner. Well, I wanted to go night diving, but was told that we would be moving before doing the night dive. Since I stay in wetsuit until done diving, I wasn't thrilled to wait, but then all my good buddies on the boat decided to help me out by asking Bill to let me go diving there. Something about 'anything to just shut him up'. Bill could go for that. I think that was the trip where on the way back, Shel came and sat down in a booth with me. I was going to congratulate him on beating me for the big bug jackpot with a bug he got that previous night. Before I could, he said 'you won'. Huh? It turns out he had taken that bug down with him. It was a crew bug and so couldn't be in the jackpot. That was actually awful nice. The crew ended up getting the money as tips anyway, but it was still really nice of him to tell me.
Really, there was one person easily more annoying than me. That was Freddy. I think he taught Junior High Physical Education in the Inner City too long. No. Actually he was a pain in the butt long before that. The crew did not really enjoy him and I being on the boat at the same time. They liked either one of us alright, but it was completely predictable that the two of us together were going to be heckling each other. Anyway, the cool part was when Freddy had gotten about a 10 pound bug and was crowing about it enough to be a fair pain. Then Wayno did what only Wayno could get away with. He shot a pole spear right through the bug while Freddy was holding it. It is then illegal to possess. You should have seen the look on Freddy's face. Wayno could pretty much get away with it though. In the 80's he and Freddy were pretty much the undisputed best (non-crew) lobster hunters.
One time Freddy charmed some people enough that when he jumped off the boat, somehow there was a rope tied around his tank valve.
I'll add mention here that the best lobster hunters didn't really look like the athletes that they were, though some tended to be a bit stocky. I always thought that Wayno looked like an accountant, but what an incredible hunter. On a trip shortly after the infamous 'Kelp Flys' trip, he told me that he wanted to take just 7 pounders. 'They taste the best'. Well, at the end of the day he had a limit with a 5 pounder, a 6 pounder and the rest were 7 pounders. If you are a lobster hunter, you know that that is incredible. He was a great hunter and a real good guy.
Wayno was a great lobster hunter.
Behind him are Lee and Shel, some other great divers.
It wasn't just the diving. On any given trip, the experiences on the surface could be incredible. The waves and spray are exhilarating. The splash of the water from the bow is hypnotic. The seabirds and stars wheel above. Huge schools of dolphins pass on their way after short visits at the bow. Sharks pay no attention. Whales stop and play in front of the boat. The skipper just stops the boat with a look on his face like 'well, what am I supposed to do'. You are inspired as you pass the desolate islands surrounded by azure waters. The sunsets show off with colors to make your stomach ache and warm winds are balmy enough to warm your soul.
We were young and strong. We were dedicated to diving. We were inspired by the beauty and excitement. We moved through the water land like wolves. These were the Animals trips
The long yellow hose.