CopyRight @ 1997
Off the West end of San Nicolas Island is miles of divable reef.
Looking at an underwater map of the area, shows perhaps 30 square miles
of rocky reefs in less than 100 feet of water. Some of this area is
boulders and rock piles, but a large part of it is flat undulating
rock. In the 70's, I heard it called "The Flats" and "The Freeway".
Back then, it was lightly visited, because most of it is around 70 or
80 feet... plus.
In the 80's, the equipment and boats were better. Many shallower, more protected areas, were heavily dove. In the 80's, a few of the bigger boats (say 65 feet plus), from LA, Ventura and even Santa Barbara, started making regular visits to San Nic. It is pretty much the same distance from LA or Ventura, say 60 miles, and it is not all that much farther for the Truth Aquatics boats out of Santa Barbara. They were all going for the big bugs and the best place for that was the west end of the island at what they then called the "Badlands".
The Peace anchored at dawn, but many divers were already awake and suited. Some people were in lines at the gate with tank on. This was a mid-week open boat Animals trip. It was going to be some serious lobster hunting. There was a beautiful sunrise over the island as the skipper, Mike Roach, slowed to meter the bottom for a likely spot. By now, everyone was scurrying. The gate time is short and the faster you get in the water, the more chance of getting to some good terrain before someone else has been there. As soon as there is no one under you, do a giant stride with your feet together. Turn over and get down. When you hit the bottom, glance at your gauges and compass. Then run. This is a sprint. You are likely to have more air than bottom time. You have to cover ground to find where the bugs are going to be for the day. Chances are that, in this area, they will not have deep holes to hide in. Some places, there is so little cover, that any rock you find is likely to have a bug. Big bugs are not as worried about hiding. Especially not at this depth.
The bottom is flat rock that undulates like waves on the ocean. These waves would be about 10 feet from crest to trough and 80 feet from crest to crest. In many places here are fields of broken rock or isolated boulders. There are occasional sand channels. The area is huge, so there is lots of variation, but mostly it is just flat rock. The rock is pinkish from the coralline algaes growing on them, but have a golden color from a distance, from the small brown algae growing above the rocks.
My gear at this time was assembled especially for diving this area. That means that I had the old double aluminum 90's that I had found, used, at ScubaDuba Dive. They were incredibly buoyant and had 11 pounds of lead bolted between them. My belt had about 35. When I stepped off the boat, I weighed near 400 pounds. Makes for a neeto giant stride. With these tanks on it is like swimming with a VW strapped to your back. Do not bother to use them in shallow water. The surge will turn you every which way. By the way, I was in excellent shape at this time.
I was wearing leather gloves and heading from the boat as fast as I could. I both swim and pull my way along the bottom with my hands. The plan is to go where there isn't another diver, so move away from the boat as fast as possible. The vis was about 60 feet and I could see another diver heading for the same low area that I was going for. I sprinted with both hands and feet. It's a bit like cutting someone off on the freeway. Don't catch their eye and get there first. Well, I got where I wanted to be, but I was fully winded. Not good at 85 feet, even with my monster tanks. I grabbed a Laminarea stalk and relaxed long enough to force my breathing and heart to calm, as well as letting heat dissipate. This may sound odd, but really, a dive here is a sprint until the end of your air. With doubles, I can afford to breathe hard. Over heating can get to be a problem.
I came to an area of broken rock, but I could see that there were no holes large enough to have a big bug. That of course did not stop me from scanning for smaller ones. I followed the edge of the contour of broken rock for about a hundred feet until it turned. It didn't look promising, so I headed out across the flat rock again. All the time you have to look off in the haze at the end of visibility, to find the rock pile.
If not this one, the next one. The bugs are social and so tend to be found in groups. You might find lots of good holes, but they are completely empty. Sometimes though, it seems that bugs choose their daytime holes, by committee. You may find a dozen holes that could hide a hundred bugs, but then you find the bugs crowded into a small hole that cannot really protect them.
Continuing over the rock, above a small crack, I came to some legs. Damn, another diver has been here already and from the looks of it, they found 2 bugs in the open. One of which was about a 7 pounder.
Turn 90 degrees and look for the next terrain. It's a dead cinch that there is nothing left down here. Almost always you are moving away from the boat. Then, cool, there is an isolated flat rock the size of a table, sticking 2 feet off the bottom and antennas are visible. Big antennas. You don't want to slow down any. That is your best advantage. Before the lobster can react to seeing movement, you swat at their back, behind the antennas. The first one was easily a 4 pounder and so I knew to get a tight hold on the carapace. They can really fight by flapping their tail.
I wanted to make this fight quick and quiet, because I could see another 2 pounder and some shorts in the hole to the side. I grabbed at the 2 pounder and actually got it before it moved back in the hole. It really had nowhere to go that I couldn't get to, even with my tanks on.
I just continued moving quickly, looking for more victims. No matter how fast and hard you are moving, it is all fascinating because you never know what you will see appear out of the haze or what will be in some small hole in the rock.
Well, 2 nice bugs in the bag and a definite shortage of air, even with the doubles. I figured that I had perhaps 3 minutes to stretch my luck. At this point, I moved off the bottom about 10 feet, to optimize my bottom time. This is the dangerous time. As you run out of air, you gradually move up perhaps 25 or 35 feet in the water, until you cannot see anything on the bottom, then go vertical to the surface. If you see anything that you want to get, you had better make a fast judgment about safety and air. If you do see something worth grabbing, you are going to be out of safe air by the time you get back to the bottom. There is no time to fight a bug wedged in a hole. At perhaps 15 feet, I made a bit of a safety stop. That was an 85 foot dive. Well before starting my ascent, I had looked for a fairly large rock and took it with me. Those aluminum 90's lose about 10 pounds of air when emptied. If I plan to stop at 15 feet without making like a cork, I had better take something heavy from the bottom. Being out in the current, I knew that I was unlikely to be anywhere near the boat, but I kept looking up for a reflection that might show its direction if I'm near.
No such luck. I came up way out from the boat and I could tell that I was way down current. This is going to be a long tough swim. I could wait for all the divers to get back on the boat and get a pickup, but I usually just swam back. I turned around to look for anyone else that might be able to share the embarrassment and there was the current line float not 70 feet away. Good and bad. It was near enough, but I was moving fast in the current and it was cross current from me. I sprinted one last time and just grabbed it. This is about a 1000 foot current line, just meant for the currents on the west end of Nic. It is then time to relax before pulling my way back up current to the boat. Well, at least I didn't seem to have blistered my toes in my fins. The moleskin was hanging in there, but it was only the first dive of the day.
After getting on the boat, I got my tank in line for a fill as fast as possible. With about 30 divers using doubles and big tanks, it is possible for a fill not to be completed until just before the next open gate, even on the Peace. They always give good fills though and both James and Woody were hustling to get the tanks full. Most of the divers came back to the boat. Three had waited to be picked up. We got them and went to find another spot. The anchor dropped. The Skipper said that the gate was open.
Again, I was one of the first in and moving fast. The area had more broken rock and some nice vis. The badlands are not like most rocky reefs in California. Usually, life is thicker on any rocky reef. Here, there are very few holes for critters to hide in. For some reason, perhaps rough conditions, the algae is also very sparse. It's just lots of rock.
I had found a couple of nice bugs, nothing special though. I was traveling along a geologic contour of rock that was about a 10 foot rise above a sand channel. The side of the contour was large broken rocks that led up to flat unbroken rock at the top. I had gone perhaps 50 yards when I saw that the bottom contour on the other side of the sand channel, very like the one I was following, approached to about 20 feet at the bottom, from the curve of the contour that I was following. There were a couple of divers moving along even with the top of the contour, inspecting the rocks below for bugs. They were just getting to where this other contour stuck out some towards me. What they couldn't see from their angle was that there were bugs, and some big ones at that, in the rocks at the base of the furthest extent of the contour they were above.
I just blasted across the distance and hit the rocks. I do mean hit the rocks. Later I pulled barnacle pieces out of the very top of my head, under the hood. I had moved fast, but only just got my hand on the biggest lobster. It was pinned though. I reached my other arm in a smaller hole from the top and forced the lobster to where that hand could get a good grip on its back. It was going no where now... more than I knew. The hole between the rocks at the top, was too small to pull the bug through. I had a good grip, but he was far from in the bag. By now the other divers were there and quite interested as well as probably a bit annoyed. I held up the lobster in the entrance of the hole and tried to get the lead diver to take it from me. He looked disgusted and waited about 30 seconds to take it. I dare say that he hated to hand it back. Because he was disgusted, they left quickly, something they probably shouldn't have done. I hung out and was not at all surprised a minute later when a 4 pounder walked out. He didn't like all the excitement and had decided to leave the party. It seemed like time for me to go as well. Nothing else was in reach and I didn't think that I would get another volunteer like him.
I had more then half the dive to go and I just kept following contours or moving over the reef to look for boulders. I found a washtub sized hole with some legs in it. Later I was told that there were four 7 pounders in it that one diver was able to grab. With these doubles, you just go and go and go. My computer said that I was still doing ok, but I did not really expect to do the next dive. When I came up, it had become a beautiful sunny day after the morning overcast. The water was a bit rough, but there was no current. I was way out from the boat, but again the current line was just a bit towards the boat from me. I swam towards it. Hmmm. I just wasn't covering the 50 yards to the float. It seemed to be moving away. I kept swimming. In rough water with these tanks and a bag of bugs, that is no minor thing. I quickly figured out that the deckhands, were reeling in the float ahead of me as I swam for it. Huh? This is a long rough swim that would be almost impossible if there was much of a current. I got on the boat, a bit done, and asked what that was all about. They said "well, we just wanted to see how good you swim". Thanks guys.
We did the same routine and picked up the stragglers in the water. I was busy filling my wetsuit by holding the sleeve up against the jet in the hot tub. I like hot tubs on a dive boat. I was in no hurry as I knew that I could not make the third dive without decompression. I would be ready for the fourth jump though.
It's great seeing what the other divers are bringing up. Wayno had done really well and gotten near a limit of bugs up to 10 pounds. Freddy and Jim had gotten good bags as well.
By the last dive, even I slow down a bit. I was still traveling as far as I could, but I knew that I was going to be a bit limited on bottom time. Also the crew gets testy if you stay down too long at the end and make them get home too late. It is beautiful, wide open diving. There is not to much in the way of fish to see. I found a bug that seemed just short, but I wanted to take it to the boat to make sure. You're not supposed to, but, well. I then found a huge abalone. Abalone are very uncommon in this area, but when you find one it is likely to be huge. My scratch mark said that this was a 10 incher easy.
I went up when my computer display read "That's all there is and there ain't no more". Watching it as I ascended, I noticed that it did not quickly read more bottom time as I went up. It increased by about 2 minutes every 10 feet. It was saying "you're saturated". I was thinking that I hoped it was true and that no statistical factor was going to make me bend. I have never seemed prone to DCS, but you could find out otherwise at any time. I made my 15 foot stop and swam to the boat about 200 yards away. My bag felt funny as I was swimming. I looked at it and it was open. The ab and my iron was gone. The stupid little bug (yes, it was a short) was clutching onto the outside of the bag. I wasn't going to say anything, but on the boat, Wayno asked me "where's that hubcap". Apparently, we had passed. I replied that I dropped it. "You idiot". Yah. The ab iron had been one of my high school metal shop specials. While not my favorite, I didn't like losing it. It was pretty trick. I could only hope that the ab was attached to it when it fell so that it would land foot down. It would have a better chance of survival that way. I think it did.
Pulling hand over hand along the bottom like I do, is great for speed, but it is not the best way find big bugs. It is better to swim perhaps 8 feet above the rocks, but I always stay lower. Actually, from the bottom, you are more likely to see the smaller bugs. The big bugs are often not as hidden and can be seen from farther, so the premium for them is to cover the most ground possible, looking from above. There is one other drawback to using hands to brachiate across the bottom. They wear out. No matter how careful you are, the rocks wear through the gloves and fingers. As I set my tanks down on the deck, I could see some blood running down them. Oh well.
The rest of the divers straggled back, with only one diver waiting for a pickup. It was Bill Magee, the owner of the boat and he was way out there in the current, quickly drifting around the backside. The boat started and headed towards port, away from Bill. after a few hundred yards, it turned around and got him. Someone said that he was floating on the surface for 73 minutes. He said that just as he was going to head back, he had found some really good terrain. Well, I guess he can figure that they will notice him and pick him up. Who's going to say anything?
The game was measured and put in the live game wells. Jim had gotten the biggest bug of the day with an 11 pounder. Gear was stowed while near the island, before we were exposed to the south swell away from the island and it got a bit rough. It was time for chips, a cold cut lunch, a beer, a hottub, a shower and then a bunk for the 6 hour ride home.
It's beautiful in the evening as you pass Anacapa Island. We passed occasional schools of porpoises and had some following the wake of the boat. It was warm, for a diver. The sunset was beautiful colors of red and yellow. The dusk was starry and lights shone from boats, platforms and the mainland. Diving is the greatest fun, but it is nice to get to the dock after a day like that.
A final note. Oversized doubles like that are a total hassle. It's like swimming with a VW on your back. In a surge, you sway back and forth. Try to dive after a bug down in a hole and you go bump. You always have to be careful about hitting things. I'm a very strong swimmer and I was in great shape at the time, but only by pulling and swimming together, could I really get moving. And the buoyancy. They require a lot of lead. Then when you use up the air, you better carry a rock up or as you get near the surface, you will make like a cork, just when you need a safety stop the most. To top it off, one time off Nic, I made a particularly long swim back to the boat and the tendons of my legs started spasming. Ouch!
I made a deal with Mike Roach for them after 2 seasons. They were just a bit much. That is when I got my steel 104 cubic foot low pressure tank. It's a real trash can. At this time, Truth Aquatics Boats still only gave fills to 2500 psi. So only the low pressure tanks like the 95 and the 104 could take advantage of a full tank. Now they fill to what your tank is rated for.
A lot of the guys on the Animals trips used doubles, but mostly double 72's. They have much more reasonable buoyancy and weight. Later, I saw some pairs of 80 Cubic foot, 3500 psi tanks. Nice setup.
These days there are single high pressure tanks up to 140 cubic feet an more. Their weight is low and they don't have much buoyancy problem. I really like my 3500 psi., 100 cubic foot tank. It's a much better way to go. Maybe I'll take the doubles some day when I want to make a 200 foot dive. Maybe I'll use a rebreather. Maybe one day, I'll get to use scuba that carries liquefied air in small canisters. Then I want to swim from Anacapa Island to Santa Cruz Island, underwater..