The Sea Dream

Diving The Santa Monica Breakwall At Night

I love the sea. It makes me dream.

I love a remote cove with only the waves and rocks and sea in front of me. I love the wind, the smells, the sounds, the mists, the solitude, sea shells and sea grass. They all make me drift into the Sea Dream.
Ah, those wasted days of youth, but they weren't completely wasted, they were fun. Malibu and Santa Monica Bay were local playgrounds for me. Long ago, well before I went diving, I fished. I was a pier rat and on the half day boats when I could. This first brought me to Santa Monica Pier. It is a fascinating place and back then, there was still quite a bit of fish and other life around it. About 120 yards past the end of the pier is a break wall running against the waves for about 400 yards, to protect the pier and the boats that anchor there.

As I got older, I did less fishing, but there was an awful lot of other fun to be had along Santa Monica Bay. Whether it was diving in Malibu, roller-skating at Venice Beach or racing the bicycle paths to Redondo, it is all great fun.

Still, whenever I was there on foot or bicycle, I always seemed to make my way to the end of the pier. To look at the horizon, the birds and the waves rising on the pilings. There, I drift into the Sea Dream.
It's a long time since I have stood on the end of Santa Monica pier. It's been a long time since there even has been a fishing boat that went out from the pier. Years ago, the break wall was officially abandoned and it has slowly sunk into the water as wave and storm have ceaselessly challenged it. I've seen huge waves breaking on it in the past.

Over the many years since I took up diving, I have occasionally wondered about diving there and sometimes heard stories of rare, but interesting dives that were made there by an intrepid few. Legend was, there were lots of lobster. Life has mostly taken me away from there just as it takes us away from so many things, but I was back tonight. Many, many years later, it was finally my turn to dive the break wall.


The ocean was glassy, as calm as it gets. A good night for something like this. The pier is well lighted and the multi-colored lights of the Ferris Wheel flashed in different patterns. I had never seen these lights from this side of the pier.

  That is actually the Ferris
  Wheel, just far away.

We anchored about 40 feet from the break wall, near the northern end. This is the only part that still normally sticks above the surface. For about 30 feet, the rocks still rise above the surface perhaps 4 to 6 feet. The break wall extends something like 160 yards south, but is almost all submerged.
I went down before I got to it and came to the bottom of it in about 30 feet. There was a lot of life visible immediately. It was the second dive of the night, so I wasn't surprised to see lots of healthy Gorgonian Sea Fans growing along the lower rocks like at the last spot. There were also sculpins everywhere. Big sculpins, little sculpins, sculpins sitting on rocks in the open with the nonchalance that can only be achieved by a poisonous critter.
I headed south and though I was hunting lobster, the last dive had been so clear and beautiful that I figured I had to bring my camera this time. I pulled it down in my left hand in case I saw anything interesting on the way. Again, the vis was great, probably 25 feet, except where the rocks met the sand and vis went to less than 10. This meant that the smoothest dive was between 10 and 20 feet looking into the holes and ledges between the big rocks.
There were a fair number of big franciscanus urchins showing all different colors of red and burgundy in my light. There was no kelp, but there was a lot of foot thick growth of a red, almost coralline algae. I saw a number of big (maybe 20 inch or so) golden or maroon pisaster stars that probably terrorized the patches of mussels. In one hole was a vividly colored Spanish Shawl. I followed a middlin sized stingray with my camera for a while, but there wasn't much sign of lobster besides a few shorts and one big molt that got my heart to spin for a moment or so. I figured it was time to look at the inside of the break wall.

I like crossing shallow rocks for the same reason it's got to be done carefully, the water can move really fast. Sure, it's a calm day, but that means it's just like the day when that merry joker Magellan first saw our ocean and called it the Pacific. It's just usually not. Still, crossing over was no real problem. It was mostly about 4 feet deep with individual rocks sticking up, some just to the surface. There was a fair amount of Feather Boa kelp at the top, but it wasn't really thick. The water was clear and it was easy to see that the rocks were very worn down. The top of the break wall was about 20 feet across here. I went down the other side and could immediately see differences. There were lots of small purple purpuratus urchins on this side, but few reds. There was less plant growth and few sea fans, but the sculpins were sure here.

I saw a maybe legal bug peeking up from a the other side of a rock and made a wild grab. A big sculpin popped out of the hole, which was made more impressive by the fact that I had well stabbed myself in the palm of my hand with a grab right onto the lobster's horns.
I continued south, but had moved up to between 10 and 15 feet deep. I was seeing some bugs, but not that many. I was guessing that I knew where they were. Probably, they were on top of the break wall, but I didn't want to go up there yet without getting a good look along the bottom. I figured I would go south as far as I wanted and then head back towards the boat along the top of the rocks. It would be a tough dive there and I could still perhaps find bugs here... It was an easy, pretty dive here, with lots to see and things to click at. There were lots of fish, small bugs, stars, an octopus and other things to see.
I found a lobster looking out from the bottom of a small hole with an urchin above him. The hole was perhaps 10 inches high. The lobster stood perhaps 4 inches high and the urchin about 8 inches. That left little room, but I made a real good grab and got no spines.

I worked to use up my film and it was time to get serious and move back. Besides, my sinuses were protesting the constant up and down as I moved along the face of the wall.
The top was pretty wide here, perhaps 30 feet wide, between 2 and 6 feet deep. The surge was fairly strong and unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, at this depth, I was a bit light. That would just make the dive a little more challenging.

Now it was a matter of moving fast, ride the surge in and avoid hitting rocks. Then paddle and pull out to the front of the wall again. In places the kelp was thick, but at least there weren't so many sculpin and sure enough, there were more bugs out. They were still shorts, but most places there are shorts, there are a few legals.
There is a lot to see. The challenge is that if you go the direction of the rock wall, you have to resist the surge, fight the kelp and avoid hitting shallow rocks. The sensible thing to do is to ride the surge back and forth across the top of the wall in the direction of the waves. When the swell is smallest, the ride is back and forth perhaps 8 feet. At the top of the swell, you may be pushed 30 feet from the front of the wall all the way past the back. Mostly, it is like swimming in a rocky creek.
You cover a lot of territory with little swimming, but you are moving fast and you have to keep twisting your body and flashing the light around real quick to see everything you are passing in your flight. Grab something to stop for a look and you are likely to do a quick flip. Oh, and did I mention that you have dodge the rocks too.
Since I was forced to align my body with the surge, that means that I was no longer moving back towards the boat where I wanted to end up. This was getting to be a long rough shallow dive.
There were a fair amount of shorts and every so often I was seeing some legals, but they tended to be in holes. I made a wild grab for one in a hole and managed to cramp my right calf and left thigh while missing the lobster. Neeto. A bit further on I did the same thing again with another bug in a hole, with the same result or lack there of. At this point I was wondering why I was hunting at night if all the bugs were in their holes still. Then I came to the first legal of the night that was out of it's hole. There was a nice one in the open between two small rocks. I grabbed, but did not compensate enough towards the tail and felt it take off. Obviously I was in great form.
A bit further, I found the 'huge bugs of the breakwater'. I was about 10 feet deep when I looked about 10 feet under a ledge and saw the legs of a huge bug moving further back in its hole. There was about a 5 pounder and a few other legals with it. I checked around a boulder and got nearer the hole, but no closer to getting any bugs. They just weren't out walking tonight. I think they do get some persistent visitors here at night. They were all pretty cagey.
For the umteenth time I popped my head up and saw that the boat was still a ways up the wall. It seemed a good time to relax so I looked for a shallow rock to haul out on. It was great to look at the lights of the pier. I flashed my light some and watched to see if anyone would somehow signal back. It was a bit damp so I think that no one was braving the dark and mists at the end of the pier. Maybe though, just maybe, there in the darkness was someone breathing the salt air and drifting in the Sea Dream like I used to there.

I fell back into the water and continued on riding the surge and pouncing my way around rocks to see if there was anyone to surprise. I didn't mind at all when I got back even with the boat and swam out. It was a beautiful dive with lots to see and I finally had gotten to dive the Santa Monica Break Wall, but it was still one long tough dive with scant crustacean results.
The next dive could be expected to be no easier, maybe worse.

Enjoy the diving, seahunt

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