Free Diving Malibu

CopyRight @ 1997

Sometimes these days, free diving seems to be the topic of discussion. It is the purest form of diving there is. Sometimes, it is not the topic. It is harder to do and getting good at it takes many things including practice, stamina and the right attitude.
A free diver must move with a grace and control that is matched in few sports. It is the height of physical exertion, while the diver must remain completely relaxed.
Free diving is cheap. It is great exercise. It is the best way to improve your ability as a scuba diver. It is a great way to hunt and it is the only legal way to hunt the north coast abalone. Past about 40 feet, I don't care how wary the fish are, if you are not blowing bubbles, you have an excellent chance of getting to the fish without them figuring out that you are a diver.
For me, it was just a way to have fun the that I love. I have a long history of free diving. Here, I will try to write about some of what I learned about it and what I did that was memorable. It's just not the same anymore.
When I took up diving, Malibu was more accessible than money. Malibu is more associated with expensive homes and Hollywood than it is with diving, but the diving there is excellent and varied. There are numerous rocky reefs with lobster and fish, as well as excellent sand diving at Zuma Beach.

For this tale, I must start at Zuma beach. It was where I did my first ocean free dive. It was for my certification. At the time, I had trouble getting to the bottom in 15 feet of water. I got better over time.
Zuma is this beautiful, wide sandy beach towards the north part of Malibu. It is about 8 miles long, extending from Point Dume in the south. It can get a bit rough. No, it can get unbelievably rough, but there is no point in diving at that point. Bodysurfing can be excellent there with any size waves, but the way it breaks, big waves are to be respected. Because it is all sand, it usually had visibility when most other places are poor. On a clear day it is fun and you can watch the waves break from underneath. Because it is sand, you will find completely different diving than on the rocky reefs that are the mainstay of California diving. It is well worth diving there though and I have spent literally hundreds of hours snorkeling there. Hey, I was around 17 then.
As you swim out, in about 15 feet, you would typically see the sand dollar beds with the little purple echinoderms seemingly strewn at random all over the top of the sand or partially buried. There are numerous sand worms, star fish, small halibut and flounders as well as other occasional odd critters. There are big halibut to be found occasionally as well. Just beyond these, in 20 to 25 feet are what we were looking for, large Pismo Clams. Now these are not the tastiest or the most challenging to hunt, but it was great fun. Bill and I would go and spend hours in the water. You look for the clam's siphon tube sticking up just above the sand. When you find one, you quickly slide a knife or iron into the sand under them and pull them up. Easier said than done, but really, not too difficult. It was nice to have a float for them, because the minimum size is over 4 inches and they are heavy. We mostly took 5 inch plus ones and got them up to over 6 inches. Cooking them was tough, but they could be osterized for a good chowder or even Clam Thermidor. The big adductor muscles that close the shell were about the size of a finger joint and it was fun to chew them like clam flavored chewing gum. The fun of this was the diving more than even the hunting. You never knew what you might see. At times we saw small eels "standing" in groups on the sand. There was a predatory Moon Snail that, while I did not measure it, it was huge. I clearly thought that it looked like a legal black abalone on a rock. I picked it up and about a third of it was in the sand. That means that it was probably near 6 inches across and near 8 inches tall. I have never seen anything like it before or since. There were a variety of crabs, fish and many UFOs, unidentified fishy organisms. Diving at Zuma was really where I learned to dive. While it was relatively shallow, I parlayed those skills to depths over 100 feet elsewhere. Zuma is miles of easy fun diving with this great beach for the dry folk.

Then there was that other day. Do you remember that we got a holiday when President Johnson passed away? No, well I always will. It was a Thursday and Bob, a friend of a friend, wanted to go diving. We went to Zuma with scuba. It was a typical calm day with perhaps 2 foot waves. We puttered around and took some clams while looking for any legal halibut. It was a "well, this is better than not diving" type of day. Nothing special, but fun and invigorating. We started to swim in from about 150 yards off shore and Bob took the innertube, his pole spear and the assorted loose gear, and headed in ahead of me. I was looking down just swimming along, when I saw the bottom. That is trouble. I should have been too deep to see it. All this is going through my mind very fast. I know this place and I am scared already. I turned around and there is this huge breaker bearing down on me. A large drop of water fell from the lip of the wave to the face. It did not splash or cause any ripples. The surface tension of the water was far to much for that. If it had hit me unawares, it might have killed me. I have been in big waves and know what to do, but at Zuma, big waves invariably are very powerful. While this was probably less than a 10 foot wave, here it has more power than a 12 footer at Steamers Lane. As I came up, I turned to see Bob getting sucked into it from behind. That was a fairly easy way to go. Everything is all right so far, except for one thing. I know that big waves always come in three's at Zuma and there it was. This one was bigger and was not going to miss. I'm a good swimmer. I know what to do in waves. I put my regulator in my mouth, hit the bottom and went flying towards the face. I knew nothing was going to help. When I came out of it, the two waves had taken my mask, cramped my leg and broke the strap on my backpack. It was nice after that. I swam to shore. Bob was all right and I was really impressed. On another day, I rescued some divers that this happened to. While rare, this does happen at Zuma. No matter where you are and how familiar a spot is, there is always the potential for unpleasant "adventures" nearby.

At the south end of Zuma is Pirates Cove and Point Dume. The cliff at Pirates Cove is in numerous commercials and movies. The flat vertical rock is easily identifiable. It happens to be a tolerated, if not completely legal, nude beach. There is not much to see in the sand of the cove (though I did pick a 7 pound lobster up in the middle of the sand once), but to the south are some interesting rocks.
Around the corner to the south and accessible now by stairway, is a beautiful cove that is actually the cove north of Paradise Cove. You can spend a lot of time cruising around in there, though there is little game. There is a lot to see though, if you just want to have some relaxed fun in easy free diving depths.
Between these two coves, off shore is some difficult but spectacular diving. Starting about 100 yards out are a number pinnacles. There is a boey near one group and at low tide the shallowest one shows above water. These pinnacles start in about 40 feet of water and go on out to more than 80. They are covered with filter feeders and some scallops. In shallow upper waters there are the big green anemones, mussels and huge Pisaster starfish. There are narrow cracks between the pinnacles that go to the bottom. It can get exciting when the waves go between these. It is quite a ride. These are near the top end of a marine canyon, so towards the outside, encounters with Blue Sharks are not unusual. There are other pelagics as well such as Mola Mola's. I have swam with Gray Whales just beyond the surf line and even more unusual were the Pilot Whales that came in close once. This area is a special spot, but it is hard to get to at the best of times and the current is never to be forgotten. The current picks up speed along the length of Zuma Beach and is really moving past these pinnacles. It tends to change direction between noon and 1, which can allow for a dive. In any case it is wise to save air if you have to travel back along the bottom. Plan to be able to bail out to either side of Point Dume and you will be better prepared.

Remember that movie Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. The Bank robbers said that they were locals at Latigo Point. Well, there is a Latigo Point, just south of Paradise Cove in Malibu. There is no surfing there. Also it is very difficult to get to from shore, because the homeowners intentionally make it difficult. It can be accessed from Escondito Creek on Hiway 1 though, but I have always referred to it as the long walk. It can also be approached from the south at Corral beach, but that is the long swim. I cannot recommend that for swimmers, but it is fine for kayakers. It is some of the best diving in the Malibu area. On a good day, there are extremely shallow reefs all along the point that can provide beautiful diving and good lobster hunting. In 20 feet, there are numerous large rock fields that may hide a bug in shallow holes. In 30 feet, there are the typical big rocks of Malibu, that stick up closer to the surface than would be expected in that area. These are very pretty and may have resident fish or some scallops. At the outer edge of the kelp are rock shelves that provide little cover for critters to live in.
I was at Latigo Point one excellent day, with visibility that had to be near 200 feet. It is the most I have ever seen at the beach. Dave, Bill and I were there to look for lobster. We used up the single 72's that we had brought, including the J valve reserves. We got a few nice ones and even a 4 pounder for Bill. The conditions were so nice in the shallows, that it would have been silly to leave though. Dave was relaxed beyond the waves, swimming on his back, finishing his morning cigar. Bill and I spent more than an hour free diving in the shallows. In tidal rocks like that, it is like swimming from one aquarium to another. I was in about 12 feet when I saw a big rock right behind a smaller rock, with a crack between them. The top of the smaller rock was covered by a troop of lobsters. I call it a troop, because there was about a 5 pounder at the back, with a ring of near 3 pounders in front of him and a ring of legals in front of them and a ring of shorts in front of them. They saw me and marched, in formation, backwards into the crack. I grabbed.. a short... I could get at the crack from the top and the sides, but it was impossible to do much. The hole was just too good. I got some antennas and a lot of fun, but that was it.

Just south of Latigo Point area is Corral Beach. While the diving isn't the greatest there, it is fun and it is real easy to get to. It's less than 100 feet from hiway 1 to the water and there is lots of parking along the hiway.
The best diving there is at the north end. There are lots of large rocks and kelp. Halibut can be seen fairly often in the sand channels between the rocks. There are lots of perch to see as well. A trick I learned there is to come upon a kelp paddy from up current so that it is drifting away from you in the current. The group of kelp strands that are growing together from the bottom and rising straight up may be from 2 to 5 feet wide. Swim down about 12 feet along the back of the kelp where it rises up from the bottom. Then carefully move through the strands so that you can look up under the paddy that is floating on the surface. You will see lots of fish including kelp fish and calico bass.
This is the back entrance to Latigo Point and there is good diving all the way to the point. It is just a matter of how far you want to swim. It is a good place to bring kayaks.
During lobster season, if you go at night when the waves are calm, it can be very productive to swim the length of the beach in very shallow water. The lobsters may be right in the waves or just beyond them.

At the end of Malibu Coloney, towards Corral Beach

Below Corral Beach is Malibu Colony. That's some expensive real estate that extends down to the surfing beach at the lagoon above the pier. Many of the locals would like to keep the beach to themselves, but luckily the California Coastal Commission has made beach access stairways. These do have a way of becoming camouflaged sometimes, but... look for the blue signs. Along this whole, very extensive area (perhaps 4 miles) is excellent shallow diving that is perfect for snorkeling on good days. The vis is usually fine, except during plankton blooms. Again, spend some time and you never know what you will see. There are many starfish, green anemones, perch, crabs, calico bass, senoritas, occasional halibut and even big tasty Sheeps Crabs.
There are some lobster there and typical of the Malibu area, if you find a bug, look for the back exit. The holes tend to not be too deep, so the bugs like back doors to exit from when they are bothered. Find the back door, put your goody bag in it, hassle the lobster from the front entrance. Then go back and pull your bag out. Shortly, the bug will walk out the back. Be patient and wait until they are in the clear.
The shore along Malibu Colony is a large area of very pretty diving with a lot to see. The access is also quite easy.

I didn't say that I was always bright about diving. One day when I was probably about 17, I was at the Malibu Lagoon, which is the south end of the Malibu Colony. This guy went by with snorkel gear and a big gun. In a little while, he came back and had shot a small Blue Shark. This was before the movie Jaws and there were infinitely more sharks then. Well, this was something I had to ask about. He said "sure, you just swim out to those rocks at the end of the lagoon, drop down between the rocks and you will often see a Blue Shark". Cool. I ran back to car and grabbed my gear and a pretty big 3 band gun that I had. Sure enough, I dropped down, went between the rocks and there was a shark. I shot immediately and immediately regretted it. This was a much bigger shark than he had shot or than I had envisioned. Not only that, but the size had thrown off my aim, so I had hit it a bit behind the head but in front of the gills where it is not a real vital area. He came towards me and I pushed him away with the gun. He went south towards the lagoon and I got a breath of air. Then we were really moving. We were going towards the surfing area and visibility ended. I came up and was in the surfing area. Apparently, the shark was staying near the surface, because I could tell that some of the surfers knew that he was there. I went down again, hoping that the string on the gun would stay tight, because the water was mud. I came up again and the surfers all knew that there was a shark there. The next time I came up for air, I was in shallow water fairly near the pier. I was not happy, because the line was pretty slack. So where's the shark? I went scrambling for the beach. I didn't let go of the gun. The shark was not moving. It was stiff. I had no idea at the time, but it had run up an oxygen debt in its swim and was essentially paralyzed. That three breath ride was over 200 yards. It was dirty, so there was nothing to see, just the memory of having a tiger by the tail. Some guys came down from the pier and we carried it up to there. It was just under 6 feet long. I do not think that I would shoot a shark now, because they have almost become rare, due mostly to silliness, but what an experience at the time. Also, I only like shark when I smoke it anyway.

The Malibu area afforded me my introduction to diving and hundreds of hours of excitement and fun. It is an excellent area to learn scuba or free diving. There is much to see there and many places to dive. Access is generally fairly easy. Go there if you get the chance.

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