CopyRight @ 1998
There was one trip that was full of so many memorable events, that I have to chronicle it as best I can. It was an invitational dive trip put on by the Sea Sons Dive Club, arranged by Joe Cavillo on the Truth out of Santa Barbara.
It was a cool night driving up to Santa Barbara. I hit rain in
Thousand Oakes, so I stopped and called the boat to see if the trip
might have been canceled. You can never guess the weather, but it
didn't look too promising. They said conditions seemed fine and
nothing was changed.
I went on the boat and was stowing my gear. This guy asks if I went to school in Santa Cruz. "Yes". "Well, I'm Mel". Whoa! That was 20 years ago. Amazing! We had been friends at the time and I had taken him diving at Greyhound Rock (see Nasty Dive). Well, he had remembered that dive and had always figured that one day he should get certified. He had finally done it a couple of years earlier and was, by now, a very serious dive nut. I hadn't seen or heard from him since school, but he had seen my name on the roster and had wondered. This was a nice blast from the past. I still dive with him to this day
I was seeing the regulars that I would have expected, but I was seeing an amazing amount of crew as well. When I went into the galley, the guy preparing food was a senior skipper with the operation. Huh? I asked "what gives". Well, this was going to be the big trip of the winter season and everyone wanted to be there. Going as a cook was the only way he could get on board. Hmmm. It seemed that most of the skippers and hands from the Truth Aquatics were aboard. The excitement was easy to feel. It looked like the diving might be interesting.
We were at Nic before dawn the next morning. Conditions seemed good and fairly calm, though there was a serious overcast that looked like it could become rain. Joe said that all gate times would be 15 minutes and that with luck we could get in 7 drops before pulling in for the night. You could do a night dive if you felt so inclined. Joe had put a Jolly Roger flying high on the radio mast. We all appreciated the thought.
The boat anchored on the front side about a third of the way from
the west end, maybe 300 yards from shore in about 60 feet of water.
Getting into the water was a competitive operation and was done in
very short time... The vis at this hour was about 40 or so feet. I
chose to move directly towards the island until I found terrain that I
wanted to follow. The island is basically surrounded by geologic
bands, so as you move in or out from the island, you will be crossing
bands of terrain. There are sand areas, big rock reefs, mixed and then
there was this band about 30 feet wide with lots of soccer ball to
washing machine sized rocks. This looked like the place, so I turned
90 degrees and headed parallel to the island. Actually, this type of
choice is why I do well with getting a number of smaller lobsters, but
this is not the best way to get the bigger ones. That takes a
The vis was good enough that I could easily see the whole rock area as I moved along. Each likely looking spot could be checked. There was a nice legal bug looking away from where I was coming from and as I came past the rock he was under, it was easy to get a hand on his back. Good start for a trip.
It was a beautiful dive area. There was a fair amount of kelp on the rocks. Lots of Calico Bass were around, with occasional Sheephead, perch and a variety of other finners. In the rocks are the expected stars, urchins, anemones, cowry shells, feathers, Gorgonians, crabs and whatever else is making its living on this lush reef. There were occasional purple Picnopodia starfish, 30 inches across with about 20 arms and fast. At least fast for a starfish. Even if they don't look like all that much to you, they are fierce some predators of the rock reefs. They are also so soft that they are gross to touch.
Normally, on a dive like this, you travel as far as you can on the terrain you are on, then move from the island to a band closer to the boat. Then you turn back and, hopefully, come up even with the boat again. Sometimes it actually works as planned.
Since I was finding occasional bugs I turned back late and had a long swim to the boat. I had 3 nice bugs. That was an OK start, but a couple of people had gotten some around 5, 6 pounds.
The day went on like this. I noticed that gear was interesting that day. Divers were wearing everything from double high pressure 80's, to single 72's. Many were not wearing BC's, something that had been rigidly enforced a few years back, but was now fairly optional for experienced divers. I thought that my low pressure 104 cu ft tank was big. Mel was actually using a steel 120. I was learning about my friend. There was a guy that day, that in my eye, defined a serious diver. He wore a black suit, lead, leather gloves, a steel 72 and a regulator. He had no BC, knife or gauges. It was Dave, a senior dive boat skipper, very seasoned diver and thoroughly deadly hunter. His entry from the front gate was a front ways dive with a hand on his mask. He was hunting bug and there was nothing extra needed.
Each dive at San Nic is special, because its remoteness, rough weather and vast reef area, has left it largely primeval. Everything there seems oversized. You go on these long swims and never know what you will find. You never run out of reef here. It goes far beyond where you can go. Occasionally, you may see a huge Black Seabass or a halibut. You find a rock pile, the adrenaline flows a bit more and you pour over the rocks looking for where the bugs are. You always hope to come around a rock and see a big one. It could happen any time.
As the evening started, we made a last stop about 2/3 of the way down from the west end. I went towards shore quickly, through a fairly thick kelp bed. I wasn't really seeing anything. In the shallows, stirred up sand made vis about 4 feet. I basically landed on a nice legal that was hunkered down in the sand. I guess he was out just a bit early. Then I found something interesting. I was probably 75 yards from shore, when I found a shelf heading straight out. Slightly odd geology, but nothing too strange. It was one of those shelves with a front opening from 6 inches to 2 feet high, that went in 5 to maybe 12 feet in places. It was basically too small to really enter. From the front it was easy to see. From the back, it didn't show as more than a sand and weed covered berm. It was late, I was tired, it went in the direction of the boat, so I followed it. The day was ending anyway, so I had my light on as I went. As I expected, there were bugs every so often. Sometimes 3 or 4 grouped together, or perhaps a single one 20 feet further on. All were inaccessible in this deep ledge. A couple were easy 7 pounders. I just kept going. I figured if a bug was in this area, it was safe in this crack anyway. When I came up, I was very near the boat and the crack continued beyond. This was more than 300 yards from shore. It must have been like a safe highway for the bugs to move in and out from the island along. I've never seen anything like it elsewhere.
Well, it's night and I was sniveling about not getting any big
bugs. I was told to shut up because, numerically, I was doing really
well. The jackpot bug was an 11 pounder at that point. Mel had done 7
drops with that monster tank of his and was done for the day. I was
hoping for some luck, so I went in. It was still the frontside and
after the dive we were going to go around to anchor on the backside
of the island at just about the only protected anchorage on the
island in Frenchys Cove.
I never have done well at night at San Nic before. I don't know why. You swim fast, just hoping that you come on a giant bug, completely out in the open. At night, a 10 pounder would look huge. No such luck. My air was pretty low, but I was only in 40 feet, so I wasn't concerned, when I came around a big reef and saw the shadow of some huge antennas on a rock. The Bug was in a ledge at the back of a triangle formed by 2 big rocks of the reef. There was a smaller rock in front of the ledge that made it impossible to just swim into it. When he saw the light, he immediately moved all the way into the hole. Well, 300 lbs. of air is plenty for one quick shot. Well maybe not, but I was going to give it a try. Very first thing is to dump all air in my BC so that the tank won't float. Then I was immediately out of my tank and sliding up the crack on my back. I didn't think the bug really had far it could go. Wrong. My head was in about 8 feet and I had one arm up feeling for the bug, the other one back, holding onto my tank and a lanyard to my light. Though flat, the hole I was in had just too much room for the bug to have gone to and thinking about everything, it was time for me to get out and get up. There is no room for mistake or miscalculation. As I was sliding almost out, my hand went to the far side of the crack and landed on the bugs tail. That was that, though now, I have no free hands to get the rest of the way out of the hole. Whatever. The most important thing at that point is to relax, conserve air, move carefully and make good judgments. I got out with the bug in a left handed death grip and it was trying to rip my hand up with its tail spines. Just drift up and suck the tank till it's gone. Then the trick was to get it into the bag and get my gear back on. It was an 8 pounder. I had finally gotten a big bug at night at Nic. I never did see any more of the bug under water, than the shadow of its huge antennas.
The next day we started with a deep dive. You never know at this
time of year, if the bugs are going to be congregating on deep reefs.
If deep reefs means at 80 feet or so, diving can be done carefully,
relying on your computer to keep you from getting the bends. If deep
means 100 feet plus, plan on a quick dive and your bottom time is
going to be severely limited for the rest of the day. This was 125
feet. That makes it an exploration dive.
One thing I like about deeper water. Chances are, that it is going to be clear. It certainly was Gin clear today, By 50 feet down, the bottom was clearly visible. I was dropping straight onto a nice rock pile that stuck up about 10 feet from the bottom and was 20 feet across. These can be full of bugs. from 50 feet away, I could see this nice 2 pounder sitting in a hole near the top. Of course he could see me just fine too and was scooting backwards before I was 20 feet from him. He was the only one there.
At this depth, you must move fast. That is made difficult because it is all so enchanting. The bottom is mostly clean flat rock with cracks and boulders. Growth is not lush, but there are many small curious things to notice. Light loss at that depths makes your night vision work instead of your color vision, so not only is the water incredibly clear, but also your vision takes on a sharpness that is unlike anything you are used to seeing.
Realistically, you can get a feeling for what the lobster situation is pretty quickly. I could tell that, though I might get lucky and find some or maybe even a big one, bugs were pretty sparse around here. Hunting mode remains, but there is a distinct shift to sightseeing mode. In any case, the dive is not going to be long at this depth. You stay a bit above the bottom to get any extra margin of bottom time safety. At this depth, swimming 10 feet above the bottom, instead of right on it, will make a difference to your dive computer by the end of the dive. You have to remember that you have more dives to make today, even if they are no where near as deep. If you do see something, you can quickly drop down to it, but you had better probably consider the dive over.
I came to what looked like a creek. Definitely it was a creek. The bottom was flat rock at about 110 feet and there was this creek bed about 4 feet wide, that cut in about 8 feet. I followed it out of curiosity, though it would have afforded great hunting terrain, if I had had more than about 3 minutes left. It was well defined as if it had been submerged quickly at some long ago change in water level. There were a variety of anemone and smaller invertebrates in it. Diving like this is just amazingly fascinating, but it was time to go up and when I decide it's time to go up, it's probably a bit late.
There was this guy in his 20's. He was in great shape and had
been a deckhand on the boat before. It was the second day of the
trip and these are some divers that are pushing it. The jackpot bug
the previous day had been near 11 pounds. Now around 11 AM, nobody
had more than perhaps a 3 pounder. We were in one of the wide coves
at the north west corner of San Nic. Big waves can slide in there
anytime. Even on a calm day, you really feel the ocean movement.
Most of us had already made it back to the boat and were just standing around getting organized when somebody came up and called to the boat. This is not likely to be a good thing. Rarely do divers get in trouble, but if they do, they may need help quickly. Since he organized the charter, Joe was acting as DM, if anyone was. Everyone was quiet so that he could yell to the diver who was out about 150 yards. He wanted something, but it was hard to tell what. He basically seemed OK... He wanted someone with a tank. Joe went out and we watched. A bit later they were coming back in.
The story was that he had found a 7 pounder and just couldn't get to it. He was out of air, so he took off his tank and stretched out his yellow, 12 foot octopus hose. He wanted someone with some air to get his bug. Joe is just the man for that. Actually, it didn't want to come out until the base of the horn just about ripped off. That tends to relax them. It was technically illegal for a jackpot entry, since he had had help, but no one had anything near it, so there were no complaints.
I'll add a bit to this tale. There was some weather. It was overcast, but nice conditions. We were coming in sorta late around dusk and going up between Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands, when some of his friends decided to help the guy celebrate his birthday. Well he was playing poker in the galley at the time, but that wasn't anything that about 5 guys couldn't deal with. They were smart. They carefully got his hands so that he couldn't grab anything on the way out of the cabin. He tried. The boat conveniently slowed and he was in the drink.
It became a beautiful night. As you cruise, the stars are hidden, but the lights of the oil platforms and the shore are clearly visible. You wheel through this and the patterns of the lights change like brilliant moving constellations, but there is no way to orient by them as the boat moves on. The weather bumps into the mountains above Santa Barbara and builds. As the boat gets to dock, there is a soft mist falling. It is all so beautiful and calm that it hurts to leave. Days like this are something that cannot be held onto, so they must be remembered as best one can.
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