Sea Ranch Diving

Too much work, not enough play. That pretty well sums up my life these days. I was finally going to get to play for a few days at my favorite playground, the Sea Ranch. This was going to be different though. Instead of a quiet relaxing trip with just Deb and I, we were bringing the kids. They're getting older now and hopefully could enjoy the beauty of the place more. The one hope was that the winds wouldn't be too bad or it would be a problem for them. There was one downside. The swell map was showing waves 9 to 12 feet. By the time I left, I didn't know if I would be doing any diving at all. A good day on the North Coast is still a rough day.

San Francisco is an amazing city. A small, nicely located architectural museum with some choice pieces.

As planned, the kids watched a movie during the flight up on the portable DVD we had gotten for the purpose. It made for a nice quiet flight. We loaded 1 bag of dive gear, 2 bags of clothes, 1 large ice chest, 4 backpacks and all of us into the rented minivan and headed north from Oakland Airport up the east side of San Francisco Bay. My attitude had improved greatly. I love the coolness, beauty and ocean smells of the Bay Area. We soon crossed the Richmond San Rafael Bridge and were heading up Hiway 101 through towns that seemed like old friends. We passed the dairy farms of Petaluma which was my old route to the diving of Bodega Bay. We came to Santa Rosa, where I wouldn't mind living, and stopped to pick up 20 pounds of dry ice. Then it was time for River Road to the Coast, but not before the usual stop at the Fruit Stand a bit off Hiway 101. We had fruit and vegetables for the entire trip including pineapple, avocado, grapes, salad makings and more.

The familiarity of the road can take nothing from it's beauty. The first part is through the low rolling hills of vineyards nestled in oak covered mountains. As the valley narrowed, we came to the Korbel Winery and stopped to see what was good this year. Last year it was the blue ribbon Blanc de Noirs that was so good and the year before it was the Le Premier. This year the Pino Grigio was the champagne that had the great taste with no trace of bitterness in the follow. The Chardonnay Champagne was almost as good. We had some sent home and took a bottle of each with us.

Korbel Winery is fun and has wines they don't sell elsewhere. We're not talking Brut.

We didn't stay long. I hoped to get in a dive today and we still had a long ways to go before that could happen. The slow windy Dramamine Hiway was still ahead and we had to hope that Joe wouldn't get car sick as he was prone to do.

As we got closer to the coast, the Russian River got bigger. I was used to the Russian street names, but this was the first time I saw the sign for the Champs Elysee. We passed through resorts and small towns. Then there were more redwood groves and old barns as we got nearer the coast. Before we reached the coast hiway we were entering fog. South is Bodega Bay, north is Sea Ranch. At the mouth of the river is Jenner and just past that are the sea lion covered sand bars at the river mouth that would tell me what the true dive conditions were. It wasn't calm, but I had seen it bigger. It was probably divable.

We were glad we had given Dramamine to Joe because the road up the hill above Jenner is one windy way. As you descend, the road is over 300 feet above the water with no guard rail. It's 40 miles to Sea Ranch traveling through California seashore scenery at its finest. Tall mountains covered with pine and redwood meet meadows above rocky shores. Red Tail hawks and turkey vultures soar above sheep and cattle pastures. The fences along the roadside offer room for patches of wildflowers. Weathered barns dot the landscape. Streams come from the hills above and empty into the ocean in redwood filled coves. Nicely, the road is not as windy once the first large hill is passed and it travels mostly near the shore. The heads of bull kelp bobbing along the entire shore hint at the miles of lush reefs that are rarely visited.

These are the fog dwellers.

The plan was to go past the north end of Sea Ranch to the town of Gualala and pick up the key to the house, Deb would get groceries and I would go on to the local dive shop to pick up what dive gear I wanted to rent. Then we would hurry back so that I could attempt an abalone dive the first day. At Jay Baker True Value Hardware I picked up weights, a tank and an abalone card. The abalone cards had sure gone up in price. I was hoping for a scuba dive the next morning.

Support your local dive shop... whatever it may be. It is the best one for 70 miles. Compressor and rental gear mostly.

This is the trophy room of the Jay Baker 10 inch Abalone Club.

It was nasty looking as we came to the south end of Sea Ranch. It looked like the weather report was right in spades. Luckily as we headed north, it didn't look quite so bad.

I used to challenge the ocean with my strength. Now I know to rely on my skill.

This was a pic of the southern shore of Sea Ranch from a previous year. It wasn't
quite this lively this time, but I didn't get a pic this time and I like this one

We got arranged at the house and headed to the ocean. The end of the road was less than 1/4 mile and the short trail to the beach went through a tunnel in the cypress trees. Luckily there were stairs for the kids to go down to the beach. Unluckily it was cool, foggy and there was some wind. Luckily there was a bit of beach to enter. Unluckily it looked nasty out there. The dive area was north of a point. Off the beach were two large rocky areas with about a 100 foot wide channel between them. At the end of the channel was a bit of a boil from a rock just under the surface. While there was lots of serious wave action, the channel looked deep enough that nothing was breaking in it. This would be my dive area. I really didn't expect great ab diving. That would be beyond the channel in deeper water, but going out much further would put me at risk of currents. Waves generally will only cause problems. Currents can cause death.

I poured warm water in my suit and gloves before heading in. I wasn't sure if the cove was sandy, so I went towards the boil I had seen since that should mean good rocks. The water was moving pretty nicely. I figured I was at the reef and waited until there were no large swell in sight. I went down and found the bottom at about 10 feet. It was just where the sand was meeting the rock. This wasn't boulders, this was the side of a rock shelf rising from the sand. It was covered with purple urchins in their individual holes. Luckily it was about 3 feet of vis. That would make it easier. My first 3 dives or so are usually just to look at the bottom and let my body adjust to free diving. Then I find where I want to hunt. This dive though, at the base of the rock I saw a finger of sand that went into the reef about 2 feet. A little above the bottom on the side was a huge ab. I popped it and had trouble getting a grip on it. It was incredibly fat and definitely the biggest ab I've ever seen. I couldn't believe it. It just didn't seem like an ab area being so shallow with all the urchins. I put it in my float and thought of what an interesting area this seemed to be. Unfortunately, the rest of the dive was not so great.

I moved off the rock and started my dives along its edge. The water was moving and the wind was blowing. I quickly realized I had made a major blow it and it wasn't primarily because I was rushed. I had made a poor call. I had no anchor for my dive float. There is a short rope on my float that I figured I could attach it to some bull kelp. Unfortunately, most of the kelp in the cove was already washed up on shore by the previous weeks big waves. I was going to have to keep track of the float.

I looked further on some and that rock shelf continued to get shallower all the way to the boil. Every time I made a dive, my float moved to the west onto the shallow rock and I had to retrieve it from fast water and waves. I figured I should dive in the deeper looking middle of the cove.

It turned out that some of the rocks came up very shallow, but there were channels between them that went down another 10 feet. I had to hold onto the float looking out the cove for when it looked like there were no large waves coming in. Then I would get my breath and give a push to the float to move it a bit to the east. Then I would do my dive. Water moved fast. I moved fast. Encounters were fast. Things would appear and disappear. After I surfaced, I had to look to the west into the lowering sun to find my float and retrieve it. Did I mention that the wind and waves seemed to be coming up fairly quickly, wind from the east and waves from the west.

The boil I saw when I entered had quickly turned into a break. The area I was diving in was so restricted that I repeatedly found myself going through a crack that I had just been in. I kept swimming west to get the float and then swimming east to dive. Once when I got in rather shallow water over the rock shelf I saw what looked like a barely legal abalone, but I really was seeing almost nothing.

I spooked up a fish that was large enough that it was probably a ling, but it vanished instantly. Though I timed my dives between waves, a number of times I went down and the bottom was sanded out in the whipping water. Occasionally I'd make a dive and grab some kelp stalks to pull myself into the cracks, but I'd just get blown away, bouncing across the rocks with kelp stipes in hand. Yah, North Coast diving at it's finest.

I was way under a rock when I found a 7 1/2 incher. On a normal day I wouldn't consider taking it, but I popped it without a second thought. My second thoughts were whether I should be out here at all. I like rough water diving, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing and I had already been out here a long time. It was starting to get darker as the sun was going lower behind clouds.

A calmer day.

As far as the diving, it wasn't surprising that there wasn't a whole lot to see. This is an area that is always rough and not comfortable for much life. I kept diving and kept fighting the float. Debbie was signaling me to come in. I figured that the kids were getting cold in the wind. I started slowly moving across and in to the cove against the current and wind, but I definitely wanted to fill my limit. Waves were breaking most of the way across the cove and breaks in the waves were few.

Finally, I found another single abalone in a shelf under a boulder and this time it was at least 8 1/2 inches. I continued to dive to see what I could see, but Debbie was still waving and it was time to get out. Besides, it was probably near 1/2 hour to sunset when ab hunting was no longer legal. It was nice to get to the beach. The dive had started really well, but it had taken me over an hour to get a limit of 3 abs.

Deb said that the main reason she had waved me in was that she could clearly see a current forming beyond me. Neither of us could really figure out why it had picked up so much just after I went in. Well, it was forecast to be too rough to even dive.

Back at the house, I really appreciated the hot shower outside to rinse myself and my gear. I put the abalone in 1 gallon freezer bags as usual, but I couldn't get the big one in at all. I knew that I had gotten 9 1/2 inch abs in them before. I wondered just how big this deep fat ab was. I knew it was near 10 inches, but I wasn't sure until I got it home and got a good measure.

Well, that's diving. Get while the getting is good or even doable. Based on the forecast, it might be much rougher tomorrow. It was time to crack the champagne and get dinner.

Day one booty. Rough day. Biggest ab I ever got. Day two booty. Not as rough. Not quite as big.

Day three booty. Nice Day. Nice set of 8 1/2 inchers. Day four booty. Smash and Grab Loot.

This was much later in the year than we usually came to Sea Ranch. Summer is short up here.

As we sat out on the balcony in the chill, the Sea Ranch looked almost completely deserted. The lights were on in only a couple of houses. No cars were on the road below Hiway 1. There were no sounds except for the roar of the ocean.

I like this

The next morning it was the kid factor again.

I got rushed out of the house and we had to find a place where the kids could play on the beach out of the wind, but where I could dive. Uh... there aren't many beaches on the North Coast. The map showed a cove about a mile down. We drove there and I scouted. It was a spectacularly beautiful cove and there were probably abs, but it would take climbing ropes to get to.

I said I knew that though it was farther, Smuggler's Cove was deep, accessible and there were abs. We followed the map there and it certainly wasn't what I thought was Smuggler's Cove. A stairway was marked though so I went scouting. It was a deep protected cove with a steep stairway down to a small tidal beach. I came back to the car and said this is it.

Child friendly and diver friendly on the inside

They went ahead and I suited up. I then unsuited, went to the beach and wretched at Deb for rushing me out of the house so fast that I didn't remember my gloves. The kid factor. Well, they were having fun. It was sunny and there was no wind under the tall cliffs. The waves were little more than a foot tall on the shore. The beach was probably only 30 feet wide, but it wasn't size that mattered, it was sand and water. Debbie said that they would be happy here for hours, so I went back and got my gloves. This place took a far longer walk from the car to the beach. That is when I love the scuba backpack/float arrangements that are so popular up here. All the gear goes in them for the hike. When in the water, the float will hold all the game and you can even put your weight belt in them for the swim in.

All the gear goes in here.

I got together and administered warm water into the suit before making the easy entry. While the inside of the cove was a big area, there was no guessing where there might be abalone. Unfortunately, well protected areas like this tend to get a lot of visitors and may be pretty picked over. No way was I going to try to get out of the cove. While there were probably lots of big abs outside the channels of the cove and it was calmer than the day before, there were still big waves coming in. This time I had some rope on the float and tied it off to a bull kelp in the middle of the cove. I was hoping it might be deep enough to offer some diving that fewer divers could comfortably hunt. It turned out to be microwave sized rocks in sand at about 20 feet and didn't look promising. At least it was fairly calm and the vis was a good 5 feet.

It wasn't so friendly on the outside.
I headed in to some more kelp around some rocks I could see sticking up about 30 feet offshore from a cliff. Now this was interesting. Boulders started at the sand and progressed to the vertical sides of the rocks. There were body sized channels between many of the rocks that went down to 12 or 15 feet. The whole area had a very heavy growth of brown lamanarias with 3 to 4 foot, very tough stalks. Looking down you see the 'leafy' tops of the lamanarias at about 5 feet below the surface. You dive through them and pass their bases into the laminarias growing from the bottom of the channels. Sometimes you would go down and your way is simply barred by a stand of laminaria stalks that you are not going to get through. If you could get into the channels, you usually had to pull yourself along, sometimes forcing your way between the kelp. It can be pretty tough quarters in the channels between the rocks. I had to pull my way pretty hard just between tight rocks a couple of times. Then you kick a few times, just relax and drift through the heavy growth back to the surface.

I really like the Sea Palms (Palmifera californica). They thrive in the roughest water.

There was a lot of life. I saw about 5 kinds of starfish, huge Gumboot chitons, A couple schools of perch, snails, anemones, a few nudibranchs and yes, some abalone. A number were small. Most were jammed in tight rock ledges. Some of those I just ignored. I found one between two boulders and popped it loose, but instead of pulling it out, I decided to see if I could push it down to the sand and get it out. Just barely before I ran out of air, I got it loose out the bottom.

Most of the pictures were taken around this rock Dermesteria Anemone
Anemone Anemone Bat Star

These seemed to be abalone that instead of waiting for kelp to fall on them, were in ledges and under boulders where they could move up at night and graze the rocks above them. They were very hard to get to and I won't try for one I'm not pretty sure I can get, but I ended up with a couple 8 1/2 inchers and one 7 1/2 incher.

I headed in again. It was another one hour plus dive. There were not a lot of legal sized abalone left to find in this protected area near shore. The kids still wanted to play, but Deb wasn't letting them go in the water much without me to supervise. It was too cold for her to want to go in. Sometimes, kids just don't seem to care much. So they got to jump waves. It was a beautiful sunny day.

The kids had a great time on their own beach.

We headed back and got cleaned up quick. Deb and I were hoping for a nap. The kids were threatened with death if they were loud. Neither of us slept so we got up and relaxed on the upstairs porch. I saw a deer and we both saw hawks swooping over the mountain pine forests.

The kids discovered a large marble tube and bridge set as well as a large Lego set. They were good for about 14 hours of fun over the stay. Their energy level was unbelievable and they watched only about 2 hours of TV the whole time they were there.. They were just having fun.

I sautéed some abalone. Marissa tried it and liked it. Joe didn't even try it. Deb didn't like it as much the last time I made it, but she really liked it this time. It came out good, cooked with and served with champagne.

Sunsets are soft and beautiful here.

A commentary on houses at Sea Ranch
Sea Ranch is a community started more than 30 years ago when some developers bought up about 15 miles of the nicest part of the North Coast in Sonoma. It was supposed to provide for an environmentally friendly place to build summer homes, retirement homes, vacation rentals, etc. It is pretty close to the Bay Area. The idea was to allow low density housing strictly regulated so that the houses would blend in with the surrounding environment. All the houses are a weathered gray or brown. There are even some houses with sod roofs. Sea Ranch does not welcome the uninvited. Parking there without a permit will get a wheel boot put on your car very quickly. The locals are very jealous of their privacy. For years it was legendary among the divers that knew, because there was absolutely no public access. Only some years ago did the Coastal Commission succeed in forcing them to make some access to the beaches. The argument Sea Ranch used was that they had been such good stewards of the environment that they should continue to protect it. It worked for a long time, but finally they had to provide some trails across it. It is truly a wonderful natural place.

The Chapel At Sea Ranch Surf - The house we stayed at this time. Pic
OOPS! Pic House

The houses all have similarities from the outside to make them blend with nature, but the insides may be very different. Oddly, in general, window blinds are not allowed.... Many of the houses have Jacuzzis that are nice in an area that can be cold, damp or windy. Many houses have patios and balconies protected from the winds. Some houses are cottages. Some are modest homes. Some are discreet mansions. Most houses are designed to take advantage of the stunning views, especially the bluff top houses that overlook the rugged shore.

For those more interested in a nicely located mansion...

The houses also all have names. The house we were in this time, Surf, had a patio for the Jacuzzi, a nice deck off the second floor kitchen and a front room made for looking out at the meadows and shore. Most of the rooms were open beam ceilings which are nice looking, but sort of bad for sound transmission. All the vacation houses are comfortable and decorated nicely, but there are differences.

Inside it was decorated with nice prints, small sculptures and colored glass work. It was very pleasant, but nothing like what you may find there. Consider another house we stayed in. It had all of those things, but the interior design was by an architect that wanted to use his skills and his client's money to make a thing of beauty. The design was comfortable and efficient and made to show off that the entire interior was beautiful, rich redwood. It wasn't paneling. Even the vaulted ceiling was carefully formed redwood lumber. A master craftsman built it. I liked the telescope aimed over the deck as well.

Last year though, we were in an older house. It was a tiny bit funky, but it was very special. The owners were artists. We had seen this before. It's sort of hard to describe. Instead of prints, there were small paintings. Instead of colorful glass vases there was sand art. Instead of interesting wall hangings, there were profound sculptures. The owners of the home were artists and everything in the house clearly reflected that. It was a very special house.

The next day was again clear and we got an early start after I did my checklist. We heard the waves, but today it was not a constant roar. I could still see some pretty good wave action from the deck. The kids wanted to go back to the same beach and I was willing as it was a large area and probably as good as anywhere I could find to dive.

We parked in the same place and went along the path beside the cypresses to the beach. I talked to a local for a few minutes. He said that a lot of divers visited the area, but said that they do pull one out each year. Getting caught in the kelp seemed to be the problem. At least that wasn't something I worried about much.

Trail between the cypress rows.

This time I headed out past where I had been the day before to another area of reef near the shore. It was calmer today, but there was still no way I could think of going through the channels out the cove. Again, rocks rose from the sand at about 15 feet to boulders around the large kelp covered rocks that rose a bit above the surface. I quickly found some abs, but they were so well protected under a rock shelf that I just passed them by after checking them out. I was seeing a lot of perch and anemones. I kept looking and looking, but no abs. Finally I saw a nice one on the side of a rock and tried to pop it, but it was locked in between rocks at its bottom. Then I saw that there was another one about a foot away on the side of the same rock, but far more in the open. I just popped it off in one try. Then I went back to working the first one. I got it loose, grabbed them both and went to the surface. Both were nice 8 1/2 inchers. I put them in the float and started looking again, but I knew there weren't a lot of abs here. I decided to try the small, shallow channel behind the rock. It looked a bit rough and unfriendly. Hopefully divers didn't try much in there. There were thick shallow water kelps of various kinds. If I couldn't make it through the shallow rocks, I could come back out. The waves going around the rock were small but moving fast. While the rocks came almost to the surface, there were deeper channels between them that went down 6 or 8 feet. Places like this have a lot of life often and there were a number of green anemones. Sure enough, I found a nice ab in a shelf and took it off. It was another 8 1/2 incher or so. It was beautiful diving so I continued my dive all around the rock.

The local ruling class.

Business done, I got rid of the ab into the float and got my camera. I had tried to take it before when I started ab diving and decided that it was impossible to do both in the thick kelp. Now I just did leisurely dives looking for things to take pictures of. I found a fair amount of interest including a few nudibranchs, but it was all close up. I see that none of my pictures through the rock channels came out even though they were pretty close. These are not Caribbean conditions.

Anemone Dermesteria and Anemone Bull Kelp Head
Anemone Small Picnopodia Nudi
Big Picnopodia Gumboot Chiton Lightbulb Tunicates and Nudi

It was a mild swim in and the kids were playing on the beach. I got rid of the gear and took them in the water some to jump waves. It was certainly calmer today. Now there were more people about including hikers and even some horse riders going past on the bluff top trail. A number of people were up for the weekend.

Even the wild turkeys were out enjoying the day.

After we got to the house I took them to the playground past row of the cypress trees to burn off more of what seemed an endless supply of energy. Every 1/2 mile or so at Sea Ranch are double rows of huge old cypress trees that were planted as windbreaks many years ago. In many places there are trails that go between them. They are dark cool tunnels. Amazingly, though it was sunny and the fog could be seen far from the shore, the wind never came up at all. That is unusual there. Normally it is either fog or wind ... or both.

Gualala River Mouth.

I had gone out late the night before and taken pictures of the shore, but I had apparently set the camera wrong as no pictures came out. It was also too bad that my shots of the Milky way and night sky didn't show either. It is beautiful there at night.

That evening we packed. That kids factor again makes that a project. It was warm and the sunset was beautiful. After that, it rapidly becomes time for coats. The next morning was hectic. As planned, I headed to the cove for what was supposed to be basically a 'smash and grab' abalone dive.

Much, much nicer.

It was cold and the waves were much calmer than the first day there. I headed straight out to the end of the channel next to the boil. As I expected, just on the backside where it is rough, there were a number of abs. I got a limit far easier and quicker than the first time. There were a lot of anemones and urchins on the rocks there as well. I never did see any Rose Spotted Anemones though. I regretted heading in. It was too short a time in the water. This was the end. I went to the east side of the channel against the rock wall looking down as I swam along. The tops of the golden laminarias are beautiful, but it was shaded black below that by the rocks blocking the morning sun. I think that is the most fun, wondering what is hidden down there.

The other way

Really, while it was fun diving and I got to spend a fair amount of time in the water, it was also disappointing that it was mostly too rough to do the relaxed exploring that is the most fun.

Just driving is a journey into beauty.

I cleaned gear and wrung it out as best I could. The abs all went in the ice chest with what dry ice was left. We checked and double checked, then took a last look from the balcony at the beautiful meadows in the morning light. The trip back was beautiful, far nicer than the destination. As we drove through the vineyards, the colors of Fall were just starting to show. The bottoms of the grape vines showed red and some trees were already changing to gold.

On a clear day you can see Bodega Head and on to Point Reyes.

The kids said that they had had a great time. We stopped for more dry ice in Santa Rosa and introduced the kids to In and Out Burger for the first time. The oaks and yellow brush of Marin passed quickly as did the bustle of the Bay. We tried to get on an earlier flight at Oakland airport, but that was a no can do. They made me dump some dry ice since the limit is five pounds. We still paid a $50 overweight fee for the heavy ice chest. We had planned that.

Where the land meets the sea at the mouth of the Russian River. I am so drawn to the ocean.

Truthfully, coming for only four days is not enough considering that most of two days were spent traveling. Truthfully, I'm not sure a lifetime would be enough for visiting such a beautiful place.

Dive Beer