June 23, 2006
It’s 7am, and the alarm on my cell phone is going off. Normally, I’d be hitting the snooze button, but this morning, I go below deck where I’ve stored my dry bag to silence the noise, while the Sundiver leaves the dock and Alamita Bay. I’m still thinking it’s way too early to be up and about, but after too long an absence from the water, I’m excited to soon be diving in kelp forests for the first time.
In the hour it takes to reach the first dive site off Catalina Island, I’ve gotten to know everyone on board: Captain Ray; Kaya, divemaster, instructor, and my dive buddy; and the Calico Hunters, Sally and Mark, who are spearfishing for calico bass. Along the way, we pass three trawlers heading out to sea, and a boat of commercial sea urchin divers. The fog is burning off to a beautiful morning, but I’ve still managed, despite a borrowed windbreaker, to turn slightly blue from the wind. And I’m not even wet yet!
Up to now, I’ve been a “bathwater” diver, even staying dry between November and April in South Florida where I first began diving. My favorite conditions require only a swimsuit and basic gear, and maybe a skin to protect against sea lice. For today, I’ve brought a 7 mil wetsuit, hooded vest, and gloves. I feel like the little kid in “A Christmas Story” who can’t put his arms down, and without weights, I float like a cork.
By the time we reach Ship Rock, a pinnacle rising from 190 feet below sea level, Mark and Sally have briefed me on kelp diving: how to deal with entanglement and curious sea lions, and other local wildlife like garibaldis, the state marine fish, who guard their nests as aggressively as smaller damselfish in the tropics. I’m relieved that “shark” isn’t mentioned–although they’ll tell me about great whites later. Throughout the day, they’ll also give the history of Catalina Island (from the wild buffalo still roaming from the island’s days as a movie set for old Westerns, to the Wrigley family who once owned it); explain why they leave part of the skin on as they clean their fish; and recount other great dives they’ve done (Kaya watched a gray whale swim beneath the anchored ship a couple months ago). At one point, we spend several minutes looking for the bald eagle whose nest Ray spotted.
The dives are incredible! There is so much marine life, both in and out of the water: pelicans and sea lions sunbathe on rocky ledges, bat rays glide in search of breakfast, and true to form, the garibaldis stand guard beside their algal patches. There are also many varieties of sea stars and snails (including a green abalone the size of a dinner plate), Catalina gobis, vibrant Spanish Shawl nudibranchs, and even an octopus wedged into a crevice. Several types of kelp grow on the rocks, especially the traditional kelp the rises to the surface to form mats, and in between their holdfasts (or “roots”), I come across a small purple coral, as well as soft black corals, fuzzy with feeding polyps. Each dive lasts about 40 minutes, between 60 and 30 feet below, and except for the occasional crossing of the thermocline (which means a major temperature change, sometimes as much as 20 degrees), I’m happily comfortable and surprisingly agile in the wetsuit.
The highlight of the day happens with the third dive, at a site called Starlight, known for a coral and algae encrusted shipwreck and the continued downward trek of a landslide. I have been hoping all day to dive with a sea lion or seal, and as I’m about to enter the water, it looks like I’ll get my wish. The sleek black head of a harbor seal surfaces about 15 feet away, waiting patiently to see what kind of animal I am and whether I’ll make an interesting playmate. Once Kaya and I are in the water, he’s still not sure about us, and decides to go elsewhere, but not without streaking by in a “Look what I can do!” manner 20 feet below us. We continue our dive without further sightings, marveling at bat rays and the majestic kelp stalks. However, once surfaced near a flat rock, we spy our friend, along with a mother sea lion and her pup, who both decide we pose no threat and go back to sleep in the sun. It’s a wonderful way to end my first dive experience out of the tropics.