Do It In The Dark - Catalina

It isn't the fabled Elephant Burial Ground, but it's not everyday I get to visit one of my buddies secret spots. I knew of the place and might be able to find it, but it's deep and mostly I don't get out anywhere near it. He on the other hand, goes there regularly, because at the beginning of the season, it is a great lobster spot. This is the kind of place where you grab the big bug from the group. It's also worth visiting occasionally later during the season.
So he told me he'd bring me there. Even without that, it was likely to be a special night. It was a while since I had gotten to join Lem for a good night dive for bugs. He knows the spots and dives hard. Some nights, the diving has ended after 4 AM.

We left the breakwater after dark and it was about an hour to Catalina. Luckily it was a calm night and this early in the season, it's still warm. Naoki was along tonight as well. That guy is a great spearfisher with the WSB record. He seemed a real nice guy. He never even got bothered by my crummy hearing.

We anchored near a well known spot with good diving, but we were a bit away from it. I knew that there is also a bit of a swim over sand to get where we were heading. Then there is an isolated pinnacle the size of a small building and it is all deep. I also knew that Lem often went into deco on it.
There were no boats anywhere nearby and we geared up under the red light. When we went in, it was far easier said than done to follow Lem. I was following the anchor line to meet him on the bottom before crossing the sand, but the anchor line just vanished in the thick kelp. When I saw a flash from his light below and ahead, I hurried to catch up. Sure he offered to take me there, which was an amazing concession, but if I got lost, that was my own fault. Over sand at 107 feet, past the big rock, over more sand and there it was. Lem went left and I went right.
Vis here was great. There were different laminarias and some middling sized Elephant Ear kelp on a boulder field around the main pinnacle. I looked through it as I headed across and saw one obvious short. I went around the pinnacle just a bit and there was about a 2 pounder, in some kelp at the back of a crack, that looked to be just in reach. I swatted it, but it twisted, got loose and came banging into my chest. I played hot potato with it but couldn't get a grip in the kelp. I got my light on it once just before it vanished the other way. Wow! Nice bug.
About this time, my light went out. Great. I have a small backup and don't necessarily need a light that bad to get up, but who needs more to think about. I jiggled the switch and it came back, but it went off about a dozen times during the night.
A sea lion showed up, but just went by to check me out and then left. Apparently he checked out Lem and Naoki as well. Lem's comment was that he always seems to be there and is almost certainly a local.
I continued on looking. Obviously this pinnacle is lightly visited. There were lots of fish holed up for the night in the cracks. There were lots of big healthy Gorgonian sea fans. Urchins were everywhere also. There was a lot of kelp in places. I moved up the pinnacle just a bit and on a rock outcropping was a large sea fan growing with a brilliant yellow zoanthid. This is great. Those are very uncommon and quite beautiful. It too showed that few divers come here, because they are quite delicate. That was worth taking some time to get a good look at.
I continued around the pinnacle just a bit above the base. There were more fish and urchins in the cracks, but only a couple of short lobsters were visible in the kelp. The next thing I know, I'm back at the zoanthid. This pinnacle is not much bigger than a house, which is still a bit bigger than some of the rocks that Lem has brought me to.
I moved up and kept going around. As I said, it is a beautiful dive site so I didn't mind that I wasn't seeing much in the way of bugs. I decided to make the entire dive here instead of trying to find my way back to ascend on the anchor. I ended up going around the pinnacle a few times, but never got well oriented on it. Moving around it seemed like going along a flat wall, not rotating around a very big rock spire.
Air went fast at that depth and so does bottom time, so I continued up to the top of the pinnacle to see if there was any kelp to follow to the surface. At the very top of the pinnacle was a large macrocystis kelp. There was really thick growth at its bottom and I could see just the tips of two antennas sticking out a couple of inches from under the leaves. The spread suggested it could be a legal. Getting it was going to be a trick, but I pulled back 2 layers of the kelp above it and had one to go. Amazingly the bug stayed put, so I drifted down to where I could see him standing on the very top of the pinnacle, under the last layer of kelp. I grabbed well enough, but once in hand it was obviously a bit short.
It was only a 20 minute dive, but it was a lot of work with little in the way of crustacean results. Still the night was young and that was easily one of the most interesting dives I had made in a while.

Tranquil Morning Along Isthmus Shore

Lem figured that the second dive of the night should be the Isthmus High Spot. The bugs should be deep and that makes it a good spot to look. In ways the High Spot is shaped like a very wide brim hat, with a top perhaps 50 feet across and the brim closer to 80 or 90 yards across. At the very top, is a small pinnacle that sticks up maybe 10 feet, to about 48 feet below the surface. The edge of the brim at the sand is around 100 feet of water.
Sometimes, I have wondered why I like the Isthmus High Spot. It is almost invariably a difficult dive. Partly it is that the location is so covered with fishing line that it got me to carry a line cutter. Most of it is deep enough that unless it is the first dive of the night, bottom time is likely to be a problem. Also, once you go to the deeper area, the shallower area can be hard to find again because it is a fairly small area of the reef. The fact that you almost always meet a sea lion that wants to share your space so that they can hunt fish in your light, is not really a problem, but it can be disconcerting the first time they come bombing down right in front of you. The hardest part of hunting lobster there though is that you have to hunt them in the Elephant Ear kelp.

We got organized and entered. The florescence here was really bright, so following the anchor line down was fun with no light. I've learned to turn it on before I hit bottom though. Lem and Naoki went that a way, so I went the other way. My plan was to look for bugs as I went on down. Much of the reef is at about 80 feet which I could deal with, but I wanted to avoid the edges at the sand that could be as deep as 105 feet. Even though bugs often hang out in the sand at the reef edge, if I went there, I would have no bottom time.

The front side of Catalina Island is one of few place I have been where Elephant Ear kelp is common and there is more of it at the High Spot than anywhere else. It is very unusual plant and can only grow where the water never gets rough. That is because it is basically one huge 'leaf', sometimes 30 feet long and more than 2 feet wide. It grows right on the bottom and has a small stalk (stipe) less than 10 inches long. If there was any surge to speak of, the huge leaf would rip loose or tear off where it rubbed against rocks. It can completely cover the reef with 3 or more thick leaves. Once you are in it, your mask is often covered by it. Diving under it is a challenge, but then that is why it can be interesting. Still, care must be taken not to damage it either. Just because of its size, Elephant Ear kelp is far more fragile than almost any other kind of large kelp. Even a fair bump can knock a large plant loose and you would never want to carelessly rip a leaf or pull on one of the small stalks.
Seeing anything while hunting it is difficult and then a lot of times, the lobsters are actually holding onto the kelp itself. That makes for a very difficult grab.

Every year that I have been to the High Spot since the El Nino, the Elephant Ear kelp has gotten thicker. This time I could immediately see that it was the thickest I had ever seen it. Since I knew this area was big rocks with big cracks between them, I just went into a crack under the kelp and headed straight across the reef through the rocks. Immediately there is this big sea lion in the crack with me. I patted his side some to say hello, but went the other direction. Those things are big.
As I went over the top of the reef, I went above the kelp again with the basic plan of going to the maximum depth I wanted and then working back up the reef. It's a bit easier to get under the kelp that way.
I was looking of course and saw some shorts including underneath a leaf in the open. It was a short, but the way it was hanging under the leaf would have made it an extremely hard grab anyway. Nicely enough I saw a bigger one between some rocks right away. That one was in the bag.
So at 80 feet, the plan is to turn back and work up back and forth through the rocks. The reality is that the rock I want to go under has 3 fishing lines going across it. I went on to the next crack.
Diving here is total sensory overload. Everything appears instantly and often only for a moment before it is hidden again. There is a fish in a hole. An urchin in a crack or one of those fast, long spined Crowned sea urchins climbing all the way off the rocks, on the kelp leaf. There were lots of juvenile fish including Sculpins. There are sea stars, sea hares and sea fans and every so often, there is a bit of antennae sticking out. Then it is a matter of playing how do I get to the bug before he bugs out? Then more often than not, if I manage to grab it, it's a short and you let it go anyway. There is a lot to see though.
While this is all going on and you carefully move through the kelp and fishing lines, you had better track time, depth, nitrogen and air pressure. Like I said, it's hard work and great for sensory overload. For all the work, I really wasn't seeing much in the way of lobster except for occasional shorts. In one deep ledge I saw one that looked like a nice 2 pounder, but he was way out of reach.
Air was getting low and of course I couldn't find the one area that goes up shallowest, so it was going to be a careful floating ascent from 70 feet. What kelp I could find I could only follow up about 20 feet above the bottom. That's no help. While slowly going up, just by luck, I spotted the anchor line. That was a great help and made for a fairly relaxed ascent. I turned my light off to look at the bioluminescence. It seemed that the lights were small specks inside much larger jellies, some perhaps 1/2 inch across. Usually, the specks of bioluminescence are in animals not much bigger than the speck of light itself.
...Note to self: Clipping goody-bag to BC instead of weightbelt works OK in the day, but makes for some difficulty accurately grabbing gear at night...
I was first back on the boat and it's really time to catch my breath. Lem and Naoki were back soon and none of us did very well at all. I'm reminded how tough this dive is every time and I have to wonder why I like it each time. After this dive, I have to figure that it is because it is so tough. Well, this time, I'm not sure it wasn't just a bit tougher than me.

Looking South Across Isthmus At Great Escape Anchored By Bird Rock

The third dive was a debate. Go deep off Bird Rock where the lobsters should be and bottom time would be short or go shallow? Well, the bugs didn't seem to be deep, so why not try shallow?

We moored the boat for the night and geared up. I have gotten bugs in the sand under the boat on occasion and when I didn't look carefully enough, Lem usually found them there. This time, I had the trick. I had some abalone trimmings from the weekend's feast and dropped them off the boat, declaring that I would check on it on the way back. Sometimes, you've got to make your own luck.
Where we were diving was a favorite place of mine because there is a lot of very good, very shallow diving. That means the area from 15 feet deep right to the shore. I tend to do real well there, but usually only later in the season when the lobsters have come up shallow. Sometimes you can chase a lobster right out of the water.

I started out looking at the rocks actually inside the cove. It's rarely productive, but you must not over look territory. Vis wasn't much in the shallow water, but I was immediately reminded of how beautiful Catalina is in the shallows. There is a lot of fish and invertebrate life. The two commonest seaweeds are this stuff that looks almost like brown lettuce and some other stuff that looks like brown carrot greens. The bugs tend to be walking in that stuff. There is a lot of other plant growth as well including some eel grass.

Lion Rock, The North Side Of Isthmus

I went a bit farther out than I usually do and found a whole new area of reef that I had never seen. As I went along, it just seemed to continue on deeper and deeper. Well, what could I do? I continued deeper to explore and figured that the lobster were probably out there sort of deep anyway. At about 60 feet, I got past most of the macrocystis and was getting into Elephant Ear kelp, though not nearly as thick as what was at the High Spot. Sure enough there were some bugs out walking and I grabbed 2 that looked legal. There was one on some kelp that looked small, but I grabbed him for practice. I figured I had to run out of reef soon, so I just kept going on down, working back and forth maybe 20 feet, looking for game. Usually a reef like this ends with occasional kelp covered rocks turning to sand. Lobster may be walking along the edge of the reef or you may see their eyes reflect if you shine your light over the sand. In this case, the reef just kept on going down. Basically, I was amazed, but at 86 feet I decided that it was deep enough for this dive and time to work my up again. I moved over some and headed back, still sweeping back and forth as I went. There was a small lobster trap. They are completely illegal here, but this one was very obviously derelict and home to a lot of growth, so I saw no reason to disturb it. I grabbed another bug and saw a pink abalone that was about 5 inches. There was a lot of bottom life and lots of fish to see on the way, including some big Calico Bass, garabaldi and tiny bright red rock fish. Soon, I was back in the depths of macrocystis and that lettuce like kelp. Somewhere, I even passed the proverbial 2 pound bug in an out of reach crack. In the shallow water I figured the air I had left would allow me to look around for a while. I went right to shore and then looked in the eel grass on top of the rocks further out. I ignored the surge from small waves and followed cracks as far as I could back to shore. I saw a lot of neat stuff and worked hard, but just didn't see any bugs more than a couple of shorts. Finally after searching through a large shallow area, about all that was left to do was go back to the boat. I lined up on it and headed out. Sure enough, when I got there I could see the biggest chunk of abalone trimming and about eight 1-1/2 to 2 pounders around it. Unfortunately, they were horned sharks, not lobsters.

Ship Rock, Outside Of Isthmus, Is Good Diving

What a night of diving! It was fun and beautiful, but not very productive of lobsters. I won't even admit how many legals I ended up with. Well, nobody had done well. No matter how I looked at it, it was still great diving. Catalina is just beautiful.
I changed and waited on Lem and Naoki. I figured they probably got something, but nothing great. I got into watching the sea and stars, while listing to the sounds of the cove at night. It was calm with the same soft wind that had blown all evening, but now it had more than a slight chill to it. The constellations of the Milky Way were bright in the black sky directly over Isthmus.
Naoki came on with a bag of bugs. A while later, Lem came on with a bigger bag. They had gone shallow and hammered them. They had done much of their dive where I had finished up mine. The bugs were shallow. Go figure.

Enjoy the diving, seahunt

Realize that those pictures are just what you can see of good dive spots right there at Isthmus, which is just a small spot at Catalina. There is a lot of other good diving in Isthmus as well.

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