Cortes Banks on the Great Escape

There is just about no better way to spend a day than diving and this was going to be a great day for it. The ocean was flat and it was time to go.

It was so much nicer for diving when I lived in the Valley. 22nd Street landing in San Pedro was about the same distance as the Peace in Ventura and Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara was just a bit farther. Now it took a long annoying drive to the Great Escape, but this was the first time I had ever heard of a one day charter to The Cortes Banks and I didn't want to miss it. It's at least 9 hours cruising each way, but the diving there should make the trip worth it.

When I got there it was great, I immediately saw divers I had met before and some I knew, but had never met. The people on this trip are real serious divers.
The DIR contingent was there represented by Michael, John and Terry as well as others. Terry was acting as one of the dive masters for the trip. Chris, Michael, Frank and others were there as well. Actually though, it was a mixed group with some less experienced divers and some that were not from the area. Movie for the night was cave penetration by the WKPP folks, but before very long, it was time to dive the bunks. When I got up, the morning was warm enough to be comfortable and the seas were calm. It was overcast, but the visibility across the water was really good. There were three other boats on the Banks.
We were supposed to have near a half hour to go, so people were slowly getting geared up, except for Chris who was ready to jump in. I got my last gear on as we anchored.
The skipper gave a description of the spot. It was the usual. Some pinnacles. About 90 feet, but deeper in front of the boat and shallower behind. I jumped in and went down quickly and came up just as fast. In fine tradition, I had forgotten to turn on my computer.
I really notice the little mistakes you make when you don't dive regularly. I have always forgotten pieces of gear when entering, but it seems to get a bit worse when I don't dive real regularly. It always works out though.

I went back down and paused to get centered with where I was and figure out where I should be. It was dim at the bottom, but the vis was 50 or 60 feet and the water was crystal clear. I moved out a bit deeper and there was lots of good terrain with walls, ledges and rocks big enough to look under. With water that clear, there is a lot of small kelp on the bottom.
I was trying to move fast, but it was nice that I had no problem getting relaxed and falling into the dive habit. The extra gear for the pony bottle was unnoticeable. I saw some antennas sticking from under a rock, but it was obviously a bit short. A little further on I saw another bug under a rock, but this one looked to be almost 2 pounds. I tried to grab it with both hands coming together from the sides, but I was a bit slow and the bug had time to get moving. That was that.
It was great terrain and I kept going on and seeing occasional shorts, but I was getting lower on air, so I headed to where water was shallower and kept searching. Pretty soon I had to go on up. A few people came up with lobster, but nothing special. Tanks were getting filled and people got organized as the boat moved to the next spot. Captain Tim said that this was nearer 80 feet and that we were between a couple large pinnacles.

Again it was good broken up terrain with rocks and ledges. I went east which was just a bit shallower. It is beautiful diving with all different kinds of kelps and smaller red algae on the rocks. At Cortes Banks, probably the commonest kelp is a lamanaria that sticks off the bottom about three feet with a crown of leaves that make it a bit like a small palm tree. There is a lot of these and they are really strong, so they are real good to pull against as you travel along or if the surge is against you. You are mostly looking under these anyway and it is easy to travel between them, beneath their their "leaves". There are lots of smaller macrocystis algae here, but none go much higher than 20 feet from the bottom. All around are lots of large red urchins. While there are lots of small fish everywhere, I saw few of the 10 pound sheepsheads that I've always had following me in the past when I was diving here. There were a number of sheepsheads, but they were in the 1 and 3 pound range. I hope it's not because of over fishing even here.
I came into a bit of a "valley" between to rock "walls" that went up about 15 feet from the bottom. The bottom was rock with some sand and there were lots of microwave sized and smaller rocks on it. It was perhaps 20 feet wide and 40 feet long. Quickly I saw a small bug and so figured there might be more. Sure enough, this was where they were hanging out. I grabbed one and bagged it and started to position to grab one that looked maybe just legal, when I noticed a nice big one about 6 feet away. I grabbed at it with two hands from the sides and was plenty fast enough this time. I kept moving in this small canyon and grabbed two more from under rocks. It was impossible to say why they were in this on place, but this is where they were. In the rest of the area I found a number of bugs, but only one other was legal. Cool. I had dinner and my grabbing was what it needed to be. There are these pinnacles all over the place. They might be better called plateaus, because they are mostly flat on top. They tend to be only 10 feet wide at the top and are usually only that long or they may extend a ways as a ridge. The top of the plateaus are covered with a thick growth of bright emerald colored eel grass. I would think that the eel grass was actually growing deeper here than it should be able to flower, but it might be a different specie or have a different propagation strategy there.

The third spot was a bit shallower, but essentially the same terrain. I looked and looked, but didn't find anything legal sized. Even if there are no bugs, there is an awful lot to see. I was using my light some to check in holes. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be this one certain type of 4 inch gobie stashed in holes and nooks. There is a real diversity at the banks. You won't necessarily see an abundance of any but a few species, but you will see individuals of an amazing variety of different species. Nice dive, but no bugs.
It was after this dive that Michael Kane told about a pinnacle that they had seen while scootering around. He said that the entire thing was covered by large pink abalone.

The last dive site of the day was going to be at the wreck of a large cement hulled ship that had run aground here many years ago. It's big, I hear that it was a 400 foot ship, but it's nothing special to see. Plus, quite notably, there are a lot of the steel bars, that made up its ribs, sticking up from the bottom and out of the hull, all rusted and sharpened by the salt water. When the surge is nasty there, the normal condition, it can be a bit spooky to swim around them. Today it looked very calm.

There is lots of pink hydrocoral to see.

The skipper moved the boat slow and careful until we were about 50 yards from where there was a small boil that was the top of the wreck. Chris was ready and jumped in when the gate opened. I wasn't in a particular hurry, but followed him just a bit later.
When I jumped in, I still had no particular direction to go in mind, but the water was pretty clear and I could still see Chris. He was moving along at a fast clip in what looked to be the direction of the wreck. He seemed to know where he was going so I figured I'd just follow him. We just went in a straight line over the bottom at about 40 feet or so. We went quite a ways and I don't think he ever noticed I was behind him. I did see the only abalone of the day during this swim. It was a nice sized pink.
Well, I thought he was going a bit west of the compass to the wreck and we had traveled as far as the wreck, so I figured that the wreck was not his destination. Since I had no intention of going to the wreck, I surfaced to look for it.
I went down again and swam a bit to the west and started finding steel parts. This was a big ship and while I had looked it over a couple of times, it is very surgy, so seeing the whole wreck is difficult. The surge today was the least I had ever seen, but it was still there. I found a lot of entrances into the hull, but entering without preparation is not a good plan and anyway, I had no reason to think there were bugs in there. Terry said that they did see a few nice ones, but they were inside of a very small shelf that was impassable anyway. I did see about 5 sheepsheads in the 15 pound plus range. I cruised around the wreck for a while. There were other divers there as well. It is big, but not real impressive.
I went to the west and figured to circle around back to the dive boat as accurately as I could. It was shallow, so I continued west until I was in about 50 feet of water and then turned south. The terrain was good, but I only saw one small lobster. It was all beautiful diving. As I got low on air, I headed into shallower water and it wasn't a real long swim back to the boat

As I relaxed, I listened to Chris and another diver that said that they had both independently found a small canyon in front of the boat that had near a hundred lobsters in it. Unfortunately they were all shorts. Just a bit after that, a diver came on board with a huge bug that he said he had gotten right under the boat. He had just lost track of his buddy and saw the lobster in a small hole where it had no where to go. Chris put on his scale and it was 9 1/2 pounds.

Nice 9.5 pound lobster <

Art, one of the Dive Masters, told me that the gate would be open for over an hour if I wanted to make another dive. What could I do? I was cruising due north from the boat over the usual layered terrain, looking for bugs and taking pictures. It was pretty and as usual there was a lot to see including some short bugs, but nothing overly interesting. This was supposed to be a casual dive, but I came to one of the eel grass covered pinnacle areas and decided to look under the grass. Sometimes at Cortes, the bugs just hang out on to top of these. Small ones hang out in the open, but well hidden by grass and if you can find a hole under the grass, there may be a bigger bug one in it. It is usually very tough looking through the thick waving grass. After a bit of looking I found a hole no bigger than 9 inches a cross and just in it I could see the ends of some big lobster legs. There were actually legs on the other side of the hole as well, but this one looked bigger. I made a real quick grab into the hole and got some fingers on the horns. It was enough to stop the lobster from moving back and then I moved my hand up to grab the base of the antennas. I had a good hold and pulled this huge bug out of this little hole. I put it in my bag real carefully.
Well, that was a good way to cap any dive. The other bug that was in the hole was long gone. Using my light, I could see that the hole went way down into the rock. It was lucky that I was able to pin the bug when I did or it would have been long gone. I'll tell you. I shot the rest of the roll of film, but I spent a lot of time scouring the top of any eel grass covered rock that I could find.
The camera is great because it's about the only piece of dive gear that floats. I just let it go and I know its always out of harms way. I just have to grab anywhere on my right shoulder to retrieve it. I was able to spend some time taking pictures of Sulfur Sponges, Purple Hydrocoral, Spanish Shawl nudibranchs, urchins and some other stuff.

Yellow Sulfur Sponges

Every time I found a plateau, I thoroughly examined it for any hiders or holes in the grass, but just didn't find much else. I was working on finishing the roll of film while I was looking. Every 30 seconds or so, I would nudge the bag to make sure that the big bug was still there. It's not time for a clip failure that drops the bag or even opens it. I saw a large Bat Ray cruise slowly by and used up the last of my film. After that it was just bug hunting while navigating to try to come up back near the boat.
Swimming back through the heavy surface kelp presents a fun and interesting challenge. It's sort of like a game. You can't see much of anything and you do have to power over it, but the trick is to go straight through it without losing your aim at the boat. Sometimes, a small turn will take you around the back of a big clump, but mostly the kelp is long on the surface and so you just go over it. Kelp is made not to tangle, so none of my gear got caught at all. Having my bag on my vest, it actually snagged a lot less than it does on my belt.

I picked up a nice bug as well

A few divers came in after me, but it was the end of the dive day, time to shower and stow gear. It was a long trip that we started on right away. Before long we came out of the cloud cover to a beautiful sunny afternoon. The beautiful day and calm water was a blessing. The cooks must be commended on the short cake with blueberrys and fresh whipped cream we had at lunch. Dinner followed by brownies was good too, but that blueberry stuff was special.
I'd like to thank Cap'n Tim for the great trip and I must offer a special note of appreciation to the deckhands. They were about the most actively helpful crew that I've been diving with. they make it nice, but what also makes a dive trip nice is the dive crowd. They were a bunch of fun, interesting people with a lot to share and I thank them.
I like diving. When I got on the boat, my back was majorly stressed out and so was my mind. After a good day of swimming, My muscles are tired, but my back and joints feel like nothing. Can I go straight back to work efficient and refreshed? Not really. My mind went a lot further from work than I went from shore.

Enjoy the diving, seahunt

Cortez Banks Vis!
Back To Dive Index