Begg Rock

CopyRight @ 1997

Do you want to try something exotic? The story among the UPS (Underwater Photographic Society) members is that the place exists only in legend. It is a spot that boats rarely schedule and even more rarely reach. About 7 miles west of San Nicolas Island, say 60 miles from the mainland, are some basalt crystals sticking just above the surface. They are the modest remnants of an ancient volcanic core. These things are stiffer than a life sentence. Out in the current like that, they are a photographers dream and a divers challenge. Exposed to the open ocean as they are though, makes them rarely divable. They have their own cute hazard as well.

There is more than one pinnacle, but only one consistently sticks above the surface and that one is about 10 feet tall and about 20 feet across by 5 feet wide at the base. There is another large wash rock about 50 feet away. This is an area accessible pretty much only by dive boats and not many of those try it. After the minimum 6 hour ride there, the skipper has to decide if it is divable for the group on the boat. Then they have to anchor far enough away to be safe, but close enough to find bottom. Did I say that most of the dive site is vertical and surrounded by very deep water? A dive boat will try to get in near enough to drop anchor on the ledges at 40 feet, then they must back up with the current into deeper water. The anchor may be in 40 feet, but the boat is in 300 feet of water. Oh, I guess that this should be considered an advanced dive site.

Grab your gear. Take your iron and your camera. Bring a small stick too. Usually, you enter the water with a step out the front gate, so that you can easily get to the anchor line. It is almost certainly the best way down. The visibility in this open water is usually going to be around 40 feet or more. It may change greatly with depth. As you go down the anchor line, the reefs will appear and at some point, depending on current and your plan, you drop the line to hit the side of the reef that starts at about 40 feet.

For a typical dive, you want to start deep and work your way up. I had been told about the giant scallops and wanted to sample them. I immediately went down to about 70 feet and looked around. The wall of the rock was covered with color filter feeders. At this point, there were Corynactis anemones, feathers, mystery critters and large scallops flat on the rocks. Most of these animals are very colorful, especially from close up. There were big scallops here, so what about deeper? I've found scallops well below 100 feet. I quickly went on to 110 feet. There were hydrocorals in places and still the bottom growth was lush, but not as thick as a bit shallower. I looked around and saw few scallops, but nothing of great interest. This whole time, I was trying to get some quick pictures of the anemones and fans. There is little cover in the rocks, so there are relatively few fish. I saw only a few small rockfish and a small Sheephead. As I came up to 80 feet, I got into about a 20 foot square of pure white Metridium anemones. These are from 6 to 10 inches tall and 2 to 4 inches in diameter. It is like you are suddenly diving 300 miles further north. I traveled carefully, as they seem so delicate. This is not a place for any problems with buoyancy.

As I continued up, my dive alarms started to go off. You know, that voice in the back of your head that says something is not right. There was unusual movement in the water. I could feel things vibrate, perhaps as if a really big swell were passing overhead. It had been going on for a while as I had been moving up the face of the pinnacle and I did not really like it. I backed away from the rock about 4 feet and it lessened considerably. Realize that moving 4 feet from the rock, may put you above 200 feet of water. What I figured out is that the movement of the ocean moving past the rock caused so many eddies and movements in the water, right next to the rock, that it felt to my body as if something big was happening. Once understood, it did not cause nervousness, but it was not something to be completely ignored.

From about 70 feet, up to 40 feet, is the main area where the big scallops sit flat on the rocks. These are firmly attached to the rock by the bottom of the shell. Often, scallops found in Mexican waters are like this. Getting them off intact is often impossible. If you do get them off, a limit of 10 of these 7 inch plus monsters will weigh more than is easy to get to the surface. That is something to be careful of. I carry a small stick, like a painters stirring stick. When I find a big one that I want, I move up quickly and push the stick into the scallop so that it cannot close completely. It is then easy to stick your iron or knife in and just cut the scallop out of its shell. You can pull the guts off easily with your gloves and put it in your bag. A limit weighs nothing in the water. The best way to eat scallop is right out of the shell. These are so big that the meat is the size of a hamburger and makes quite a meal.

I continued up. At about 40 feet, you encounter some ledges, but the main reef is still mostly pretty vertical. There are mussels at 40 feet, which make you wonder at the size of the waves that were necessary to plant them on the rocks so deep. As expected, there are the huge Pisaster starfish that feed on them. Even shallower are patches of the purple urchins Strongilocentrotus purpuratus, Gooseneck barnacles and the large green anemones. It is divable on a calm day, but looking around, you can tell that a calm day is an oddity. The water is really moving.

As I was going up, I was watching my buoyancy and dumping air occasionally when I suddenly started heading to the surface really fast. I grabbed for the rocks and started dumping air from my BC. This was not a good thing. I quit rising and wondered what that was all about. I am a relaxed diver and while I move fast, I do not like the unexpected happening quite so suddenly. What I figured out was that as you get into the shallower water, say anything above 50 feet depending on what is going on around you, you get into a vertical surge. Like the other vibrations deeper down, it gets worse the closer to the rocks that you are. As the swell feels the rock, it may move you up 5 feet, maybe more. It feels like you are in an out of control ascent.

On another trip, I had warned my friends about this vertical surge effect and while Begg Rock is a tough dive anytime, they had no problems with the currents. There was this other gent though... He was a bit older and I think that he considered the shallower water to be safer. Good idea, except that in shallow water here, there is so much water movement, that unless you really have good control, you are going to fight it to try to maintain position. We sent him home on the helicopter. Luckily it was just exhaustion and he could not quite catch his breath.

I had taken a limit of scallops and shot a full roll of film. I was having fun. So I gave Bill my camera and checked with Captain Mike Roach that there was enough time. I hopped in with snorkel gear and headed for the rock. I have always liked climbing onto isolated wash rocks off the shores and the islands. Well, this is about the most isolated wash rock you will ever find. The front is vertical, but at the back of the rock is a bit of a ledge and some cracks. I waited for as calm a moment as I expected to see and scrambled up with the birds. It's not much to see, but it was There. I have a picture that you can sort of see me in, standing on the rock. Getting off was another matter. There are a lot of the little purple urchins around the base and also the surge to think of, but nothing too tough. It was fun.

A guy on the boat made an interesting comment. This was a very experienced diver, but it shows that it is easy for anyone to overlook the little things. He said that he was tooling along and started to see some red rock fish. While that was what he was looking for, it still surprised him to see a group of them. He then realized that he was at 200 feet. Whoops. Time to go up.

I went to Begg Rock a number of times. Sometimes I got to dive it. If you can get there, the waves are calm. Then you have to worry about the currents. They may prohibit diving. It is nice if there is an inflatable out to pick you up and that can make the difference as to whether you can dive or not. Few places can you dive pinnacles in the open ocean. The life you will see there is astounding. It is amazing that you may be happily hovering in your own world at say 70 feet, engrossed in the life and beauty around you, when you notice another diver doing the same thing 30 feet directly under you, in their own world.

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