Bodega Bay

CopyRight @ 1997

So, I don't sound like the highly educated type you say, probably a truck driver or a surfing instructor. Wrong! I spent my wasted youth in a classroom, when I wasn't diving, swimming, skiing or maybe even working. The nicest classroom in the world has got to be the Marine Laboratory at Bodega Bay. It is about 100 miles above San Francisco. Bodega Head is the first large point above Point Reyes. Like Point Reyes, it is on the Pacific Tectonic plate instead of the Continental Plate, like the rest of the state and most of the country. Those two points and a couple others, are drifting north compared to the rest of the country. It is a slow thing, unless you catch it during an earthquake. It is basically a granite mountain that grew up on the wrong side of the fault. In any case, Bodega Head is where the coast continues north after Tomalas Bay. It is really where the North Coast diving begins. That means free diving for abalone. All the way up to Oregon and then some, the abalone are plentiful in free diving depths. Scuba can not be used or possessed while taking abalone. While the abalone are plentiful, access and diving is not. This is one of the roughest coasts in the world. Most of the coast is not accessible by land. There are few harbors and it is just a stormy place... but if you get a divable day, it is great.

It is a beautiful area and the town of Bodega (means warehouse in Spanish) is a real nice little fishing port and tourist stop. The area is hills, redwoods, summer homes and dairy farms. I have seen dozens of windsurfers zipping across the bay in the afternoon wind.

If you drive around to the back of the bay, you pass the large Bodega Dunes campground. There are a number of homes, until you get about half way down the bay. On land, in the bushes are some interesting derelict wooden boats. On the right is the turnoff to the UC Dorms for the students at the marine lab. It is where there was a house in which Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' was filmed. Students come from all of the University of California campuses for a quarter session at the lab. The lab is not really open to the public usually, but occasionally they do have an open house. It is on a biological preserve in between two state parks. It's a really special place.

It is a great place to hike or beach comb, as well as dive. There are a few hazards to be aware of though. The composition of the rocks along the shore is decomposed granite. It makes for fairly clear water diving. It makes for lethal climbing. Firm feeling rocks disintegrate under your hands. The local Search and Rescue is busy. Another consideration for the hiker is that there is extremely potent poison oak on the headland and it does not look like poison oak. While there is quite a bit of it there, I rarely saw it when hiking.

Nice Red Abalone

Be aware, this is White Shark Zone. It is usually considered the northern tip of the so called White Triangle that extends out to the Farralon Islands. If you go past about 15 feet deep, while free diving, you are looking for trouble. You may be safer with scuba, because the bubbles make the sharks cautious... and you might not be. One thing that I have seen about shark attacks, sometimes, it seems as though the shark was just really hungry.

Most students just walk up the road to the lab in the morning. An alternative is to walk from the dorms over the dunes to Salmon Creek Beach. Then about a quarter mile down this deserted beach is where the hill that is Bodega Head starts. From there is a walk around the cliffs above the ocean, to the lab. I think it is a much better way to go. In the dunes, deer are commonly seen as are rabbits and hawks. Bobcats have been reported. One day, there were thousands of hairy caterpillars on the dunes, all heading south and many going up the headlands. I don't know where they were going, but that many of them, all going the same direction, must have had something in mind. From on top of Bodega Head, the pristine shoreline with its reefs, sea lions, kelp and birds can be seen. It is a short distance to the marine lab. The trip is different every single day. Like I said, I think that that is a better route.

Next to the marine lab is Horseshoe Cove. This is an amazing dive spot for a few reasons. The first is that you cannot dive it. At least not without permission from the lab. That involves a few things if you are a student and more trouble if you are not. It is one of the easiest spots to get to for diving. There are no cliffs around it. It is easily accessible and more than 100 yards deep, but it less than that wide. This makes it far calmer than anywhere else on the coast. I expect that before it became part of the biological preserve of the marine lab, it was rather heavily picked, due to the easy access. Now though, it is pristine and looks untouched. Towards the entrance of the cove, it is rather overrun with abalone. They can even be observed crossing the sand occasionally. It is the typical north coast heavy algae bottom. Visibility on a normal day is 15 to 20 feet, in shallow. Rock fish are common, but small.

If you are J. Q. Public or you want to take some abalone, you must go somewhere else than Horseshoe Cove to get them. At the end of the main road, is a large parking lot. At the south part of this is a short steep trail down to a rough cove that faces south. It is shallow enough and there are some abalone, but I cannot recommend it except on a rather calm day. It has steep sides and so waves bounce off the rocks. Swimming in there means that you will be dealing with waves coming from all directions. Getting too far out of the cove may get you in a current, let alone shark country. I found abalone, but it is the hard way to go. An excellent place to explore if conditions are good enough, but it's still pushing it.

At the north end of the parking lot is Windmill Cove. This was a great place for abalone, though these things do change over time. This is a cove that has a caution to it... or should I say, numerous cautions to it. I dove here many times while I was a student and in later years. This cove is a fairly typical one, say 100 yards across with a small beach. A hazard is that the waves push the current in the south side of the cove and back out again at the north side. The best diving is on the south side of the cove. If you just swim towards shore, you may find the current helpfully pushing you right towards the beach... until you get near it. Then you will find yourself quickly traveling across the cove and out again on the north side. Now, even on a good day, this place is rough and mistakes are to be avoided. The rocks on the north side of the cove are no place to be if you do not know exactly what you are about. In any case, on the south side of the cove is sort of a channel, between some very big rocks to the south and some smaller ones that stick up further into the cove. It is best to travel this little channel in and out to avoid currents. At the entrance of the cove are numerous areas that have excellent diving for abalone, though I rarely saw much in the way of fish. They are probably deeper. Due to the prevailing rough conditions, this cove is quite pristine. I saw sulfur sponges there once. There are some urchin as well, but mostly just heavy kelp. A reasonably good diver can take a limit of 8 inch plus abs in a matter of minutes.

One time while still at the lab, I and about five others decided to get abalone for dinner for everyone at the lab. We did not get fed on Sunday nights... I went in with them and helped some of the newer divers locate and take some abs. I went in to drop off the abs I had. I was going back into the water to swim around a bit more, as the other divers began moving in to get out of the water. They were in about 10 feet of water when a white Shark swam across the cove about 20 feet behind them. It was not a monster, but it was big enough. I saw no real point in telling them about it. I went back in the water and continued my dive. I guess that I do not care all that much about sharks... I got a nine and a half inch ab that day. It was the biggest I found in that area. I cleaned, pounded and bar-b-qued up 31 abalone in foil. Everyone seemed to approve. I am not sure about how that worked out with limits exactly... but I am sure that we were legal.. somehow.

I went there numerous times. Some of the visits were memorable.

I went out on a fairly nice day in 15 feet of water to an area that I was fairly familiar with. I wanted to get a limit of fattys. I was just bobbing around a bit to get into things. There is no rush on a calm day and there are enough abalone, that if you do rush, you will limit out before you even get started diving. Well, I went through a sand channel and saw a number of nice fat abs, but nothing huge. Then I thought about it. I had never taken a limit of abalone on one free dive... In that sand channel, it would have been easy. They were spaced about 18 inches apart on the rock, just above the sand. So suck in a bit of air and go. None of the abs looked over 8 1/2 inches, so I looked for the fattest ones. There is a big difference. No problem. All were plenty fat enough to be keepers.

I have explored to the south of the cove and that seems the best place for it. It was fascinating for as far as I went, but coming back, stay off shore some or you may find yourself inside of some very shallow rocks.

One time I went when it was the calmest that I ever saw it. I was buddying with another diver. You know, same ocean, same day, but it does make you braver to have some help if you need it. So we went exploring the cove to the north. It had numerous purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purperatus), but no abalone were to be found. We got to the rocks between the two coves. This place is normally far too rough to dive, but it was calm enough that day. I ended swimming up on a rock, between swells, to try to get a large abalone that was mostly above water. I kept getting knocked off, but I wanted that big ab, so I eventually got it.

That day I also learned a new style of diving that is a lot of fun. At the end of where a person can walk to, on the little point between the two coves, is a spot where people fish. There are numerous rocks in the water past this. Well, the fishermen fall off this little point and regularly die. I said that it was extremely rough and that there are nasty currents right there, and that is on a good day. I do not think that I mentioned that the water temperature is typically in the mid fifties. If you fall off there, you can be in trouble fast. Well, it was calm enough for me to swim up to this in the small waves. What I found and have seen in numerous rough rocky areas since, is that between the rocks are cracks that a person can fit into. They are like little aquariums. Since everything is so close and also near the surface, visibility is similar to in air... unless there is a temporary white out from air bubbles. A fascinating thing that you quickly notice is that each 'aquarium' has its own single species. One will have urchins, the next will have Patirina starfish, the next will have perch. It is odd, but fantastic to 'dive' in. Perhaps I should say crawl.

Another thing about this, is that it says something about safety. In these shallow rocks, with waves splash everywhere, it may seem chaotic and unmanageable, especially if it is at all a rough day. Instead, there are many calm spots in the intertidal storm. If a person fell off of the point and knew what to do, they could put most of their body in one of these holes to avoid most of the worst wave action and either wait for a calm or else hang on and pull themselves to shore. They would not be at the mercy of the waves and current.

To be continued.....

Bodega Bay Abalone Dive

Windmill Cove Wide

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