California Diving Culture

CopyRight @ 1998

There is a lot of history to this site, because diving used to be more of a frontier sport. Things were different and more raw. In California, the abundant game fostered a lot of hunters. A much larger percentage of divers were into hunting then than now. Abalone are fun to search out and delicious to eat. Lobster hunting is one of the wildest sports there is. The halibut hunters range over vast open areas like wolves. Spearfishers play hide and seek with the bass. These people are not tourists out of their element when they enter the water. These are local predators that can play a pretty rough game. The fish die when these guys show up.

Realistically speaking, the diving hunter of the California reef is filling the niche of the sea otter. It is interesting to see the similarities and differences of the two species. The otter hunts by feel mostly, whereas the diver uses mostly vision. On the North Coast some ab divers do hunt by feel though. Perhaps the biggest similarity though, relates to how the diver and the otter move. They are hunting in much the same place, in the nooks and cracks in the rocks where the game hides. As such, they both must be agile in close quarters and able to move extremely fast. Both can use speed to surprise game.

The style of these divers is dictated and taught by the hunt. It is certainly not a style taught by any agency and it is enough to make many instructors cringe. Here are a few habits that hunters in California may pick, up that are not considered common diving practice elsewhere.

Hunting lends itself to solo diving. Some people hunt together, but it is harder and reduces success most of the time.

Hunting makes it worth it to dive under less than favorable conditions. Sometimes the worst conditions are where the best diving is. Often hunters dive in conditions that are not worth diving for any other diving activity. Vis comes and goes, the bugs are always there. Hunters must be able to make excellent judgments about conditions.

Successful hunting often requires that the diver cover as much of the bottom as possible. They often get much farther from the boat than other divers do. California has vast diving areas. Because of that, hunters often must develop navigation abilities that are superior to what most divers need. It doesn't always help and an alternative solution is just to not care. That requires its own preparations. Hunters must be in excellent physical shape.

Hunters move quickly, so they must observe and evaluate what they are seeing, extremely quickly. Then they must be able to respond just as quickly, to what is going on.

Hunters have to move through the water gracefully. They cannot start suddenly or bang around. All game will take notice.

Hunters must move through the water swiftly. They must be excellent swimmers with their gear adjusted to slide through the water. Some hunters are getting away from BC's and consoles for this reason. A pressure gauge does not help with hunting and it drags.

Hunters have to be very comfortable with their equipment. Moving quickly in close quarters tends to unhook weight belts and to provide other minor gear surprises.

Hunters often have reason to go in holes. This means they get in and out of their tank under water far more often than most divers. Some hunters even have an extended hose on their primary regulator, so that they can go down holes without having to push their tank in front of them or just hold their breath as they go in a hole. Sometimes they have the long hose on their octopus regulator and coil it and the hose into their BC pocket. I just push my tank in front of me.

When hunting, the hunter comes up when they run out of air or bottom time. Not before.

California hunters are not intimidated by kelp. It is their friend. Rough water, waves and rock entries come with the territory and must be handled gracefully.

The activities and the methods of the hunt require that a diver always is prepared for the unexpected.

The free divers in northern California must be masters of the waves, currents and rocks. Their sense of caution is highly developed. There ability to move through the water is superb. The Pelican Dive Club from Northern California came down for a charter on the Peace to San Nic. About half of them immediately went to shore and attached their BC's to kelp. They then hunted with snorkel. When they find a lobster, they are moving so fast that the bug is never even going to start moving.

The hunters tend to be dive fanatics. They are the ones that buy the diving magazines and absorb any knowledge or technique that will help their diving and hunting. They spend endless hours scheming about any technique for finding or catching their prey. They are the ones that read the first 2 books by Jaques Cousteau, written when he was a pioneering diver, before he became fashionable. Hunters are often not that interested in scuba classes. A devoted diver will, early on, surpass the teachings and scope of most classes. They are there to dive, not take classes... unless it is a specialty class... that will extend their diving reach.

The hunters were always trying to improve their diving technique. That includes even getting in the water. Many of the hunters enter the water vertically with something like a giant stride, but they tip their fins up and do not kick back to the surface. Their gear is adjusted in place and is in use. The direction to go from the boat is down, not up to the surface to splash around and see if you got it right.

Lobster hunters, trying to maximize the success of their hunting, maximize their bottom time as well. Part of the year this is going to mean deeper diving and the need for an awareness of the hazards of DCS from multiple dives. The hunters get a great deal of practice with how one must deal with repetitive dive situations. In shallower conditions, they do not need tables, timers or computers to know that they are well within the safe decompression limits.

Universally, hunters hate to be told how to dive by people spewing the agency lines. Dive equipment is something that they use, not something to be noticed.

There is no such thing as a resort certification in California. Gear and conditions mean that a diver in California must have a higher level of basic competency than is needed in warmer waters.

These are parts of the California way of diving, but there are divers all over the world that dive this way. They are the divers that belong in the water and are not just visiting. Their methods are highly refined and their gear is the product of ongoing experimentation and refinement. A diver who can take advantage of their natural hunting instincts can develop a consciousness of their environment, unmatched by anyone simply visiting the reef. The hunter is acting as a participant, not just a visitor.

To some extent, the style of diving of the hunters gets carried over to the rest of the divers. This is what makes the divers of California among the best in the world.

Over time, things have changed. There are far more divers, many with vastly different views of nature. Now, hunting is no longer all that politically correct nor all that feasible, what with depleted stocks and all. Luckily, the lobsters seem to be hanging in there. There are not as many hunters now, but there are still some intrepid divers out there doing it and many others doing great photography, underwater exploring and exploring of technology with technical diving. They dive for the adventure of it. California diving lends itself to that. They dive the California way.

It's the Bugs, stupid.

I like hunting with a camera, but I take a goody bag along too.

Diving is very private to many of the most serious divers. They do not do it to collect certifications. I have two certifications and only got the second one so that I could use nitrox. My other was my NAUI Beginner SCUBA Diver Certification. All I needed was an introduction and I was hooked. From the beginning, the water was natural to me, as it is to many of the divers I know. It is not the classes that make them divers. It is in their nature.

Diving is also a private sport for other reasons. Most experiences of divers are seen only by the diver or perhaps by their buddy. It is hard to show what we go down there to see. Cameras just have a hard time capturing the experience at all.

Relatively few divers continue to dive California after a few years. They come to like the warmer waters. I know many of the long term divers that have continued to dive. We see each other year after year on the long range trips. The hard core divers who ignore the long trips and the cold for the chance of an adventure. They like a good day, but they manage fine in terrible conditions. These are the divers that have made the California diving culture.

Note that I usually refer to lobster as bugs. I think that that is far better than calling them large saltwater cockroaches.

I was once asked why I like lobster diving so much. I had to think about it for a while. Explaining or describing the excitement and fun of the sport is difficult, but you can be sure that I would come up with some description to give you a picture.

Think about a gigantic, very cold building, full of rooms filled with clutter, strewn furniture, hardware, machines, plants, holes through the walls and a couple of rats. Now lobster hunting is just like running in and out of these rooms, looking for rats to grab. You gotta be quick and really run through this building. You have to try to surprise them, but they are wary. It can even be more fun doing it at night with a flashlight. If you can run fast enough, you might even be able to keep warm. If you get really lucky, you can grab hold of a really big rat.

I hope this explains why we like lobster hunting so much.

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