Diving The Front Side

CopyRight @ 1997

The pages in this site tell the stories of special dives or a number of dives at special places. Some of the stories are of the incredibly diverse and colorful animal life on exposed pinnacles like Wilson Rock, Begg Rock or the seamount off of Point Buchon. The vividly colored filter feeders grow like crazy in the nutrient rich currents. There is another place that supports growth like that and it is much more easily accessed. This essay is about that place. Actually, it is really about a number of different places, with similar conditions and beautiful diving. They are The Front Side.

It is hard to use works to describe things that are visual excesses and moods. That is what diving the front side is though.

The Channel Islands run generally east to west, parallel to the mainland coast. The coast turns south to north again at Point Conception. This protects the islands from the prevailing swell from the south. In many places on the mainland side of San Clemente, Catalina, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, there is a situation where the shore drops steeply to about 40 feet. It then becomes sand or may encircle a rocky bottom cove. The term "shore" used here may mean a sloping rocky edge of the island or it may mean cliffs hundreds of feet tall, like at the north end of Santa Cruz Island. The term "steeply" may mean a steep boulder slope or a more than vertical rock wall. I have been ascending along these walls and bumped my head on the bottom of the island, where the rock actually overhangs. This situation also occurs at some of the other islands to a more limited extent. Because the areas are usually protected from the south swell, they can provide very calm diving. The island shore is too steep for a wave to break. The water just rises and falls back. There can be currents though.
As you progress along the island shore, these cliffs make small coves between points. Really, they aren't large. It's usually less than 100 yards between points. What this does is make for many small, very calm clear coves. You can't believe how fun the diving can be here.
What these areas have in common is calm, clear diving with a small area that extends from the highest intertidal zone to the bottom of the intertidal zone. This area is filled with micro-environments as well. Large algaes do not do well here both because the wave action rubs them off against the rocks and also because there are some animals, that are good space competitors, on the rocks already.
As far as bio-environments are concerned, the intertidal area is basically divided into zones that are delimited by if they get submerged once a day, twice a day or are continually submerged. A crack or channel that focuses wave action can make distinct local conditions.

While currents can be swift along the islands, these coves are often lake like. As the boat pulls into the cove and anchors in 40 feet, you look at the kelp and follow it down with your eye. If your eyes then focus on the rocks at the bottom, vis is going to be good. There are often large schools of baitfish moving through the kelp or even large purple jellyfish in summer.
Get your gear on and jump in. The water is calm, clear and warm. Swim to the cliff. There are no waves, just a small swell lapping up and down the rocks. Drop down along the rocks. The life is thick. Every surface is occupied by algaes and invertebrates of every kind and description. Look close and see the small ones. Look farther away and see the big ones. Look shallow and you will see anemones, barnacles, scallops, green abalone, black abalone, purple urchins, mussels, stars, vivid green eel grass, coralline red algaes, tunicates and other high intertidal life. Look a few feet deeper and you will see a completely different variety of life specialized to the next lower intertidal zone. Here are the red and green algaes. Over and over, the thick life changes with every few feet of depth. Then at the fully sub tidal zone starts the main part of the kelp forest ecology. This is the domain of the brown algaes and laminareas. There are big red urchins in the cracks (inky black to the eyes past about 20 feet) and sea cucumbers sit on every rock between large gorgonian sea fans. Here the water is completely still and just begs the diver to share the stillness. Fish of all kinds are everywhere. At the outer edge of the reef where the individual rocks meet the sand is the best place to explore. Here is where you will find the unexpected. Also here is where the pink abalone are at the base of the rocks, half buried in the sand. The sand drops slowly into a darkness that beckons one to look a little bit further. To look for another rock that no one has visited before.
Ascent is trivial. You can guess about where the boat is. You slowly rise in a column of golden kelp through the near surface fish. Then swim back to the boat to prepare to do it again.

I have held on to the rocks about 10 feet under the water surface, below where a rock stuck out from the cliff just above the water. Enthralled, I watched the waves break under the rock from under the water.

When at the islands on private boats I like to snorkel along the shore, sometimes for three hours or more. I may swim from an anchored boat, but it is more fun to have them drop you off and swim on to meet the boat further on in a cove or have the boat come to meet you later. It is easy to travel a mile or more, just exploring. I have told my buddys come look for me after they got back from fishing, waterskiing or a trip to Avalon. It's so peaceful just swimming up and down along the lush shore rock through the fish and often with a curious sea lion.
There is a trick I like to pull. There is an outfit that takes kayaks to one end of Anacapa Island with a boat load of customers. The customers paddle the kayaks through the calm water along the shore, perhaps 7 miles to the other end of the island where they are picked up. I've never done it, but it looks like incredible fun. When I see them coming, I go to a point of some sort and swim out so that I am outside of them as they pass the point. I figure it must seem odd for them to find someone swimming that far from shore with no boat or anyone else around. I've tried bumming a beer, but except for once, I always got offered water or soda.

If you head along the edge of the cove to the points, they are usually composed of boulder piles under water. There will be strong surge and splash at the surface, you don't really want to play bump with those rocks carelessly, but there are no real waves. Above water the rocks are covered with mussels, barnacles, green anemones and big colorful Pisaster starfish. Under the water, the rocks have enough holes in them for an army of fish. Travel slowly and look in the dark holes. There will be large orange sponges, scallops, gorgonian sea fans and other filter feeders that enjoy the swift currents that go past here. Big and small fish drift in and out of the holes like ghosts. Then, do you have enough air to go on to explore the next cove?

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