Legendary Diving

CopyRight @ 1999

What makes a legendary dive site in California? It must be hard to get to or it would never reach that status. Once you get there, it must present a challenge just to dive it. It must be very beautiful and special even by California standards. It must be able to spark the imagination of the serious diver with images of unique opportunities for photography, exploring or hunting. It represents beauty, challenge and exotic adventure to the divers mind.
There are many well known and commonly dove areas in California, such as Catalina Island. Some areas are less known and mostly visited just by locals. This is a description of some of the lesser known sites, that are so difficult to get to that there is may be no such thing as a local. Unless it is an unusually calm day, they also tend to be hard to dive as well.

I was on the dive boat Peace, scheduled for Begg Rock. It is a small set of pinnacles 65 miles out, near San Nicolas Island. Actually, only one rock sticks above the water and it is about the size of a small truck. It is the top of a massive basalt crystal that rises from the bottom with nearly vertical sides. It is the densest, hardest part of the core of some long ago volcano. There are other more submerged pinnacles around it, connected by narrow ridges.
I was talking with a member of the Ventura Underwater Photo Society (UPS) about the dive site. He said that he hoped we made it this time. He had been told that the photography was spectacular, but on 4 previous trips the boat had not been able to make it there due to poor conditions. They had to stop at San Nicolas Island. That is 54 hours of boat travel before reaching the rock. He and some other UPS members divers had agreed that the existence of Begg Rock was no more than a myth.
The diving at Begg Rock is primeval and spectacular. In the open currents, fantastically colored filter feeders grow thick on the vertical rock walls. It is an UW photographers dream. We even made it there that day. Since it really is there, it must be more than a myth, it's a legend.

So, what other legendary or even mythical spots are there to dive in California?

There is The Boilers off the west end of San Nicolas Island. It is a shallow reef that is a couple of hundred yards wide, made of sharp rocks that are constantly covered with splash and spray . It is usually too rough to go near and if it's not that rough, it's probably too rough to go into it. It used to be known as Bull City for the large lobsters regularly caught there. It makes for a wild dive.

It used to be that just getting to San Miguel Island was unusual. It is remote and exposed to the weather pattern north of Point Conception. Average wind speed is nearly 30 knots, all year long. It is usually undivable and unapproachable by charter boats. Still, it calms down even there sometimes and the Peace or the Truth Aquatic Boats are well positioned to be able to go there. Even then, there are a couple of places that you are lucky to see. If it is amazingly calm, you may get to dive Wilson Rock, Richardson Rock or even the Foul. One thing is really interesting about San Miguel Island. Even on a warm clear day, look along the shore and you will see little wisps of mist and fog. More than any other place I have seen, this place reminds one that this is the deep cold sea.
The Foul is a large area of rocks and sandbars on the west end of San Miguel Island. It is commonly called Shark Park, because that's where they are. It is the remotest part of the Channel Islands and so the most lightly disturbed. It is the last place at the islands that the commercial abalone hunters went to. It is a lush, wild place of wild beauty and big fish. It is also the farthest west you can go except for Richardson Rock.
Richardson Rock is the last land in that direction until you get to Hawaii. It only sticks up about 20 feet and is about 30 feet across. I hear that the deal is this. The divers don't go to Richardson Rock and the sharks won't go to Wilson Rock. Its flat top tends to be covered with sea lions. While it is an interesting and pretty dive, it does not have the fantastic beauty of Wilson Rock.
Wilson Rock is really a submerged mountain ridge about a mile offshore, north from San Miguel Island. Some rocks are actually exposed, depending on the tide. It is a large area to dive with pinnacles and vertical walls. It probably has the most colorful display of feathers, sponges, anemones, hydrocorals, scallops and other filter feeders, that can be found at the Channel Islands. A dive there is exciting as one swims between vertical rock pinnacles that rise out of unseen depths.
Keep your eyes open. San Miguel Island is where you will see remote wild places where the hand of man can only lightly touch because of the weather.

Then there is Point Conception. It is about 60 miles of rugged lush diving where cliffs and remote beaches are far from any hiway. There are no harbors for boats anywhere nearby. Shore access to the entire area is limited to about two beach entries at Jalama and Point Sal. I have referred to Point Sal, which is up on the north side of Point Conception, as The Place Of Mountain Waves. There always seems to be huge swell there. Because of its exposure to weather, Point Conception can only be dove on rare calm days, but if you want to see big fish and abundant life, this is the place to try to get to. Nice place to see big sharks too.

Continuing north from there, the diving is good, but still difficult to get to, challenging and even more subject to weather conditions. The coast north of Point Conception, basically goes straight north to Alaska. Perhaps that should be stated as that the weather comes right down the coast, uninterrupted all the way from Alaska.

Pretty much the only way to go diving the reefs off of the remote Morro Bay to Big Sur Coast is by private boat or from shore, but the diving is beautiful. More difficult to get to and even more beautiful are the seamounts out there. There are lots of them and some come very close to the surface, miles off shore in deep water. They are places of spectacular colors and lush growth in the open currents. Getting there? Good luck! Truth Aquatics makes one trip a year. The Gray Fin out of Morro Bay can take four divers, but they know where the seamounts are. Like I say, getting there is half the fun.

Sea Mounts

There are three main divable seamounts in southern California that are not associated with any of the Channel Islands and one further north.

Cortes Banks is an area of reefs about 7 miles long and a mile wide, 110 miles offshore, near the Mexican border. It is possible that on a rough day at low tide, Bishop Rock could have a break, but all the rest of the area is deeper. Most diving there is done from 50 to 80 feet. While its remoteness keeps it lightly touched, the diving there is very like diving at perhaps, Santa Cruz Island. While there are lots of fish, everything isn't completely oversized like at San Nicolas or many other remote spots. It is kelp forest more than a current zone, so the filter feeders are not thick like at Begg Rock or Wilson Rock. A number of boats have charters to Cortez Banks, but many trips must be canceled due to weather.

Tanner Banks and Osborn Banks are both deeper Sea Mounts. Tanner is near Cortez Banks and is perhaps one square mile of diving mostly deeper than 80 feet. Osborn Bank is deeper still and much smaller. It is fairly near Santa Barbara Island. Both have remarkable growths of colorful filter feeders and both are occasionally visited by charter dive boats.

Then there is The Matterhorn. It is a small deep pinnacle about the middle of no where, off of Venture. Take one of the rare charters there and pretty much expect a DCS hit or even a death. Sort of a Black Diamond Dive I would say.

Once a year there is a charter, for research purposes, that goes to the Cordell Banks Seamount about 80 miles off shore up near San Francisco. A diver can volunteer to go along to do surveying. If they show skill at diving at depth, they are allowed to pay to come along. They say that diving there you see schools of rockfish and within the schools you see groups that are different generations within the school. It is supposed to be an awesome dive with lots of pink hydrocorals.
If that's too common for you, you can always try the Big Sur Sea Mount...

The North Coast

To divers that aren't local, North Coast diving with its rocky shores, thick kelp, big waves and abundant abalone, can sound exotic. It is a beautiful, primeval place of wild shoreline and cool forest. It is a lonely place of wind, mist and solitude. Diving is fun, but often the challenge is getting to the water. It may mean a long walk with gear and then a steep scary climb to the beach. It can be cold and the weather, at any time, is likely to preclude diving. On a calm day though, it is like diving in a giant tidepool. Most of the coast actually does not get dove, due to simple inaccessibility. So any place you can get to easily, like Salt Point State Park, is going to have tremendous diving pressure. Well, there is one place that has reasonable access, but light diving pressure. That is the privately owned Sea Ranch. It is 10 miles of shoreline along the Sonoma Coast just below Mendecino. It is one of the nicest parts of the California coast and since only residents and guests are allowed access, the abalone diving is excellent. It's the kind of place that abalone divers speak of with wistfulness.

Head a bit further north. The coast gets even more rugged. A bit past Fort Bragg, the mountains force the hiway inland and it doesn't find the coast for another 100 miles or so up in Eureka. This is all such a wild area, that few divers ever venture here, though what locals there are, like it. In between all this is an area called the Lost Coast. It is about the remotest area there is in California. There is one fishcamp/resort in the middle at Shelter Cove that can be flown to or follow a long windy forest road to get there. It's not quite as remote as Alaska, but it might be as unspoiled and it's much easier to get to. Fishing and diving there is excellent.
These are places where you will see fields of colorful strawberry anemones or moon white metridiums. There are lush intertidal rocks and current swept walls. This is where you will see small strangely shaped fish camouflaged to hide in the plants. This is where a large shark will come out of the deep gloom. This is where the abalone are on top of each other. These are dives that are to be dreamed about and that dedicated divers occasionally get to make.

So what makes a dive site legendary? Perhaps it's just hard to get to. Maybe it's just the dedication it takes to get there to see it and the inspiration it provides. In any case these remote, exotic dives are an adventure into places of wild beauty.

I heard about this place called Arena Rock. Wicked current, rough, hardly gets visited at all. Pristine, lush, beautiful and exotic. There are supposed to be some caves filled with giant scallops and anemones. With luck and weather I'll dive it next month

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