Back To San Nic

CopyRight @ 1999

It was time for the Peace again. The Sea Sons had chartered for a trip to San Nicolas Island. At first, people signed up slowly, but as the weather improved through the week, the boat filled up fast. I drove to LA and caught a ride up to Ventura with Mel. The boat was pretty full with about 30 divers and it seemed like most of them were the same people I had been diving with over the years. They knew what was going to be a good trip and they were there. Divers bounced around talking and preping their gear as needed.
The boat left at midnight and it was so calm that you couldn't tell when we left the harbor. As we came to the west end of the island, morning started with a spectacular sunrise. Now the divers were moving with more purpose. Some were suited already and Roger was putting out the first breakfast. The kelp beds extend for miles off the west end of the island and we were already in them. As the engine speed cut, activity quickened even more. Divers were already at the gate. Eric, the skipper, started to talk about the site by saying it was mostly 80 feet. He was going to continue, but then he remembered who the group was and just said 'the gates are open'. At least, no one went over the railing, but these divers do not check gear on the surface. The jump in and go straight down.
It was interesting to note the equipment. While there were a few dry suits and a few people carried gear, most of the divers had minimal gear, streamlined and setup for hunting lobster. The majority of the divers were wearing backpacks without BC's or floatation gear. This was to allow easy on and off of the tank while under water for if they needed to go down a hole. These divers do not have buoyancy problems.
A half hour later, the divers started returning with a variety of bugs up to about a 7 pounder that John Higgins got. The sun was even up some by now and Roger had a full hot breakfast for everybody. The deckhands were checking people in by the numbers and filling tanks. Divers were scooping water from the hottub and pouring it down their wetsuits, as they would for the rest of the day.
At this point the boat was about a mile west of the Boilers, out from the island. That is where I was hoping to get to dive. Eric moved the boat about 200 yards closer to the island for the next tank. More divers were ready for this jump. Again the water was going to be mostly 70 to 80 feet. The last dive had shown the water temperature to be up and down from 50 degrees and certainly chill. You don't notice it if you are swimming fast.
We all hit the water fast and headed out. The terrain here was somewhat strange. It was the usual rock shelf with kelp holdfasts and occasional rock piles, but there were many deep channels. These were smooth sided and went down perhaps 20 feet from the surrounding rock. I wasn't interested in going in them, because they didn't seem to have much in the way of rock piles or ledges for lobster to hide in. The bottom was flat rocks completely covered in encrusting red algaes. On top of this were innumerable small purple urchins, mostly less than 1/2 inch in diameter. There might have been 100 per square foot. There were a lot of the smaller laminareas (say 18 inches tall) growing about, but not the dense fields that are sometimes common. The urchins did not try to climb the laminareas, but if one got bent over to where the 'leaves' touched onto the rocks, it was quickly swamped by urchins. Apparently, it is either hard or dangerous for the urchins to climb the stalks (stipes) of the plants, but if they can get hold of the leaves against the rocks, they just devour them. The bottom is very clean of kelp debris. It all happens in slow motion, but it is extremely dynamic.
Wherever there were rocks or ledges, there were larger Purple Urchins (2-3 inches) and big Red Urchins, some that with the center ball and the spines, make up a a package near a foot across. On the rock piles it was common to find a large Giant Kelp (Macrocystis) growing. These reach straight up into the gloom, to the surface.
It is all incredibly lush and beautiful to see, but I wasn't finding any bug. I went into some of the channels, but as mentioned, they were mostly smooth sided or there might be a shallow crack that appeared as a big black line because it was filled with red urchins. As I went across one, I got a visual of a large bug walking out in the open. While the visibility is fine, perhaps 50 feet, it is still early and the light is very dim. When I looked down into the channel, I could see something, but couldn't make out what. It had been my periferal vision that had been able to recognize the lobster. It didn't matter. I was heading straight down and hit it with both hands. It was between 3 and 4 pounds and a very nice bug. I was out of air pretty soon after and went back to the boat. I had gone south from the boat. The divers that had gone to the west had found better terrain with rock piles and more bugs.
The day continued like this. Each time the boat moved a bit closer to the Boilers and into slightly shallower water. It was a remarkably calm and clear day. It had been rough all year to this point and few boats had been making it out here. Today was a great dive day. Gate times were about 15 minutes so that we could try to get in perhaps 7 tanks during the day.
I was watching the Boilers closely to see if it looked divable. That reef is just naturally rough in a very rough piece of the ocean. Also, it has been visited many times since it was named 'Bull City', but one never knew when you might get lucky and that's a great place to do it. It was not rough now, though spray would occasionally fly up from the rocks along the 100 yards or so of the main reef, as the waves alternately exposed and submerged the shallowest areas. We were still about 3 miles from the shore of the island, which still put us about a mile off the reef. We were moving closer with each dive though. About the fifth tank we got close enough.
The Boilers is well named. The front of the reef rises straight up from the bottom in about 50 feet of water and comes up just to the surface. The sides of the reef are very steep and angular. When the swell hits these sharp rocks, they splash straight up. The area is a boiling churning ridge of white water that extends for a few hundred yards straight in the way of the incoming swell. Between the rocks are channels and flat areas from 6 to 12 feet deep. It's always a wild swim. Oh, you also have to know how to swim into the reef though. It's only got a few passable routes to the shallow areas behind the face of the reef.

Anyhow, I had been hoping that I might get a chance to dive there on this trip. Since my last dive there, I had wanted to try to get to the backside of the reef. I thought that that might be the hot place where the bugs really hung out. I do know from experience not to try to make too long of a swim to it though. There are always currents there. The boat was anchored about 50 yards west of the reef. The day was so was calm that it was barely boiling. How rough that is is a relative thing. How rough does it look to you? It isn't what could be called calm. I really didn't know the way in from this side and I didn't want to do a swim through the currents. Also I was on the opposite side of the reef from where I wanted to be. So I was going to skip it and take it easy to the northern side and not pass to the reef. Remember, when you get to the reef, much of it is a vertical wall. I was just puttering along at about 50 feet with about 40 feet of vis when I saw a diver on my right and one in front of me to the left. Apparently, the diver to the right was Shel. The diver on the left was Mel so I yelled at him, but he was going up a 20 foot vertical rock face and didn't hear me. I didn't want to go up the rock, because I knew it led to the steepest face of the reef. This made me move to the right... towards the center of the reef. Well things got rough and things got shallow and surgey. I knew I was inside the reef. Oh well.
I came up just to be sure. It was only about 12 feet deep and I was certainly in it. What could I do? I headed across to the back. The rock is conglomerate made of stones the size of a fist and smaller. I dare say the waves wear it quickly. There was very little life here. It's just too rough most of the time. There were some small plants and many very small purple urchins, but this place gets regularly scoured. There are crevasses in this area, but that was not where I wanted to look this trip. Going east, I came to bigger rocks that were scoured, but were covered with a bit of the opportunistic small brown scummy algae that grows back on bare rocks within days of the waves calming. It was about 15 feet deep and this was still a primary area where the waves break on normal days. Nothing can hang on here for long. I wanted to get to the rocks and reef debris that was past this.
Soon it was about 25 feet. The rocks were bigger and there was kelp as well as lots of fish and other life. I went left and sped along looking for lobster. There was great structure that could have provided cover for a lobster just about anywhere. Since it was shallow, my air was really hanging in there, but I knew I had to save enough to get back across the reef. Swimming through it on the surface was not an option. Vis was really good and there were lots of big Sheepsheads as well as Calico bass. I saw three nice sized scallops, but had no iron. I was looking for bug. Actually, observing the ecology of the area, again it was the small purple urchins, that were the commonest critter. When it was time to return, I moved back towards the reef some and followed my compass back. I could have crossed the reef here, but I wanted to be closer to the boat when I came up. Also, this is the one of those spots where you can come around a corner and find a bag of bugs. Well, I had no such luck this time. I was moving back into the shallows of the reef and still hadn't seen leg nor antennae. The growth on the rocks of the main reef was really lush on this side. Fish hang out in the ledges at the bottom of the rocks. I was at about 15 feet or so, but these rocks stick up near or to the surface. As you go on, you hang on to the bottom plants and hope that the crack you are following goes through the reef, not to the top of it. Another fun thing was that I went over a spot about 5 feet deep and figured that I may or may not be past the reef. It's hard to tell... I wasn't. I moved down and on. The crack I was in went through the reef fairly deep at say 15 feet, so that was no problem. Then I was at sheer rock face that is the front of the reef. As always I was continually looking for lobster, including in the deep ledges along the front base of the reef.
It was that time. I headed out from the reef and surfaced. No bugs. That's OK. It was a spectacular dive just the same.

This is what Shel told me after the dive.... I had swam through the Boilers and was coming back around the right side at 57 feet when I saw this nice bug in a hole back in the rocks. My pressure gauge was already pegged, but I wasn't having trouble getting air, so... The bug was back out of reach but I thought 'well, I could move this rock and I could move this rock and then I could move this rock and there I am'. The main thing was not to get excited and start breathing hard. I took off my tank and put my bag in my other hand. It already held two bugs. I then dove in the hole and was able to get a good grip on the bug. I got out quick and headed for the surface with my tank hanging from my mouth by the regulator. Three kicks and I was up to about 30 feet. Since my hands were full, I used my fin to turn my gauges over so I could watch my ascent rate. Once on the surface, I shoved the bug under my arm and got hold of my tank. Then I could turn on my side and spit out my regulator so that I could get some air. It was a nice 5 pounder.

After the Boilers dive, the boat anchored about 120 yards off the point at the west end north. It's like a little penninsula that sticks out 50 yards at high tide and much farther under water. It's almost never calm enough to dive there. Now, you aren't supposed to get anywhere near that close to San Nicolas Island. The Navy will get nasty about it and there is more radar along that shore than you would ever imagine, but... Once long ago, I got into the tidepools along the shore and had the best lobster dive I ever had. So as you can imagine, I wanted to get to shore and fast. It wasn't going to be a casual dive this time either.
I hit the water in about 40 feet and along with 3 other divers, went scraping towards shore. It got shallow pretty quick as I headed for the the point, but there were a couple of channels about 20 feet deep running through the rocks towards the shore. I followed one in, which seems the natural thing to do because you can already see the waves breaking above you at the edges of the channels. The channels are about 8 feet wide at the bottom and piled with large rocks. There could be bugs there, but I was more interested in the tidepools. Just as I was going to go up over the rocks I saw Chris Grossman (who does working some rocks. I went over and offered a hand. He signaled that it was a big bug, but it seemed to be gone far out of sight, into the rocks.
I was as near to the tidepools as I figured I would get, so I headed up the side of the channel. I came over the top holding onto the rocks and the small clumps of golden weed that was able to grow a bit there. It was the same conglomerate as the Boilers and it looked as wave beaten. The top of the reef here was at about 3 feet. The vis was incredible. There were a number of young sea lions playing in the waves and swell that was washing over the reef off the point. They seemed to be having a good time flying back and forth in the surge. I was mostly holding on, but really, if you aren't riding the surge, you aren't going to be able to control yourself and move around in here. There are holes the size of a dishwasher or there abouts, that are worn in places where the rock was just a bit softer. In the bottom of these holes are bowling ball sized rocks and bigger, that are too big to wash out from wave action. When the big waves come, they can roll around in the holes like a mortar in a pestal. Undoubtedly they enlarge the hole. They can also make a hole into weird shapes of quite sterile, worn rock. I figured that right now there could be a bug in any of them and I was going to find it.
I kept methodically covering the area. It was very shallow with all different kinds of deeper spots. I tried to stay out of right where the waves were breaking. It was rough enough already. The sea lions came over to check me out and see if I wanted to play. I was a bit busy at the time, but I did bark at them some.
In the shallow water, the sunlight makes everything vividly colorful including the green anemones, the golden algaes, the urchins and the small red encrusting algaes. You hold on when the surge is against you. You push off when it is going your direction. You fly like a bird in the fast moving shallow water.
In the shallow waters I like to see the Giant Green Anemones because of their brilliant emerald coloration. Here I was seeing some that were vividly yellow in color. I also came across a Giant Pisaster star that was a beautiful golden color.
Well, I covered as much of the area as I could and didn't see much in the way of lobster. I slowly worked my way back and forth deeper until I was at about 12 feet. It was a long tank at that depth, even with a lot of exertion. Already the muscles on the inside of my thighs were saying something about cramps and it being a good time to finish this swim. I headed into deeper water towards the boat. I was still looking and seeing all kinds of neat critters and plants, but no bugs. Finally, going along a rock pile, I got a glimpse of a nice lobster back in some rocks. Unfortunately, it was in a well protected hole. The rocks were about the size of a microwave oven, so the holes between them were too small for me to fit into and the bug was in about 4 feet. The bug had about three holes in front of him and then a real nice little hole behind him to back into. A quick grab was not going to get near him. I just kept on swimming... a little ways.
I came back and since I knew I could never get to him through the front, I wanted to see if there was any way to get behind him. Sure enough, through a hole in the rocks, I could see his tail about 3 feet down between the rocks. He had moved back a bit when I swam by. I am a bit hard to miss. He was just a bit into his inner hole, but not all the way. I started knocking little purple urchins down the hole, trying to make them hit his tail. These were so small that they fell like dandilions. I didn't want to wave at them because if the bug felt the motion of the water, he would worry about what was above him, not behind. Truthfully, I had tried this and variations of this, many times before, but each time, the bug had just about invariably moved back into their inner safe hole. I decided to look for some small rocks to drop in. I had to look a little ways. When I came back to the hole, the bug wasn't visible. I didn't know if it had gone in or out. I looked from the front, low down where the front holes were. He wasn't visible in the first two, but as I came around the rock to the third one, I almost hit his antennae with my mask. I backed off quick and out he came. He was still in a safe position, so I backed around the rock until I could only see his horns and front legs. He came all the way out of the hole, still in a good position to dart back to safety, but there was a rock in front of him. When he had climbed all the way onto it, I pounced with both hands. A nice 3 pounder in the bag.
I continued on until I figured I was as near the boat as I was going to get and then surfaced. It was about 60 yards away. There was only a mild current, but I was done swimming. The current line was out about 25 yards from the boat. I went for that. I even managed to get to the boat without tangling and bringing the whole float with me... as I usually did. That was a nice dive. Incredibly beautiful in the shallows and a nice bug to top it off.

The next dive was another one just off the west end in an area that is usually too rough to dive. It was getting dim, but it was a fun dive because it was in a thick kelp forest with lots of ledges and rock piles. The fish were thick with large Calico Bass and Sheepshead everywhere. There were also numerous species of perch. The bottom had places for a million bugs to hide, but they just weren't to be seen.
After this we went on to Dutch harbor to anchor for the night. Roger was cooking big chunks of pork loin on the bar-b-que. The crew was well enough organized that they made a crowded cabin into a comfortable convenient dining hall. Not suprisingly, people were hungry when we started on the salad. By the time the cheese cake was done, we were mostly near unconcious.
Now on every previous trip, I have made the night dive at Dutch harbor and every time I got skunked. I'd swim to shore or some other long cold swim and see beautiful terrain, but zilch bugs. Well, I've been doing a lot of night diving recently, so I figured I would pass this time. Tomarrow would be a long day.... A few people did go in and they saw bug....
Night on the ocean is exotic. The stars shine brilliantly and the sea lions come to play in the boat lights. We could hear the noises from the elephant seals along the shore. You stay up to experience it, but soon it's time to hit the bunks. Wake up will be early.
This morning it is different. Time is limited. We will be able to do no more than 4 tanks before we must start the long trip back. We're still diving the same area, moving slowly from deeper to shallower. It's rougher today and the tide is lower. The Boilers is seriously boiling. Also waves are breaking in an area on the south and west of the reef where you don't normally see waves break.
On about the third dive, the boat was anchored to the north of the Boilers which is the usually easiest side to enter on. Both Mel and Shel said that they headed into the Boilers. Shel said it just looked too rough to be worth going in and Mel went in until he got slammed on a rock. It seemed like time to leave at that point.
On one of the dives, Shel released a couple of the larger bugs that he had caught as well as the biggest bug of the trip, a 9 pounder. He had traded some of his smaller bugs for the big one so that he could release it....
The last dive, the skipper said that we were on the edge of the Badlands if anyone wanted to go south. I of course went there, but somewhere along the way, I got unhapppy with how I was navigating. I didn't want to surface way away from the boat on the last dive, so I didn't continue far in. I didn't mind, because the rest of the area was beautiful kelp forest diving anyway and I really didn't expect to find much these days on the deep flat rock of the Badlands, but I had to go there for old times sakes. It just wasn't like diving there with the Animals, 15 years earlier.

It's time to hang suits, put away gear and go for a dive in the hottub. There is no south swell, so things stayed calm as we left the island. People talk and then head for the bunks. After a few hours they start to show up on deck again for the evenings finale. The water is incredibly smooth and clear. Jellyfish can be seen as we pass. Porpoises come flying towards the boat from the sides and then go for a ride on the bow waves. Baitfish fly from the water as the porpoise come upon them.
The club members are starting to get silly and try to take group pictures of the club. I watch, always an outsider. No one speaks of the regrets about the end of the trip or the creeping hand of time that has changed us all through the years of diving together. Still, the days diving has made us all so aware of our life and memories of the past dives that have defined so much of our life, that we cannot deny or ignore its passage. We will do this as long as we can and we will remember this magic as long as we live.
The sun sets with a wonderous show of soft colors as we pass the east end of Anacapa Island. The night falls gently. We all feel cold in the wind of the boat's passage through the glassy water, but no one wants to leave, for the moment and the beauty are something special that will surely be gone before we can come back. Perhaps, the cold was from more than the wind.

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