A Time To Dive - The SeaBee

CopyRight @ 1997

When diving was young, the SeaBee was the hot dive boat, if there was any such thing. I went on that boat for my check out dive in 1970. It was one of the very few dive boats then and perhaps about the nicest one in Ventura, near the northern Channel Islands. It started out in Port Hueneme, right near the Navy's Sea Bee Construction Battalion base. You know, the "First we dig em, then we die in em" guys. I dare say there was a link in the name, but I don't know exactly what it was. Art was the skipper. I was a newly certified, hyperactive, immune to cold, complete dive nut. I lived for my new found love. It was one of the best times of my life.

It was an less than 2 hours straight due south, to the tip of Anacapa Island, less than 3 to Santa Cruz Island, a few points west. I first dove on this boat when I was 15 and continued taking trips on it for the next 5 years. A number of times, we went all the way up behind Santa Cruz Island and crossed over to Santa Rosa Island. At this time, Santa Rosa was almost pristine and was just starting to feel the touch of the commercial divers. Santa Cruz was more impacted, but the diving was still only lightly touched.

Diving then was a different matter, Nylon lined neoprene for wet suits was relatively new. Divers would use talcum powder, soaps and a lot of pulling to get in a "skin inside" wetsuit. It took a lot of stretching, gyrations and some help from a buddy, to get out. Still, skin inside wetsuits are the warmest. When I started, there were no BC's or pressure gauges, only horse collar flotation devices and J valve reserves with pull handles to give the last 300 to 500 pounds of air. It wasn't all that important. We knew how much air we had... My second hand, 2 hose, single diaphragm regulator was another matter. It sorta tended to say "No" when I tried to take a breath much past 80 feet.

In the LA area, many of the divers were actually aerospace engineers fascinated by this fancy new technology. I have heard that most of the rest were individuals rejected from motorcycle gangs for being too rough and crude. At least that was a common image. It was a young sport. You had to be in shape and there was little shelter from the cold. You didn't ask if there was a shower, you asked if there was a head. It all made for an interesting camaraderie.

One of the biggest dive areas at the Channel Islands, was Yellowbanks, just around the south backside of Santa Cruz Island. There are yellowish cliffs that rise about 100 feet above the shore that give it the name. On a really clear day, it can be seen from the coast. It was a common destination when the swell was out of the north. The nice thing about this place was its size. The reefs extend about 3 miles along the shore and make a much larger fan in the water, for sometimes a mile out. They extend mostly to about 80 or 90 feet, but there are deeper areas. Realistically, it doesn't get all that deep between Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands.

This was a 6 or 7 AM departure and Art would pick a spot to anchor in the middle of the kelp somewhere. He usually picked a spot with openings in the kelp. Though kelp can make a thick constant mat, those are rarely that extensive. Normally the kelp is like large trees in a forest with space in between them, rather than impenetrable brush. I did a lot of summer and fall diving then. Hey, I was still in school. It would be a beautiful, calm, warm, sunny morning with the kelp a beautiful gold. If it was fairly clear, you could follow the kelp down with your eye so that your eyes would be focused when they reached the bottom. If you saw that, it was going to be fun vis.

We suited up with little urgency and did a stride off the side. By the time I was 16, I was not a big buddy diver. The skipper was the dive master and made any judgments about safety. While solo diving was discouraged, especially officially, it was common and ignored. These guys took their diving seriously.

When you went down, following along the kelp, the first thing that you were going to see were the fish, especially the black, white and red Sheephead, with its large canine teeth for breaking urchins. They were everywhere and 12 pounders were quite common. Many people hunted them because they were so common and big, but cleaning them was tough and preparing them in a tasty way was really difficult. Most divers soon tended to leave them alone. There were lots of various kelp bass, perch and rockfish all over the reefs.

There was no sea urchin industry, so as you got down to the rocks, the first thing that you really saw were the large red urchins, Strongilocentrotus franciscanus. They are black under water, without a light, but light shows them to be a deep red. They usually have a ball smaller than 5 inches in diameter. With the 5 or so inch spines that they have though, they make a pretty big package. They were everywhere, grouped together in ledges or burrowed into the rocks. Soft rocks were commonly riddled with 5 inch holes that the urchins had burrowed into the rocks with their under spines, for protection. Normally, these eat loose kelp leaves and are very important to reef ecology in that under their spines is a primary nursery for juvenile lobsters, abalone, crabs and other species.

I would usually follow ledges, looking for what is hiding. Survival in the kelp forest is about not being eaten. Most life is dependent on protected hiding places in the rocks. Some carry some of their own armor, like crabs, lobster, urchins and the mollusks, but almost all critters need a home for survival. Then there are critters like the Sea Cucumbers and Sea Hares that use a strategy of being inedible or the stinging strategy of the nudibranch and anemones. There are lots of big things like crabs and abalone to see. There are actually more small things to see, like nudibranchs, feathers, rock clams,,, You never know what you are going to see if you look. I had great vision in dim light then and dive lights weren't that good then anyway. Now I enjoy using a light to better show the colors of these critters.

At this time, I got to dive almost weekly for much of the year. I had todays dive planned. The intent on this huge reef area, was to swim fast through one huge circle and come up under the boat when my air was gone. I got a lot of practice at this and could do this fairly accuratly. It would bring me through a number of different ecologies in the distance of the dive. There is one ecology that I always loved to look for.

The best view for looking at critters is to look up. Literally, the most life is under the rocks. The seaweeds and bottom life aren't near as fragile as the coral reefs and there are likely to be sand channels in the lowest parts of the reefs. So the way to go is to swim along the lowest edge of the reef, moving up when there is something to look at. This both keeps you below much of the surge and also lets you hang on when you are in the surge.

So I'd charge off across the reef. Everything was still so new to me then.

Starting out in about 30 feet of water, the terrain was what I call "Catalina like". It was warm and sunny, with lots of smaller algaes, including reds and greens, thickly covering the rocks. There are lots of different perch species including Buttermouth, Opal Eye, Garibaldi, Surf Perch and others. Shallower than 15 feet, vivid green eel grass would grow thickly on the top of rocks. Green Abalone, Purple Urchins and Green Anemones were common in the shallower areas. Hold on tight though. Things can get moving from the south swell.

Between 30 and 40 feet, there are still many of the delicate algae, but now there are more browns, especially Laminarias. It is great to grab the base of these small, tough kelp plants, to pull against for traveling or to hold onto to when the surge pushes against you. They are quite pretty themselves and produce the predominant golden color of many reefs.

In this area is where you will start to see more Sheephead, various Bass, White Fish, Pink Abalone, Red Urchins and small rock fish. In the cracks behind the big urchins, large scallops could be found hidden. Here, the Sea Cucumbers go almost unnoticed, because they are so common. Under the big rocks is where many of the larger fish hang out.

In these trips, I often would encounter playful Sea Lion. If you pay attention to them, most would like to play. Spin in the water to watch them and they will swim a circle around you faster then you can spin in one place. What is really interesting is what I call the Butterballs. In Fall, the newest generation of Sea Lions is going out on its own. These 4 foot or so long juveniles are almost as fat as they are long and their curiosity stretches easily a mile. They love to watch divers with their huge dark eyes. They are skittish like colts, but if spooked by a diver, they will be back in 30 seconds.

Then, I would find what I was mainly looking for. There would be a channel in the reef that was 10 or 15 feet deeper than the rest. It was cooler in the channel and there would be sand channels and small areas of a fine white, almost gravel in the rocks. This is where the laminareas grow on the flat rocks. I knew that I was likely to be able to find some large Red Abalone in this ecology. They could be anywhere, but most often they were horizontal in a ledge, upside down or right side up. Loose kelp leaves tend to get washed into these ledges and this is what the abalone eat. They don't have to go anywhere and are relatively protected. At this time, the daily limit was 5 abalone, 7 inches or over. There were still many of these and the law did not then require a caliper measure and a smooth regulation size iron. You just slipped your handy dandy, fairly useless and easily broken, dive knife under them and pop them off. If you are slow or clumsy, it will have time to get clamped on to the rock real good. If they get time enough, perhaps 5 or 10 seconds, they may be hard or impossible to get off the rocks, especially without cutting them. I have even seen dive knifes cleanly break under an abalone.

After a short cruise here, it is probably time to think about air. Head up just a bit into the warmer water and finish my circle to come back to the boat. I was in no real hurry to return to the surface and you could never guess what you might see if you got lucky. It is not really good for the tank, but I saw no point in returning to the boat with air left.

To be continued...

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