Tidepools I have Known

CopyRight @ 1999

Diving Near The Edge

This is a good place to ask a question about what diving is. Huh? Where is this gray area that causes me such concern? It's tide pool diving. It's incredibly fun as well as very challenging. It's the kind of diving that will teach an extremely graceful movement through the water and some excellent diving skills. But would you call it diving when it is often in 2 feet of water or even less.? Obviously I do.

Tide pool diving is extremely beautiful for a number of reasons. The undimmed sunlight shows off the extreme beauty of the naturally diverse, lush intertidal ecology and the close proximity of everything you are looking at, makes the visibility crystal clear.

In many places along the coast, there are wide, flat intertidal areas. Normally, they are a rough wild area of waves, surge, currents and white water. At fairly low tide though, the ocean waves break far from shore and the large area towards shore, becomes fairly calm, shallow tide pool areas. It can be amazing diving. While the dive gear technology gets better and the tech divers visit deep areas, some of the most beautiful diving can still be found in the sun lit shallows. There, gear matters little. It's mostly free diving anyway. What matters most is the divers ability to control their movement in the water. If they can do that, they can see a very special part of the underwater world.

I've gotten to do tide pool diving only a handful of times, mostly in the abalone areas of the North Coast. The other day, I was invited to try it in the San Diego area. This time though, the target was lobster.

I met with up with Dave and we went down the stairs at Sunset Cliffs. It was a beautiful sunny day with a tide of about -1 foot. That made the waves break almost 200 yards off shore. The area inside of that was mostly glassy with an occasional wave less than a foot high, that would softly break as it passed over a very shallow reef. It was like entering at a rocky lake shore.

Most of the bottom here is covered by extremely thick Eel Grass. The shore that is exposed is mostly flat rock with a few cracks and shelves. That's pretty much how it is under the water as well, but there they are all hidden. Dave started out looking in about 2 feet of water, less than 50 feet from shore. He said this was an area where he had done well in the past. I was just trying to figure how to hunt practically in an area like this. Eel Grass is extremely hard to see through at all.

I started out swimming slowly, waiting for the swell to move the grass such that I could get glimpses of the bottom through it. Where I saw a ledge, I would try to get near enough to see in it. I was finding small ledges. They tended to be 6 inches or less high, perhaps a foot deep and a few feet wide. If you can get down low enough to look in and if the grass clears for a moment, you may get a quick look up the crack. Bummer, that bug is too short to be legal.

That's the way it tends to go. You find an occasional ledge. Look in it and hope that you get lucky that there is a legal bug in it. If there is, grab it instantly. There is a lot more to see in the small ledges as well, but it's hard to find them and it's hard to get low enough to get a look in them. After a short time, Dave yelled over and sure enough, he had gotten a legal sized lobster.

I was still trying to figure a good way to get through the grass, but I was seeing a number of lobsters as well. Some are in the open on the bottom, completely hidden by the grass. If you open the grass and see one, you have to grab it quick or it will be gone or re-hidden. My movement through the grass spooked up some that I never saw. They bump into your legs or go shooting out in front of you. One flashed past me that looked no more than 3 inches long. About this time, I was seeing if I could effectively find the cracks by feel. It worked OK, but nothing great.

Every so often, you come to an area that is just a bit deeper and clear of the grass. It is often a sandy area a few feet square. Small red, green and brown algae grow along the edges and there are a few Perch there. Other times you may find a deeper ledge or hole that is occupied by a Garibaldi, Sculpin or lobsters. Here, the lobster are usually impossible to get to. There is lots and lots of interesting and colorful invertebrate marine life. Luckily, there aren't many urchins.

I was finding that if I went out a bit and then went towards shore in the direction of the waves, I could part the Eel Grass with my hands. It seemed promising. It allowed me to see the bottom and I was seeing some bugs. I was starting to look into the ledges from the top so that I was looking down, instead of stretching my head backwards to look up into them from below. It's much easier on the back that way.

Another thing that offered some potential was to look at the way the ledges and cracks formed along the shore above water and try to guess where they continues off the shore. Sometimes this led to cracks. Sometimes not. Also there were a lot of cracks in the water that had no extension on the dry land.

It was fun diving and I was seeing more and more bugs, but I was running out of time. I started working over towards Dave who was only about 15 feet from shore. He seemed to have found something of interest.

He was in maybe even less than 2 feet of water, but had found a large ledge that was more than a foot high and went back at least 8 feet. The entrance from above was only about a 2 foot hole. It was definitely a tuffy to work. He gave me his light and told me to look in the back of the hole. I twisted in fairly well and could see that back past a large Garabaldi was a nice bug. I could barely see it from my angle, but it looked over 4 pounds. Dave said that there was another one in there with it that was about the same size. If you were small enough to get into this hole, you were small enough to be attacked by those lobsters. Well, I was out of time and pretty much tuckered as well so I headed out. Dave said that he continued working the bugs for another 20 minutes, trying to chase them out with his fins. Eventually he gave up and kept looking. As I started up the stairs, which are quite a climb by this point with gear, there were a few other snorklers heading up. They tended to have one bug a piece, though one guy had two, one of which was a nice two pounder.

It was beautiful diving. Tiring, but beautiful and fascinating. Trying to see, move and maneuver in this shallow, thickly grown area is a fun challenge. I can't wait to do it again, preferably at night


Most places that I have done tide pool diving, are less flat than the area off of San Diego. Most have been wide areas of jumbled rocks and boulders. In these areas, it can be like swimming from one aquarium to another. There may be a fair amount of wave action, but you are always pretty well protected, with most of your body in a hole. What I seemed to find was that like critters congregate in the same holes. One hole may be full of Patarina star fish. The next has purple urchins. The next is full of perch. The next, abalone. The next one had that humongous cabazon... Generally, the rocks and the holes between them are such that you are going to be crawling over the rocks a fair amount, but even if a big wave comes, you just sorta drop in a hole and duck it.

On the North Coast, tide pool diving breaks down further to where you might have trouble calling it diving. These are the waders. They go out at a minus tide with wetsuits, masks, weight and snorkels, but no fins. They feel along rocky ledges or go under the kelp to peek around rocks. In more remote areas where abalone are abundant, they can do pretty well. A lot of locals collect this way. I also saw a number of older gents doing this kind of hunting. They, quite reasonably, might not feel quite in good enough condition to be free diving out in the California surf. They may not get too deep, but they get their limits of legals and get to see some of the most beautiful parts of the ocean. Also, local wisdom is that the rock pickers do find 10 inchers occasionally.

One of the funniest things I ever saw was a wader near Pidgin Point whose wetsuit hood had room made for a pair of horns on the guys head. I never tried to find out if there was anything inside them though.

Another thing that few people ever see these days is fishing the rock piles with a stick and wire. A fisher takes a bamboo stick perhaps 6 feet long with a thick steel wire sticking about a foot past the end. There is then a short flexible leader of fishing line or wire on the end of that with a baited hook. This is pushed into holes in large rock piles. It is an amazingly effective way to fish and really something to see. It also used to be far more common.

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