Diving It Softly In Monterey

By John Rice

My last dive in cold California waters was in March 1999 with the Monterey Express in the Monterey Bay. Within a week of that dive, I was diagnosed with cancer and began the process of treatment and recovery. On May 11, I returned to the Monterey Bay.

Various elements at work had convinced me it was time to play hooky, and I also felt I had reached a point where my physical abilities could meet the challenges of Central California diving. So the tanks and gear went to work with me on Wednesday, and at 6 PM I was on my way out of Sacramento. I normally dread the drive to Monterey, as the freeway is boring and the drive is tedious. It went quickly this time. I connected with some friends staying in Monterey, and hit the rack for a decent night's sleep.

On Thursday morning, my friends had to work (grin), and I wanted to take a shore dive under controlled conditions to simply check out my skills. Weather conditions had been a little sketchy for the previous few days-some small storms had passed through, and the conditions at the bay had included some 20 knot winds. I grabbed the gear and headed to the most protected, but heavily dived, spot in the bay-the Coast Guard Jetty breakwater.

This area is just at the end of Cannery row, and is the site of thousands of Open Water skill certifications each year. On any weekend, hundreds of divers descend on the breakwater to complete their skill tests and be initiated into California cold water diving. The breakwater parking area can handle probably fifty cars, with another 50 vehicles and trailers. Additionally, there is a park overlooking the sand beach, and a small parking lot. On a weekend, every parking space and square inch of land is covered by divers, and there are at least 10 class stations marked by surface floats and buoys in the water.

I arrived on the jetty at 8:30, and was alone.

No other cars; no other divers; no picnickers; no waves; no rain; no worry. I got some coffee and settled in to arranging my gear. (Short aside-I do not advocate solo diving, but I sometimes dive solo. The diving I did this weekend was solo diving. The fact I did it does not mean you should-more later).

The Breakwater is well inside the inner Monterey Bay, and provides shelter to the harboring facilities in the bay. The diving is done on the side opposite the harbor, and the dive site is actually sheltered by geographical features of the coast. The bottom contour is sand, with a gradual slope to about 30 feet at about 150 yards offshore. There are sporadic patches of eelgrass, and some kelp growth in the outer areas. The entire dive site is out of boat traffic lanes and relatively safe. There are usually some tourists walking on top of the jetty, and the Coast Guard maintains a rescue operation on the leeward side of the jetty. Your bathtub (although warmer) is only slightly safer.

The dive plan was simple: drysuit; steel 104^ft main tank with 40^ft pony bottle with fully redundant regulator. Weight belt, with additional weights in bag to evaluate weighting needs. Lift bag and reel to support the weight bag-lift bag provided surface float identification. Plan was to enter the surf (absolutely FLAT!), surface swim to about 100 yds and descend for gear check. Completing that, I would move to about 30', do a weight check, then establish the weight bag and float as a base and take a little cruise.

The weight check was fine, but I apparently have become much more buoyant than I was last year. I then proceeded to run some simple familiarization drills-drop reg, pull secondary, flood mask-this was the first real indication that the water was 50 DEGREES cold, and brought me back to the reality of the Central Coast-this ain't Cozumel, amigos.

I finally settled in, and began to enjoy the almost limitless 10 feet of visibility the bay gave us that day at 30 feet. This was really good, as there was no surge so there was little silting from the bottom-the poor viz was due to plankton bloom-what the heck-off for a cruise. I turned and ran directly into a school of about 50 black or blue rockfish. A little further on, there was a chunk of old pipe, encrusted with various corals and sponges. As cruising above the sand flats, I was greeted by tiny juvenile sanddabs about 2 inches long flitting out of the sand. These are bottom feeders which bury themselves into the sand and await the arrival of lunch. Apparently I didn't qualify.

Throughout the eelgrass to sand transitions, there were a number of sea stars of various types, and some fairly small crabs attached to the grasses. I kept the weight bag within navigation range, finished the cruise, and played a little with the drysuit.-adjust buoyancy and invert without blowing to the surface-tends to focus your concentration.

I retrieved the bag and began navigating back to shore, remembering general compass headings and traveling perpendicular to the sand ripples on the bottom. (It's really hard to screw this up-if you're getting deeper, you're going the wrong way-If you do nothing, the wave action will wash you into the jetty and then the beach-if you reach the jetty, turn right-that's where the beach is). At ten feet, I surfaced, made the final transition and headed up the beach to rinse off at the showers

Once back at the parking lot, two other divers had suited up and were entering the waters, and another couple was staring at the waters trying to decide if it was worth it. When they heard that the visibility was only 10 feet, they jumped back in their truck and left.

Apparently, they didn't know the visibility in a radiology treatment room is a lot worse.

After the Thursday dive, I was relaxing in my truck and preparing to find the phone number for the Monterey Express so I could call Captain Tim and see what he had available (I plan dives, but I seldom plan charters-grin). As I was watching the procession of tourists walk by, a white van passed behind me, with "Monterey Express" emblazoned on its side. The van stopped; I approached; Tim was at the wheel; they were going out on Friday morning; there was room; charter planning complete.

The gods smiled.

Short aside-Thursday night dinner-Fresh Cream Restaurant-(not a diver hangout--collars on shirts are required, and jackets for the gentlemen are preferred). Somewhat pricey, but MY GAWD was it good. Yum

OK-The Monterey Express runs Friday charters in a very civilized manner- 9 am pick up at dock K. (Weekends go at 7:30-yuck). Short briefing before departure, then onto the boat for bagels and coffee on the way to the sites. Since the Express is a fairly large boat, Tim can head into the outer bay and down to the Carmel area for some diversity of sites, and there's enough room to spread out and enjoy the cruise. Steel tanks for all. 14 divers assembled, and during the ritual of C-card review and waiver signature, Tim polled the group, "How many are new divers?" 10 of 14 responded. (Hold for future reference). We boarded and were away.

Sun shining; slight clouds; a modest swell running, but no whitecaps. A perfect day. On the ride out, one of the divers who had seated himself at the stern of the boat started looking unsettled-seems he'd gotten a few blasts of diesel exhaust. We moved him to the "Patty position" (Please, Patty, no thanks are necessary--portside leeward gunwale) where he chatted with the sea lions. I gave him some water and got him settled in, but this was possibly the worst case of seasickness I've seen on the bay. Eventually, he did get one dive in, but never really recovered during the trip.

In 45 minutes, Tim dropped anchor just outside of Stillwater Cove, in sight of the Pebble Beach Golf Course clubhouse. During the trip out, I talked with a number of the other divers and made the decision to dive alone with redundant gear. I had two reasons for this: the first was that I did not know the level of my strength or water skills, and did not want another diver relying on me for potential rescue. Additionally, it was obvious that few of the other divers had the experience to act as a rescuer. I also planned on staying close to the anchor line, and on cutting the dives short if I felt fatigued. Time to dive alone.

Another aside-Diving from California boats

On California boats, the boat will usually provide tanks and weights (BYO tanks for night dives) and a dive master who remains on the vessel. You set up your gear-if you need help suiting up, just ask. When the boat arrives at the dive site, you are given a briefing on the site, and the captain announces that the "gates" are open-you can dive. You are responsible for your in-water management, your dive profile and your support. If you have a problem on the surface, the dive master will come out to help you. But you have to get yourself to the surface.

I dropped off the stern step, bled the drysuit, and began my first descent into cold water in over a year. Tim had parked us in the middle of a modest kelp forest, and the sunlight began to filter through the canopy. At 10 feet, the visibility closed in to about 5 feet, with the water having the coloration of pea soup with a little cream-the beginnings of plankton bloom in the outer bay. Looking up under the canopy, I found myself grinning at about 100 fingerling fish silhouetted in the sunlight. This was going to be GOOD.

The bloom continued to about 30 feet where it simply stopped. The plankton needs sunlight to bloom, and at that depth under the canopy, there wasn't enough light to continue the effect. This is like moving through a "visual" thermocline. Visibility opened to a full 50 feet, and the finger/groove elements of the reef stretched out below. Equalizing the squeeze on the drysuit balanced my buoyancy at 60', and I assessed the surge at about 2 feet. Taking a reading on the anchor site, I set off on a short cruise around the rocks. Strawberry anemones six to eight inches across waived to me as I passed; reef outcroppings were covered with a green/purple/brown growth. Turning my light on them produced an array of blues, oranges, reds, and yellows from cup corals, cornyactis and sponges.

This is the beauty of the Monterey Bay diving. The cold upwelling currents from the offshore Monterey Canyon provide abundant nutrients for the growth of diverse species in this area. Unlike the Channel Islands, which seem barren to me, each rock and surface here is covered with ornamentation.

Among the holdfasts of the kelp (kelp doesn't have roots-it attaches itself to the reef by tendrils called "holdfasts") tiny snails and crabs take up residence. I watched as a decorator crab covered with corals and small pieces of grass moved along wall of encrusted cup corals, almost invisible due to its perfect camouflage. Small blennies and gobis flitted around the rocks and the sand of the bottom, darting in and out of site, sometimes simply freezing in place, waiting for me to move on. As I was moving along one reef, looking at the base of the ledge, I sensed I was being watched, and looking up, found myself staring into the face of a 40-inch Ling Cod. On another day; another time, this was dinner for 6. Today, we were just passing through the neighborhood.

Checking my air, it was time to head back-of course, by this time, I had completely blown the navigation gig, and had no idea where the boat was. I started an open water ascent, moving along a large strand of kelp as it rose to the surface. This has multiple advantages-the kelp provides an upline for the ascent (a very positive element when I again hit the bloom and the viz dropped), an anchor point for a safety stop, and a pretty cool place to watch the life under the canopy. Small crabs were attached to the fronds of the upper stipes; kelpfish moved in small schools under the canopy, again outlined by the sun. After a 5 minute hang at 20 feet, I surfaced and located the Express about 250 yards away. The divemaster immediately signaled for an "OK" sign which I returned. Now the choice-either a surface swim through kelp fronds to the boat, or an underwater approach. Hint: Always save enough air to do the under water approach-kelp swims are unfun.

With the bearing in hand, I was at the back of the boat in 15 minutes and on board. Total dive: 35 minutes at 59 feet.

After the first dive, as I shed gear, other divers returned to the boat, and one diver required a surface tow due to fatigue. On gaining the deck, she sank to her knees breathing heavily without removing her gear. Another diver and I stepped in and helped remove her gear and loosen her suit to assist breathing, and she regained normal control in a few minutes.

Another aside-if you can't condition your body, condition your mind. Over staying your dive and overreaching your physical limitations is dangerous and can severely curtail your diving career.

All other divers returned to the boat (Tim insists on leaving the site with the same number of divers as when he arrived), and even though we had checked off and on the boat by assigned numbers, we went through a full roll call.

Twenty minutes later, we were anchored over Middle Chase Reef in the Inner Bay and prepared for our second dive. Tim had chosen this site since the winds were coming up and the outer bay was beginning to get some chop.

Off the stern and into the bloom, down to the reef at 50 feet. The descent was similar with visibility opening to 50 feet at 30 feet of depth. More growth here (is that possible?) because it's slightly shallower and protected from ocean currents and surge battering. A few rockfish scattered around and some nudibranchs! Almost missed the little sucker, but finally moved in on a wonderful yellow nudi about 3 inches in length. A few minutes later, a pure white nudi showed up as I turned the corner of the ledge. Now I was getting tired (and also sucking gas). Strawberry anemones and 6 inch metridium waved in the light surge as I turned the dive and headed back to the anchor line (random luck or excellent navigation?)--found it on the first try. Completed the dive with 50 ft for 21 minutes.

As we degeared, the other divers began to appear. Suddenly, four divers surfaced together, with one diver waving for assistance. They were close to the boat, and although Tim was ready to move his DM into the water for the assist, another diver had taken the distressed diver under tow. Equipment difficulties had developed during the ascent, but the diver got help from the other divers with her and safely returned to the boat.

Everybody back on board, roll call complete, and Tim headed into the harbor. We set into the dock by 1:15, said our good-byes and completed and outstanding day with the Monterey Express.

Why dive solo? My first reason for diving solo was simple-I didn't have the confidence in my strength and current water skills to provide support for a buddy at this time. I like diving with buddies and I like diving with new divers-I've got 30 years of mistakes I can help them not make (smile). My second reason was my assessment of the skills of the other divers-if I were to have a problem, I did not want to saddle them with the difficulties of effecting a rescue on me. Self focus and self-rescue seemed the reasonable choice. Additionally, I established my equipment and my dive plan to minimize risk and provide the most options.

A comment about conditioning. I am out of condition and suck air. I know it, and I limit my exposure to physical risk because of it. It takes only a minute to move from a distressed situation to an emergency rescue. If your skills are rusty (or new), plan your dive based on your skill set, not on the amount of air in your tank. If your conditioning is down, adjust your dive plan to maintain a reserve of strength as well as a reserve of air. Having 500 psi in your tank does no good if you're hyperventilating and can't swim.

Lastly-California dive conditions. This ocean is cold, folks. One diver had just moved here from Michigan where she had a lot of experience on the Great Lakes wrecks. She dove in a drysuit and three finger wet mittens, and was surprised at how cold her hands got. She also added insulation in the suit for the second dive. If you're diving wet, plan ahead.

Best wishes to all.


The Monterey Express

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