Saturday Night Live At Leo Carrillo

A Dive Story by Doug Dubick

As my 4-Runner came around the bend in PCH that sits just before you reach Zuma Beach, I could finally see the Pacific Ocean, illuminated by a thinly veiled three-quarter moon with Venus in tow. For several days we’d been hearing about steadily improving conditions at Leo Carrillo Beach, so four of us from my AOW class, and our instructor Dan Barrows, agreed that tonight would be the night for our mandatory night dive. By all accounts the surf would be flat and we’d be enjoying 20’ visibility.
Everyone making the dive tonight would earn their SSI Advanced Open Water Certification, but we’d all done night dives before so it was more of a pleasure dive to share than some kind of obligation.

I took a long sip of my double-tall cappuccino and gobbled down two more Strawberry Newton’s, and then thanked old Neptune for what looked like a calm sea as I pulled into the parking lot that sits less than 100 yards from the beach. All the other students from my AOW Class were already there and putting their gear on, so I felt a small twinge of guilt for delaying my arrival by making the stop at Starbucks (the last true outpost of civilization in L.A. County), but hey, life has so few pleasures. Besides the Malibu-Barbie-bartista that made this drink gives good foam. I took one last sip to wash down the Newton’s and started gearing up.

Not only would this be my first beach night dive, it would also be my first night dry-suit dive, but having dove Leo several times before I felt very comfortable with the situation, knowing the lay of the land, so to speak, and exactly what the dive plan would be.

Besides the class members a couple of the regular Malibu “sandeaters” joined us: Robert Lera and Jay Wilson. Both Robert, and Jay, and Jonah have given me great advice and wise words about beach diving in Southern California, and have been my advanced diving instructors as much as anyone else.

Eight divers walked down to the beach and entered. By now my eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I could really take in the ocean. The moon and stars were very clear above us and their light lit the surface of the water so that you could see every ripple. There was no surf to speak of (maybe zero to 1’ at the biggest) and once you got out a ways it was like glass. I’d only seen it this calm on one other occasion and I knew we were in for a treat. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jonah Mulski and I paired up again. We took a bearing back to the beach (it’s still at 60 degrees) descended and headed off at 240 degrees. At first I was mostly concerned with keeping up with my buddy and didn’t really see much besides some grass on the bottom. Jonah dives several days a week and the long surface swims have given him some pretty strong propellers, but with his new Atomic split-fins he was leaving me in his wake. Once we got out to about 30’ fsw and hit the rocky areas I really began to see things.

Day dives here are pretty good when the visibility is up, but on a night like last night, with 35’ to 40’ visibility, there are interesting creatures everywhere. No aquarium could match it. One of the first beauties to show himself to us was a very attractive Leopard Shark, tan with dark black spots, about 2 feet long. He was skimming along a reef looking for an evening snack but took the time to sit and watch us… watching him. We wanted an evening snack too, so we kicked on.

It wasn’t long before I saw the first lobster of the night. Jonah and I had come to small pile of rocks. He went left and I went right descending into a small channel of sand between the rocks and towering kelp stalks. There he was on the bottom crawling away from me with his eyes looking back at me over his “shoulders.” With two quick kicks I pounced on him. He immediately curled up around my gloved hand and started to drive home the spikes on the inside of his tail. I had to drop my primary light to get a good grip on the carapace so that I could free my left hand from his strong grip. It smarted a little. I measured him but he turned out to be a hair too short so back he went for next year. We continued on.

As we picked around the rocky reefs more and more species began to show themselves: a barred sand bass about 18” long sat in a small depression in the sand and let me get with in spear range. He was lucky though, because I wasn’t packing a spear and swam harmlessly on. I saw several beautiful rockfish, and a few burgundy scorpion fish who thought they were invisible. There are gorgonian seafans on the rocks and I enjoyed these. Even the kelp was beautiful, shinning with a prismatic effect on the edges of the leaves. Several times I rolled onto my back and watched my bubbles float up 30’ through the kelp and streaming moonlight to the mirrored ceiling above, where they would break, and make rings that distorted the picture of the moon with it’s three-quarter smile.

Jonah and I managed to find a few more lobsters, unfortunately mine came up short again, but Jonah found a keeper. At one pile of rocks we found a deep hole with a big lobster down in it, but he was out of reach and had too many escape routes for us to corner him. As Jonah circled around behind him I kept the Light Cannon in his eyes. The lobster stepped forward as if in challenge. He had the advantage and knew it. Little crusty bastard was simply teasing me from his impregnable fortress of urchin-guarded walls. A “short” took advantage of my fixation on the big guy to make a darting escape off to my left. The other fish in the hole with the “granddaddy” lobster were also bailing out of their once safe hiding spots to wait for the intrusion to pass.

Knowing I wouldn’t get the big guy I glided to the left in the direction the deserters had taken to get a look at one of the many back entrances to this little castle in the sea. There in the side of the reef was an almost perfectly round hole, like a porthole. Inside, to my surprise, was the largest most beautiful male sheephead that I have ever seen. His colors were very bright: his red portion was the reddest I have seen, his massive lower jaw was a bright white with two large to teeth jutting forward, his big eye peering out at me. He was much too large to have entered through the porthole, so he must have entered through another hole that we did not find.

By now we’d been down a good while and it was time to turn our dive back toward the beach. As we worked our way back over the reefs toward the kelp beds we continued to see more life. A beautiful little Horn Shark lie out in the open on the bottom and watched us go by. There were sea cumbers everywhere and a small Spanish Shawl Nudibranch to look at. A small halibut was barely visible against the sand. As we got shallow there were Red Crabs all around us in the eel grass. I used my light mounted lobster gauge to catch a few. They would grab on with their pinchers and I would deposit them in Jonah’s game bag (Jonah eventually released them all).

In about 10’ fsw I found an orange weight belt strap sticking up out of the bottom of what looked like a giant ant-lion den. It was buried deep and no amount of pulling would free it. Obviously ditched and long forgotten. If I hadn’t been down to my last 600 psi I would have started digging. Jonah and I kicked in toward shore a little more and surfaced in about eight feet of water.

Dan Barrows was right there when came up, and Jason and Brian where just about twenty feet away. All at once we began to chatter and we agreed what awesome conditions we had just been privileged to encounter and began reliving the experience, telling of the creatures, and reefs, and kelp, and moon, and everything else we had seen.

A few guys made a second dive but my ears were feeling congested so I called it a dive and waited, enjoying the night air, the moonlight, and the solitude of the beach as I watched their dive lights glow from under the water hundreds of feet from shore.

Leo Carrillo is a great site to visit with an abundance of things to see. Please go there and visit, but if you come across that big old male sheephead do all of us a favor and leave him be.

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