Cold Day With the Sea Lions at Santa Cruz Island

By Mike Brennan

It was a cold, storm tossed February we had this year and my freezer was empty with nary a lobster tail in sight. There was something wicked swirling off the coast and the local boats had cancelled their weekend trips; all except the erstwhile Peace out of Ventura. We had hoped for San Miguel Island for some big bugs but the wind and the sea had other plans for us. When I awoke that morning and stepped out of the galley, the high profile of Santa Cruz loomed to the starboard side. It had rained here recently, and rained hard! The normally arid cliffs at the northwest end were awash in cascading ribbons of runoff. Every darkened cove that morning was graced with a wispy white much for the viz.

San Pedro Point. West end of Santa Cruz Island

It is 9:00 AM and the gates open! I am first in the water and on the prowl for bugs! That is the mission today; to limit out on bugs and then have a little time left over for scallops. I head to the wall at full sprint and begin feverishly checking every crack and crevice. Arrrgh! There is not a pair of antennae in sight! Where have all the lobster gone? At 34 fsw, there are two of the tasty little critters staring at me. One is short, but the other might just be legal. I lunge and grab him, but alas, he is an eighth of an inch too short, so back in his crevice he goes. The other bug just stares at me as if it knows it's legally protected! They know! I don't know how they know but they do! The shorts always strut around like they own the place! Well, that was as good as the bug-hunting got that day and on the second dive, I head off in a different direction but again, there are no lobster to be seen. There is a large cavern in the side of the cliffs and I swim in to have a look. A lonely harbor seal stares pensively at me from below. It is resting on the bottom and I exit quickly. It didn't look happy. There are no bugs to be found in the cavern so on the way out, I pillage a couple of scallops to staunch the despair.

By the third dive, the 47 degree water and the intestinal flu are taking their toll. I am getting fatigued, and my old, beat-up Farmer John has seen better days. The plan was to make this dive a 20 minute sprint after some bugs and then return to the boat. Well, I don't see so much as an undersize pair of antennae sticking out of anywhere, so i half-heartedly switch to scallops here and there. There is a constant barking noise in the background. When we anchored, there was a group of sea lions in the distance and now, they have moved up to investigate the curious neoprene-clad bubble-making creatures that have invaded their domain. Every time I turn around, I see about a dozen sea lions cavorting all over the place. They surround me for the entire duration of the dive! Perhaps they're interested in the fish activity that is stirred up by my cleaning the scallops in place (Hey, thanks for the paint-stirrer tip Old Man Nelson!). Perhaps they were irritated that I am ignoring them so steadfastly, being bug-crazed as I so often tend to be. Fish and sea lions aren't the only things interested in my presence. A couple of spearos are also checkin' out the fish activity that seems to follow my trail. It is a good thing that ling and rockfish season is temporarily closed right now because halfway into the dive, there is a BIG rockfish just below a scallop i am pillaging. It is enormous. I guesstimate it to be a good 28-30 inches in length, given that it should be about a third smaller than it appears to my lobster-starved eyes. Well, I can just about hear those poor spearos eating their hearts out! Whoops! My 20 minutes are up and I am far from the boat...time to hightail it back. The sea lions are still clustering around me and I have so much fun with them that I completely forget about the 47 degree water.

Somebody's Nice Pic (his girlfriend is named Laura anyway)

35 minutes later, I surface above the anchor line. By now the sea lions are everywhere! There must be at least 20 to 24 of them. They're wheeling around, barking, blowing bubbles, charging and veering off at the last minute! I stop my surface swim and just hang in the water watching them! They bark and I bark back through my regulator and they answer again! The fun ends when I start shivering uncontrollably and decide to hightail it back into the boat. The furry devils darn near follow me up to the swim step! Brrrr! It is damn cold! It's a good thing that the Peace has a little Jacuzzi on the dive deck. It's a great place for a poor sea-lion stricken scallop pillager to stick his cold shivering hands after a tough winter dive.

The 4th dive is uneventful. I go deep to avoid the powerful surge that is washing violently over the shallows. On the bottom, in the sand, I can faintly see the outline of a large halibut. It looks to be a good 30 pounds. The cold and fatigue are really setting in so I grab some scallops and after a tough surface swim, I climb aboard the boat and call it a day. In a couple of weeks there is a two day trip to Santa Rosa/Talcott Shoals. Time is running out. In little more than a month, lobster season 2001 will be only a memory. Well, I'll be back in two weeks! And I'll say hi to the sea lions for ya...after I get some bugs!!!!

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