Underwater Fireworks of Santa Barbara Island

By Terry May

It was to be just another night crossing over to Santa Barbara Island. We had a full boat of 35 divers that night when we left 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro. The night before was the usual hustle and bustle of divers arriving to settle in and sign up before our 2 am departure the following morning. I assisted casting off that late night/early morning as Captain Dave throttled up and started to beat feet to SBI. No sooner than Brett and I stowed the bumpers and secured the outbound lines I settled in my sleeping bag in the lower front bunk area. This is the part of the boat that would roll and bounce the most in the NW swell we expected to encounter on our overnight voyage. It's not a comfortable place for charters to sleep, so it's relegated to crew use only. I fell fast asleep before we even left Angel's Gate.

At about 5:15 am, I awoke noticing it was too smooth of a boat ride compared to what we expected. Usually that means we diverted due to high swell and aimed to Cat's backside or even San Clemente Island. I crawled up from the bunk area with sleep still in my eyes and looked out from the galley window upstairs. As far as I could tell, there were the lights on SBI about 5 miles away dead ahead, and the West End light from Catalina Island behind us. The water was flat calm, almost pond like. There was no wind to speak of present.

I stepped out from the rear salon door and headed upstairs to talk to Captain Tim, who had taken over for Captain Dave a hour or so earlier. Sleepily I plodded upstairs and opened the wheelhouse side door to step in. There was Tim drinking his morning coffee with a silly grin on his face.

"Santa Barbara?" I asked him pointing forward.

"Shhhh, Dave just went to sleep," he said. "Want to see something neat?" as he continued to whisper.

I nodded my head as I rubbed my eyes. He turned off the red interior navigation lights in the boat's steering console to leave us in total darkness.

"Look out there about seventy-five to a hundred yards and watch the water".

My eyes began to adjust to the predawn darkness and the water. Slowly I began to see glowing round circles in the water. They were about 15 to 20 feet in diameter and about 50 to 100 ft apart from each other. They seemed to be just under the water's surface.

"Bait balls?" I asked Tim.

"Yeah, but just keep watching"

Suddenly from the right side of one of the bait balls, I saw three to five bluish green streaks like underwater missiles, or torpedoes, take direct aim on it. Within seconds the missiles met the bait ball, which 'exploded' like a fireball in the sky at a fireworks show without the bang.

"Absolutely beautiful" I said to Tim.

"Yeah, and a somewhat rare sight too. I don't think I have ever seen such a thing before," remarked Tim. Quite a statement coming from a man who has basically lived his entire adult life on dive boats.

What we were witnessing were dolphin chasing and crashing into the bait balls to feed. The glow of the bait ball and dolphin were being caused by the bioluminescence effect marine life generates when it moves swiftly through the water. It looked just like a massive firework missile heading up to the shy and exploding displaying a glowing fiery pattern.

Again another set of 'missiles' took aim on another bait ball with the same explosive result, and again, and again, and again. This went on for another 15 minutes until which time we left the area of the bait balls.

I doubt I will ever see something like that again. The next time someone tells you those boat crossings are boring in the middle of the night, remember that you could be one of the lucky ones and witness something like this for yourself.

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