Gerstle Cove

In the early morning sunlight light and thin mists, it was a beautiful drive through meadows and redwoods to Gerstle Cove. I had never been diving here, but I had heard of this preserve over the years and was looking forward to seeing it for myself.

Eric was waiting for me at the entrance so that made that part easy. Until then I had only my impression of him by written word or by phone conversation. Now I had a face to go with.
We drove on down perhaps 1/2 mile to the bluff parking and pulled in. Divers like divers. I had a good impression of Eric and it got better as I talked to him. He knew what he was talking about, besides, he brought me a tank.

Eric had a very interesting wetsuit. It was an Italian made freediving suit with an open cell inside surface. Skin-in is generally one of the warmest kinds of suits because the neoprene slides right on your skin. This open cell suit would just about stick to your skin. It would compress some at depths, but for shallower scuba or free diving, it would be the hard to beat for comfort, fit or warmth. Of course he had his own hair conditioning and water concoction to make it possible to get on. The suit had a pale camouflage pattern that looked like it might well make a diver invisible while floating on the surface in a kelp bed.

Once we got our gear arranged, he backed his van down the narrow road to the end which was only about 20 yards from the waters edge. we got our gear out and I started moving it near the water as he parked. It seemed to take him almost no time to get back.

Gerstle Cove is deep enough to be well protected, especially on the north side where the prevailing swell comes from. It's your usual North Coast cove surrounded by raw rock cliffs sticking up at least 60 or 70 feet. Eric had told me something of the extensive history of this cove, once used as a logging port where schooners would pick up logs destined for San Francisco. There were large steel rings sunk into the cliff that had one time helped hold ships in place. Apparently the cove was full of boulders that had been ballast on the empty logging boats and were tossed overboard before the ships cargo was loaded. Further out in the cove, Eric had found a number of large anchors that had probably been for permanent anchor buoys as the ships waited their turn to be loaded.
It is hard to understand how remote this part of the coast has always been historically. Bustling San Francisco was little more than 100 miles away by sea, but it was quite practically out of reach for those that lived and worked in this primeval place. That doesn't even mention how remote it was when it was earlier visited by Russian fur hunters.

Now it is a protected place, off limits to any commercial or private exploitation, carefully protected for visitors to see its vibrant life. That is if they don't mind a bit of chill water.

The shore of the cove is perhaps 50 yards wide and the cove is quite narrow for at least 70 yards out. Then it opens up past the point on the south. It is probably 100 yards out to get past the protection of the point on the north side of the cove. There are lots of shallow rocks along the southern side of the cove, but the north side looks far more clear.

We were going to take Eric's float out to a buoy about 50 yards into the center of the cove. We would anchor it there and start our dive. I planned to be the lazy tourist and just follow Eric around while trying to get pictures. I'm easy.
There was a class up on the cliff as we finished preparation and I commented that they were probably being admonished to never do what those guys down there were doing. Talk about easy, I did my usual and poured a jug of warm water down my wetsuit before going in. There are no waves, but crossing dry rocks like that, then slimy rocks like that, is always to be done with great care or else great pain. The swim out was of no note except as the cold water seeped in. It turned out to be right around 50 degrees brisk. Eric is conscientious enough and I guess that I felt he was a good enough diver, that I was basically a space and just paid attention to my surroundings.

We went down and immediately saw what makes North Coast diving some of the most beautiful in the world. The cold water is so rich in dissolved oxygen and nutrients, that life grows thick on every surface. Also, being in a reserve, it was big. I immediately saw a California Sea Cucumber that was easily bigger than a football. It's a bit of a strange sight looking like an animated goldish pillow, covered with... well.. protuberances shaped like skinny Hershey's Kisses. I didn't look long. Everywhere there were critters to be seen and try to get a quick photo of before they disappear in the gloom behind us. On the side of small boulders were pale Giant Green Anenomes too big for me to figure out how to photograph with my close-up lens. Scattered everywhere like leaves were bat stars and an occasional Pisaster star.
Eric was following his compass to deeper water in the entrance of the cove. I was just merrily following, clicking away.
Everywhere were abalone. Big abalone. Bigger abalone. Abalone up in feeding position, halfway off their rocks. Abalone seemingly asleep flat on their rocks. Abalone with bat stars on their backs. Even occasional small abalone, though most of those would be well hidden under rocks or in the intertidal nursery that is the spines under the urchins.
There were many Red Urchins, though not as many as I have seen some places. These ones did qualify as huge though. Many with their central shells (tests) very near 6 inches across. Some were burgundy, some appeared deep black, but all were different rich hues of red when a flashlight was played on them. Don't bump these by swimming carelessly or they will most certainly teach you manners. Overall, I saw few Purple Urchins, though there were some, deep in their burrows in the rocks.
Then, under a rock, I saw a critter I always look for. It was an Orange Sea Cucumber. Well, no, I didn't see it, because it was almost completely under a rock, but its brilliant orange food filter, the size of a hand, stuck out into the current to catch small specks of food that floated by. A couple of pictures before I look up for Eric and go to find the next strange life. Besides what I was finding, he was continually finding curious things and pointing them out for me to take a shot of.
There were still lots of abalone and so there were many of the fast, 15 to 20 armed Picnopodia starfish as well. Everything from 18 inch adults to 2 inch youngsters. I didn't see any in the 2 foot size range that can still be found further south though.
Of course the bottom here was thick with short lamanarias. These brown algaes are the true weeds of the deep intertidal. They are quick growing, thick and tough enough to take almost any surge or wave.
I saw a 10 inch dull red Gumboot Chiton that looks and acts more like a rock than anything else. There were more Giant Green Anemones near a foot tall and a foot across. I saw one star that may have been a Rainbow Starfish, but I'm not really sure. It was the only specie I saw that I did not see a number of representatives of.
As we progressed on, every so often a golden juvenile Lingcod with brilliant blue spots, would spook up and stay out of any camera range I could manage. I tried though. At one point we found a small male with a mature mottled green color. I don't know yet if I got his picture.
We were getting into deeper water, but the visibility was definitely getting poorer. When you only start out with about 8 feet of vis, you don't want it to get any worse. Eric signaled that he wanted to turn around to look for better vis. That's OK, I was just blindly following where he led with all my attention on the sea life, my camera or a very occasional glance at my gauges. We never got deeper than 22 feet, so I really didn't care where we were.
Visibility got better and my feet were getting cold. That's the problem with photography or buddy diving in poor vis. You can't swim fast enough to keep yourself very warm. Still, it wasn't cold enough to be a problem. What was becoming a nuisance was that I was a bit lightly weighted and as my tank became lighter, that was becoming a distinct nuisance. I picked up a rock, but Eric made it clear that that was a no no in the preserve.
Occasionally I would see a White Spotted Rose Anemone. These were something I always look forward to because of their brilliant magenta color, but few were open. They like waters that move far faster than what were in this calm cove. Give them some 10 foot swell and they would perk right up.
Finally I had used up my film, so I was using my flash light and trying to peer into the deepest holes that had no sunlight to illuminate them. With the thick lush life on every surface, it was surprising how completely barren the rock surfaces in these holes were. There might be a couple small barnacles or a bit of bacteria growth, but not much else.

We just kept touring in this calm cove that was completely packed with life, but I knew we were nearing our starting point and soon it would be the end of the dive. We came up near the float and I figured it was just time to swim to shore, but Eric had just a bit more to add for me. He said that the shallow part of the south side of the cove was a really neat dive that was well worth seeing. There tended to be more fish over there, especially at night. He was going to go back the short distance to get the float and he advised me to go on over to where the bull kelp was growing thick in the shallow, glassy water. I swam a bit and went down to the bottom in about 8 feet. The top of the rocks were covered with lacy coraline red algae, but there was lots of other life in between them. I just worked my way in. Vis was poor enough to make buddy diving meaningless, but it was very pretty viewing. Again, I was using my light to look in the black cracks between the boulders and here there were some resting fish, but it was a bit hard to see. Finally, I just swam up along some large rocks that were well exposed at this tide and followed them most of the way to shore, inspecting their iridescent seaweed covered sides to see who was crawling along on their daily rounds.

Well, depth was now about 3 feet and vis was about 1 foot. It was certainly time to return to land. I have gotten jaded enough going over rocks, that I tend to be a bit cavalier about my rock exits. I doubt I impressed anyone with my sea lion style flopping exit. I have a bad habit of not stopping and sometimes just keep floundering on, but this time I stopped about 10 feet up the rocks from the water and decided to act like a biped again. I relaxed a bit as Eric made a far more dignified exit.

It was funny that as I exited, two divers were going in, one obviously far less experienced than the other. The newer one mentioned that she was underweighted. I said to get dry rocks from above the tide line and fill her pockets as full as she could.

I really appreciated diving with Eric. I rarely have made a dive where I so completely ignored the details of the dive. I found it interesting that the one time I bothered to look at my compass, I had a perfect visualization of where I was in the cove anyway. It's sort of automatic. I never bothered to register my time or depth. I knew. The only time I was at all surprised was between 1400 and 700 psi. I was surprised at how fast that air went, but it was undoubtedly because of the underweighting that came on at that point. That was a major blow it caused by careless wishful thinking and also it is common enough at night when I get right against the islands, but there it is easy to cure in a way that I couldn't here. I never asked, but I suspect that Eric had half a tank left at the end.

Ah, Gerstle Cove is a beautiful Park. I was just a bit out of place. I am more at home in the more open ocean.
On a more subjective note, looking back at the dive, I found it curious, as I have before, how I respond to any dive. I hunt less now than I used to. Now I use a camera fairly often in situations where I really can't hunt, but in ways using a camera can be just another kind of hunt. Hunting underwater is the ultimate high for me. It is not just fantastically stimulating, it also releases ancient instincts that I like to tap into. Hunting instincts are common in humans and if you can use them, they give a fantastically heightened consciousness and awareness. I've learned that related to this is how fast I am swimming. Swimming fast, swooping in and out of the reef, riding wave and surge, is very stimulating as well. Here, there was no hunt. It was just look at the next big critter and try to get the camera lined up for the best angle you can come up with. It was far more peaceful, perhaps bucolic, than I am used to from the North Coast, but I knew what was coming next and knew that it would be plenty stimulating and challenging.

Enjoy the diving, seahunt

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