The Peace To Santa Rosa Island

Copy Right 2002

I've been diving a long time and seen many great places, but one of my favorite spots to visit is the wide open diving of Talcott Shoal. It is a huge area of reefs, covering many square miles off the North West side of Santa Rosa Island. It lines up directly in the path of all the weather coming past Point Conception, but is great diving when conditions are calm. In the 80's and early 90's, I used to go there fairly often in lobster season on the Peace, the Truth and other boats. That was when the Peace commonly made the long trips to the west end of San Nicolas for diving the Badlands. That was the time of the "Animals". The hard core lobster regulars that were just basically diving nuts that somehow managed to be signed up for every Wednesday Open Boat scheduled to Nic and most to Santa Rosa.

Well, Things change. Things and events had kept me from visiting for many years. Living South made the Northern Channel Islands basically out of reach for me. Things change again. Now I was back and I was again signed up for a trip on the Peace Wednesday Open Boat, scheduled to Santa Rosa/Talcott. That was the good part. The bad part was the 3 Day swell map showed nasty weather with 6 to 8 foot seas. Not only not fun, but we would never make it to Talcott. Hmmm. All the other swell models on the internet seemed to show different though. There was a huge storm off of Northern California, but the area below Point Conception showed a high pressure spot sitting over a surprisingly calm area. There is only one way to know for sure though and that is to go there.

Driving to the dock was very familiar and the Peace looked the same, docked in the same place. I loaded up and went to sleep, but woke for the 2 AM departure. Oh goody. As we left the harbor, I could feel that there were almost no waves.

I got on deck to a grey dawn, with no wind, swell or sun. We were moving across Talcott. In front was San Miguel Island and Santa Cruz was recognizable behind. It wasn't particularly cold or damp. Actually a typical nice marine morning. As the morning went on and divers got some food and got in their wetsuits. Gear was assembled. The skipper, Eric announced over the speaker that we were approaching our dive site. The engines slowed and the anchor went out. Eric said that we were in 70 to 80 feet of water and described the area some. Talcott is a flat sand or rock bottom with ridges rising from it from 1 foot to 15 feet. Follow the ridges and look for the rock piles. Looking around at the other divers on the boat, I figured that they looked like they already knew that.

Since the Peace supplies it, I had opted to do my dives with NITROX. Eric said that the gate was open and the divers were going down. I did a tiny stride entry and as I turned over I wondered what I had forgotten.

The water was warm enough. More than 50 degrees. It helps that I had filled my suit before going in. That cuts down on the shock some. I headed straight down and got a glimpse of the bottom about 25 feet from it. It was flat rock with a pinkish hue. I immediately headed away from the boat at 45 degrees from the island. There is a strategy to lobster hunting at Talcott Shoal. It is a huge area, but the ridges that might offer cover to lobster, run parallel about 100 feet apart. If you follow one of these ridges that a diver has already gone down, you are not going to see any lobsters. So unless you are the first diver off the boat, you want to get far enough away from the boat so that you are not following another diver. Anyway, that is the incentive for all the divers rushing off the boat as fast as they can and zipping off in every direction. The ridges sort of go on forever and since they are tilted layers of rock, one side is a gentle slope and the other side is the vertical or ledge side where most of the life is. The sloped side is usually fairly smooth rock and offers so little cover, that it may be almost barren of life. The vertical side usually extends down to a sand channel that may be a couple feet wide or go on a long ways. The ridges meet and cross and split again and make strange geological patterns. Along these ridges, there are ledges and an occasional rock pile. It all offers a lot of habitat to reef life. Everything seems to grow there if you look around. It is covered with filter feeders including colorful Corynactus anemones. Look close and you will see miniscule crabs, shrimp, worms and many things that you are not likely to easily identify. Sometimes in the ledges, but especially in the rock piles, there are lobster, but you never know where they will be, in some kind of randomly located cover.

I came up the sloped side of the first ridge and the other side was about 4 feet high. That was lush there and the life was thick, but I just kept on moving to get away from the boat some before starting to look much. I went over about 5 ridges that were close together and pretty high. One easily sticking up over 10 feet from the sand channel like a wall.

I was finally following ledges and looking for bugs. The life was amazingly thick. There were sponges everywhere including a grey one that looked like someone had poured a gallon of hot grey wax over the rocks. There were lots of big anemones in combinations of white, green and vivid magenta. Lots of various fish were in the rocks as well, but there weren't any holes that a lobster would usually hide in.

I kept moving over the flat reef slopes, then along the vertical wall for a while. I was checking out any isolated rocks I could see. There are some ledges that stick out as much as 10 feet and a diver can go into them, but they are not cover for bugs. When you move across the flat rock or the slopes here, one of the easiest ways to cover ground fast is to brachiate. Grab a rock and pull your way along as you swim. You tend to be under the worst of the currents that way and can move really fast. The rocks that stick up tend to be barren, but you should sill be careful to avoid carelessly squishing life. It's not really a problem though both because the rocks are fairly bare and if you are careless, you will get a handful of urchin spines anyway.

Then at one point I went up over a wall and on the back slope was a nice legal sized lobster walking up the slope in the open. It was so in the open that I took my time and was careful because it could have gone in any direction. It knew that I was there, but there was nothing it could do. I both grabbed and squashed it to the bottom. It was easily legal and in the bag.

I was seeing other things to tempt the hunter as well. There were Cancer crabs Where the vertical face came down to sand and there was a very small undercut in the rock to make a shelf above the sand. The crabs were hunkered in as far as they could go. They are easy to take if you have a scallop bar. Just flip them out of their hole and up into the water. Then let them drop into your open bag. Two of them make a really good crab cocktail. I didn't have an iron and was more concerned with bugs anyway.

I was moving fast when I saw two bugs under a small ledge that went a ways back. One looked legal and the other looked iffy. I swatted the big one and it really couldn't go anywhere. By this time I was headed back towards where I guessed the boat was. After a bit, air was gone. Since I was at about 80 feet, I came up slowly and wondered where the boat was and where the current was taking me.

Back on the boat, a number of people had gotten bugs including a 7 pounder and the biggest one to come up on the Peace this season. It weighed in at 12 pounds and 2 ounces. Incredible looking. Pat Hayes got it and I asked him about it. This is what he told me...
I was moving along under a long ledge and saw the huge bug at the end of the ledge in a small 'V'. I tried to get in to him, but all the air in my drysuit went into my legs and pulled me up top where I couldn't reach him. I went out and drained all the air from my suit. I then went in upside down and sort of crawled in. I could see him and he was looking at me, but he really had no where to go. At this point I had about 1900 pounds of air. I got in far enough to grab him and backed out of the ledge. I wrapped my arms around him against my chest and no way was I going to let him go. I was negatively buoyant, so I was an the bottom trying to figure out what to do while struggling with him. I had to let him go some and worked until I had fought him into my bag. I figured the dive was over in any case and headed quickly for the surface. I ended up with about 300 pounds left in my tank. When I got back to the boat, I handed up my bag. When the deckhand took it, I told him to be careful to only grab the upper handle of the bag. The lower handle opened it.
Not surprisingly, Pat told me that was the first time he had gotten a really big bug.

The Peace moved along east off the shore cliffs and Eric said we were going to try a bit shallower in 50 feet. The bugs were obviously moving out from to deeper water in front of the storm, but there was no way to guess where they actually were. For all as calm as it was now, in the next day or so, 14 to 17 foot swell were predicted as the storm arrived. The next spot was the same with slopes and ledges. The reef was really healthy. The flat rock areas, there were well populated with small, bright orange anemones and various hydroids as well as much other small life as you could desire if you looked close enough to see. I had been ignoring the scallops, but yanked one big one off a rock. I also picked up one that was just sitting in the sand. There were a fair number of them just in the sand as well as many more on the rocks. Under one ledge I saw a short bug which I ignored, but I did try to grab off one huge scallop that was with it. It was huge and I definitely needed an iron if I wanted it. Large, purple, 20 armed, squishy Picnopodia starfish were everywhere. In some ledges were a lot of fish. Sheepheads, gopher rock fish, and Gold and White rockfish were common. There were a fair number of tree fish as well as lots of different perch. I even saw a few almost legal sized ling Cod. I saw an occasional Spanish Shawl nudibranch. They had great color. The commonest nudibranch though were Lemons. I saw them from the size of my finger tip up to some that were at least 3 inches long. I finally found one legal sized lobster in front of a deep ledge, but I grabbed him before he ever had a chance to scoot back. Air was gone and there was a fair amount of kelp extending almost to the surface, so I grabbed onto one that looked fair sized and slowly went up it to the surface. It stopped at about 10 feet from the surface, so I stopped for a while at 15 feet to gas out and look around at the salps and small jellyfish. Nicely, I came up only about 70 feet from the boat.

Other divers had done OK, but not as good as the last spot. One guy had taken a number of Sea Cucumbers for his wife. I watched another guy trying to get a large crab into his bag in the game well. It had one huge claw firmly planted on the handle of his bag and the other one waving around daring anyone to make it let go. That was a big crab.

The divers aboard seemed remarkably like the divers on the same Open Boats 10 years back or for that matter 30 years back. It was a real friendly crowd, out to have a fun time the way they like to have fun. Many of the divers knew each other from previous trips. I not only knew a couple of the divers from other boats, I also was glad to see Roland who I had dove with on the Peace in the 80's and later. Not only are the divers friendly and probably fairly accomplished at diving if they are even out here for this trip, but also they tend to have a fair amount of respect for each other just because they are there. Most divers never make this trip.

It was fun to talk with the other divers about the hunting, politics and just about every other subject. I met a lot of people. Dave instructed me in how fishermen shake hands. Weird, but cool in a way. The third spot was like the previous two. I went zipping off the boat straight north over the ledges until I found one I liked and then started traveling down it. It met other ledges and rock piles and areas where short kelp filled low spots on the bottom. Here vis was not as good and occasionally got down to about 6 feet. Sometimes I was using my light, but really, most bugs are going to be far out enough to see. I was seeing fish again and a couple of the sheepheads under the ledges had to be 15 pounds or so.

I found a ledge that could have held 100 lobsters safe from divers, but there was nothing in it. SHortly afterwards, I came to another ledge that was 2 feet wide and perhaps a foot deep. I grabbed a legal sized bug in each hand. The bugs here were nice. They weren't huge, but they weren't the size you wonder about once your hand is on them. I also grabbed a couple more scallops just because they were barking at me.

I was moving towards where I figured the boat was and air was getting low when I found the boat anchor. It's always an easy way up, so I quickly followed the chain to where it went up and turned to rope below the boat. No one had done that well, but earlier Eric had mentioned that the last spot of the day was a smaller area that had a lot of promise. Unlike on a lot of trips to the islands where people are not hunting, no one was packing their gear to skip the last dive. Getting lobsters has a lot to do with bottom time.

Lunch was out. The sun was fully out. It was an incredible day on the ocean. Eric had us most of the way to the east end of the island and was metering around to find the area he wanted. He came over the speaker to say it was 50 to 60 feet deep, but there was a serious current running If we were not extremely comfortable with the current, we should not go down. He added that if we hung around on the surface, we were gonna get a free ride to Santa Cruz Island. The current line was put out and the inflatable was in the water for anyone that got behind the boat.

I was one of the first in the water and went straight down. It was similar to the previous spots, but different. There were more rocks instead of just the ledges. Visibility was up at least to 35 feet again and depth here was about 55 feet. I wanted to go deeper and headed out north west into the current. In the other areas I had mostly moved along swimming with an occasional pull on the exposed rocks. Here I was hanging on a lot. The currents were mostly to the south, but it was a shifting tidal current and even went the other way occasionally. That was when to move up current. This was obviously a current area and life on the rocks was thick. Almost everything was covered with brittle stars. The terrain looked great with lots of rocks and plenty of hidey holes for lobsters. I barely got a glimpse of some antennas sticking out from way under a ledge, but I made a quick grab and got that one. There were crabs, lots of scallops and lots of fish. As I went on I saw lots of lobsters. I took one more and since that was 6 for me, I just covered ground looking for a final big one and trying to see what strange stuff I could see. It was just ledges and rock piles. I picked up 3 scallops that were in the sand under ledges.

At one point, I saw a picnopodia moving across the reef and watched it for a bit. I can't for certain say why, but the brittle stars sure got out of its way fast.

I was seeing more legals and even a couple out in the open. I was getting a little low on air and so was already heading back towards the boat. I saw another nice one in a nothing hole. I swatted it and put it in the bag with the others. Now it was a matter of slowly moving with the current and site seeing. In a sand channel I saw my first bat ray of the day, but I was going by to fast to look at it much. This was just one lush reef full of every kind of life.

We all got on the boat and the tempo picked up a bit as divers stowed gear and stuff. A lot of divers had found bugs and Roland said that he had started seeing bigger bugs down a bit deeper. They were not under much cover and some were just leaning against rocks.

More lunch was put out with even better desert. I got organized and then luxury of luxuries, kicked back in the hot tub until I didn't remember what cold water felt like. It's a 5 hour trip, so then it was time for the bunk and a well deserved nap.

... The evening can be the nicest time on a dive boat. It tends to be calm and clear. Conversation is very relaxed. Porpoises came by a couple of times. At one point Eric announced that there was a Blue Whale off of the bow. They really do have a bluish color and they are huge.

Looking up the coast to the north towards Santa Barbara, mist was spilling out of the mountains. The sunset is just some paths of brilliant gold on the evening layers of fog. The cars on hiway 101 along the coast have their lights on. The lights of Ventura come on and you can see the power plant south of the harbor towards the strand beaches. When you get close to the harbor at low tide like this, the breakwalls look like small mountains sticking out of the water. By tomorrow night, waves would be going all the way over their tops.

End of the day. End of the trip. Thank the crew who did a terrific job and say farewell to a lot of fun people.

Enjoy the diving, seahunt

I got my limit.

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