Archive for June, 2007

California Dreamin’

June 26, 2007

by Bob Bailey and Cheng Wong

A few months ago Bob got a letter in the mail from his credit card company, informing him that he had a bunch of frequent flyer miles set to expire at the end of June. So after about a millisecond of contemplation, we decided it was time to book a dive trip somewhere and use them up. After spending a few days on the Internet, checking potential locations and making arrangements, we were booked for a five-day getaway week-end to Southern California for the first week in June.

The flight from SeaTac to LAX is one of the prettier flights we’ve been on … you just follow an endless chain of mountains down the coast, and every once in a while, fly past some picturesque giant volcano towering up over the surrounding mountain peaks. We followed the entire chain south … Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, Hood, Three Sisters, Bachelor, Crater Lake, and finally Shasta. The 2-1/2 hour flight seemed far shorter, with no lack of views. We arrived in LAX at around 8 PM, and within an hour we were checking into our hotel in Redondo, just a short distance from the next day’s first dive site at Veteran’s Park.

We hooked up the next morning with an internet friend I’d known for a few years, but never met. Ken told us that Vet’s Park was “nothing special, but it’s our local mudhole”. From his description, it sounded a lot like our Cove 2. And it proved to be every bit as interesting for the diver who wants to go slow and look carefully for hidden treasure.

But Vet’s Park has one thing that Cove 2 doesn’t have … surf! We had to watch the waves and time our entry … and Ken assured us that we’d hit it on a calm day. As the diving gods smiled down upon us, we caught a short calm period that allowed us to get in, fin up and swim out away from the surf zone quickly and without incident. Good start. After a modest kick out from the beach, we dropped down into roughly 30-foot vis and … mud. But it didn’t take long to meet up with our first group of locals … fringeheads. They are kind’ve a cross between a small cabezon and a warbonnet … with the cabezon’s “attitude” … one little critter made several attempts to bite Cheng’s camera while she was trying to take its picture.

Cheng found a little octopus in the eel grass, and Ken waited patiently while his two “tourist” charges took many pictures. Little did we know what was in store just downslope. At between 60 and 70 feet I started noticing little “bumps” in the mud. Upon closer inspection I realized they were octopus eyes … they were everywhere! One little fellow was desperately trying to “tow” a bottle he had claimed for his home … halfway in and halfway out all the while we were taking his picture. Overall, Vet’s Park proved to be a very entertaining “mudhole” indeed.

After the dive, we made a mad dash for San Pedro and the ferry to Catalina Island, where we planned to spend the week-end.

Catalina Island sits 26 miles off the mainland coast … roughly a 2-hour ferry ride. We pulled into the harbor of the island’s only town … Avalon … and within minutes were checking into our hotel. The town is quite small. Everything is within easy walking distance … including the dive park in the shadow of the impressive museum building that dominates the town shoreline. After checking into our hotel room, we walked down to the dive shop (there are only two in town), grabbed a couple of tanks and a hand cart, and within an hour of landing on the island we were gearing up for a dive at the Casino Point dive park.

At first glance the dive park appears small, nestled on a point of land between two sheltered harbors filled with moored boats. But it proved to be plenty big enough. Entering at a set of stairs on the point, we made a short surface swim out to a set of buoys and dropped down into about 20 feet of water … and into a kelp forested wonderland of life. Massive schools of baitfish shoaled along the upper layers.

The kelp stems below … spaced widely enough to appear as an old-growth forest … provided shelter for many different species of fish. The bottom was thickly layered with vegetation and coral growth. Visibility was 40 to 50 feet. We turned and started making our way down the slope … a random exploration of what was there. We had come here hoping to see garibaldi … those bright orange little fish that, in pictures, hardly appear to be more than a toy caricature of a real fish. But I quickly realized that was like hoping to see a coffee shop in Seattle … they were everywhere.

Just a few minutes into the dive, we were provided a real treat. Swimming around a giant mass of kelp stems, I almost swam into a massive wall of flesh … a giant sea bass. Easily six or seven feet long, and twice as wide as me, this was a 500 lb monster of a fish. In our excitement, we approached a little too quickly, and it swam away. I later learned that the correct thing for divers to do in that case is simply to stop and wait … their curiosity will get the better of them and they will return. But there was too much to see.

We made our way to an old wreck at about 70 fsw, the Su Jac, which was just covered in gorgonians, and there we found another prize … a Navanax nudibranch, approximately six inches long, brown colored with beautiful yellow and blue markings. Just spectacular. We spent several minutes exploring the wreck, then slowly made our way back up a steep boulder field that turned out to be the jetty to the north harbor, and back to our entry point. What a wonderful introduction to Catalina.

The next day we went out on the King Neptune … a 65-foot dive boat owned by the Scuba Luv dive shop. Our dive sites that day were all along the northern coast of the island … Yellowtail Reef, Red Rocks Quarry, and Italian Gardens. In addition to all the wonderful sea life we had previously seen at the dive park, we also were treated to many sightings of lobsters, moray eels, large bat rays, and three more giant sea bass. Overall it was a wonderful day of diving.

The following day our friends Ken and Claudette came out to the island to spend the day diving at the park with us. There is a large wreck on the south side called the Valiant, which … because it is in the mooring area outside the park … requires a permit to dive. We had obtained the permit, and so Ken took us there. The Valiant sits in between 70 and 100 feet of water, and is just covered with life. Besides all the gorgonians and soft corals covering literally every square foot of the wreck, we found several species of colorful nudibranchs, including the brilliant purple and orange Spanish shawls.

We had done a dive previous to them showing up, and we were diving air (nitrox is difficult to get on the island), and so we left Ken and Claudette on the wreck and followed the contours back into the dive park and back to the stairs. Along the way we encountered a very strange creature … a sea hare. It is some sort of nudibranch, but is massive for a nudi … about a foot long. And in both shape and coloration it very much resembles a hare. We discovered that it was the creature responsible for a large mass of spaghetti-looking eggs we had found on a previous dive. After exiting the water, Cheng tore her neck seal getting out of her drysuit, so her diving was over. Bob did one more dive with Ken and Claudette, and then it was time to pack up and take the ferry back over to the mainland.

Once on the other side, we had dinner and parted ways with our friends and took the hour-long drive south to Laguna, where we were scheduled to hook up with two different friends for a dive at a place called Deadman’s Reef. Since Cheng wasn’t diving, it would be just one dive for me. The coastline here was rougher and rockier than the beaches to the north … and the entry wasn’t easy. First there was a walk down a long flight of stairs to the beach, then a surf entry among rocks, followed by a 20-minute surface swim … but the payoff was wonderful. Dropping down to about 50 feet, we encountered an encrusted reef that was just non-stop life. The reef drops down very deep, but we opted to stay fairly shallow (60 feet max) because one of my dive buddies had a short air supply. The rocks were covered with nudibranchs, corals, anemones, and fish were everywhere. Vis on this dive was only about 25 feet, and there was a constant surge even at 60 feet. But the reef was non-stop, and so was my camera. Bob took about 60 pictures, including a sighting of what he later found out was a very rare nudibranch, a Trapania.

After the dive, we checked out of our hotel and went to visit Tobin George at Deep Sea Supply … the company that makes a lot of the equipment we both wear. Tobin was a gracious host and spent a good couple of hours showing us around his shop … it’s refreshing to find a manufacturing facility that makes all of it’s own goods, right there in California. Tobin is a tinkerer, and has modified or built much of the machinery that he uses to build his backplates, wings, and accessories.

The next morning we flew back to Seattle … two very tired divers coming home from an exciting five day, nine dive trip … and very much looking forward to going back again someday.

A more complete photo show of our trip can be found at

http://photoshow.comcast.net/watch/Ch5Ym3jX