Dive Report from San Miguel Island, Southern California Channel Islands
2016 July 2-3, Truth boat to San Miguel. CIDA Charter, buddy Chris Switzer.
Months ago I realized my 4th of July weekend was hemmed in, allowing me only Saturday and Sunday for a diving getaway. CIDA scheduled a 2-day for San Miguel/Santa Rosa Islands. Chris Switzer immediately said “Yes!” and the countdown was on.
Conditions were not promising but Friday night I got the message from Chris: “On the boat. Captain says San Miguel. 0300 departure”. 10 minutes later I was driving the Mighty Element towards the freeway and the dive boat and waaay-out island freedom!
The nocturnal voyage barely ruffled a feather in my dreams, it was that smooth. A bright gray sunrise woke me to see San Miguel floating past on a millpond-smooth sea. Last week’s rough south swell left its mark on the surface water, which looked dim and dark around the thick giant kelp embracing the south side of the island.
First stop: Wyckoff Ledge! (home of thousands of film star nudibranchs, primeval kelp forests, mobs of fish, tiny jelly madness, and a crenulated rocky reef that houses millions of invertebrates harvesting energy from the cold, nutrient -rich waters that hammer this island year ‘round.)
Saturday July 2, 2016
Dive #1 Wyckoff Ledge. 0900
65 minutes. 119 fsw max. 52 bottom, 56 top. 32%, 100% deco 5 min ascent from 20
Captain Davey said, “Straight south and down you’ll find some depth.” With two DiveXtras Fury MiniCuda scooters we were geared for distance and the way-out search for cool stuff. We pachinko’d over the plateau, seeking open lanes in the dense kelp forest shrouded in murky water. 15 feet of viz allowed us to stay together but keep plunging toward the dark-deep until the first rocky ridge appeared with nothing but fish-filled water behind it. Down 30 feet to the next plateau with 30 foot viz, and then over and down again to the clear water at 100 feet of sea water (fsw). SO. MUCH. TO. LOOK AT!
We zoomed and stopped, kicked slowly with bright lights activating the amazing Technicolor wonders of sponges, anemones, lacey bryozoans, darting fish, brittle stars, rock scallops, gum boot chitins, nudibranchs (a dozen species on almost every dive this trip. They love the sponges and bryozoans and hydroids that grow in colder water, so the 52F end of the pool is where the slug action is.) Edging back up to the kelp forested plateau, the viz closed in again (read: Yech!) but hovering quietly into the middle of 200 synchronized blue rock fish made me so happy, with all the water I could see filled with fish and giant kelp. There was exciting surge rushing to and fro on the exposed corners and the scooters make that totally fun as they double the acceleration when I mash the trigger up through high gears at the right time.
Sat. Dive #2 Wyckoff ledge again but the internal tail weight pouch shifted in the scooter and I called it at 50fsw, leaving the fun to Chris. Back on deck I wedged the wt pouch back in firmly and it was all solid for the rest of the trip. A loose tail-end weight pouch feels eerily like the early-warning “nose-down” of a scooter flood. Not good. But this problem was small and easily fixed.
Sat. Dive #3 Adams Cove, just inside of Point Bennet.
50 minutes. 102 fsw max. 49 bottom, 53 top. 32%, 100% deco 7 min ascent from 20fsw.
Our hours here were filled with the Hilarious cacophony of sea lion barking from the 1000s of animals on this long curved beach. Sea lions leaped from the water all around the boat in the thick kelp forest. Slow-cruising massive males looked us in the eye, suggesting we don’t try to dance with their dates!
Over the side we went again, scootering down and fast thru the murk (with massive abalone at base of rocks interspersed with golden white rippled sand) finally emerging into the Glory at 90fsw, with serene 60-foot long boulders in blue beauty, 80 foot viz and big relaxed fish everywhere. Best viz of the day (… and of the weekend.) Sunlight was tempered to indigo while the ceiling was hidden in the cloudy water above us.
I think only Chris and I saw this stunningly clear water as it was pretty far from the boat. I mused aloud how cool it would be to dive a pinnacle, as a sheer wall would offer the shortest path from the boat deck to the deep clear water below 85fsw. I suggested Judith Rock (also a Marine Protected Area which is always my preference), and Capt Davey said "Sure!"
Sat Dive #4: Judith Rock!
55 minutes. 105 fsw max. 50F bottom, 53F top. 32%, 100% deco 8 min ascent from 20fsw.
Finally! Pea soup at top layer faded to good water at 60fsw and Great Water @80 to 120 fsw. Pinnacles have more Hurley burley surge than the serenity deep at Adam's Cove, but the fish were wonderful. Craggy tall central pinnacle with jutting spires, surrounded by rippled sand and a series of low rolling ship sized rocks. So much beauty!! Everyone looked thrilled and happy to see the beauty in calm waters and enough sunlight to enjoy the wide open underwater vistas.
It was time to find calm anchorage for the night, and get ready for off shore pinnacle diving on the often unreachable north side of the island. Our window of calm-after-the-storm was staying open! I enjoyed our Tour of the South and east sides of San Miguel on a golden afternoon with paper-white gulls following the boat. Billowing clouds appeared painted on blue sky. Blue Whales and a humpback whale arced through the water within 100 feet of the Truth, their breath punctuating the cool air. Small beaches were packed with harbor seals. The California Channel Islands are wind-swept beauties and being near them is one of the highlights of California diving.
After dinner it was dream time for me, while several people enjoyed a night dive with hooded nudibranchs waving their fringed satellite-dish heads through the water to catch dinner.
Sunday July 3, 2016
Dive #1. No-Name-Reef, ½ mile north of Wilson Rock
37 minutes. 106 fsw max. 53F bottom, 55F top. 32%, 100% deco 4 min ascent from 20fsw.
At 0550 we motored north-east, past Wilson Rock about 1/2 mile to a fouling area with no name. Whales (blue and humpback) made a beautiful scene but the water was brown-green.
Following the anchor line down to 30fsw it was gloomy and horribly murky. Seeking the edge (by Braille) we found a crevice that seemed to circle on itself but then lead to another crevice with the ink black promise of better water. Motoring downwards we dropped out of clouds into a pure night dive with 40+ feet of visibility (limited only by the distance of my DRIS 1000 lumen flashlight.)
So gorgeous! Big vermillion rock fish and hordes of blue rock fish and big male sheephead fish and big tree fish and acres of party-colored strawberry anemones and sponges (snowy white, gorgeous orange, alarm yellow, funky orange puff ball sponges, gray puff ball sponges, acres of aggregated nipple sponges with dozens of albopunctata nudibranchs: eating, mating, laying eggs. Full-service Rocky Night Club! I kept deco-before-breakfast to 5-min max (105 was the Beauty Zone) and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of 130 cubic feet of gas, a fun scooter, gorgeous life, and a solidly cool buddy. Coasting up slope it all turned back to porridge water. I topped out at a pointy rock at 24 feet beneath the surface in wildly swirling water and kelp, then lifted up to 20fsw and an easy gas switch. I hovered away deco obligation like a raisin in oatmeal. The boat was near when I slipped up through the surface and clambered aboard all smiles.
The shallower water on the pinnacle had been quite ugly, so the hunt was on for underwater beauty that could match the lake-calm surface. Maybe more sheltered pinnacles?
Sunday Dive #2. Captain Davey moved the Truth closer to San Miguel to another Reef With No Name.
51 minutes. 117 fsw max. 52F bottom, 56F top. 32%, 100% deco 8 min ascent from 20fsw.
Top 40 feet of murky was actually a little better and everyone was finning downwards to get to the clear stuff down in the basement. Chris and I swooped over the edge and down the sheer walls into a perfect black “night dive”. No sunlight could pierce the gelatinous blanket at the surface, but our brilliant lights lit up huge walls covered in wild life thicker than 70’s shag carpeting. Deep vertical fissures were jammed with frilly cucumbers, waving barnacles, bouquets of strawberry anemones and big white-spotted red anemones. And everywhere were fish and nudibranchs and sponges galore. We alternated scootering, kicking and hovering along 105-110 foot contour line. I got to do my favorite thing along walls in good viz: zoom straight out and away into the limitless indigo space and then bank hard about and screech to a full stop! There, against stone walls the size of skyscrapers, I can see my tall buddy looking like a miniature toy, shining a teeny spot of color-saturated light against the gray-blue world of cold deep water. Then I rush forward, the huge stone reef appearing to rise and fill my world as I slide and hover, once again soaking my retinas with the surreal colors brought to life with hand-held flashlight. So darn fun and surreal in the extreme.
We returned the way we came, but 15 feet shallower. The Vizocline was dramatic. 90 fsw: Clear. 85fsw: welcome to the golden cloud zone. Rising up to the tree line at 70fsw it all turned to swirling algae, carpets of metridium senile and colonial purple anemones... And The Anchor Line! We bumped into it ;D
Nice ascent in the clouds with some energetic currents that finally let up at 20fsw. I clipped my scooter to my side so both hands were free to switch gas, tested and changed regulators, checked depth and looked up. The anchor line had disappeared in the mist. All good, as current was minimal and I had only 5 minutes to hold this depth. I had settled comfortably into my personal cloud when I heard Chris's scooter whirring in the distance. Deploying my scooter I moved toward the sound and quickly picked out his bright yellow AL40 through the murk. Nice! Back on the anchor line with good company and a fine reverse splash as we bubbled up through the surface to sunshine.
The captain said it best: This place has a “Bitchin’ Factor” that can’t be beat. Isolated, hard to reach, steep and dramatic, hallucinogenic colors of Suess-shaped life on top of life, millions of pinnipeds… and Whales!
Sunday Dive #3: A Reef So nice, Let's do it Twice!
55 minutes. 120fsw max. 52F bottom, 55F top. 32%, 100% deco 9 min ascent from 20fsw.
By the time we off-gassed for 80 minutes and stepped back into the sea, the top 60 feet of water was officially opaque. 3 to 5 feet of viz, but thankfully we knew there was a treasure hidden beneath the blanket. The 51-52F water was still pristine and perfect below 80fsw. This time we turned left to even bigger walls...
Skyscraper walls instead of tall buildings. All the beauty but a bigger scale. Again I flew out and away to look back, getting scale from my now tiny buddy (6'5" + fins) against slate gray walls fuzzed pale by sponge and anemone wallpaper. At our turn-around point I looked outwards at a perfect A-shaped pinnacle (off the main pinnacle) so we leaped across to circle amidst synchronized schools of blue rockfish highlighted with vermilions, kelp bass, and big male sheephead fish. I loved the return path, stepping slowly back up the walls, keeping the 10 minute deco obligation at 10 minutes, balancing on-gassing and off-gassing for max time in the beauty.
Dreadful viz from 50fsw upwards. Braille diving to highest findable stone point at 40fsw, then we released the rock to ascend on instruments to 20fsw for switch to 100% oxygen. Very relaxed 6 minutes soaking in the ocean broth the whales love so much, computer and compass out stretched as my dashboard. I love being comfortable on decompression stops since I really have little patience with it. I kept my light on and Looked hard to find a few gooseberries and siphonophore jellies drifting in the soup. We surfaced 300-400 feet from boat and zoomed back, scooters being the gloriously fun safety gear that they are.
This whole trip made me happy to once again have 130 cubic feet of nitrox on my backplate, plenty of 100% oxygen, a great scooter, and a great buddy. It's always a pleasure diving with Chris.
Written by Claudette Dorsey, California.