Dive Deeper: Catalina Island
July 15, 2017
International Women’s Dive Day
I didn’t sleep at all the night before, too excited, and then it was an early drive. The boat launched at 7am so they wanted us all to get there between 6 and 6:30. While that may not be so difficult if you happen to live in Long Beach the almost 2 hour drive from Apple Valley could have killed me if I hadn’t stopped for gas station coffee or to get out and stretch every once in a while to keep myself awake.
But I made it; I sat in the drivers seat in the parking lot shared by The Westerly diving boat and various other boats and restaurants in that business harbor. I nodded in and out of sleep as the sun rose with the soft sound of the podcast “We Got This with Mark and Hal” playing over the car’s speakers. 6am came and when and seven minutes later I decided to almost drag my body out of the car with my gear: fins, booties, gloves, mask, and snorkel, along with a couple of bags filled with a towel, lots of clothes (just in case), and other thrown together things because you never know what you might need.
I walked across the lot and down the gangway to see that there were already many women on the boat, getting unpacked and organized for the dives ahead. Without my own wetsuit, BCD, respirator, or tank I felt out-of-place; all of these women were obviously much more experienced than I and I needed to find some place to leave the little amount of gear I did bring. Luckily, the boat had extra gear I could use, along with the wetsuit I borrowed from one of the dive shops employees who brought her old suit, which was too big for me, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Like the dolt I am I didn’t bring any flat shoes, because, well I hate them. I wear heels pretty much everyday and they just feel much more comfortable. But I digress, on the moving ship I felt like a weirdo being the only wearing anything more that flip-flops or sneakers, especially heels, so I walked around barefoot. This sucked! To keep people from slipping on the deck the floor was spiky and rough, and walking on it hurt like hell, the smooth, thin lines in between the rough patches were a welcome respite from the pain. But the calm of the sea, the rocking of the waves, the smell of the salt air, and the wind took me out of myself and helped me to ignore the rest.
Over the two and a half hours it took to get to Catalina Island off the coast breakfast was provided, chitchat and bonding was taking place, and friendships seemed to be forming around me. I talked and smiled and attempted to make friendships, but I felt like an outsider, a pretender. Only having an Open Water Cert, what a wimp. I bonded a bit with my diving buddy, a super cool woman who got her masters in physics and has traveled almost everywhere. So awesome. Thirty minutes out the announcement was made to start putting on your wetsuits and gear, while the suit that I had was a 9/10 it still took a lot of effort to get it on, but it was all for naught when the zipper pulley thing broke off as I tried to zip it up. No one could fix it without tools and I had to borrow another wetsuit altogether. This one was a 5/6, much closer to my size and way more difficult to put on, especially quickly. Three male crew members of the crew pulled up the material, sometimes lifting me off the deck, and blowing up the sleeves by my wrists to have the arms move up easier (all done with my permission and my gratitude). And we finally reached the island, and our first diving location.
Around 9:30am we arrived at Bird Rock, a huge rock so completely covered in bird shit that it looked like it had been painted white.
I slipped on the BCD with the resp. and tank, pulled on my gloves, checked my air, and slipped on my fins before taking the forward step into the water. Here the water was pretty clear, but because the water was around 35 feet deep where we had stationed the ship you still couldn’t see the bottom. You could see fish darting around as you swam close to them. The closer and deep you dove, the more life circled before your eyes. Close to the rock was where most of the animals made their homes, between the coral and the kelp, along the rocky bottom. In between the cracks live the sea urchins of all different sizes and spiny lobsters. And seemingly sleeping on the ocean floor we saw a Turbot, partially buried in the sand and a few Horn Sharks. It was a great place to get my bearings since 1) it had been a bit over a year since the last time I dove and 2) I had never been diving in California before.
It was beautiful and simple, we stayed down for as long as possible, the last ones in, and it still didn’t feel like enough time. I slipped off the top portion of the wetsuit and stood at the side of the boat as we headed toward the northern point of the island. Along the journey I pulled out my phone to take pictures and watched as two pelicans flew by, gliding just over the water. I suppose it gave me a happy feeling, and reminded me of Jurassic Park, a lovely memory linked to childlike joy and wonder.
As we pulled into the docking station kelp forests surrounded us. The water seemed so clear near the surface, but that wasn’t the case down near the bottom, which was around 45-50 feet. I was itching to go down, but I failed at sinking, even after adding 4 pounds to my BCD and with my BCD completely deflated. So, instead of dropping straight down my buddy and I (mainly me) had to climb down the anchor chain, which took us to a different location than everyone else.
This turned out wonderfully and even after reaching the bottom and discovered how cold it was, it all turned out well. But, the chill hit my lower face and caused my lips to tighten around the respirator, but that wouldn’t stop me. It did help that I was also wearing a thick hood, keeping my head and ears warm. We swam between the bases of the kelp, along the sand and rock bottom, partly following the small schools of fishes. Looking around, I saw the underwater world as a fog filled mystery bog straight from an old Hollywood horror film. It was too beautiful though, the gentle swaying of the kelp blades, the hovering of the orange, the blue, the brown, and the red fishes, even the white particles floating in front of my face added to the serenity around me.
While weaving in between the stalks I felt a tug on my ankle, a pulling on my fin. I looked back and saw that a string of kelp had wound its way around the hook holding my fin on my foot. With ease I sat in my hovering state and reached back and simply pulled it off and continued on my way. It may be small fries compared to what other dangers that a diver can face, but I still have a bit of pride that no sign of panic came across, I was cool as a freezer fresh pint of ice cream.
The calm was broken when we were circled by a harbor seal (it gave us a wide berth, but still), it was so cute! We attempted to follow it but the seal was much to fast and we quickly lost it in the underwater mist. Soon after we came across something else, something bigger. Out of the mist, at the edge of the forest, swam a Giant Sea Bass. First towards, then away from us. It moved along much more lazily than the seal, so it was much easier to follow. But, even at it’s slower pace it was already too far way and moved too quickly for us to have caught up to it. The monster of a fish had disappeared, leaving nothing but an amazing memory for me.
We had to make our way back into shore, especially because my buddy was reaching uncomfortably cold levels. As we swam back through the kelp the seal we had been circled by before (at least I think it was the same one) came back for another pass by. I tried to get the attention of my buddy, but it was too late and the seal had already disappeared.
We rose back up to the surface soon after, and it wasn’t a moment too soon, as my air was in the red. If we hadn’t gone up then, I quickly would have run out. For the swim back to the boat I used my snorkel and had to maneuver on my belly over and around the floating kelp. Unlike earlier, while near the ocean floor, I didn’t get twisted, the blades just liked to cover my mask so I couldn’t see anything.
After raising the anchor once again, we made our way to the next and final site of the day while eating lunch. Hamburgers and hotdogs were the main course with quesadillas and veggie burgers as vegetarian alternatives. I didn’t eat much, a hot dog and half a burger, both without the buns, and a bit of salad. Even what I had I couldn’t finish, but it did keep me full and energized for the last dive at…
As soon as we arrived at the site and opened the gate I slipped into my gear, and started walking over to the jumping off point, but before a reached it I checked my respirator and air levels (I was so ready that I almost forgot). It was empty. I had to ask one of the crew to fill up the tank for me. Luckily, I didn’t have to take off my gear while he filled it; just sat down on the bench and let him take it from there. My buddy was already in the water and I’m sure was getting impatient so when I was finally set to go we dove down immediately.
Here the visibility was the worst, only 5-15 feet. While following the reef that looped around a rising sand patch near shore I continued along while my buddies stopped while looking at a Moray eel. I didn’t realize this at the time and continued forward. The next thing I knew I was alone. I spun around a couple of times always while attempting to make sure I knew which direction I was facing. I swam back to see if they were still there, but I think I got turned around because the rock formation didn’t look familiar. So I rose back up to the surface.
I popped out further out to sea than them, gesturing that I was ok (the hand on your head) and met up with them closer to the shallower edge of the reef. We went back down and all stayed together on this last dive. Unfortunately, that is what distracted me a bit on the last go around, I felt like I didn’t enjoy it as much because I was constantly thinking that I would lose them again. Eventually (I say “eventually”, but it was maybe 10 minutes) I was able to calm my brain as focus on what I was seeing, until we got separated again and I had to circle a rock to find them again.
During this dive we followed a wall, covered in corals and used as a base for the colorful, little Blue-banded Goby. Much like the first location, every crevice housed urchins, lobsters, horn sharks, and huge blue slugs that were inflated like balloons. And one animal we hadn’t yet seen, an octopus, just hiding in a little den. The only part of it that we saw was a curled up tentacle. The rest was out of sight, while waiting for its prey. (I love octopi; cephalopods are the coolest!)
A short while later we resurfaced and returned to the boat. We all wanted to take a final group picture. Most got out and removed the heavy gear, but one other girl and I kept our gear on, though I wish I hadn’t. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I look terrible in the picture, so bad in fact that I’m not going to post it. You only see my head and the tops of my shoulders but it’s awful. Worse than my passport photo, it makes me want to cry.
The Ride Back
That was all, it was around 3pm and for the last time I slipped out of the BCD, removed the wetsuit and dried myself off. We all got dressed and hung around during the two and a half-hour long journey home. For our last snacks grapes and cheese were put out and brownies were made to celebrate one of the female crew members birthday. While I did have some cheese, I resigned myself away from the brownies and ice cream; instead I stuck with drinking virgin margaritas. I almost fell asleep at the bow before that, with the wind in my face and sitting against the wall, it was just too relaxing.
And when we finally made it back to the harbor, we all went our separate ways with new acquaintances and many more memories of a day well worth the wait.