For the past 2 years we have made a trip out to California from Albuquerque to dive the beautiful Channel Islands. Flying from ABQ to LAX takes two hours. However the having to arrive 2 hours before the flight, the parking lot hassles, stand in line for security searches, waiting for luggage and taking shuttle just to rent a car (which also takes a great deal of time) makes the trip a 6-7 hour affair. After contemplating our options, this year we decided to try driving instead of flying this year. Yes, a 12-hour drive time might end up being a lot less stress and a lot cheaper to boot.
Our previous trips had been to Ventura for dives in the Northern Channel Islands area (using the Spectre and Peace boats both trips). This trip we wanted to explore the southern areas so after some research we settled on a 2-day trip out of Long Beach. The Great Escape boat had a weekend trip scheduled for Aug 11-12th to San Clemente and Farnsworth which seemed to fit the bill. After clearing our work schedules and exchanging many e-mails and phone calls we booked with Capt Tim.
Driving from Albuquerque to LA really couldn’t be much easier. The first 10 hours of the drive is a direct shot on I-40 to Barstow, CA then down I-15 into the “valley of cars” known as Los Angeles. Personally, I find LA to be nothing but bumper-to-bumper traffic and it looks like every person in southern California is on the road at the same time. Enough ranting about why I don’t like LA, at least our trip does not keep us there for long.
We left our house at 5:40am and arrived in downtown Long Beach around 4pm but drove around enjoying the festive atmosphere of this beach-town. Long Beach is also home to one of the world’s largest ports with cargo ships, thousands of containers, and enormous cranes everywhere. It is definitely a city of contrasts with one part of the town focused on tourism (the beach, hotels, restaurants, and Aquarium of the Pacific), while the rest of the town is a working port of ships and steel structures.
The Great Escape is docked at Pier C along with several other dive boats and fishing boats. After a quick dinner and stroll around the touristy area, we loaded all our gear onto the boat and filled out the required paperwork. Our C-cards were checked and after a few hours socializing in the galley we turned in for the night to our stateroom. A note here – couples get a stateroom if you can! We were able to use the top bunk (a double) to sleep in and the bottom bunk (a single) to store our camera bags, clothing bags, personal items, etc. Because the staterooms have a door, we were able to change clothes comfortably there instead of using the bathrooms like many of the others onboard. The bunks looked fine for singles and we could have slept there if needed but thankfully we booked early enough to get a stateroom.
Late arriving guests kept us awake until well into the night and we heard even the crew was annoyed by all the noise during the evening. The boat left just after midnight, but not for San Clemente as planned. The Navy had closed it for the weekend so we diverted to Santa Barbara which was just fine to us as we hadn't done any of the southern islands.
Ron and I both awoke at 5am and headed up to the main deck for the restrooms before the rush. Dawn was just breaking and though I had never been here, I knew the island next to us wasn't San Clemente. We quickly dressed and headed for the coffee pot and chat with the kitchen crew. Divers began to appear slowly and before long the captain announced the change of itinerary and asked for everyone to head up to the galley for a briefing.
Dive 1 - Little Arches.
Ron and I quickly geared up for the first dive. We had set up our gear the night before so basically all we had to do was dress in our wetsuits. The first 8-10 divers hopped in and immediately it became obvious that there was a bit of current. I jumped in and headed for the anchor line to descend but I wasn't going anywhere. I fought the current on my stomach, no luck. I rolled over on my back and kicked away, but I wasn't moving. I turned to Ron who was now in the water and next to me. Since I had added a few lbs. the past year I added a few extra lbs to my weight belt and now I was regretting it. My wetsuit felt tight at the neck also and the harder I kicked against the current the more I was uncomfortable. Okay, now I was pooped and hadn't gotten below the water! I turned to Ron and said "no go" and after a minute of explaination, we headed for the ladder at the back of the boat. We got back on the boat and Capt Tim came down on deck and said to close the gate, no more divers in the water. As we both finished removing our gear, we realized that the first group of divers were now coming up and having trouble getting back to the boat. Two got back on right after us, but the rest all ended up grabbing the tag line or another line which had to be taken out to them by a DM. The crew including Capt Tim had to pull in one group of 4 divers which was quite a sight! All the divers said that the current was fine when they got in but picked up dramatically after a few minutes. Hearing that made me feel better about calling the dive. We all headed into the galley for a big breakfast of waffles and fruit. Yum.
Dive 2 - Three Sisters
After much discussion/arguing I decided to leave the video rig onboard for this dive and as soon as I hit the water I regretted it. Sea lions met us in mid-water! There were also 2 batrays within the first 2 minutes of the dive. Rats! The dive was fantastic with the sea lions coming right up and dancing around us. Vis was at least 60-80' and the only issue was from the sea lions kicking up the sandy bottom as they played. After the previous attempted dive it was fun to just swim around and play with the sea lions though. They just crack me up. All too soon the dive was over, 31' max, 45 minutes.
Dive 3 - Arch PointCapt Tim checked out a kelp site first but there was too much current so he opted for Arch Point. Yeah, more sea lions greeted the boat. There was no way I was missing this dive with the video rig. We dropped in and immediately a sea lion came over to play with us. The bottom here was much sandier with rock outcroppings closer to shore covered with sea urchins. It didn't look like that great of a dive site --- at first. We played with the sea lions a bit then headed over to the rocks and Ron immediately spots an octopus out in the open. He signals me and I expect him to dart into a hole like every other octo I have encountered. But NO! This dude was fearless and just walked around. We followed him for several minutes shooting photos and video. Another sea lion came down so we left our 8-armed pal for a few minutes but when I looked back over, he was still sitting out on a rock. I cruised back over to him and began filming again. Crazy little guy actually jumped up on a rock and gave me the eye! I thought for a second that he might be planning an attack so I backed up. Wow, what an incredible encounter! Once again, the dive was over way too soon. 30' max, 45 minutes.
Lunch was served - meatloaf, garlic mashed potatoes, salad, rolls. Over lunch we hear that several Giant Black Sea Bass had been seen at the last site. Dang it! Just like last year, it seems everyone saw them but us. After stuffing ourselves on this hearty lunch, we geared up again as the boat went back to check the kelp site.
Dive 4 - SE Kelp forest
Wow! The current had settled down so we were all thrilled to jump in here. As soon as we hit the water another bat ray swam by. I had the video rig in my hand but hadn't even turned it on yet. Duh! It was a bit surgy but the swaying kelp was still a joy to see. I love kelp! I stopped to shoot some video of the kelp and discovered 2 gorgeous baby garibaldi covered in blue spots. I had never seen the juvies before and I was amazed and how bright the colors were. Large schools of Senoritas and Blacksmiths circled around in the kelp. Lovely dive! About halfway through the dive Ron signals me that he has a problem. His dive computer is tangled up in his BC. He hands me his camera and we float there in a large gulley area while he untangles all the hoses and of course it happens......... a large Black Sea Bass swims right up to us and around. I have a camera in one hand, a camcorder in the other, and I can't get a picture! AARRRGGGGGHHH! I slam the camera back into Ron's hand and turn around quite irate to notice another one right next to us. Of course, my camcorder hasn't been filming for +3 minutes so it is now in "standby". ARRRGGGHHH! I quickly turn it off and back on just in time to catch the fishes tail going over the edge of the gulley. ARRRGGGG! Well, at least we finally got to see our first Black Sea Bass. 49' max, 42 minutes.
Ron and I both got chilly on that dive at the end. There seemed to be a definite temp change in the water in the kelp. The first two dives registered 66-68 degrees on my computer. The kelp area dropped several degrees. After some yummy cookies, we both decided to skip the next dive to warm up a bit. I have always found that once I get cold it takes me awhile to warm back up. It was very windy also which didn't help in warming between dives.
Dive 5 - Travis' Secret Cave
(We skipped this dive)
Dinner was chicken and ribs cooked on the grill by Capt Tim. Everyone was starving by this time and many hit their bunks for naps after eating.
Dive 6 - Night dive at same site
After finally getting warm, we decided not to do the night dive. Ron helped on deck with everyone getting in and out of water. Only about half the divers went in but all reported seeing lobster and crabs and that it was a nice dive. We crashed early and the boat left for Farnsworth overnight. Some people say they can't sleep on a boat - not me.
Dive 7 - Farnsworth Bank
Having heard all the stories of this dive site - deep, dark, advanced, current,... I decided to leave the video rig onboard again. After a briefing explaining the site and the fact that we should not leave sight of the anchor as it is very deep and dangerous and easy to get lost. The sun was barely up when we hit the water. Most of the boat seemed to be sleeping in this am, either that or they heard the same stories I had! We jumped into the water and headed down the chain. The boat was bobbing up and down quite a bit so we found it was better to just swim down next to it. It was pitch black for a long way then all of a sudden BAM color! Farnsworth is a group of pinnacles and the area of it we were diving began at around 80', going deeper. Every inch of the pinnacle was covered with brightly colored purple hydrocoral, pink and red anemones, tons of fish big and small, and every color of the rainbow! Wow Wow Wow! Now I wished I had my video rig again. Luckily, Ron had his still camera. I took my dive light and spotted for him but I really didn't need to as everything was picture perfect. There was no area of the dive site that wouldn't make a great photo! Treefish of every size rested on the colorful anemones and a huge Scorpionfish sat and posed for Ron.
After 3-4 flashes of the strobe the Scorpionfish opened his mouth wide and yawned/growled at him. Yikes! I've seen Frogfish do that but now a Scorpionfish. I think he was P.O.ed. As our depth was 80-90' for the dive, we weren't able to stay very long and started to make our ascent back to the boat. There was a bit of current up in the water column so as we reached 15' depth we left the anchor line and headed for the back of the boat thinking it would take the full safety stop time to reach the ladder. All too soon the dive was over. Max depth 94', 23 minutes... we gotta do this site a few dozen more times to really get to see this spectacular site. We barely touched it!
Breakfast was served as we arrived back onboard and after a roll-call the captain started moving the boat over to Catalina. A nice long surface interval was called for!
I am not a spring chicken anymore and I learned on this trip that sometimes I can over-extend myself. I try to workout regularly and walking is my favorite exercise which I think is a great activity for divers. But, that being said, I did have a problem this trip. When jumping into the water at Farnsworth I made a boo-boo. I did a giant stride in, but didn't pull my legs back together before impact like I have always done when jumping in from heights such as the Calif dive boats. I felt my right leg smack the water hard and a sharp pull in my hamstring. I let out a scream that scared the DM on deck. Oops sorry. I'm okay I signaled but all I could think is "oh, f&*#$% I just ripped a muscle!" I did the dive at Farnsworth, yes, without any real pain but knowing that it wasn't right. On getting back up the ladder I could tell I had injured myself. Crap! Now I had to decide if I was skipping any dives or if it would be okay. Uggghhh.
Dive 8 - Johnson's Rock
After discussing/arguing again with my buddy, I decided to sit out a dive and see how my leg felt after a couple of hours. Ron buddied with Eric and Ray, two divers we had been hanging out with as they are a photographer/videograher team too. No problem, Ron was on his way and I sat in the galley and chatted with Capt Tim and crew. The kelp was thick and full of fish. All the divers who had skipped Farnsworth did this dive. 45' max, 56 minutes.
Dive 9 - Black Rock
This dive site was another great kelp forest as we could see from the surface. I couldn't wait to get back in the water and test my injury out. It actually felt better being in the heavy wetsuit and I figured the cold water would feel good too. I carefully jumped back into the water and immediately saw the most gorgeous kelp forest I have ever seen. Wow! The kelp stalks were intertwined and some were almost a foot thick. What's that I hear? Angels singing: LAAAAAAAAA (sorry, inside joke) Anyhow, the kelp forest was just what I wanted to see and I couldn't wait to swim around in it. There were some large rocks interspersed in the kelp and all were covered with Blue-banded Gobies, I mean dozens and dozens of them. I found one Spanish Shawl but that was the only nudie I found all weekend. I also found a few large Kelpfish but they wouldn't be still long enough to get any video. Garibaldi's were everywhere. The kelp was so thick that a few times I lost my dive buddy in it. A few quacks with my signaling device and we located each other again. Wow, that is some THICK kelp! It was a fantastic last dive of the trip and I didn't want it to end. 45' max depth, 41 minutes.
A late lunch of Korean BBQ and rice was served when everyone was back onboard. After eating the boat started the 2+ hour return to Long Beach as everyone packed up their gear or napped. Desert of ice cream and brownies really hit the spot, too. We arrived back at the dock around 4:30pm.
After a stop for food, gas, and a night at a hotel in Barstow, CA, we returned home to ABQ by mid-afternoon on Monday.
Notes: Next time we will rent tanks there. We brought along Alum 80s from our LDS but since the boat can only fill to 2800, our dive times were less than we would have liked. Many of the divers had higher capacity tanks and we were jealous! Next time I would also like to do a 3-day trip instead of 2-day. I really would have liked to have done more dives. My own stupidity caused the muscle pull,made me skip one dive, and gave me too much anxiety on the two dives I did after. Next time I need to think before jumping in.
BIG special thanks to Captain Tim and the crew of the Great Escape www.diveboat.com
Great crew, great fun, great food, Fantastic diving! We will definitely be back!