Nov 8

Lobster Diving at Santa Catalina Island

Category: scuba,Travel

I just returned from a lobster-hunting dive in California.  The trip, set up by seaudivin in Cottonwood, AZ, used the Sand Dollar dive boat in Long Beach, CA.

I like to write about the operation and technicalities of my dives so that others may benefit from my experiences (I love finding things like this when I’m looking into a dive trip).  If you’re just here for the pictures, scroll down!  Note that only about half of the pictures are featured; the remainder are in the gallery at the bottom. Remember, you can click on any image to get a larger version of it.

I found out about this trip the way I find out about all of the best things – by word of mouth.  In this case, a friend in Flagstaff told me about this trip and I decided to check it out.  Seaudivin arranged for very reasonable transportation from Flagstaff to long beach – a van towing a trailer for all of our gear. It was a great bunch of people, and definitely not the cattle boat experience.  We left on a Wednesday AM and didn’t return until Saturday night. So we got to know each other pretty well.

The Sand Dollar is a live-aboard charter, not a daily pick-up operation.    As crew, there were two mates, a cook, and Captain George, for a total of four.  All were divers.  The boat made its own nitrox and compressed air, filling our cylinders directly from hoses on the aft deck – so once we set up our kits, we left them that way for the duration – very nice.  The boat provided weights and steel cylinders with a max pressure of 2400 PSI.  I was told that the increased volume of the cylinders made them roughly equivalent to AL 80s filled to 3000 PSI.

They fed us like pate geese.  The food was good-quality, abundant, American fare, with a bowl of fruit always available as well as plenty of candy and in-between-meal snacks.  Not knowing what I would find, I brought my own snacks, but this was not necessary.

The Sand Dollar is a no-nonsense dive boat.  There are no masseuses or private staterooms.  The crew is very helpful but they do not have a lot of resources; it’s best to bring a box of spare parts and critical dive gear backups.  The accommodations are “racks” fore and aft, which have decent mattresses (single and double, for couples) and about 14 inches of headroom.   I thought the forward ones were the nicest ones.  A curtain can be drawn across the opening of your rack.  Ventilation was at a minimum.  There are no storage lockers; your gear either sleeps with you in your rack or spends its time out on deck.  Privacy is minimal, as you’d expect.  But it was completely adequate and as we were a friendly group, we had no problems.  The galley is spacious and best of all, there are two bathrooms with showers, and since the boat makes its own fresh water, you don’t have to take military showers.

The best thing about the Sand Dollar is the informal style of diving.  Don’t like this location? Ask Capt. George, he’ll move the boat somewhere else.  The aft gate was left open for hours at a time, and there was no schedule.  If you felt like diving, you went, otherwise, you did whatever you wished.  There’s a flat screen with a DVD player in the galley, and always a couple of books and magazines floating around.  The spacious but unadorned fo’csle deck gives you a space to sunbathe without getting in the way of divers (there is also a deck above the main deck where you can sit down and be out of the way).

Last but not least, it was inexpensive.  For three days on the boat, meals and air fills, I paid $500.  Since I use nitrox, I paid a little extra, but it was reasonable.  George clearly knows what he is doing, knows the dive spots like the back of his hand, and operates safely.

As to the diving itself – these tended to be advanced-level dives: deep, cold, and at night.  However, there were plenty of gentler places for the less experienced; we had some new (and young)  divers aboard, and they had a good time.  My dives averaged about 80-110 feet and the water temperature was 55-65 degrees.  Some people used 7mm wetsuits, but that is no fun at all; I used a dry suit and thick fleece.  I was comfortable in 2mm wet gloves and a 7mm wet hood.  I used air or 28-32% EAN.  Visibility was about 30 feet.  There were sea lions swimming around, although they didn’t interact with us, and tons of life in the water column and on the bottom.  The kelp is amazing; swimming in kelp forests is magical.  Crawling through it on a long surface swim is not; try to plan your return to the boat under the surface.  Even if you surface far from the boat, it’s easier to swim at a depth of 5-10 feet than to fight through the kelp.  Be prepared to get a little entangled now and then, but it’s not a big deal.

img_1779

The boat approaches Santa Catalina island.  We hung around this one island for the entire trip, sampling different locations.

img_1778

A rock pinnacle provides a good roost for cormorants above and a reef for sea life below.

img_1785

The anchor chain stretches through the kelp and into the depths.  Sometimes there was only 17 feet of water under the boat, sometimes, more than 100.  The presence of surface kelp is an indicator of shallower areas. Although the kelp can anchor deep and grow very long, it never seemed to reach the surface unless it was in 40 feet or less.

img_1820

Dropping into the kelp, we are surrounded by fish…

img_1825

…lots of fish…

img_1811

…rivers of animals!

img_1834

The sun silhouettes the bull kelp, creating an entrancing grove.  I could imagine lying on my back and simply watching it sway while the beams of light penetrated the smoky water, caressing the many fish with their beams. On the kelp, small invertebrates make their humble living.

img_1885

img_1855img_1857

The astonishing opalescent nudibranch (a type of sea slug), seen only at night. This animal eats hydroids (relatives of jellyfish that are found on surfaces under water) and harvests their stinging cells for its own protection, storing them on its feathery tentacles (known as cerata).

img_1846

An anemone.

img_1850

Starfish.

img_1863

This is not the eye of Sauron.  It’s a retracted anemone. If you don’t know anemones, you might not realize that when disturbed, exposed to air, or after eating, they can collapse into themselves like this.

img_1867

My dive buddy Jeff.

img_1882

A swell shark. These placid and fairly harmless sharks can inflate like puffer fish, and don’t bother you if you don’t bother them. This guy is only about 18 inches long.

img_1907

Colorful Bluebanded “Catalina” Gobies find protection within the spines of a sea urchin. I love the neon blue-violet of the inner end of the urchin’s spines.

img_1913

The Garibaldi fish, the protected state fish and iconic of California waters.

img_1919

A small pacific octopus.  When I found it, it was attacking a lobster, but I disturbed it and it instantly changed color from a grayish-pink to a more camoflauged green-brown, turned into a lump and sank to the bottom in an effort to be invisible.  The lobster showed the spirit typical of its species and rather than running away, stood its ground aggressively, as if to say “yeah, who’s yer daddy!  Want some more of this?”

img_1930

The intricately complex mantle of an abalone.

img_1933

As a stiff current carries us away from the boat, Jeff and I prepare to dive.

img_1937

A cabezon waits patiently on the bottom.  I found this guy inside of a rock-fall “cave.”

img_1921

A spiny – and delicious – pacific spiny lobster.  Unlike the Atlantic variety, these guys have no primary claws, although they have so many pointed spikes that they can still injure you.  They have an attitude and know how to move fast when the need to get away. During the day they hide deep in rock crevices where they are impossible to reach.  At night, they come out and traverse the sandy bottom looking for food; this is when they are vulnerable, so a lobster hunter probably has to do some deep night diving to get them.  It was also the end of lobster season, so the easier ones had all been picked off.

img_1900

Sunset off of Santa Catalina Island.

5 comments

5 Comments so far

  1. talkingtostones November 12th, 2010 12:00 PM

    Gorgeous pictures, Dan! Especially the opalescent nudibranch. I enjoyed the informative comments as well, and I’m so envious of your trip. Sounds fantastic! What I really want to know, though, is what equipment you used underwater to take the photos, and, since it was night and dark way down all the time anyway, what did you use for light and no blur?

  2. Dan Greenspan November 12th, 2010 1:08 PM

    Thanks! The camera I used for this trip is a simple and inexpensive Canon point & shoot in a waterproof housing. I override all of the settings to get what I want: ISO set as low as possible for best image quality, flash forced on or off as the situation dictates (because cameras don’t make good flash decisions underwater), manual focus where possible, spot metering, exposure compensation (usually -1) and sometimes manual aperture. So the light comes from a flash in most cases, and in others, I made myself negatively buoyant so that I sank to the bottom, held on to a rock, wedged the camera against something, held my breath and took the image. you can also get a decent image in some cases if you have really good buoyancy control and there’s no current, or by temporarily increasing the ISO for more sensitivity and faster shutter speeds – all kinds of tricks you learn after a while.

    Anyone with about $350 can get a setup like the one I used here. I sometimes use an external strobe, which is a lot more expensive, but I didn’t bring it on this trip. External strobes are useless when you know you’re going to be diving in water with lots of particulates. They’re better for clear warm water.

  3. Randy November 19th, 2010 2:46 PM

    Hey Dan,
    Great blog and info. I will share this with all our dive buddies.
    Enjoyed having you on the trip with us and you are welcome any time. I have next years bug bonanza already setup and hope you can join us again! We have a cople of things going this spring to San Carlos,Mex and hopefully some whale sharks. Keep in touch
    Happy Bubbles Randy

  4. Kimberley Lowe December 23rd, 2010 5:10 AM

    Dear Dan,

    I am extremely interested in using 1 or 2 of your opalescent nudibranch images (1857 and 1855 to be precise) for the upcoming issue of Beyond Blue if possible? My deadline date is 1st Jan, so if you could please let me know if it will be ok before then that would be great – we cannot offer renumeration, but will absolutely credit your work as required, and advertise your blog if you wish?

    I hope to hear from you soon!

    Warmest Regards

    Kimberley Lowe

    Production Manager – Beyond Blue Magazine

  5. Vic Warren November 1st, 2013 12:12 PM

    I’ve written a novel called “Saffron” that deals with the discovery of a race of underwater humans off the California coast. I’m planning on publishing it as an ebook, and I’m interested in a couple of your photos for the cover. Since I’m self-publishing it, I don’t expect a lot of sales right away. I’m curious what you might charge for using one.

    Thanks, Vic Warren
    P.S. There’s an excerpt from the book on my website.

Leave a comment