Tech Diving Catalina Island and the California Oil Rigs
Southern California Tech Diving with Ocean Research Group
This past weekend, I attended my first Ocean Research Group technical dive trip on the Sand Dollar out to Catalina Island, California. As a fledgling SoCal tech diver, it was pretty cool to do some "big kid" deep dives under the guidance of experienced divers and instructors. I'm also embarrassed to admit that despite having had it for several months now, this was still one of the first in a handful of times I've taken the new camera rig out in our cold California water.
Deep Lobster Diving at Catalina
We motored out to Catalina late Friday night--I love, love, love sleeping on boats--and woke up Saturday morning at the island. After a gluttonous breakfast (I'm never so well-fed as I am on the Sand Dollar), we were briefed on the first dive site. It had a highly descriptive name that I can't quite recall at the moment--something along the lines of "Rock Pile #35." Max depth was 165'ish. Our mission, if we chose to accept it, was catching California spiny lobster.
After last year's pathetic attempt at fishing--all I caught all year were some scallops, which can't actually get away and so don't pose much of a challenge--I didn't renew my fishing license this year. So I took my doubles and my camera and moseyed around while everyone else chased lobsters. I'm not sure whether it was the more remote location, the lack of commercial lobster trapping in the area, or the depth, but these lobsters, in stark contrast to the ones in coastal San Diego, seemed to want to be caught. It was almost too easy. Even I could probably have caught some. I watched with delight as my husband and #1 dive buddy approached his legal catch limit, alternately helping to spot the big ones and wandering off to shoot photos of the resident rock pile critters.
Our next dive site had similar topography, but was a bit shallower at 147'. On both dives, calm conditions prevailed, with just enough current to witness lots of salps and jellyfish cruising by on my 20-ish minute decompression obligations. Sea lions also enjoyed dive-bombing us during our deco hang. I find deco isn't tedious at all when I'm warm enough and there's something to see. These two dives went down flawlessly and were real confidence-boosters for me.
Long Point, Catalina
That afternoon, ocean conditions started to deteriorate and we headed to Long Point to find sheltered anchorage for the night. We jumped in for a recreational dive at twilight and I was floored (pun intended) to find a silty, mucky bottom composition at 100' or so. I didn't realize Catalina had muck diving, and there's no diving I love more than muck diving. This is why (and I know I'm in the minority here) I'm such a fangirl for La Jolla Shores, despite the relative effort of shore diving and the sandy mess it makes of my gear. So we dropped in, and the vis was terrible, with silt swirling everywhere, and we soon found the root of the problem: angel sharks! I suppose I'll allow it if the residents want to stir up the bottom, especially if they're angel sharks. We also saw some octopus and squid, along with some squid eggs (but in a density that was sadly nowhere near that of the squid run of 2011). The sporadic bull kelp was also swarming with Janolus nudibranchs (see the slug butt below... whoops). Of course, with all this macro life, I had my widest fisheye lens on my camera. After the dive, I had the best of intentions to swap to a macro lens and get back in, but fatigue got the better of me and after watching half a movie in the galley with the rest of the divers, I retired to my bunk and passed out, instead.
Diving the Infidel wreck, Catalina Island
Sunday morning, we left the protection of the leeward side of the island and headed toward open ocean. The east end of Catalina Island was predictably choppy and we were getting rocked quite a bit as we geared up to dive the Infidel wreck.
Infidel was a squid purse seiner that went down in 2006. The story goes that she was at capacity with squid when the greedy crew elected to haul up one more net full. When the heavy net was lifted, the vessel overturned, and she sank right to the bottom in 150' of water. The crew swam safely to shore, the insurance company paid out, and the hazmat was removed from the wreck. However, the giant nylon net was left draped over the boat, as was the full load of squid. When the promise of a free lunch proved irresistible, sea lions, sharks, and other ocean critters became trapped in the net and died. The netting blanketing the vessel, along with the skeletons of unlucky sea life entangled within, gives the wreck a very spooky feel.
Decompression on this wreck was not nearly so pleasant as Saturday's, as the ocean was rougher and the currents stronger. We did, however, spot dolphins some 20 feet away (just out of photo distance) while hovering off the anchor chain, a great reward for executing a challenging dive.
Diving the Ellen-Elly Oil Rigs, California
A bit south of Los Angeles, roughly halfway between Catalina and the mainland, are the tandem offshore oil drilling platforms Ellen and Elly. I've dove them before, about a year ago, and was thrilled that we were going to dive them on our way back to San Pedro. Ellen and Elly are unusual in that they are two platforms connected by a bridge; Ellen functions as a drilling platform, and Elly houses the equipment for generating power for the rigs and for separating the oil, natural gas, and water. Ellen and Elly are some of the shallower rigs in "only" 260' of water. We dove only Elly this time around.
Despite six-foot swells and some nasty washing-machine surge in the shallows, I managed a fun 140-foot dive, spending my deco swirling in the washing machine (whee!) with the sea lions. I love sea lions and could have spent hours with them, but it was time to go.
Captain George and deckhand Kendal made short work of what could have been a challenging live-boat pickup in the high swell, hauling us and our heavy gear on board with apparent ease. And as the sun set, we motored back into San Pedro Harbor, wrapping up a fun Southern California tech diving weekend. I had a great time and look forward to doing it again.