Sunday, October 23, 2011

Doin' Time in the Channel Islands

Blue Element Scuba led a trip to the Channel Islands aboard the Truth, the first vessel in the liveaboard fleet of Truth Aquatics. Her sister ships Conception and Vision are larger, but the ships are all very similar in fit and offerings. We ran a limited load with 12 divers doing a 3 day trip to the north islands.

Great dives, great people, great time. Weather was grey most of the time, and foggy on the last day, but conditions were dry up top so who can complain?

We enjoyed great service and hospitality from Captain Davey Woodland and crew: 2nd Captain Peter, crewman Brandon, and galley chefs Larissa and Windy. All were fun, friendly, and helpful in whatever way we needed.

We dove a variety of sites over the three days, finding places to please spearfisherman, bug (lobster) hunters, and those taking scallops as well as those just there for the underwater beauty. From flats to great structure, kelp to clear waters, calm coves to ripping currents, we found a little bit of everything.

This was my second visit to the Channel Islands, and this trip bore out some wishes I'd held for a long time, as well as unexpected highlights:
  • An amazing set of underwater interactions with a very friendly California sealion, assumedly female. (See some great photos from sealions in the area a friend took a few years ago. Alas, I didn't get any of ours.) She visited our small group of divers half a dozen times, coming face to face with us, peering curiously at us and with us, and displaying her amazing underwater abilities to our great pleasure. In addition to this, we had many drive-bys on multiple other sea lions on other dives. Laurie and Debbie called her a diva, and that's just what she was. 
  • A peek into the Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island. Captain Davey slid the Truth into the large mouth, way back into the narrowing cave as far as he could. It was an amazing feat of boating (then again so was parking back at dock into a space that was just inches bigger than the vessel itself). We slid by craggy rock walls, past a plateau that held a family of sea lions, saw the colorful pillars deeper within the cave, and peered down into crystal clear water under the boat. 
  • After a first night's dive after dark, they left the squid light installed on the side of the boat. Debbie woke me just before midnight to ask if I wanted to see a show. The light draws an amazingly large school of small fish (like sardines), which in turn drew sea lions. As we watched the number of these puppy like creatures grow from a dozen to more than 40, they rolled, spun and played like children as they snacked on an easy meal. You could almost reach over the side of the boat and touch them. 
  • And then the dolphins came. First we saw just four fins off the starboard side of the bow, staying a distance away from the boat, then there were six, then eight, then... by the time I went to bed around 2am, there were about two dozen dolphins, and they were regularly coming very close to the boat. My fellow divers had called off for bed around 12:30am, but I couldn't leave. Having burned out my Sola light, I switched to my backup and went to the top deck of the boat. Facing the starboard side, where I could see sea lions and dolphins (which stayed at the bow and on the starboard side). So tired, I eventually laid my light on the rail, and my head on top of the light... when I found myself dozing off to sleep I realized it was time for bed. I couldn't make the task any easier than it was, and if I couldn't hack that, it was time to say goodnight. Going below to my bunk on the starboard side of the boat, I heard the unmistakable sounds of the dolphins communicating just outside the boat. I pressed my ear to the wall, and fell asleep listening to them as they talked. There was one specific call that came repeatedly, and at specific times, almost as if it was the coordination of the activity where the group would break, circle the fish, then dart through the ball.
It looks like an alien. But it's actually a salp. 
Along the way I found the coolest thing underwater -- a salp, which is an amazing prehistoric looking beast that you assume will be jelly-like, but is actually like frail but hard plastic -- like a child's empty plastic Easter egg. Inside you can see what appears to be a delicate skeletal system. While such amazingly strange things would repel me on land, for some reason underwater I barely think twice about reaching out to pick it up, and then I kicked-ass over to Justin because my camera had fogged; the only photo I have of it is poor at best. It was about 5-6 inches long, 1-2 inches wide at the largest and had odd looking curved "horns" coming from its head. Later I learned the colonizing jellyfish I saw as we descended off the bow that morning were not jellies, but another form of these planktonic tunicates. Check out Wikipedia for more.  

At one point we also found some strange bones, but have no idea what creature they were from.

The trip was worth the drive down, made all the easier by the van and driving provided by Travis and Laurie. We ended the trip with a dinner overlooking the marina in Santa Barbara as we recounted some of our adventures before hitting the road again for the 16 hour drive home. Well worth it. Already scheduling next year's trip. Come join us! 

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