Sep 302011

hovering sea lion

A sea lion comes in for a closer look

I was SCUBA diving in the bracing waters off of Anacapa in the Channel Islands, receiving a stern lecture via vigorous pantomime.  Words aren’t an option when both parties are submerged 30 feet underwater.  It was clear to me, despite our lack of words, that my diving buddy was not happy with my slack attention to protocol.  I had been straying too far, distracted by glimpses of acrobatic sea lions and the ever-present need to fiddle with my camera.  In the twilight cast by the long, tangled forest of giant kelp, it was important to keep track of each other, and I wasn’t keeping up my end of the bargain.

Descending into the depths, with Santa Cruz Island in the background

I sighed through my bubbles and nodded my head.  I needed to do better.

Meanwhile my buddy froze in mid-gesture and pointed to something behind me.  When I spun around I was looking into the large, round eyes of a baby harbor seal that had been spying at us from behind a nearby rock.  I was too startled to move, and we both stared at each other for a few heartbeats before the baby seal slipped back into the protection of the kelp.

The waving treetops of the tangled giant kelp forest 

If  sea lions are the goofy kids of the underwater world, always wanting to horse around and show off, harbor seals are the serious and aloof adults, who are normally too busy going about their seal-business to stop and play with a bunch of clumsy divers.  In past dives, I had only caught fleeting glimpses of their torpedoed shapes gliding into the distance.  But somehow, on this dive, it was different.  We had stumbled into their secret world.  And this was our third sighting of what was for me, a usually elusive creature.


Giant kelp off Anacapa’s shores

The magic had started as soon as we descended to the pebbly floor of the ocean.  I suppose we struck off in a different direction than everyone else, because we didn’t see any of the other 30-some divers or even their bubbles.  It’s like the rest of the crowd just melted away.  And right off the bat, we spotted a ray, sweeping towards and around us in a casual, slow arc.

Our dive boat, the Spectre, waits patiently in the distance

I suppose that’s also when I realized that my camera battery was surprisingly low.  I had been planning on experimenting with my strobes, and now I realized I was almost out of juice.  Meanwhile, we pushed further into the enchanting kelp forest.  It was a fairytale of waving kelp and mysterious creatures.  We saw a huge, lumbering sheep crab, large schools of Opal Eye fish, and ancient lobsters hiding in crevices among the rock outcroppings.  We swam through small, almost invisible clouds of biting jellies, and encountered kelp so thick that I had to let my eyes adjust before I could see my way through it.  Among one of those groves, we stumbled on a seal tryst–perhaps amorous, or maybe a scuffle among rivals.  Whatever the case, they seemed startled, as if they hadn’t expected us to be wandering in their neighborhood.  And later, we realized that a baby and its mother were curiously following us, and peeking shyly at us from their hiding spots.

The enchanted kelp forest  

As we emerged from one grove of kelp, we even spotted two enormous, endangered giant sea bass, cruising into the blue.   It was truly one of the most magical dives I had ever experienced.  And strangely–perhaps ironically–my camera was all but useless during most of the dive.  One of my last shots before my battery died was an attempt to capture one of the harbor seals that were hovering at such close range.  But because I barely had any battery power left, I wasn’t even able to adjust the settings on my camera.  I just tried (and mostly failed) to click the shutter a few times before it died.

In a way, it’s fitting that on this dive I was forced to stop documenting and start experiencing.  Still, I needed at least one picture of that baby seal.  If only to believe that it hadn’t just been a dream.

One of the few shots I managed to salvage from our seal encounter

 If you go:

Anacapa is known for its pristine underwater environment, good visibility and its relatively close proximity to the mainland.  Only 14 miles from Ventura, Anacapa is an accessible day trip via the fast but small Raptor, or slower but larger Peace and Spectre dive boats.  All departures leave out of Ventura harbor.

We took the Spectre Dive Boat, which was a pleasantly large vessel equipped with bunks (arrive early!) that provide handy and comfy sleeping spots for the homeward journey.  It’s also nice to be able to stow dry clothes and supplies down in the bunk room during the trip.  Stowage above board, by the tanks, is nicely configured, and a somewhat crowded hot tub on deck is a welcome amenity between cold dives.  Food is plentiful, with the BBQ chicken being the best of the bunch.  I recommend bringing a water bottle to stay hydrated, since the water cups are too small to be useful.  All in all, it was a comfortable journey, with my only concern being the gigantic–and I mean gigantic–giant stride into the water.  It felt a little bit like cliff diving.  This also meant that divers have a pretty hairy climb back up to the deck after the dive.  If you’re timid about boarding a rolling boat in rough water with a ton of weight on your back while gripping a slippery ladder, this boat might not be the easiest bet for you.

Return to the mothership

For a full list of upcoming scuba charter trips, location descriptions and boat reviews, check out the California Diving News website.  You can also compare boat statistics and follow links to the individual dive boat websites on the California Dive Boats website.

The Spectre and the deep blue sea

  5 Responses to “The one that got away: Diving with sea lions and seals of Anacapa”

  1. I know your camera battery was dying but the shots you did manage to get are awesome!

  2. Love that last shot of the boat-as-kelp iceberg. Is the compass thingie circling underneath part of the camera?

    • Thanks! That is indeed a reflection of the camera lens on the inside of the port dome. On the bottom right portion of the circle, you can just make out the faint reflection of “Olympus” . . . : )

  3. Love these adventures! You’ve got me all inspired to get back in the routine of making adventures happen. The poppies on a previous post were beautiful! And some of these underwater shots are incredible. Hope you keep on blogging!

    • Thanks! Happy that my blog got you fired up for more adventures! I’m taking a little break because of a new baby – it’s hard to hold a camera and my little one at the same time. :)

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