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Bugs and Beauty: Why we Dive the Channel Islands

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Lobster Feast in the Channel Islands

By John Tapley

Nestled in southwestern California, and straddling the Pacific Ocean, the Channel Islands is one of the United States’ most beloved, beautiful diving destinations. From San Miguel to the northwest, to San Clemente in the southeast, the island chain is renowned for its stunning displays of underwater life, made possible through lush kelp beds and unique geological playgrounds; combine these features with a strong natural bottom, and the result is a resplendent submerged menagerie filled with stellar attractions that urge scuba divers to return again and again. On its own, the Channel Islands makes for a superb addition to any recreational diver’s logbook, though each island (including individual recesses and swimthroughs) has its own distinct flavor worthy of another page; and when you get spectacular spiny lobster hunting, the attraction is manifold.

Scuba divers the world over have lauded the Channel Islands for many decades – even since scuba diving came into the fore during the 1960s – and its prominence as a dive destination has not waned. Scuba diving center Underwater Sports in Tacoma, Washington, has explored the stark beauty and excitement of this area for 20 years, and has enjoyed introducing divers to a place unlike any other. While the center conducts these trips three or four times per year, the most popular time to go is from October to March when succulent spiny lobsters are legal to catch: up to seven per day per individual; while licensed boats can carry up to three days’ worth.

Underwater Sports Tacoma manager Mike Adams, who has been hunting as long as he’s been diving (for over 20 years) has lead these trips. From the onset, he appreciates the Channel Islands for their plethora of features, which are accessible to a wide variety of people.

“The diving in southern California is stunningly beautiful: the fish and variety of colors; good visibility; beautiful kelp forests,” he explains. “And I see a lot of kids getting into it, and their parents and grandparents who are still doing it; teenagers and older people will be out in 40 to 50 feet of water. The nice thing about California is the water temperature, especially during the summer. [It’s] not as cold as [Washington], so you see a lot of people diving.”

Diving on its own can be a challenging feat, and combining hunting requires a high degree of skill and patience. Adams elaborates on these challenges and how he meets them:

“It isn’t easy. It’s difficult. Once and a while you’ll run into an area called the glory hole (there’s a bunch of them in the area that are easy to get out of there), but it’s usually a lot of work: they’re way back in the hole, and just because you see them, doesn’t mean you’re going to get them.

“Earlier in the season, going into shallower water, I usually get more bugs than in the deeper waters. There isn’t as much competition in the shallows because diving in the Channel Islands is open ocean: the shallows are dangerous [compared] to the depths: getting beat in the surf causes catastrophic problems. You need calm weather to do it in the shallows.”

Launching out of Ventura into Anacapa Island in the archipelago’s eastern reaches, Underwater Sports Tacoma joins the Peace Dive Boat liveaboard for unforgettable three-day-long trips, which offers divers the right amenities and accommodations they need to enjoy a successful lobster hunting expedition. Services such as living arrangements, fine food, air and nitrox fills, and an experienced guide make the experience a hallmark in scuba exploration, and help Underwater Sports fill out their itinerary.

“Eric [Bowman], the skipper of the boat, is a nice guy and easy to deal with,” explains Adams. “He keeps safety precautions and lets you know what is doable; but other than that, we pick where we want to go. He’s also willing to do multiple night dives while other boats do one or none, which is key when lobster diving.”

More information on the Peace Dive Boat can be found at www.peacediveboat.com.

Following a successful lobster hunt, Adams and company feast in the catch of the day, with the Peace liveaboard preparing the catch. In his time, Adams has found a prefered way to cook up the spiny crustaceans after he returns home.

“Take a bread pan and fill it to about an inch or inch-and-a-half of water,” he explains. “Split the back of the spiny lobster’s shell, pull the meat up so it’s on top of the shell, then put it in the oven at 375 degrees (Farenheit). Then watch it. The nice thing about lobster is that when it’s raw, it’s clear in color; when it’s cooked, it’s white in color.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and when Adams is on the live boat, he uses a rougher, albeit more convenient method:

“It almost sounds sacrilegious, but we do it on the boat because it’s quick. Pull the lobster [meat] out of the shell, set it on top, and put it in a Ziploc bag. Nuke it in the microwave for about three or four-and-a-half minutes depending on the size of the tail. Watch it change in color from clear to white, then put butter and everything on it. It’s almost as good as the other way.”

Out of the features that make up the Channel Islands archipelago, Adams lists Cortes Bank, a small seamount located in the far outer reaches of the chain, his favorite. Battered by powerful, fast waves, the little island rests on the edge of a continental shelf, opening up spectacular sights down below. As Adams and his team venture past the surface, they are greeted by an assortment of warm water fish and pelagic species such as sunfish and tuna.

“The water is stunningly beautiful out there because it’s open ocean: blue, not green; and visibility is usually really good,” he explains. “I swear the island is hollow because it produces so many big lobsters. If you get to the edge of it, you can see these big, beautiful valleys.”

Adams is far from alone in his admiration for the Channel Islands and its replete opportunities for bug hunting. We spoke to three Washington scuba explorers who have journeyed to the Channel Islands with Underwater Sports Tacoma. Their praise and admiration for the SoCal island chain was mutual, and they highlight why they look forward to returning to the area again and again.

Pete Almond

Recreational diver and lobster hunter Pete Almond has been enamored by diving since the ‘90s, and after being inspired by a photo of Adams’ adventures, has been an avid Channel Islands explorer for nearly 10 years, with 27 trips with Underwater Sports Tacoma under his belt.

For Almond, the sheer diversity of life, coupled with the island chain’s natural beauty makes it a winning locale:

“The cool thing about diving in the Channel Islands is the diversity of the environment, which is so significant. You have a cross between the tropics and northern Pacific types of fish (from rays to sharks to lingcod) and plant life. The islands themselves have an incredible amount of rock structures and so many different caves that are fun to look into.

“The bull kelp that grows around the islands is just fascinating to dive through and watch the sun illuminate to the bottom of the water. Although the tropics are beautiful, for me, it’s not as exciting, and there’s not as many nuances, as in the Channel Islands. The tropics have lobsters here and there in a random amount, but I’ve never seen such abundance [as in] the Channel Islands.”

These features are especially heightened at Santa Barbara Island: a smaller, though no less important, island located in the center of the chain.

“It’s the most unique island for me because of the structure around it,” he says. “There are cathedrals to swim through; many different rock formations; various deep and shallow dives; and there’s more blue water. It’s a beautiful environment: one of my favorites.”

At his core, Almond is a hunter, and as the Channel Islands is bountiful with spiny lobster, it has been a keystone location to hone his skills:

“There’s been dives I’ve gone on at 68 feet of water in raw structure, and the next thing I come across is a rock shelf that can be 30 to 50 feet long: you look at it with your flashlight, and as far as the eye can see, there’s infinite lobsters. It’s like opening a present for the first time: that excitement you see is amazing – that abundant life. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever seen.”

Rob Spear

Scuba diver and volunteer dive master Rob Spear started his scuba lifestyle in 1996 off Australia’s great Barrier Reef, and has helped Underwater Sports Tacoma as a volunteer dive master for nearly a decade. A globetrotting scuba explorer, his experiences in the Channel Islands have been ones to remember.

“I’ve been to a lot of areas in the world: the Bahamas, Cabo, Cancun, Hawaii, Canada, and Indonesia,” he explains. “California is unique in its grand kelp forests, which I haven’t seen in other parts of the world. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the Channel Islands: the forests are full of life, and it creates a feeling underwater that’s very different.”

Like Almond, Spear prefers Santa Barbara for its splendorous natural features, and especially enjoys congregating with friendly sea lions:

Santa Barbara Island is the best in the last eight years we’ve been diving – and I think others divers would agree – for lobster hunting. In particular, the island has lots of ins and outs, caverns, and caves; and throughways where water goes underneath the island and come out the other side. There have been times where I’ve gone aways in, and can see the moonlight coming in; sometimes I’ve come into those and there will be 20 or 30 sea lions swirling underneath. In these areas, sea lions and lobsters are everywhere – they love to hide within the island’s crevices and holes.

“[During one trip] the sea lions were playing and swirling around my wife and I while we were diving. We laid down on the sea floor because they were getting a little too close. A sea lion came down, laid next to us, and stared into our eyes. ‘Wow! This animal is connecting with me!’ At that point, I waved at it and said bye; it followed us back to the boat.”

Zach Downing

Newer diver Zach Downing, who was certified with Underwater Sports Tacoma in 2014, has kept most of his submerged adventures near his own backyard in the Pacific Northwest and California. For him, the thrill of diving is in its uniqueness: compared to the vast majority of people, few are able to experience the awe-inspiring sights of an underwater world.

He recalls one of many once-in-a-lifetime experiences he has enjoyed in the Channel Islands:

“Going on a night dive, you can only see what’s in your light. I saw an octopus go into a hole, and it [visually] stopped me. I watched it go into a hole one color, and on the other side, it came out another color. Watching him, I realized he was hunting. From a close distance, maybe 20 to 30 inches away from my mask, he reaches for a fish and pulls it into the hole. The percentage of people who have seen that go down in real time and in a natural environment is so small you could count it on your fingers and toes. The Channel Islands is where you’re going to find that.”

As with Spear’s experiences, Downing has also enjoyed the uniqueness of swimming with sea lions: an early encounter solidifying his appreciation for them:

“They’re like puppies. My first time lobster diving in the Channel Islands off Santa Cruz, while diving in a kelp forest and taking [it] in… when you’re underwater in the wee hours of the morning, it’s a bit off-putting at first. When the light comes on, you notice they’re sea lions; and it feels like hundreds. They’re everywhere: they’ll blow bubbles and swim between your arms legs. It’s an experience knowing there’s this wild animal completely unafraid of you: they don’t have a care and just want to play with you.”

With charming sea lions, spectacular visual and geographic features, and a plethora of spiny lobsters, perhaps unmatched by other parts of North America’s watery worlds, the Channel Islands stands proud as a must-do dive, and a front-runner on any diver’s bucket list.

“If you ever get a chance to go there and experience it yourself, it’s not something I would consider missing,” states Downing. “The whole experience is one of my favorite things I look forward to every year. The underwater life is beautiful, and there’s so much down there; it’s a complete world shift: something will catch your eye, and you can’t help but stop and take it in.”

For more information on Underwater Sports Tacoma, including a schedule of upcoming trips, visit www.underwatersports.com/tacoma. And for details on the Channel Islands’ spiny lobster season, go to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website at www.wildlife.ca.gov.