Ocean Explorers Society

On the Vision to the Channel Islands

July 2002

Mark Clausen was kind enough to find a nice, limited load trip on the Vision to the northern Channel Islands. Three little words - Cheap Dive Vacation will always put me in a good mood. Limited Load, two more good words that roughly translate to elbow room. Gotta like that too. The price was sane and affordable; timing's good, OK, I'm going.

The Channel Islands are one of California's under appreciated natural assets. These islands were formed millions of years ago when Pacific Plate pushed chunks of land away from the California coast. Now days, they are just far enough away to ensure their isolation, and close enough to be convenient. The islands offer quintessential California scenery both above and below the water.

Then life intervenes. First, I'm offered free camping in Yosemite for bringing my telescope and helping with public stargazing sessions. It's the weekend before, so that's a little tight, but doable. Then along comes my company who says I have to be in Minneapolis in between the trips. Yikes! Better start packing. Camera goes off for annual servicing. Hit the Shores for a checkout dive. Spent the 4th of July packing for three trips at once. Imagine if you will; my Xterra is loaded to the gills with telescope and camping gear, there is a loaded suitcase in the living room for the Minneapolis trip, and my dive gear, camera, and clothes duffel for the dive trip are in a different corner of the living room. The only things saving me from complete chaos are the lists on each pile with things that still need to be packed. They do say that getting there is half the fun. . .

Yosemite is wonderful despite the 4th of July crowds. Get home, move my shaving kit to the next suitcase, and leave for the Minneapolis the following morning.

Skip forward to Friday. It's time to come home from Minneapolis and it's deja vu all over again. I arrive at the Minneapolis Airport to catch my flight back home to San Diego. Oddly enough, my last trip to the Channel Islands, which was four years ago, originated in this airport. This time, my plane didn't leave without me, and I didn't spend the night sleeping on a bench near gate 3. My only pending crisis is a small hole in my drysuit seal. My stuff has been packed for a week. I'm anxious to get it out of the living room and onto the dive boat. A couple of uneventful flights later; I arrive home and spend the night in my own bed. In the morning, I move my shaving kit to the next duffel bag, patched my drysuit seal, and load my gear in the truck

After a bit of shopping in Del Mar, Mary drops me off at Mark's house and we head off for Santa Barbara. LA traffic is fierce, but manageable. No conflagrations on the freeway, but heavy traffic most of the way up. In Camarillo we asked the clerk how long it will take to get to Santa Barbara. She says 2 hours. Must have been the bike time because Santa Barbara is all of 30 miles up the road.

Arriving at the boat, we discover that only 16 have signed up. (yeah!) Check-in is quick and painless. Two people who signed up didn't show, so we had only 14 divers on board an 88-foot boat. The boat feels very spacious and comfy; even my duffel bag had a berth.

The Vision is a clean, modern, and comfortable dive boat. The main salon is spacious, with plenty of room even for a full load. The Vision's dive deck feels a lot bigger than their other boats. The actual size isn't that much different though. I'm sure it helps that we're running at 1/3rd of capacity. I'm sure that when the Vision is at full capacity, the dive deck will look like cross between the used equipment sale at OE and a Marin hot tub party.

The boat is well laid out for diving. Freshwater showers and heads were always clean and readily accessible from the dive deck. A large swim platform provided an easy exit from the water, and crewmembers were always there to remove your fins and help you don your gear.

I'm glad to see that Truth Aquatics has added an inflatable boat to their equipment now. Currents in the Channel Islands can vary between nothing and heavy, even during the course of a dive. It's easy enough to miss the anchor line and have to drift down current for your safety stop. The Zodiac is a huge improvement over their old method of swimming a line and a float out to the wayward divers. Conditions on this trip were so good that nobody ever needed the tender, but it's very reassuring to know it's there.

I signed the manifest, and got made up my bunk. The boat supplies a pillow and blanket. Most people put the blanket on the mattress, and use their sleeping bags as a quilt. Realistically, you would be plenty warm during summer with just the blanket and a pad beneath you. The mattresses are quite firm. Those accustomed to feather beds will want some more padding.

Yellow CrabBy now, people are filtering in. I introduce myself to Donna, a photographer from Ventura. She's taking her first trip in many years. About this time, I also meet Becky and Harley from Washington. We seem to have several other people from the Pacific Northwest. After a bit of socializing, I run out of steam, and decide to go to sleep.

I wasn't terribly comfortable until we left the harbor at 4:00 AM. Once we were under way, the thrumming engines and rocking boat put me right back to sleep. We awoke to the smell of breakfast in the galley. While enjoying our breakfast of fresh blueberry pancakes, we get the orientation lecture and crew introductions. About this time, the captain comes down and announces we'll be heading on to San Miguel Island. I'm excited. I've never been to San Miguel, but I've heard it's outstanding.

CorynactisAnother hour of motoring and we get to Tyler's Bight, our first dive site. I get my gear assembled and recheck my seal repair. It looks good and sturdy. My camera is staying in the case until my underwater comfort level improves. I buddy up with Donna and we hit the water. Boy is it cold. A quick check of the temperature gauge reveals a brisk 52 degrees. As Donna raises her camera I can see the lens cap still in place, and inside the housing. It's amazing how much bewilderment is visible through a dive mask. I point to the lens port, she looks, and shrugs. No photos this dive. Having made our sacrifice to Edsel Murphy, we continue in sightseeing mode. I cut my dive short as I seem to be underweighted.

Baby SculpinSan Miguel is a very interesting place. It's located at the western tip of the Channel Islands where the cold water from the north, mixes with warmer water from the south. The cold water brings in food, and the warm water provides the means for creatures to digest it rapidly. Consequently filter feeders of all sorts are numerous. Abalone were also plentiful; a good sign in any ocean. We had intermittent clouds of Mysid shrimp. They were not the most welcome visitors as they obscured the otherwise good (20 feet +) vis, and cause a lot of backscatter for the photographers. One more dive at Rain Barrel, and we were off to Santa Rosa Island.

We worked our way eastward towards Santa Barbara.. There was no set itinerary, the crew lets conditions dictate when and where we dove. Most dive sites featured a wide diversity of animals. But, for the first time, I noticed that sometimes a single species predominated. In one location, sea cucumbers covered almost everything; in another, brittlestars were so thick, there was no room for their arms. I don't know the biological significance of this pattern, but I sure would be interested in finding out.

Starfish ArmsThese trips offer a lot of diving. The crew scheduled 5 dives the first day, 6 dives the second day, and 4 dives on the third day. This is a little unusual because of the extra travel time to San Miguel on the first day. Normally, there will be 6 dives on the first and second days, and 3 on the third day. They always scheduled an evening (crepuscular) dive, and a night dive. Meals meshed with the dives.

With all these options, you have plenty of flexibility when choosing when to dive and when to nap. In practice, nobody does all the dives. Buddies were generally pretty fluid too. At various times I dove with Mark, Joe, Donna, Becky, and Harley. The crew lets you choose your own profiles and modus operandi. Solos and threesomes were pretty common.

Gopher RockfishWe had plenty of photographers on this trip. I'm pretty sure that each group on the boat included at least one, if not two photographers. On-board film processing was available though I didn't use it. Hunting was allowed though nobody seemed to be pursuing much game.

I planned this as more of a vacation and less of a photo expedition. Consequently, the camera spent most of the trip topside. I did shoot a few rolls of film. Photo subjects were plentiful and easy to find. Like much of California, wide-angle conditions were rare. I like macro anyway since it meshes well with my near-sightedness.

Arch RockWall dives were plentiful because the islands generally drop straight into the ocean. We also visited several kelp beds, and a couple of pinnacles. There was something for everyone. Late in the trip, the boat pulled up to Arch Rock. Joe and I dived this site on our previous trip. This is one of my favorite spots, and the visibility was much better this time around. I must still be a little kid at heart because I think it's pretty neat to have an underwater arch to swim through.

This trip featured a lot of marine mammals. Many of our dives featured encounters with seals and sea lions. The captain nosed the boat close in to a beach on San Miguel where there were hundreds of pinnipeds; mostly elephant seals. We had one incredibly special topside encounter. Shortly after one dive, the captain spotted a pair of Orcas. They were swimming along, clearly in transit to another area. We paced them for a good 20 minutes. Cameras sprouted on the foredeck, while others, like myself, just watched them. This was my first time seeing this largest member of the dolphin family in the wild. You cannot watch these creatures for any length of time and not come out a different person. It's a special kind of alchemy.

Patty and Monti cooked up a varied cuisine. You won't find gourmet fare, but I found it pleasant, and healthy. We never ran short of food or deserts. Breakfasts could be hearty or light according to your preference. I normally eat a fairly light breakfast, but I had to make an exception for pancakes with fresh blueberries. They always kept a plate of fresh fruit and chocolate available for snacking. You can bring your own alcoholic beverages, but your diving will be done for the day when you start drinking them.

Santa Rosa IslandThe crew was super nice and fit in one extra dive before we departed. It was hard to head home again. This is fun. I have new friends here. We're all being taken back to a surreal world with cell phones, bogus media hype, and distractions. The salon was awfully quiet; fatigue finally defeating enthusiasm. I wandered up to the sun deck to find one of my fellow passengers bundled up as if preparing for a snowstorm. We spent some of the trip back to Santa Barbara discussing teaching and education; a reminder that there are important things waiting back home. I spent some time with Becky and Harley; exchanging email addresses and promising to keep in touch.

Donna, Dave, Mark, and JoeBack in Santa Barbara, we have our first taste of civilization with a mini traffic jam on the dock while we offloaded our gear and the crew reprovisioned the boat. The drive back to San Diego looks like it's going to be extra long. But, conversation is affable and the trip passes quickly. Ironically, we stopped for dinner in Tarzana; named for a movie character and next door to Hollywood, the city built on make-believe.

If you like California diving, do this trip. If you need a short vacation, do this trip. Joe and I endured 4 years of funny looks whenever we praised our last Channel Islands trip. That was before we got Mark to try it. Mark has now stopped giving us funny looks. It's progress, but we still have a couple dozen people to go.

Dave's trip tips:


Copyright 2002, David L. Ambrose, All rights Reserved

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