Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

063: 100 Miles and a World Away

Last week I dove Talcott Shoals, the extensive shallows off the northwest coast of Santa Rosa Island in the channel between the island and the mainland coast near Pt. Conception. The Shoals are on the weather side of the island, very close to the outermost northern Channel Island of San Miguel. Santa Rosa was the only one of the northern group I'd never dived before. It is an area of good "bug" hunting. I think my buddy Bud (father of my buddy Jenefer) and I were the only ones on the dive boat Peace that were not looking for dinner that day. I must admit it makes me a little nervous when I'm diving with a large group of hunters whose diving skills I don't know. I was once speared in the thumb by a hunter who may have mistaken me for a black sea bass.

Bud and I boarded the boat separately Tuesday night since he had to work late. Realizing the Cubs were in the playoffs against the Marlins, I returned to my car and listened to the end of the game on my radio. Cubs lost... something I'm used to after six decades. I went to bed afterwards since the boat departed Ventura Harbor at 2:00 AM. Our trip out to Santa Rosa seemed even smoother than my crossing on the Catalina Express. We had lucked out... sea conditions were excellent with almost no surface swell and no breaking waves. The "gate" (period for us to enter the water) for the first dive was about 7:45 AM so Bud and I made our "giant strides" into the water after the dive briefing.

The water was warmer than I expected (57-59 degrees), but from the surface it was hard to tell how good the visibility was. The sky had a thick overcast so there was little light to penetrate the water. As we descended, the visibility was reasonably good (~40 ft.) for this normally high energy region. The bottom topography of the Shoals was very different from most Catalina dive sites. We were about two miles offshore, yet the greatest depth we reached was only 60 feet with very shallow slopes. The bottom was largely a series of rock layers that rested on top of one another and were slightly tilted. Because of this, by following one of the layers we could stay at an almost constant depth (42-43 ft. almost the entire first dive). The lobster were hidden in the recesses where the rock layers overlapped, but we saw very few of them and the hunters took almost none.

What Bud and I did see was underwater life typical of the colder, outer northern Channel Islands. Here the south-flowing California Current sweeps past Pt. Conception and bathes the outer islands like San Miguel, western Santa Rosa and San Nicolas in cold water typical of the central California coast. Blue rockfish swam about in small schools instead of the warmer water blacksmith of Casino Point. Schools of tubesnout also appeared, just as I'd seen off cold San Miguel a year before. We did see a few lingcod, IF the hunters didn't see them first. There were also many painted greenlings, a cold water species I only see near the Isthmus and West End on Catalina. Unlike Catalina, there were no garibaldi poking their faces into our masks although they can be seen at warmer Anacapa Island further east of the Shoals. Only a few sheephead swam by to investigate us, unlike the dozens that usually swarm around me in the Dive Park. Overfishing in this area (and around portions of our island as well) have brought numbers down to where the fishery had to be closed early this year.

The cast of characters in the invertebrate world was also quite different from the warmer SE end of Catalina. Instead of our beautiful blue knobby starfish there were the related white short-spined starfish. The most common starfish was the beautiful bat star with webbing between its arms and a wide variety of different color patterns. This is a starfish I rarely see in our Dive Park. Several rainbow stars were seen, a species different from the fragile rainbow star in Avalon waters. Sunstars with two dozen or more arms were everywhere moving along the bottom, feeding on other starfish or even mating! Bud and I saw a leather starfish as well. Sponges were more obvious, including the colorful puffball sponges. Beautiful feather duster worms in a variety of colors were quite common on the Shoals but are not seen in the Park.

Perhaps the most unusual invertebrates we observed were the rock-boring piddock clams. These clams use their hard shells to drill a hole in soft siltstone or sandstone bottoms. The animal, in its shell, is then largely hidden in the protective rock from which it is nearly impossible to extract (unlike the clams here which burrow into the soft sand and are unearthed by bat rays and other predators). All that projected from the rock were the two dark siphons the clams use to feed and obtain oxygen from the water. If you have walked the beaches of Ventura or Santa Barbara Counties, you may have seen flat fine-grained rocks with holes bored right through them. Those are the work of these piddock clams.

We did four dives on the Shoals with good visibility at all sites except one closer to shore where a plankton bloom reduced visibility. What we saw was ecologically a world apart from Catalina's Dive Park, yet only about a hundred miles away. When we weren't diving, we were treated to snacks, breakfast and lunch by Debra in the ship's galley. After the last dive, the Peace's hot tub was ready and we soaked in the tropical warm of its waters and then I took a nap as the Peace headed back. When we got in Wednesday night, I piled my gear into my Toyota Tercel and drove towards Thousand Oaks where Bud and his wife Chris live. Although his directions were good, I managed to get slightly lost and drove around listening to the 7th playoff game until I pulled into their driveway in the bottom of the 9th with two out. Not believing in miracles (but desiring one), I turned the radio off. The next morning the news confirmed that the Cubs had lost. I guess that old goat curse at Wrigley Field still holds true... perhaps we'll win in 2008 (the centennial year of the Cub's last Series win). Fortunately Talcott Shoals was a winner, even though my repaired video housing didn't arrive in time to take it with.

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

A lingcod swimming among rocks; school of tubesnouts with diver in the background;
bat star with its five webbed arms; beautiful deep red feather duster worm

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia