An entire day has passed since I was on the Vision—a ship that sailed us through the Channel Islands off of the Santa Barbara coast—and I can still feel the swaying of waves beneath me, though I'm standing on dry land. My first free-diving adventure in coastal California was something to be remembered.
The words "coral reef" aren't usually what comes to mind when one thinks of the dark, chilly oceans of the northern Pacific, especially the crashing shores of Cali. I'd sooner picture surfers and twenty-foot waves than calm glassy waters filled with fish of all different colors. What I found around the San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Cruz islands was an abundance of wildlife that put some of the reefs of the Philippines to shame. I suppose that's the difference when you visit a National Marine Sanctuary instead of a hot tourist destination!
Sea lions zoomed past us at our first stop on San Miguel Island; they aren't as used to divers as the ones at Monterey Bay. These sea lions couldn't get enough of us and ripped through the water around our group—curiously blowing bubbles to see what we were up to. The harbor seals were far shyer. The small family we found were interested and apprehensive, but also eager to introduce their pups to us. With their eyes wider than usual, they silently followed—occasionally swimming in tandem through the kept below us. Interactions with these big sea puppies is always a lovely experience and a great opportunity to really connect with the ocean.
With such a dense population of diverse marine life, you can't visit the Channel Islands without bumping into a few seals, octopuses, or eels. We were even fortunate enough to spot rays, yellowtail tuna, California sheepshead, Garibaldi damselfish, swarms of baitfish, colorful nudibranchs, anemone, sponges, giant sea stars and urchin, lobster, rockfish, and scallops. The water was so full of life that I couldn't possibly have left disappointed.
We decided to take one last dive of the day: it was late but the water was still bright with scattered light beaming through the glowing green kelp. Schools of tiny reflective fish drifted through the forest as the sun began to set beneath the mountain above us...
"And as it grew dark and the water turned a steely blue, a huge bat ray glided out from the kelp—emerging like a ghost and slowly swimming beneath us, only to disappear a few minutes later. It was my first time seeing a wild ray, and something
I will never forget."
The trip wasn't all sightseeing though; my biggest challenge was passing my level two free-diving skills—which meant reaching 60 feet below the surface, saving my partner from depth, and practicing a few other emergency situations. We saved the exam for a perfect day, one where we had crystal clear visibility. The thing about free-diving is that your worst enemy isn't the ocean...it's your own psychological stress. Even the smallest detail of not being able to see the dive-line due to poor visibility can shorten your depth.
We struck the visibility jackpot and I managed to dive deeper than I ever have before and reached 81 feet—all the way to the bottom. Everything changes below 60 feet...at this point, you become negatively-buoyant and can reach freefall. But what goes down must come up, and that climb back to positive buoyancy becomes a marathon. Visiting the Channel Islands was a huge step for my free-diving.
The tour itself was fantastic! Bambooreef, the scuba center hosting the trip, was extremely accommodating and lovely to their guests. This group feels more like a huge family than anything else and I'm very happy to be a part of it. The food was great and the company of nerdy, skilled, and thoughtful people was even better. If you're looking for a fun and professional group of divers, beginner to advanced, I'd recommend booking one of their many exotic charters at bambooreef.com
I'm extremely excited about my future in free-diving level 3 and a little nervous to enter the world of spear-fishing! Thank you to my friends and hosts that made this all possible.
$$$ BAMBOO REEF DIVE CENTERS ★★★★★
I joined the Bamboo Reef diving community in August 2017 and between then and the following November had completed at least 25 dives with the group. The instructors are professional and educated, but manage to offer an extremely relaxed and fun class. I've taken several boat tours with Bamboo Reef and have enjoyed all of them. Monterey fun dives are always a solid way to spend a Sunday in the water. Explore the tall kelp beds, see the metridium fields, and play with the sea lions!
$$$ TRUTH AQUATICS ★★★★★
Aboard a large 30 person ship, we set sea-ward from Santa Barbara to explore the surrounding islands. The crew of the Vision was professional, knowledgeable, and fun. Our gear was expertly handled, the food was tasy, hot cocoa was always available, and the staff participated in our Halloween festivites. All around a great trip with this charter.
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