One of my favorite
aspects of diving is the sheer diversity of terrain that
is encountered depending upon where you happen to be. Whereas
Indonesia offers some truly mind-blowing vertical walls
and the Solomon Islands boast some of the most colorful
reefs in the world, California's Channel Islands will always
rank near the top of my list. Rarely have I ever felt the
sense of sheer majesty that I've experienced swimming through
the Channel Islands kelp forests.
In one of these
underwater forests, kelp grows vertically from its holdfast
on the seafloor to the surface, often extending 60 feet
or more. Commonly, there are thousands of these plants in
a very small area, giving the illusion that one is travelling
through a dense terrestrial forest. Few things that I've
experienced underwater can compare with swimming through
a kelp forest, weaving in and out, never sure what I might
next encounter. I have frequently come into contact with
playful California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus),
who will not only curiously follow you around, but will
often playfully tug on your fins.
Bat Rays (Myliobatis
californica), measuring four feet or more, are another
common occurence. I'll never forget a night dive I did a
few years back. After about 45 minutes of
cruising through the kelp, observing dozens of California Spiny Lobsters
(Panulirus interruptus) who had come out of their holes to forage,
I decided to end the dive by breaking open and feeding a Sea
Urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) to one of
the many California Moray Eels (Gymnothorax mordax)
that I'd found. Upon finding one who was interested in a late
night snack, I planted myself on a pile of rocks and began
to feed the urchin to the Moray. After a few minutes of interacting
with the eel, what I assumed was another diver swam up behind
me and hung out about three or four feet off my shoulder.
| Opalescent Nudibranch
After another few minutes of feeding the eel, I decided to
hand the remainder of my urchin to the other diver. I assumed
he must have been interested since he hadn't yet swam off.
When I turned to hand him the urchin, I almost jumped out
of my wetsuit! In fact, it wasn't another diver who had been
waiting so patiently, it was the the largest Bat Ray I'd ever encountered,
at least five or six feet across...
Whereas in the
Pacific Northwest, one tends to encounter a great number
of large, rather pale-colored, bottom-dwelling fish, the
Channel Islands offer some amazingly colorful aggregating
species. Certainly, the most noticeable is the bright orange
Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus). As Garibaldi are
protected from underwater hunters, they are extremely abundant,
especially in the Southern Channel Islands. Two other commonly
encountered species include California Sheephead (Semicossyphus
pulcher) and Senorita (Oxyjulis californica).
In addition, the Channel Islands offer some very beautiful nudibranchs.
Among the most visually stunning are three of the
most commonly encountered
species. These include the Spanish Shawl (Flabellinopsis iodinea),
the Opalescent Nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis),
and the Hilton's Aeolid (Phidiana hiltoni).
| California Sheephead
Another of the appealing aspects of diving in the Channel Islands is the
disparity found underwater when diving the Southern Islands
versus the Northern Islands. The Southern Islands, consisting
of Catalina, San Clemente, Santa Barbara, and San Nicolas,
tend to offer species not nearly as commonly found in their
Northern counterparts, and vice versa. For instance, whereas
California Spiny Lobster and California Moray Eels are rather
abundant in the Southern Islands, in my experience, they are much rarer
in the Northern Islands. On the other hand, the Northern Channel
Islands, consisting of San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa,
and Anacapa, tend to offer a greater density of invertebrate
life, in particular nudibranchs and especially sea anemones.
Certainly, the best way to experience the magic of the Channel Islands
kelp forests, and diving in general, is via one of the numerous
liveaboards that operate out of Southern California. An
excellent resource is California
Diving News, which offers an up-to-date schedule of
all the liveaboards offering trips to the Islands.
Because of the affordability, proximity, and especially the magic of transcending
through the underwater kelp forests, California's Channel
Islands will remain a regular destination for the remainder
of my diving and underwater photography career.