The first few years of scuba diving were so intense, I couldn’t sleep the night before out of anticipation of an activity so fraught with excitement and danger. Night dives were scary.
Suiting up close to midnight, I had to calm myself down so I wouldn’t suck the tank dry before its time. My wet suit smells like fish and kelp and nervous sweat– and because it got peed in on a prior dive, like, well you know. Looking off the cliff above Scotchman’s Cove in Southern California, John and I try to assess diving conditions for the evening. However, with no moon, (perfect of getting lobster–bugs in scuba-talk), we had little chance of getting prior knowledge of our impending adventure.
All equipment had been thoroughly checked that afternoon; fin straps and mask strap stretched and examined for tears or rot, tank and respirator O rings scrutinized, air pressure in tanks verified, Dramamine and Sudafed tablets noted, gloves and booties checked for rips and tears, pole spear points sharpened, B/C inflated and checked for leaks and fresh batteries installed in the dive light. My dive light is huge and casts a brilliant beam using 10 D cell batteries used for power. Those batteries had to be fresh to ensure a safe dive. With a pre-purchased dive card, it only cost about a buck and a half to fill a tank. My batteries cost about four dollars, representing a major expense for the evening.
This dive gear had to be checked and rechecked because if one item broke or got left behind, the dive had to be scrubbed. This was dangerous stuff and our lives depended upon careful preparation, one another’s vigilance and good luck; night diving through the surf and rocks with no moon is not something to take lightly. No wonder my heart is beating so loudly; I was about to climb back upon life’s knife-edge.
Getting into a skin-tight wet suit is tough. A little baby powder helps. Finally! Wet suit on, regulator and chem light fixed to tank, air on, B/C operational, mask and fins and goody bag and light and spear . . . what am I missing? Ah, and weight belt, all at hand. My dive buddy and I lock the van and lumber down the hill to the unseen waves crashing on the rocks.
John and I have an ongoing competition about who comes up with the most bugs. An ‘ab’ (abalone) is equal to three bugs. Loser pays for breakfast the next morning at Denny’s in Laguna Beach and neither of us enjoys losing.
Finally reaching the wet sand of the surf line, we flip on our dive lights to check the wave action. Looks good. Not too big, hardly any wind on this chilly December evening, and no evident rip tides streaming out to sea. Supporting myself with my pole spear, I slip on my fins. Then I spit into my face mask and rinse it out in the water at my feet and slip it on my head. I quickly check my buddy and he does his rapid safety check of me, ensuring that air lines are free and each of us may enter this inky void with minimal difficulty. I inflate my bouyancy compensator (B/C), suck on my regulator, adjust my mask over my face and begin walking backwards into the surf I can hear but not see. When the water is about waist height, I flip onto my belly and kick like hell, trying to quickly get through the surf line. Once through the waves, I lie on my back, remove the air regulator from my mouth to conserve air, pick out a star for guidance and leisurely kick my way out to sea. After carrying the heavy dive equipment down the hill and making my way through the surf, I can finally relax. My huge jet fins easily propel me through the night.
The reef lies about 75 yards off shore, and that is our destination. The terrain below is sand with an occasional bolder, resembling a moon-scape devoid of life. John and I love this part of the dive because at any moment we can roll onto our bellies, flip on our lights and check the ‘viz.’
Visibility is what scuba diving is all about; poor viz=bad diving. If you can see a reef 15 feet away, it’s an OK dive, an average dive for this area. Occasionally you can’t see much past your spear tip and you might as well cancel the dive and come back later. But once in a while, not often, but maybe once or twice a year you get exceptional viz, 30-40 feet of crystal clear water. On a night like that, when diving during a full moon, you hardly need a dive light. When diving with no moon and with a high period of luminescence, the dive is simply awesome. Make yourself heavy, sink to the bottom at 30 feet, roll over, turn your dive light off and look up and see blue-green lights defining your air bubbles as they course upward to the surface. Swish your hand through the water and you are totally illuminated in a magical bioluminescent glow. Fish dart here and there trailing a luminescent corona. Incredible!
John and I both turn onto our bellies at about the same time, snorkeling to conserve precious compressed air. We turn on our lights and glance around– it is one of those rare nights of exceptional viz. I can hear John laughing with glee through his snorkel. I begin laughing too. We both accidentally inhale water and choke. (Heads up. Slap hands.) Far out! A dive like this with great visibility, no surge and the water warmer than the air temperature is one for the memory banks. I see it and feel it so clearly; I can taste the salt on my snorkel’s mouthpiece, despite the fact that this dive occurred more than 40 years ago.
We finally reach the reef and submerge. These shore dives aren’t very deep. The bottom by the reef is around 35 feet on the ocean side of the rocks and we spend most of our time inspecting caves at around 20 feet. At this depth we have around 50 minutes of bottom time. Perfect. Much more than that and I get cold. We just dropped to the bottom and I’m already shaking, but my body vibrates from excitement, not from cold. This danger, descending into the unknown at night, blind and helpless from dangers below thrusts my heart into my mouth. I’m really scared and I feel fully alive.
I love my pole spear. It is yellow, made of fiberglass, about 6 feet long, has three sharp steel barbs on the killing end and a two foot looped length of surgical tubing at the other end. Stretch the tubing, point and let it fly. It only has an accurate range of a couple of feet, but it is great for getting fish or bugs. (Yeah, I know it is illegal to spear lobster in California. Well, I rationalize, the bugs are for my consumption and I only go for the ‘burros.’ I leave the babies alone.) Besides being my underwater weapon of choice, my pole spear serves as a crutch, pushing me along the bottom from rock to rock. Finally, my spear is useful to probe the bottom upon descent to verify I won’t drop onto a sting ray hiding in the sand. Those suckers hurt!
The reef is alive. Every inch is covered with some kind of shell fish or baby finny fish or quivering vegetation; a rainbow of colors, a cornucopia of treats– my mouth waters.
Glancing around, I see the glow of John’s chem light on the other side of the reef. I know, dive buddies are supposed to be within an arm’s reach of one another for safety reasons. But hey, it’s a clear dive with no surge and we’re both going to make the most of it. We’re gonna get some bugs!
This isn’t a coral reef we’re hunting on in Southern California, it’s a rock reef. No coral here. Rock reefs aren’t as pretty as coral reefs but they have many more hiding places for bugs. Despite the fact that John and I have dived at this location countless times, each dive yields new terrain for exploration. It always seems new, especially at night.
John is working the outside while I search the shore side of the reef, each seeking caves within the rocks because that is where the bugs hide. You find the right size cave and, with luck, you might stumble upon a ‘glory hole.’ Oh, this hardly ever happens, maybe one or twice in a lifetime of diving. And yes, you guessed it. Tonight I find my glory hole. Yum.
This is such a rare experience you don’t want to keep it to yourself. You just gotta share it. I swim over the top of the reef, get John’s attention by banging on the bottom of my tank with my dive knife and signal him that I’ve found a bunch of bugs. Sneaking a peek at his goody bag, I see he has already captured a couple of good-sized ones. John follows me back and, after a bit of frantic searching, I locate the cave filled with lobster. I search John’s masked face for a reaction. It is about what I expected, a ‘don’t bother me, I’m busy expression’ as he begins to spear bugs.
Lobster are pretty helpless critters. They can hardly see, don’t move very fast, swim better going backward than forward and have poor thinking skills. Basically, they survive by touch, swinging their antenna back and forth in a meager effort to detect prey or danger. John and I methodically fill our goody bags to the limit by carefully approaching with spear cocked until about 12 inches away, then BAM! I have a thrashing varmint on my spear tips.
It is at this point in the dive that I must be totally comfortable with my gear. My dive light is useless now because two hands are needed to secure the bug. Grabbing the lobster with gloved hand, I remove it from the spear then twisting with my other hand, I separate the head from the tail. I then blindly open my goody bag, insert the tail, close the bag and grasp the teathered dive light that has been floating above my left hand. I’m ready for another bug.
After a while, we check our air gauges and see we’re below the 500 pound mark. Time to head back. That’s fine by me. I’m getting cold and I’m ready to kick back and relive the evening’s experience with my buddy. An early breakfast and some hot coffee would be nice too. No abs tonight, but we got a shit-load of bugs.