In August I was given the opportunity to go to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks. As a newly certified open water diver I was excited to get the opportunity to dive in a new ocean. I live in Massachusetts and had only dove locally. I also had only done shore dives. While my open water certification class gave me the skills to dive off a boat, I hadn’t gone on any trips yet. The local dive shops in LA only offered boat dives so if I wanted to experience the Pacific I needed to book a charter. I packed gear and prepared for my next diving adventure.
I was pretty nervous about diving 2,500 miles from home on a boat, both of which would be brand new experiences for me. I called the local dive shop that offered the boat charters and asked them about the trip. That weekend’s destination was Santa Catalina Island, about a two-hour boat ride from the LA harbor. I was happy to hear that I could rent all of the equipment I needed in addition to the gear I brought. I found out that the water in southern California is pretty similar to Massachusetts, so I could wear the same 7mm wetsuit with gloves and hood. The guy at the shop told me that it wouldn’t be a problem coming by myself, they would pair up buddies on the boat. He also told me that this particular charter was designed for beginners so I would fit right in. With my questions answered, I booked the trip for that Sunday. These are all questions that anyone diving in a new location – boat or shore – should ask. Charters may have refund policies where you can’t get any money back unless you cancel several days beforehand so it’s important to get all your questions answered.
On the morning of the dive, I made three mistakes. First, I didn’t give myself enough time to get to the boat. Marinas, harbors, and docks can be confusing places. I had to locate where the boat was docked so that I could park as close as possible to unload my gear. Then I had to move my car to a place where it could stay for several hours. Follow the crew’s recommendations for what time to arrive. You definitely don’t want to hold people up because they can’t depart until everyone is on board. Second, I waited until I was on the boat to put sunscreen on. This connects to my third mistake which was not bringing seasickness meds. I got seasick right away and forgot to put sunscreen on because I was trying to keep my breakfast down. I’d never been seasick in my life so I didn’t think to bring anything. Always bring some medication because seasickness can strike even if you’ve never had it before. Take it from me, seasickness can make a dive much less enjoyable.
Luckily I recovered when the boat stopped and laid anchor off the shore of Catalina. Our first dive site was called Indian Rock. We had assembled our gear on the boat so by the time we had arrived we just had to put everything on. The divemaster gave us safety and site briefings. It’s important to pay attention to these because you want to know where to go to see the best sites. Once you jump off the boat you can go in any direction and you want to know which one to choose. We were also paired up with buddies. My buddy was a cool guy who had a similar skill level as myself. The last bit of my nervousness went away when I knew I was with someone who was figuratively but also literally in the same boat as me. We were told that there was stuff to see in any direction so navigation wouldn’t be too difficult.
We geared up which was a little difficult because of the cramped quarters. It’s a lot different trying to get your wetsuit on with twenty other people on a boat deck than it is on a shore where you can spread out. I finally got to use the giant stride entry into the water that I learned in my open water class. My buddy and I jumped in one after another and discussed our dive plan, signals, and safety information. When we tried to descend he had difficulty getting down so we swam closer to the boat and were able to get some extra weights from the divemaster. Part of the charter is paying for that resource so make sure you use it.
The visibility was incredible. From the surface I was able to see the bottom which was 40 feet below. I never had anything like that in Massachusetts. It was great to be able to descend and see where the bottom is. We were able to see some of the other divers too which was cool. When we reached the bottom and making sure each other was OK we started our journey. My weighting was perfect and I was able to achieve neutral buoyancy right away. There were rock and coral formations everywhere and fish all around. I was able to effortlessly float over rocks just by controlling my breath and it felt great. My buddy was having some trouble with his buoyancy but I patiently waited for him to get comfortable. Being a new diver I completely understood having trouble with buoyancy.
We navigated by compass heading and planned to turn back when our air was at two-thirds. In Massachusetts I’m used to only seeing a fish here and there but there were entire schools of fish that I was able to swim through. The most striking fish were Garibaldi which look like giant goldfish. The other animal that stood out in my mind is the string ray that darted out from a rock as we approached. I wish I had brought a fish identification card with me because we saw so many different kinds that I hadn’t seen before. They didn’t seem to be afraid of divers at all, swimming all around us. On return our heading was spot on but judging distance was difficult. We surfaced near the boat but not as close as I would’ve liked.
We were served refreshments in between the first and second dives, and lunch between the second and third. My buddy was a lot better with his buoyancy on the last two dives and we had a lot more fun. I saw some really cool kelp formations including a perfect kelp arch. I swam through it and I wish I could’ve captured it on film. Throughout the trip I really wished I had a camera. The experience is what led me to pursue getting an underwater camera so I’d be able to capture the cool sights. There were plenty of rocks with all sorts of nooks and crannies that crabs and lobsters were hiding in. We also saw a dead lobster with one of its claws missing.
For the third dive we went to another site a few miles away that was simply called LuLu. It was similar to the first site but we only had two directions to go in this time. There was a reef that we could follow either east or west. We went east and followed it until we hit our agreed air limit.
I wanted to keep diving but it was afternoon and we had a two hour ride back to shore. They served us cold beer which was a perfect end to a perfect day. On the way back I wasn’t seasick at all. I used my dive computer to jot down the dives in my log book. When we got back to shore I got my buddy’s contact info so we could reconnect if I ever came back. I hauled my gear back to the dive shop and went to my hotel, exhausted after a long but thrilling day in sunny California.