Southern California Boat Diving
by Jeanne Bear Sleeper
Boat diving is the only way to see the absolute best stuff in California! Beach diving is easy, close, cheap and fun, and the sights near shore are varied and pretty. But, you just cant beat the visibility, plethora of life, serenity and reduced human impact when you travel farther from shore.
California dive boats tend to operate differently than those in other areas. (Watch future columns for information on diving from these other types of boats.)
You don't have to go very far off the Southern California coast before you are in water 200 to 3,000 feet deep. The 20 to 30 mile wide San Pedro Channel runs between the mainland and Catalina Island. So, a two hour boat ride gets you to good Catalina diving spots when leaving from the Los Angeles, San Pedro or Long Beach harbors. Other boats leave at varying times from midnight to 7:00 am from the San Diego, Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Santa Barbara Harbor's and travel to the northern and southern Channel Islands.
Depending upon the port and your destination, it could be a one to nine hour boat ride to the first dive site. That's why some boats depart between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am, while you are tucked in a cozy bunk. Trips vary from one to five days, with the most common being one day trips to three day mini vacations. Each boat books its own charters with dive stores and clubs, along with open boats, so it can take a little phone work to find your preferred harbor, destination and day of departure. Clubs and stores welcome other divers on their charters, as long as they're not full.
California dive boats are typically 50 to 80 feet long and take 20 to 40 divers. There are also six passenger (six pacs) boats. Most boats have big decks, large enclosed galleys, a belowdecks bunkroom and a small wheelhouse. The restrooms (heads) are unisex and usually on the main deck. The boats are practical, well-equipped and built to run year-round, far offshore in the Pacific Ocean. That means the galley floor isn't carpeted, but you'll prefer the non-skid floor surface and being able to wear your wetsuit in the galley.
California divers are very independent. Once the boat is anchored, the crew gives a very brief orientation, opens the gates and checks you off as you hit the water. After that you and your buddy are on your own. Your precise dive profile and activities are your own plan. When you return to the swim step, you are checked back on board the boat. The crew will also take a roll call before the boat leaves the site. Remember to answer only when your name is called, never sign in for another diver or answer their roll call.
After a dive you may be able to pass some gear up to the deck crew, but you will usually climb the ladder or steps wearing your tank. There wont be anyone waiting to hand you a fluffy towel;the deck hands are busy filling tanks! California divers expect four dives a day and may snorkel, too.
Within the limits of safe diving, you can rack up a lot of bottom time on a California dive boat. Here's a typical day: First dive at 7:00 am, a hearty breakfast fresh from the grill; second dive at a new spot at 9:30 am, then travel to the next location; third dive at 11:30 am and then relax during lunch from 12:00 to 1:30 pm; fourth dive (last of the day) at a new location at 2:00 pm. By 4:00 pm, (earlier if you're far from shore) the boat is headed back to home port. The pattern may change depending on the depth of the dive sites, distance, from the mainland and between spots and weather, but you can count on plenty of bottom time.
On multi-day trips, the boat moves to a cove for the night's anchorage. There, you might have time for a snorkel or a twilight dive before dinner. The Channel Islands are remote, wilderness islands, inhabited by sea birds, marine mammals, wild pigs, little foxes and, in some cases, the U.S. military. With the exception of Catalina, the dive boat will not be pulling into port for a night of dancing.
Evening activities start with dinner, which often includes barbecued fresh fish or steaks. After dinner there are lots of choices: a slide show, trip to the photo lab (a few boats do E-6 processing), underwater books from the library, videos or time to socialize. Depending upon the anchorage, a night dive might be fun, if you skipped the alcohol. Nearly everyone hits the bunks by 10:00 pm (if not before) after an early start and a full day of diving.
California dive boats typically have bunks stacked two or three high with a vinyl-covered foam mattress, pillows and blankets. You need to bring sheets or a sleeping bag. Some boats have privacy curtains and reading lights. Most boats have an assortment of single and double bunks. The larger boats have shared, curtained changing areas below decks and a head. Your personal items are stored in cubbyholes or below the bottom bunk, so bring canvas bags. There is no place to store a big hard-sided suitcase. If you are a light sleeper, bring earplugs. The newer boat bunkrooms are carpeted and wallpapered and are really quite nice. Some of the boats have air-conditioned bunk-rooms, which is a plus in the summer.
Dive gear is stored on deck throughout the trip, so be sure you use a big dive bag. Dive bags stay on deck and get wet. Your tank, BC and attached regulator are stored in a rack on the open deck. Between dives, the tanks are usually filled remotely from a long high pressure hose (whip) connected to the belowdecks compressor. A few boats supply aluminum 80s and soft weightbelts. A few are set up for nitrox fills and most welcome technical divers who bring several sets of pre-mixed tanks. Boat diving etiquette calls for marking your dive gear and keeping it in your bag whenever you are not wearing it. Loose gear on a deck gets stepped on or lost.
The boat diving system is convenient; sit on the bench, above your dive bag, gear up, walk over to the rail, put on your fins, rinse your mask in a waist-high, circulating, saltwater box (or a bucket on the deck) and take a giant stride into the water. It is hard to walk on a moving boat deck in fins, so slipping them on at the gate is safer for you and the other divers.
Exiting the water is easy because most California boats have a ramp across the stern. The retractable ramp slopes down into the water, making it easy to swim on your belly right up onto the platform. Once you are on your knees, take off your fins, stand up while holding onto a hand rail, and climb the steps or wide rung ladder to the deck. Some boats have saltwater game wells built into the stern platform, so there is no need to lift a heavy bag up to the deck. Remember to give divers exiting the water lots of space. If you crowd behind a diver and he/she slips backwards, it is your head that gets hit by the tank.
Several of the boats offer washer-dryer service, so you only need to bring one towel. Some also have space below decks to hang wetsuits overnight. The heat from the engine dries your suit and makes it toasty warm for the morning dive. On multi-day winter trips the warm, dry wetsuit feature alone helps you select a boat!
Galley practices vary among the boats, so be sure to ask when you book. Boats with a cook and full galley rarely allow you to bring an ice chest on board. Breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks may or may not be included in the trip price. California boats are known for large helpings of top-quality food; some boats have signature dishes such as fresh baked cookies.
On multi-day trips unlimited air is included, but on day trips it may or may not be included in the trip price. Nitrox fills typically cost extra.
California boats tend to be family operations with great pride in their equipment and operation. The owner is often the captain and his wife may be the second license on board for multi-day trips. Their life's work is wrapped up in the boat and the attention to detail shows. The deck crews and second skippers tend to be long time employees who have run the boats and know the hot dive spots. Most of the captains are also active divers, so they know the wants and needs of divers.
Vessels for hire in the United States must be U.S. Coast Guard inspected and must be operated by Coast Guard licensed personnel. For more than six passengers, the operator needs an ocean operator's license. Ocean operator licenses are a major commitment and require hundreds of days of documented sea service and written examinations. The captain's license, boat inspection and boat license are required to be posted;if you do not see them, ask before you leave the dock.
California dive boats may not have the glamorous staterooms of their tropical counterparts, but they are clean, comfortable, safe, well-operated vessels that put you on some of the most exciting dive sites in the world. They have the amenities that four tank a day divers need. They have the deck space for photographers, spearfishing, scooters, gear bags and people. Wide exit ramps make it easy and safe to get out of the water. You'll never go hungry on a multi-day trip. So, grab your wetsuit or drysuit and book space for your Pacific Ocean adventure. There's nothing like California kelp diving, sea lions, whales, fish, lobster and sunshine.