While still deployed to Stan’s Blanket, I had been looking forward to a scuba diving trip in the Channel Islands of California. My brother-in-law, ScubaSteve, invited me to join him on a chartered dive boat out to the area by Painted Cave. I’d only ever done my harbor seal impersonation from a beach in the northern waters of the Pacific, but I loved the incredible experience. This mermaid had been out of the water too long! I’ve always wanted to swim with the Giant Pacific Octopus, despite the myth that they drown divers out of curiosity. I’ve heard several live under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
My sister-in-law, Ariel, is an extraordinary mom of two boys and small business owner. We’ll call the boys Thunder and Lighting because they are fascinating and adorable, but when they get riled up, I head for shelter. This poor little storm system was gusting germs and green precipitation. Family-wide illness almost sunk the dive trip, but ScubaSteve assured me that he would be breathing fine. Pseudoephedrine to the rescue! Ironically, Ariel is afraid of drowning, so she would be staying home to fight off the plague. I guess not having a tail anymore can really increase your water-based anxiety.
I made it down to Ventura the day before the dive and was able to brush up on my skills in the family pool. Like cold water down the unzipped neck of your wetsuit, it all came rushing back to me. I was confident enough to not die, but still felt like my skills were pretty rusty. Luckily, ScubaSteve had been diving often and knew his stuff. If he was Seal Team Six, then I was Otter Team 5. He may be more efficient and professional, but I looked cute and buoyant.
We met the Explorer Dive Boat at 6AM to head out for the 3-hour trip to the Northern Catalina Islands. Normally, I would be suspicious of a 3-hour boat trip, but I was promised a breakfast burrito and accepted my fate. The Captain’s wife, who must also be the First Mate, was on the grill providing breakfast for the 15 divers on the trip. By the time we arrived at Arch Rock, everyone started suiting up. Have you ever had an obnoxious relative pinch your cheeks? That’s how a dive hood feels when you have a round face and lots of hair. Maybe I just have a fat head, but the hair can’t be helping. With the thickness of the neoprene wetsuit, movement is somewhat difficult. Picture the little brother from the 1983 classic, A Christmas Story, in his snowsuit. Now, throw little Randy in the ocean. Luckily, I’m extra buoyant. I need 32 pounds of extra weight just to sink below the surface. That’s when things get interesting.
First things first: always make sure to switch from your snorkel to your regulator before starting to descend. I avoided it this time only because I’ve done it in the past. How am I still alive? While descending, it is important to equalize your ears often. I have a hard time equalizing and must make a swallowing motion to get the eustachian tubes to open properly. I must look like a manatee chewing sea-cud as I move my jaw and wait for the magical popping feeling. Somewhere around 20 feet under, the water was cold enough to shrink the air in my BCD faster than I could compensate. I dropped the last 10 feet to the bottom and felt an incredible pain in my ears. Just when I had started signaling that I was going to have to return to the surface, my ears equalized. Did they equalize or was I feeding grey matter to the Damselfish? I gave the okay signal to ScubaSteve and we flippered off toward the coral covered arch.
After 30 minutes, we were ready to head back to the boat. We surfaced right next to the boat and noticed it was about 50 feet away. The best way to swim with all the scuba gear is under the water. It is also advisable to avoid swimming against the current. Due to the low air supply and our angle to the boat, we had neither option. We paddled along like portly wiener dogs with our snorkels wagging in the surf. Each time I looked up to judge the distance to the boat, it appeared further away, so I stopped looking. When we finally made it back onto the boat and dragged ourselves onto the swim deck, the First Mate had lunch ready. I was reminded of the restaurant in San Francisco where you can watch the sea lions bask in the sun except I was the one trying to get out of the water. A cheeseburger helped distract me from the crackling sound in my ears.
The next dive site was closer to Painted Cave and ScubaSteve suggested I descend using the anchor line. Because I was going to descend so slowly, ScubaSteve waited on the surface until I was at the anchor. I’m sure waiting for me to descend was like going jogging with a toddler. I enjoyed the colorful fish, giant starfish, and interactive sea anemones. As I would hover over the anemones, they would turn color as they closed in a defensive posture. At one point, a tiny crab floated past my mask. We locked eyes and I named him Sebastian. His tiny crab face looked resigned as if to say, “Well, the giant otter is about to eat me.” He continued to float away in the current and I watched him go, hoping he would find a safe landing soon.
The guys preferred to take their flashlights and see who was in residence among the countless cave openings along the island. The presence of broken shells and lobster legs along the cave openings suggested that plenty of octopi and eels were in residence. While the guys were all about how deep in the caves they could see, I preferred to explore the coral surface. They excitedly pointed into a cave and shown their flashlights on a grey, spotted rock. Did that rock have a tentacle? We’ll pretend that it did. I saw an octopus!
Finally, we returned to the boat and changed into dry clothing. The day was partly cloudy, but I put sunscreen on my face and arms out of habit. This is my not-so-subtle way of foreshadowing tragedy. As we made the 3-hour trip back to the mainland, we encountered a huge pod of dolphins. The majority of them were barely three feet long, but they all jumped out of the water and showed off their incredible speed. My face hurt from all the smiling as we enjoyed the view from the top deck. When we finally returned to the marina, I noticed that my knees were slightly red. I had burned them bad enough to blister and peel spectacularly over the next few weeks. I now have incredibly tan knees as a reminder to apply sunscreen to all exposed skin. Time to attempt a patch job with some self-tanner. What could possibly go wrong? 😉