A couple months ago one of my dive buddies told me to sign up for a three day trip on a charter boat called the Sand Dollar, a small crew of us NorCal divers would be taking over the boat for the final trip of lobster season. The price was extremely fair and I had been wanting to try my hand at lobster diving in Southern California for years, I immediately signed up and began patiently waiting. A month or so passed and finally the day of departure was upon us. My buddy Adam arrived at my house mid Wednesday morning and we loaded dive gear, spearguns, polepears, coolers, boogie board and banks board into his truck and began our pilgrimage to SoCal where we would meet up with the other guys at the boat’s berth.
After a long day of driving and a couple hours wasted in obligatory L.A. traffic (bleh), we arrived. Space is always tight on a boat but Captain George of the Sand Dollar had considerately chosen not to fill the charter to capacity and instead of being packed onto a dive boat like sardines with a lot of extra gear, we each had just about enough space to keep our dive gear accessible on the back deck and a few free bunks to store our personal effects. At 10:00pm the manifest was complete and the boat set out for Santa Barbara Island, a 5 hour voyage. Most everyone popped a few Dramamine and let the drowsiness ease them to sleep.
3am rolled around and Adam whacked me in the leg then let me know we had arrived. Minutes later we were filling out lobster report cards and attaching glow sticks to our snorkels. My previous lobster diving experience was fairly limited; I dove one night years ago in the Caribbean and grabbed a few small spiny lobster. I also went out one day last year freediving in Florida, where I used a tickle stick to work a few bugs out of their holes. But this was my first time hunting bugs at night in the kelp forest and I was wired like a meth addict with anticipation. We grabbed flashlights and hit the water. The visibility was good but by no means stunning and the surge was noticeable. We began scanning the floor with our lights and after a short while I saw one crawling a long the bottom exposed out out in the open. With my arm fully extended to the left I distracted the little bug with my flashlight and then eased my right hand behind his tail and into grabbing range. Suddenly I darted my hand forward and grabbed for the lobster, success!!! I brought him up to the surface and called out for Adam, “help me measure him”. He swam over, put up his gauge and told me it was short. I released the little bug and let him swim away to safety. The scenario repeated itself a couple more times until finally I found a lobster of substantial size, happily I was able to claim the one before the night ended. We had dove a couple short hours in total before we headed in. Only a couple bugs had been taken by the few of us that had gone out. It was deemed the area was not very buggy.
In the morning I woke up late and joined the rest of the boat in the water at a new dive site. We saw large Sheepshead, hordes of Opaleye, skittish Calicos, and Matt Brown would take the largest lobster of the trip while on scuba. Overall the viz was less than stellar, the surge wouldn’t let us work areas close to wash rocks, and the consensus after only a couple hours was to head back towards Catalina for better conditions. Three short hours of napping later and we found ourselves at a new dive site on a new island.
Conditions at Catalina were substantially better, we entered the calm water only to be greeted with 50′ visibility, the hunt for Calicos began. Calico Sea Bass, as I would learn, are particularly wily they don’t stick around and even after getting one holed up it would only take the shine of a flashlight and the Calico would bolt through a secondary exit for another hiding spot far way. I was only able to score two Calicos with my 9′ gat-ku polespear, both were taken from holes. I dove nearly 4 hours in this location and took very few fish. The horn sounded, the divers returned, and we headed around the island to find another site to explore. The Calico hunt continued and although I spotted dozens of holed up lobsters I focused on trying to get close to large Calicos with no success. Back on the boat one of the divers, Daniel (Lionsden for my NCUH readers) had shot a large Calico, I forget the fish’s weight but it was a beast and it was the largest Calico shot on the trip.
One of the many great things about the Sand Dollar was the way that the meals were set up, being predominantly a group of fanatic dive all day freedivers, Captain George and Katie, the cook, arranged to have breakfast lunch and dinner around for large time windows so that meals would always be ready whenever you wanted to eat. Snacks like PB & J, fresh fruit, and granola bars were available around the clock as well. This meal plan complimented the dive schedule excellently, all day and all night as long as the boat wasn’t moving sites. I dove a couple more hours Thursday night after dark, lazily grabbing free ranging bugs off the ocean’s floor until I had taken 6 more legal lobsters and completed my day’s limit before hitting my bunk and waking up somewhere new.
Friday morning I awoke to the sounds of splashing water and divers gearing up. Moments later I was on deck surveying our new scenic surroundings. I hurriedly suited up and entered the water. Clear visibility, shallow heavily forested reef, and although I was not seeing much in the way of fish the rocky sea floor was littered with little holes, cracks, and crevices, all packed with lobster. In a few hours I had a grabbed a couple from out of their hiding places when the boat’s horn sounded and we moved a short distance down the coast where I continued hunting bugs from deep within their homes. This area would turn out to be very productive and by far the most exciting day of the trip. I found myself excavating basketball sized boulders from the back ends of lobster filled crevices in an effort to gain access to the tasty creatures. I often found good sized bugs holed up together and when I was successful in my excavations I would fill my bag with 2-4 lobster from a single hole. In one particular recess I found at the base of a wash rock I stuck my flashlight in the face of an aggressively posturing eel, effectively calling his bluff and forcing his retreat, I then removed enough sand and rocks so I could fit myself waist deep upside down and arm fully extended towards the two large lobsters hiding out at the very back of the hole. With the stone ceiling inches from my face, I blindly felt around with my outstretched hand until I felt the legs and antennae of large terrified lobsters. One by one I removed them both from the crevice and then gloated to myself over the size of the larger bug. It was the most exciting and challenging hole hunting I have ever done while freediving.
After 6 or so hours of diving I returned to the boat with my second day’s limit of lobster. I needed a few hours to rest up before a full night of diving. Once aboard I learned that John, one of the few SoCal divers we had allowed on the boat hehehe, had been out hunting halibut and had shot three at the nearby beach in less than 3′ of water. John, a member of the Long Beach Neptunes, is a solid spearfisher. After some talk about halibut habits and some jealous gawking I decided I would hunt halibut from dark until midnight under the full moon, Jason and Daniel had similar plans. Jason would end up taking a large flatty, a 15lb halibut (that’s just under 7 kilos for my single European reader 😉 ), Daniel and myself came up empty handed. After midnight we would switch tactics and return to the reef in search of our third and final lobster limits.
Diving in clear water amidst a kelp forest under the full moonlight was amazing. Unfortunately the moon was so bright that very few bugs were to be found openly scavenging along the reef. After an hour or so of searching for wandering crustaceans I realized I would once again be pulling them out of their holes. I applied myself and the catch bag clipped to my belt began filling with unhappy lobsters. Finally, just before 4am, I had achieved my limit. Having been diving in the dark for almost 7 hours and after a full day of diving I was tired and ready to head in. The suit came off under a hot shower on the boat and within minutes I was in my bunk falling asleep.
I slept late on Saturday morning, when I finally arose we were once again somewhere new. This site had the most stunning visibility yet, easily 70′. I only had a few hours to dive before the boat would head back to Catalina and my limit for lobster had been reached, so I hopped in the water with nothing more than my polespear and my float line and set out in search of wily Calicos. Although I had done very well hunting bugs, Calicos would be a humbling experience. Far too quick for me, the few large fish I saw darted like fired bullets through the forest until they were far from sight. I returned to the boat having enjoyed seeing small octopi, leopard sharks, more lobster, and swarms of opaleye, but empty handed.
Soon after the boat began heading back to the mainland, myself and many other divers enjoyed beers (among other things) on the bow of the cruising Sand Dollar it was a sunny SoCal day. It had been an amazing trip with lots of great guys, a great crew, and an exhausting amount of amazing freediving, spearfishing, and bug hunting. My bottom times improved notably, I learned a lot about the kind of hunting in which I excel, and I learned in what kind of hunting I need to improve. I would recommend the Sand Dollar Dive Charter to anyone (don’t expect excessive pampering or hand holding, expect great diving, good food, and great diving) and I will without doubt be writing reports of future trips with Captain George.