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San Clemente 2005

Trip Report - San Clemente Island, July 2005

In the absence of a major trip to a warm water destination this year, I took the oportunity to join the San Diego Bottom Bunch diving club on a three day outing to San Clemente Island. I have to admit, I was apprehensive and in two minds about the whole thing since San Clemente is a remote place in the channel islands chain off southern California and, although the diving is described as being some of the best in the area, it is California diving. In other words, it can be cold, dark and challenging. Now this does not bother me unduly on shore dives and day trips; the torture, if things do get challenging, ends after a short while but being on a longer trip and planning to dive a wetsuit, certainly gave me pause for thought.

This trip was aboard the Ocean Odyssey, which sails out of San Diego bay. It is a sport fisherman which also does regular scuba charters out to the islands, including white shark trips out to Guadaloupe, and is equipped with basic bunkhouse style accomodation for about 30 people. It isn't a five-star hotel, but it is clean and comfortable and has enough amenities (like a closed changing room and a drier which is constantly running) to help ease the day along.

We boarded the boat about 8:00pm, and although some latecomers delayed departure by a couple of hours, we sailed at a reasonable enough time. The galley works overtime on this boat, and we were kept well supplied throughout the whole trip with drinks, snacks and copious meals. We started out the evening with a boat briefing from our captain, Gary, and a short dive briefing from Martin Graf, the DM. The crossing was uneventful, and we arrived at the island sometime while we were all still sleeping.

As usual on a trip like this, the captain was being cautious until he could get to know the group, so he was all in favour of a very easy site to begin with. Our intrepid organiser Ellen had other ideas, however, and with a group which was mainly made up of experienced divers who could blame her? In fact we had the Long family with us (for those of you who don't know them, they own DUI and can be regarded as fairly experienced!) As well as those illustrious companions, we had a DIR instructor visiting from Florida and almost everyone else seemed to be a DM or instructor as well - I was feeling like the newbie in the group with 9 years' diving under my belt.
In the event, we compromised on a first site, and started out at a place called outside boiler which has a wonderful swim through at about 80ft. Two dives here got us off to a good start.

Four dives on the Friday saw me getting pretty cold in a wetsuit (a fact which was not lost on Dick Long, who had a "why are you doing this to yourself?" look on his face whenever he saw a wetsuit diver). Anyway, I passed on the night dive in order to warm up over dinner. The divers who did go in after dinner had a good time, and we had a great show with all the sealions chasing flying fish around and into the boat.

We motored overnight up to the north east end of the island, and attempted two sites up there before finding somewhere the captain could actually drop anchor and get reasonable vis and current conditions. When we eventually dropped in, the water was so cold I thought we had gone all the way to Monterey! I had 52 degrees on my computer; another diver recorded 49 degrees! Even so, the dive was great but I decided that I would skip the second go at that site just to be able to warm up again. In the event, however, that decision was taken out of our hands by a callow navy youth who came up with his crew in a RIB to evict us from the area: apparently there is a 300yd exclusion zone and his senior officer got out of bed the wrong side that day - our tax dollars at work making the nation safe from middle aged divers having waaay too much fun!   Of course, the fun was at the expense of the said callow youth who was faced with a bevy of rumbunctious ladies some of whom were old enough to be his grandmother, never mind his mother. Talk about the sacrifices we call upon to be made by our dedicated men in uniform!
The upshot of all this was that we were forced to slink away down to the other end of the island where we could hide ourselves amongst the other 50 or so boats who were exercising their right of assembly to dive and/or fish.

Excellent diving again, with much warmer water at these sites, but the night dive was blown out, to the frustration of all those who had once again abstained from the alcoholic largesse of the club (not me, by the way).

The morning of day three saw us at The Arch - note the capitalisation. This is a truly awesome dive: until I had dived this site, the undisputed best dive in California was Whalers cove up by Monterey. This is true no longer - whalers cove has been toppled from its perch, this site is the best; it has everything - kelp, a swim through arch, gorgonians and sea fans, nudibranch abound, along with the sponges on which they feed. There isn't a square inch which is not covered in things to see: truly the best that California has to offer. After that great start to the day, we did two more dives at a shallower and somewhat warmer site which made a perfect end to a great three days of diving.

My initial reservations, regarding both the challenge of surviving three days of cold-water diving, and that of getting along with a completely unknown group of people, were shown to be completely unjustified. The diving was manageable and spectacular, and the group was all that could be asked for - open and welcoming.

A good experience and one I would not hesitate to have again. Well, ok , I might get a drysuit!