There has been a lot of emphasis lately with scuba marketeers for experiences with “big animals.” This generally refers to swimming with whale sharks, gliding with giant manta rays, or thrilling to an underwater encounter with a whale. These are experiences not to be missed, for sure but, unfortunately, California never seems to rank high on the list of destinations for these kinds of encounters.
California does, however, most definitely have its fair shark of “Big Animal” encounters for an underwater thrill experience never to forget.
GIANT BLACK SEA BASS
Imagine a fish tipping the scales at 300 to 500 pounds (that is two to three times your size) that you could approach within a couple a feet, sometimes just inches away. That is the giant black sea bass.
You could chance encounter them at almost any spot in Southern California during summer and early fall months. But there are specific locations that you stand a better chance than most: Anacapa Island, La Jolla, Malaga Cove, Santa Monica Bay wrecks—but no location is better than Italian Gardens on Catalina Island.
It is not entirely clear why they gather at this location. Some have suggested mating, but this behavior has only been observed on a limited basis. Their natural food, small barracuda and other bait fish, are also not abundant here. This is definitely a cleaning station where small sheephead and tiny señorita fish move into to pick parasites off the dark gray behemoth bodies. And on close observation, they are covered in small flea-like creatures, some even invading their eyes. Since becoming a protected species in 1990, they have bounced back from the brink of extinction to the delight of visiting divers.
You can get very close. Some will allow approach with one or two feet. I, personally, have been able to get within just inches of their eyes. Do not, however, touch them. They just do not like it and drives them into deep water. In addition, you could be leaving them open to more parasitic infection. Do not attempt to feed them. It does not work.
It is actually unusual to see just one fish. Small groups of three to five fish are common and up to 12 individuals have been seen in this location on one dive. They vary in length from three to five feet long and rather than black, as their name implies, they are anywhere from a silver gray to a dark charcoal, often with large spots.
Sea lions are quite common along the California coastline and underwater encounters are not unusual, but if you have yet to experience your own personal ballet with one of these fun creatures, you need to book a trip right away.
Sea lions have several “haul-out” points along our coast where encounters are common — Coronados Islands, Seal Rock (Laguna), Monterey Breakwater, and many more. But no location is better suited for a sea lion encounter than at a rookery. A rookery, unlike a haul-out, is where sea lions actually mate and bear their young. The two largest in Southern Califoria are at San Miguel and Santa Barbara Island.
Santa Barbara Island is my favorite and, because of prevailing weather, the easiest to reach. Thousands of sea lions call this rookery home.
You could at anytime encounter sea lions of any age, and while most all are fun (the big males can be aggressive and just try to scare you away) the most enjoyable are the juveniles and of those, the babies are the most delightful. You usually can only see these in the water at the rookery.
While an underwater encounters are common, the trick is to keep their attention. The young ones bore easily. At first they will come at you with mouths open blowing bubbles just for the jollies of scaring you half to death. But then you should play with them. Spin underwater like they do. Pick up a rock and drop it. Odds are they will do the same. Present to them your dive light. Make it fun and they’ll stick around longer and do more cool stuff.
Like sea lions, bat ray encounters are not uncommon along the Central and Southern California coastline. At nearly any dive site where reefs meet the sand you stand a pretty good chance of coming across a bat ray lounging in the sand nearby. Sometimes you come across a big one, but more often they run in the two-to three-foot range. There is, however, a location where you are almost guaranteed to come across, and easily approach, several bat rays in the four-to five-foot range. This is also the only one of two spots I have seen a bat ray with a six-foot “wing-span.” For a fantastic bat ray encounter, head for Big Gieger Cove on Catalina Island.
The kelp forest and reef diving is excellent off the point, but that is usually as far as divers venture. Inside the cove, in just 15 to 20 feet of water is a large sea grass bed. This is where you will find the rays. Encounters with three or four is not unusual. Stay low to the bottom and as you skim the grass, look for a black patch and hump in the hazy distance. Water clarity is not the best here, but as you approach slow and low you can usually get within just a couple feet of these magnificent creatures. Nearly all in this cove rate in the three-to five-foot size range.
By all means go and experience your first whale shark encounter out of the country, your first manta ray encounter out of state, but do not forget that there are wonderful underwater experiences to be had with big animals right here in California.