On this particular day following a winter storm, the wind was strong and finding a calm spot in which to dive was going to be difficult at best. But Ted Cummings, captain of the Spectre dive boat is good, and I knew if anybody could find us a place to dive, he’d be the one to do it.
Moreover, he would find us not just a place to get wet, but a great dive to boot.
We headed for Little Scorpion Anchorage on the lee side of the east end of Santa Cruz Island. Little Scorpion is noted for its well protected waters in most any weather. Today was no exception. Along the east side of the cove the small cliffs dropped straight into the water and a thin line of kelp hinted at a rock reef below. We set hook in the sand bottom out from the reef and a stern anchor on the reef under the kelp.
In spite of the winter storms that can wreak havoc on the island, winter is a great time to dive Santa Cruz. Waters are clear and full of life. It’s a great lobster spot and scallops are abundant. The largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz tends to be the poorest for water clarity because of silty run-off and green plankton rich waters. In the winter, the cold water and less sunlight restricts the plankton growth and visibility skyrockets between storms.
We hit Little Scorpion on a good day. Looking off the stern into 50 feet of water I could see the bottom — and that’s where I wanted to be so I suited up and hit the water.
A moderately sloping sand bottom here is a patchwork mat of brittle stars. They extend their arms into the cold currents to capture tiny bits of food as they breeze by. This is prime territory for filter feeders I was later to find when exploring the reef. Here and there amongst the stars are the lairs of mantis shrimp, easy to find because of the piles of sand which the drive from their holes. They are shy and wary but fantastic subjects for photography or just plain observation. Look but don’t touch! Mantis shrimp can inflict a painful wound with their lightning-quick, knife-like front legs. You could spend an entire dive just delighting in the animals on the sand here. Rays are common. Keep an eye out for the round electric torpedo ray. Here’s another animal that is fascinating but you don’t want to get too close. They can deliver a powerful charge, if touched. Their Spanish name means “arm-beaker.”
The rocky pinnacles start at 60 feet and reach up to the surface, often vertically, to within 15 feet. Some of the walls are 40 feet high. As previously stated, this is filter feeder territory. Most of the year, these waters are quite green, rich with plankton. Filter feeders take maximum advantage of this banquet. On the rock faces are lots of medium-sized rock scallops, one of many filter feeders. They are tasty and fat. To gather, you will need a strong pry bar, a heavy duty knife works well, a game bag, and a fishing license. Look for the bright orange “smile” (some are brown or gray). Pry them from the rock and bag them. An alternate method is to cut out the desired meat with a thin knife, leaving the shell behind. This method disturbs the reef less. The limit is 10 per person per day with no season or no minimum size (although you should not take scallops smaller than the palm of your hand). The edible portion of the scallop is the cream colored abductor muscle. Try them raw. They are quite tasty and not at all fishy, but more of a light nutty flavor. If you cook them, simply saute’ them lightly in butter. Do not over cook or over spice!
The most abundant filter feeder here is the sea cucumber. This is not the usual brown lumps you see on the bottom eating debris, but rather small tubes that attach and bury themselves into the reef and extend long feather-like tentacles to capture food. Watch closely for a minute or so and you’ll see them put their tentacles in their mouths, pulling food away in a “licking their fingers” kind of motion. These animals come in shades of white, brown, black, and orange.
Macro photographers will enjoy this dive site. Added to the mix of filter feeders already mentioned are red gorgonian, feather duster worms, colonial cup coral, and a bit of corynatis anemones. Crawling in and out of this biomass are many tiny crabs. Small reef fish include painted greenling, ghost gobys and blue-banded gobys. Wide-angle photography is limited by the usually poor visibility. If water clarity is good, the rock pinnacles can be dramatic. The rays on the sand can also provide good material.
Hunters will find only one serious quarry here: rock scallops. Halibut can be found on the sand in the spring, but there are better spots on this island. Lobster are small and few with one possible exception: in shallow. If the surge is low some of the rock piles in close to the cliffs can hold some nice bugs. Look also around some of the sea caves in the cliffs.
Little Scorpion is actually a fairly large dive area. More toward the middle of the cove is the submerged wreckage of a pier. All along the cliff face to the east are patches of kelp indicating reefs below. There is more than enough here to fill up a day of diving.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: On the lee side of the east end of Santa Cruz Island, just east of Scorpion Anchorage.
Access: Boat only.
Depths: 10 to 80 feet.
Visibility: Fair, usually better in the winter
Skill level: All
Photography: Excellent macro. Fair wide-angle.
Hunting: Very good for rock scallops. Fair lobster in shallow. Fair halibut in spring on sand.