Spooner’s Cove, Montana De Oro

I had to wait for the afternoon between tides for the waves to calm.The course sand made a crunching sound beneath my dive boots as I traversed the beach. The heavy scent of eucalyptus from a nearby forestfilled the air. A heavy fog hovered above a sheltered cove of light-colored rock, and the white water seemed suspended between the waves. A seldom visited dive location, Spooner’s Cove at Montana de Oro State Park would be my first experience scuba diving in San Luis Obispo County.

Wading into the ebbing tide, I place the regulator in my mouth and slip beneath the twisting surface. Conditions were not ideal so I would have to confine my photographic efforts to close-ups.

The rocky bottom was thick with a dark algae melding into the surrounding dark water of an overcast day. A colorful little Spanish shawl nudibranch moved slowly the endless vegetation, carefully cleaning each blade before moving on to the next. Swimming along a narrow channel filled with stones, I was protected momentarily by the increasing current. The surrounding area was a series of rocky reefs of various heights and sizes. I started by exploring the closest.

Typical of most California reefs, patches of colorful strawberry anemones were colonizing the shadowed portions, their tiny white tentacles reaching out into water to grasp microscopic prey. Moving around the corner I grasp what I think to be a stone, only to startle a large eyed cabezon that darts quickly away into a dark crevice.

In the murky distance is a larger formation. I swim through the open water and catch two mating rock crabs in the act. When I approach they break apart, each disappearing to a different part of the reef. So much for true love. Searching through a thick growth of coralline algae, I spota little crevice kelpfish darting between the segmented leaves. The fish is perfectly camouflaged to blend into the surrounding vegetation. A school of immature opaleye circumnavigate the reef. One by one each fish seemed to take turns passing me as they swim around to the furthest part of the reef. Stubby palm kelp sway back and forth inunison with the current. A spider-like kelp crab cling to the thick, broad leaves. The crustacean moves deliberately without notice of the moving water around it as it climbs from one part of the plant to another.

The last reef I explored was the largest. Unlike the others I encountered this one was almost clean of vegetation along its northern side. Colorful sponges of orange and red separated the tiered strata of dark sedimentary rock. An occasional rose anemone hugged the vertical face, surrounded by large polyps of solitary coral. Near a sandy portion of the bottom, a quick flash of motion catches my eye. At first I think itis a tiny piece of vegetation drifting along the bottom, but a closer inspection reveals a baby octopus, no bigger than my thumb. With tentacles curled upward and mottled skin shaded to match its surroundings, the tiny mollusk hides in plain sight, in a motionless pose waiting for me to leave. I watch for several minutes until, inch by inch, as if hoping to remain unnoticed, the little octopus moves slowly away.

With the changing of the tides the current began to increase, so I headed for shore. Criss-crossing the terrain from one reef to another a yearling sea lion comes out of the depths, gives me a close look and disappears as quickly as it came. I reach the line of rolling surf and swim through the turbid water. I reach the shore just as the sun begins to peek through the milky grey sky.

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