The Scripps/La Jolla Submarine Canyon

Off the coastline of La Jolla in San Diego lies a large and very deep submarine canyon system with two branches that climb from the abyss to just within reach of shore divers near the La Jolla Shores resort and the Scripps pier lying one-half mile to the north. After a short swim from the sandy beach at La Jolla Shores, a set of buoys marks the approximate location of the upper reaches of the canyon. At about 30 feet the slope of the sand begins to drop off at a steep angle. The deeper you travel, the steeper the slope, finally falling off to depths well beyond the scuba zone. Within the canyon lies a treasure of interesting and sometimes bizarre creatures and a fascinating ecosystem that researchers are still exploring and learning about.

Our last trip there was on a boat out of Mission Bay, a choice mandated by the fact we were making multiple night dives with our photographic club. Swimming out and back from the beach a couple times with underwater cameras stretches the bounds of fun, and a nice warm cabin to hide from the wind and change film is a welcome luxury. Fortunately, Mission Bay has several dive charter services and a large choice of boats. With Wreck Alley and the newly sunk destroyer Yukon joining the existing wrecks and the collapsed NOAA weather tower, there is no shortage of adventure for all.

Our target for the night dive was the vast schools of Opalescent Squid that mate and lay their eggs in the sand along the upper reaches of the submarine canyon. The squid runs trigger an extraordinary congregation of fish, rays, sharks and invertebrates who all come running to the sound of the dinner bell. Squid are the M&M’s of the ocean and one of the fundamental elements in the marine food chain. They await the nights in winter and spring when conditions are right and then the water column explodes with mating squid and a host of hungry critters gorging themselves to capacity. Virtually everything that swims in the surrounding ocean can be found one time or another munching squid during the winter and spring in the canyon.

Dropping to the sand in 30 feet of water I found myself surrounded by a bewildering array of halibut, skates, rays, and an army of crabs of many varieties. The night we arrived was towards the end of one of the runs and it seemed that everything was torpid, stuffed, and basically lying around on the sand going BURP! Following my compass, I headed towards the canyon edge and began my decent with a close watch on my gauges. Caution is needed here because the bottom drops off quite steep, becoming almost vertical in places within the scuba zone. On my way down I ran across a sculpin that looked as if someone had stuffed a softball in its stomach and was so full it still had half an adult squid projecting from its mouth like some sort of comical white cigar. While I was chuckling to myself a fairly large spiny lobster made its way up the slope headed for the dinner table, marching across vast clusters of egg cases.

The visibility that night was very good, at least 50 feet. At 80 feet there were a lot of squid lying about in the final moments of their life after mating and depositing their egg sacks in huge clumps of finger-like egg cases swaying in the surge. With my computer marching onward towards the caution zone I looked deeper into the canyon and noticed larger schools of squid milling about. The lure of the larger schools would have to wait because it was time to start back up the slope to the lights of the dive boat and a cup of hot soup. The chance of being surrounded in a white-out of mating squid would have to await another night or at least in shallower water.

I shot two rolls of film that night. One roll was shot with a Nikonos V, dual strobes and a 15 mm lens. This is my favorite setup since I can shoot wide angle or extreme close ups on the same dive. The 15 mm lens will focus down to a couple inches and coupled with a 90 degree field of view offers flexibility few camera systems can match. A good option since there could be everything from blue sharks to tiny decorator crabs under the boat. There are a few limitations. I found that chasing individual squid around and trying to focus and frame on a sleek water-jet propelled squid bent on sex and escape was more than a challenge. On the second dive I switched to a 28 mm lens with a Nikonos close up kit. The close- up kit is a superior glass optic and the framer allows point and shoot options, perfect for chasing and photographing moving targets. There was certainly no shortage of critters to photograph.

Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: The La Jolla Submarine Canyon is located adjacent to the city of La Jolla, north of Mission Bay and San Diego. The canyon reaches almost to the beach and can be accessed from shore at the well-known dive and swimming area known as La Jolla Shores at the foot of Valicitos street.
Conditions: Diving on a sand bottom that slopes steeply from about 30 feet to depths well beyond the scuba zone. Visibility varies depending on upwellings and sometimes-strong currents. Spring and winter weather can reduce visibility. Water temps can range from low 50s to 62 degrees in winter.
Concerns: Squid will only run at night so the minimum qualifications are ability to navigate short distances by compass and comfort with night diving. Beach entries through surf require some training or familiarity with surf, otherwise all skill levels may dive here. Note that the Canyon lies within the San Diego/La Jolla Ecological Reserve and Park. Please check all appropriate game regulations before attempting take from this area.

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