In the spring of each year, several of my dive buddies and I pack our gear and leave our beloved Monterey Peninsula and steam down the south bound lane of Highway 101. Turning off the freeway, we head westward for half an hour, finally reaching the entrance to Arroyo Seco State Park. After paying our five dollar fee, we park our cars and begin to unload.

For my dive partners this was not the usual dive trip. Along with masks, fins and tanks, we wore old tennis shoes, boots or anything that was expendable to protect our feet from the slick rocks and the sharp, broken vegetation of the river. Our plan was to hike up the Tassajara River gorge as far as time would allow. Between hiking above ground and wading through shallow portions of the river, we would dive the deeper pools called arroyos. We would explore the bottom to observe whatever life we could find and collect as many crayfish as our goody bags could hold.

From the parking lot we descended a gentle slope and waded through shoulder-high water to the other side of the river and started hiking. Our masks hung from our necks and we carried our fins. We followed a well traveled path leading upward along the sandy riverbank until a deep arroyo barred our way. Putting on our masks and fins, we popped regulators in our mouths and dived into the cool water.

The clear, fresh water was quite a contrast for divers used to the waters of the Monterey Bay. The bottom was covered with fine sand, studded with smooth pebbles. Swimming along a submerged cliff we peered into every crack and crevice searching for crayfish. The largest crustaceans seemed to dwell on the bottom, while smaller sizes preferred to be near the surface. Though we all wore gloves, we still could get a painful nip if not careful.

A powerful current met us at the head of the arroyo, and we had difficulty negotiating the water polished rocks while climbing out of the water. Removing our fins and slipping our masks down to our necks we followed through knee-high water to an even deeper pool 100 feet above the first. As before, we put on our dive gear and took the plunge.

That was our regimen for the next several hours. Dive, walk, dive, walk. But it was far from a boring task. We never tired from the beauty of the surrounding gorge as well as the underwater scenery of the river. Each arroyo provided a different experience and discovery. But the river could also be a dangerous place. Every year there is at least one death from drowning and rattlesnakes could strike from within shaded areas of the brush we passed by.

Along with crayfish the river also held steelhead trout as much as 18 inches long. We couldn’t catch them as we had no fishing line and spearfishing is prohibited. Farther up the river I find one of my buddies pursuing a terrified box turtle. Surprisingly fast and agile, the turtle gave him a merry chase finally catching it near the surface. After a quick inspection he let the turtle slip through his gloved fingers and watched it disappear into the distance.

Shearwater TERN

The terrain became rougher. The manicured trails lower down had disappeared and we were forced to ferry our heavy gear through the deeper parts of the river. The narrow gorge we were following suddenly opened up and we dropped into our final goal, the deepest arroyo of the river.

We estimated the oval-sized depression held at least 40,000 gallons of water. That’s as large as the average swimming pool. Entry was from a sandy beach, which allowed us to sit on the shallow bottom to put on our gear, taking the weight off our backs. With only a few pounds of air left in my tank, I had to make this last dive count.

I followed the others down the sloping bottom which opened into a pool about 25 feet deep. Fingerling trout, feeding along the pebbled bottom, fled at our approach. An underwater cliff bordered each side of the pool. We searched the deep cracks along the bottom for crayfish, topping off our already over stuffed goody bags.

In the darkness of the water I saw a monster. The biggest crayfish I ever saw hid inside a deep horizontal crack. He thrust his ragged pincers forward in defiance, and the long segmented antennae reached out to inspect my gloved hand. With a flick of its tail the crustacean buried itself deeper in the dark fissure. A great cloud of mud was held in suspension near the crayfish den. I reached in and felt around, quickly getting a sharp nip from those great claws. How could anything that small have such a powerful grip, I thought to myself. I peered into the crack and saw only the antennae probing into the light. I stuck my left hand into the crack, palm open. With the other hand moving toward him, the crayfish slowly retreated, backing into my waiting fingers. I grabbed his body quickly just behind the head. I didn’t want those claws coming around to pinch me again. Pulling him out of the crack and into the sunlight, I visually measured him as we headed for the surface.

His body was the length of my hand, from palm to tip, and the claws almost as long. Grey green eyes peered out of the rough carapace and the claws were open for any opportunity. I dropped him into my open goody bag.

It was getting late and rather than walking back down the cascades and steep rocks of the lower river, we climbed a dirt path carved into the steep sides of the gorge that lead to a fire road. An hour later we were in the parking lot packing up our gear. A plastic tub filled with water would keep our crayfish alive until later that night when they would be the stars for a barbecue. My prize crayfish was the guest of honor on my plate alongside corn on the cob and spareribs. He was delicious.

California Diving News