We were in the water just before daybreak. As we descended, light reflecting off the white sand and shell bottom made it brighter 50 feet underwater than it had been at the surface. Visibility was about 75 to 100 feet; the water was crystal clear. We passed over swaying palm kelp and saw pink-purple coralline algae everywhere. As long as we stayed below 30 feet the surge wasn’t bothersome, but in the shallower areas we felt as if we were in a giant washing machine.
Always alert for antennae, we would swoop down to check out ledges, crevices and the undersides of rocks. The bottom was strewn with huge boulders haphazardly forming jagged gullies with sandy centers. We expected lobsters to be abundant here but found only one, in 20 feet of water. Don grabbed it and I held the game bag open. New to lobster hunting (as was I), he dropped it into the bag head first. The lobster flipped its tail and shot out of the bag. There ensued an hilarious pursuit over a bed of eel grass. Turning somersaults in the surge, we almost had our prey a number of times. Then, with a final tail flip, it disappeared.
Running low on air, we surfaced. An inflatable boat motored over to us and we were instructed to hang onto ropes on its side. Then we were towed over long rolling swells to the boat.
Once again on deck, this time in daylight, I removed my tank and weightbelt and looked around. Two buoys bounced on the swells not far away—but there was no land to be seen in any direction.
Such was my introduction to Cortes Bank in 1975. An extensive reef about 23 miles long and 7 miles wide, it is approximately 80 miles southwest of San Pedro and about 60 miles west of San Diego. The nearest land is San Clemente Island, some 41 miles to the northeast. San Nicolas Island is about 50 miles northwest. The trip there on a dive boat takes eight to nine hours.
Depths at Cortes start at 12 feet and go on down. Most of the diving is done in the 40-to 80-foot range because that’s where the bugs are found.
There are two dive areas at Cortes—Bishop Rock and the Nine Fathom Spot. Bishop Rock, marked by two buoys, is surrounded by almost 1,500 acres of ocean bottom in less than 30 meters (98 1/2 feet) water. It was named for the clipper ship, Stillwell S. Bishop, which ran into the rock in 1855. The Bishop didn’t sink there; her crew patched her hull and sailed her safely to San Francisco. The Nine Fathom Spot, four or five miles northwest of Bishop Rock, has almost 100 acres of ocean bottom covered by water 30 meters or less deep.
Cortes is visited almost exclusively by Southern California charter fishing and dive boats, mostly during lobster season. The bugs, though, are found here unpredictably. Some years they are big and abundant; some years they’re not. When they are here, they’re usually easier to catch than those found closer to the mainland because they haven’t seen many divers.
I bagged an 11 1/2 pound lobster here in 1979 on one of the most exciting dives of my life. I knew I would never catch anything bigger. My lobster-catching career wound down after that and photography took over.
Cortes Bank is a great place for that, too. The water is clean and clear (and usually warmer than that closer to the coast), washed constantly by the currents. Purple hydrocoral can be found here and on one dive I saw a school of bat rays. Black seabass are known to frequent the bank. Keep your eyes open; since Cortes is in the open sea anything that lives in the ocean might wander by.
Cortes has one divable wreck, the Jalisco. She was sunk deliberately in November 1966—but why remains a mystery. Some claim she was supposed be an abalone farm; others that she was to be an island. She is covered with marine life now but, since she is shallow, can only be visited when the seas are calm.
Diving at Cortes can be challenging because the area is completely exposed to the weather. Swells can get so high that divers on the surface are unable to see a dive boat unless they are atop a large wave. Currents can and do change direction quickly, making a shambles of even the most careful dive plan. When you dive here, bring both audible (an air horn or whistle) and visual (an inflatable tube) location devices. On more than one trip, divers not visible from the boat were found because they blew whistles or sounded air horns.
The trip home from Cortes is a long one. You’ll have more than enough time to nap, swap dive stories with other divers and relax. And once you’ve been there, chances are you’ll return to Cortes Bank. It’s a special dive area, unlike any others.