“But it’s just a bunch of sand!!!”
That’s the most common complaint that we hear when we’ve done a dive in the Rookery. But that comment comes from people who haven’t explored the full potential of the place.
The Rookery IS a sandy area located on the SE corner of Santa Barabra Island, and it’s the place where we get the highest concentration of California Sea Lions. They dot the shoreline, frequently with their pups, and they use this area of the island to navigate, forage for food, teach the young-uns how to survive, in the wild and… to play with divers. And that’s why boats come to dive this spot since there’s a good chance you’ll have all the divers get multiple sea lion encounters over the course of the dive.
I’ve had countless fabulous sea lion encounters in this area. Part of the trick of getting them to come to you is to sometimes appear not to be too eager. If you go chasing them, they’ll generally flee. (In case you’re not aware of this yet, they’re a LOT faster and more agile in the water than we could ever hope to be.) However, if you ignore them (somewhat), you might find them tagging along behind you and swimming all around you doing the sea lion version of “Hey, look at me!”
In fact, one time I was shooting some urchins or something like that and there was a sea lion right around me. I didn’t pay much attention. Within a few minutes she (most of the playful ones are females or pups) was hovering over me and at one point I almost spit my regulator out laughing because she was hanging over my head and then sticking her nose down into my mask as if to say, “Hello? Anyone in there?” (Of course, as soon as you acknowledge them, they play the never-mind-I’m-not-interested game.)
But there are certainly times when the sea lions aren’t too interested in bubble-blowers. And that’s when a little knowledge of other things the site has to offer can come in to play.
At some times during the year, it pays to head NOT into shallower water with the hopes of encountering sea lions, but to deeper waters. There, you may be lucky enough to run into Bat Rays. Not just one or two but multitudes of them. And not ones just lying around in the sand but ones that have their mojo on and are actively mating.
If you stay out around the 30-foot depth contour, you’ll run into some patch reefs that merit exploration. They sometimes provide shelter for Bat Rays (when they’re not mating) and also will contain a good mixture of invertebrates that inhabit the area. See if you can find a California sea hare and then look around for a clump of spaghetti-looking stuff, and you’ve found a sea hare egg mass.
Another option is to head for the extreme shallows in the right-hand corner of the cove. (This is sometimes best done as a surface swim on snorkel.) Not only might you get accosted by some sea lions on the way, but —behind avery large rock almost on the shoreline—you can sometimes get an up-close-and-personal view of the elephant seals.
Now, a word of caution. These guys are HUUUUUUGE, easily weighing 1000 pounds or more. And they don’t always take too kindly to visitors. So, while they’re impressive to see up close, you don’t want to get TOO close because they can move amazingly fast for an animal that size. And if you’d like a pee-in-your-wetsuit moment, give some thought to fleeing as fast as you can with a half-ton of annoyed blubber hot on your fins.
But if look at the SBI Rookery as more than just a place to see sea lions, you’re in for some treats. You might have to work a bit for them, but they’re definitely worth the effort.