The dive plan for the day was to have a black sea bass encounter, and the location chosen was the venerable wreck, Star of Scotland in Santa Monica Bay. Santa Monica Bay? Most divers would ask, why there, instead of Catalina? True, most divers typically meet these amazing creatures at the offshore islands, but our coastal waters harbor a robust and fairly predictable population of the gentle giants.
A mere 15-minute run from Marina del Rey Harbor aboard the D/V Moby Kate found us anchored up on the wreck site of the ex-Royal Navy warship, ex-freighter, ex-gambling ship, ex-pleasure barge, Star of Scotland. Conditions were perfect — clear sunny skies, no wind, glassy seas, and just the slightest westerly swell all promised a perfect day of diving.
One of several wrecks in Santa Monica Bay available to divers, the Star seems to shine brighter than any of the others. Located approximately a mile off Santa Monica Pier in about 80-feet of water, the Star is a piscatorial oasis in what is generally a vast sand desert that is the bottom of the bay. Because of this, the Star draws an amazing diversity of creatures to the wreck proper and its surrounding waters. Over the years I have seen all manner of sport fish around the wreck including bluefin tuna, yellowtail, barracuda bonita, mackerel and recently, juvenile great white sharks! Of course, on the wreck are calico and sand bass, sculpin, cabezon, halibut and the occasional lingcod along with myriad types of perch and invertebrates beyond count. Though regular sightings of giant black sea bass have been going on for nearly ten years, it was little known in the general diving community. During that time the Star’s main, all-year black sea bass resident was, and is, an immense fish we affectionately call “Big Mama.” Estimated at 400 to 500 pounds, she puts in regular appearances that have startled more than one visiting diver into being glad they were wearing a wet suit. When first seen, the most common comparison that is made is to the Goodyear blimp.
My dive buddy for this trip was Cindy Shaw, a relatively new diver whose fondest wish (aside from getting certified initially) was to see giant black sea bass at home, in their natural environment. Despite several Catalina trips and nearly 100 dives, she had been thwarted by the fates and had yet to see a single black sea bass. She had been promised that the situation would change today.
We entered the water and kicked down the anchor line and settled on the wreck at amidships. I didn’t learn until after we surfaced, that just moments after we landed on the wreck, Cindy saw her first giant black sea bass. Apparently, it was above and behind me and cruised by without coming into my line of sight.
Thirty seconds on the wreck and the first sighting– Promise kept! As we were to soon learn, this was just the beginning.
Slowly swimming forward along the starboard side of the Star we stopped often to admire the various structures of the wreck that are so heavily overgrown with all manner of invertebrate life, but particularly with rainbow-hued Corynactus. In some places the colonial anemones form a stunning shag carpet of psychedelic colors that dazzle the eyes of visiting divers.
On reaching the Star’s bow, we were greeted by the juvenile contingent of the local black sea bass population. Singles, pairs and trios of the inquisitive fish drifted into and out of view. These smaller fish — 50 to 60 pounds — were spectacular. Not black as their name would indicate, but almost an iridescent silver with dark bluish-purple polka dots. They were magnificent! I could hear Cindy squeaking in her regulator as she turned in the water and tried to see everything at once. Noting our bottom time and gas supply (funny how you can use up air when seeing black sea bass for the first time…) we turned and made our way aft down the port side of the Star, accompanied all the way by at least one or two polka-dotted escorts. Once again at the anchor line, it was as though the Star’s contingent of black sea bass had gathered to bid us farewell as we began our ascent. In groups of two and three, and a few shy singles, they circled us and hovered mid-water. We spent our last few minutes on the wreck turning back and forth trying to watch them all before we reluctantly tore ourselves from our magnificent fishy sendoff.
A promise made was a promise kept — Cindy got her black sea bass encounter and we had another amazing dive at the Star of Scotland to record in the logbook.