Pretty much from the moment I got certified seven years ago, it’s just been a given: when I’m traveling near or around a body of water, I’m looking up the local diving in the area. Once I realized I was heading to California for two weeks and would have a dive buddy in the form of Kat, my dive instructor friend from Thailand, I knew we’d find somewhere along the shore to submerge.
Did we ever.
We looked into various overnight liveaboards and dive trips from Los Angeles, but they tend to run only over the weekends and options were somewhat limited. Once we decided to add San Diego to our itinerary, it seemed like a more logical choice given the waters temperatures are a few degrees higher. I got in touch with Women Diver’s Hall of Fame president Bonnie Toth, who sponsored the grant I won in 2013 and has been supporting and encouraging to me in my dive career ever since, to ask for leads on diving in her local area.
She did one better than just offering advice — she vowed to set up the dive charter of our dreams alongside accomplished fellow underwater photographers Allison Vitsky Sallmon and Andy Sallmon. How could we say no?
Allison took the reigns in arranging our day out on the water, generously offering me some of her cold water gear to fill in the gaps in my warm water set and directing us to a local shop where we could rent tanks and gear for Kat. While images of the area’s infamous kelp dives danced in my head, Allison on how challenging and visibility dependent the success of those sites can be, and urged us to consider a trip to Los Coronados, a group of small uninhabited islands — rocks, really — over the watery border into the Mexican side of the Pacific Ocean. She promised encounters with a playful pack of baby seals, who would dance and perform for our cameras. Clearly, we couldn’t have been happier to defer to the local experts on this one.
We had plenty of time to get acquainted on the boat ride over, and I was amazed at the passion and experience of my dive buddies for the day. When it came time to suit up, I was brimming with excitement. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to dive with seals before in Peru, so I tried to remain somewhat skeptical — but I couldn’t help it, I was buzzing.
And oh, did it every pay off! We spent the entire dive in a shallow cove where over a dozen baby sea lions frolicked, played, and stared curiously into our camera ports.
It wasn’t all underwater rainbows and sea-unicorns, though — this was a very humbling dive. Though I’ve tried my hand at drysuit diving once, my experience with cold water diving is otherwise nonexistent. I struggled getting into my hood, gloves, and 7mm wetsuit, and felt like an Open Water Manatee™ when I finally flopped into the surf. Things didn’t really improve upon submerging; I struggling to maintain my buoyancy in the unfamiliar gear and strong surge, and cringed wondering what these graceful dive geniuses must have thought of me — a supposedly experienced certified PADI Divemaster — flailing around underwater!
I also struggled with my camera. I was tried to fiddle with new settings which upon reflection was probably unwise — with so many other changing variables, perhaps I should have stuck to what I knew. I even struggled to access the controls with gloves! For the second dive I pulled my gloves off in a fit of frustration and found that it improved my spirits wildly — I preferred to be a little cold and have better fine motor control than to keep my fingers toasty.
Yet overall, I was pretty disappointed with my photos at the end of the day, none of which I’d ever consider printing or popping in a frame — I waffled about posting them at all. For some seriously gorgeous images of these stunning creatures, check out Allison’s work!
Still, in terms of jogging my memory of an amazing experience and encounters with some of the oceans most curious creatures, they are perfect.
The sea lions were so captivating that we didn’t really explore the rest of the dive site until the last few moments of the dive.
After a surface interval spent swapping stories of spectacular dives and serious travels, we geared up for a second go. Though there are several dive sites around the area, we were captivated by the sea lions and decided to double dive the same spot twice.
Unfortunately, the sea lions were obviously a little less captivated by us. Though September is pretty much the peak time to see the pups in peak playful form, they are wild animals and don’t necessarily cooperate with a dive schedule. So while we waited patiently for them to reappear underwater, they snoozed carelessly up on the rocks.
Luckily, we had other creatures to encounter. I was so excited when I saw a free-swimming octopus slither by me, as it is rare to see them out of their holes. Andy noticed my enthusiasm and did his best to assist me in getting a great shot of both our tentacled friend and a strange nudibranch that appeared nearby. Unfortunately the photographic results were sub-par as I swayed back and forth in the surge, but I’ll treasure the moment.
When we surfaced, the sea lions looked up sleepily to bid us goodbye.
This was definitely a more logistically challenging and expensive dive trip than the ones I’ve casually hopped aboard in tourist towns everywhere from Bocas del Toro to Perhential Besar. The cost of the charter was $1,000 total, so $200 each — which did include a delicious homemade lunch from our lovely captain. But we also had to separately procure our own gear and tanks, and transport ourselves to and from the launch site (luckily for us, it was less than a ten minute drive from our Mission Beach rental!)
But despite my neoprene-related buoyancy challenges and my frustrating shutter struggles, it was worth every penny. I got face to face with a magnificent mammal that’s been alluding me underwater for years, I stepped fin in Mexico for the first time (olé!) and I spent the day with an amazing group of divers with whom I had as much fun on the surface intervals as I did on the dives. I hope it will be the first of many!
It was a humbling reminder that my love of a challenge is one of the things that first attracted me to diving, and that shouldn’t fade no matter how thick my logbook grows.
Alright, California divers! Where should I flail around underwater next?