What do you do when you have the urge to go diving but the price tag seems prohibitive? Is it possible to take a weekend dive trip on a shoestring? I aim to find out. My goal: to log at least six dives in two days in California's Northern Channel Islands--and spend less than $250 on the whole trip, including food, lodging, travel and diving. That means, for starters, getting from Northern California, where I live, to Ventura, where the charter boats offering half-, full- and multi-day trips to the islands are docked. Fortunately, I manage to hitch a ride with Hollywood-bound friends who agree to drop me off right at Ventura Harbor, located some 65 miles north of Los Angeles, saving me a bundle. So far, so good.
Ventura Harbor is like a charming little village comprised of shops, bistros and bars, including a Middle Eastern joint that features belly dancers on Friday nights. I skip the belly dancers and go for a more economical--but no less entertaining--option: watching the sunset from the dunes across the street.
Afterwards, I stroll over to check out the Spectre, my floating hotel for the night and dive boat for the next day. This boat, like many other Channel Islands dive boats, doesn't charge extra for guests to sleep onboard the night before their dives. So, at $78 for a midweek three-dive package (including food, drinks and air fills), I already feel like I've got the best deal in town. It also offers an added bonus for chilled divers: a steaming hot tub perched right on deck.
The Northern Channel Islands
This is my first trip to the Northern Channel Islands, a group of four small islands--Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel--within the portion of the Santa Barbara Channel designated as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which also includes Santa Barbara. The sanctuary, set aside in 1980 to protect the area's rich biodiversity, is one of California's great marine treasures. Its clear, blue waters seem almost tropical compared to the colder, murkier waters up north. Jacques Cousteau has been quoted as saying that these islands feature some of the best temperate-climate diving in the world.
Topside, the islands boast an interesting cultural heritage. The native Chumash tribe occupied them for millennia, navigating through the Santa Barbara Channel and subsisting off the seafood that it provided them.
But I won't be spending many daylight hours topside on this trip; my intention is to dive as much as possible, encountering the playful sea lions that inhabit these waters and exploring the lush kelp forests. To me, any opportunity to meander through a submarine forest is appealing. I'll never miss a chance to go on one of these surrealistic dream dives, with rays of light streaming through the kelp and illuminating the colorful anemones and nudibranchs, just some of the 800-plus species supported by the kelp ecosystem.
Excited by what awaits but exhausted by the day's long drive, I fall asleep in my bunk instantly, only to be awakened early the next morning by the sound of exuberant divers loading their gear on the deck. After the roll call and signing of waivers, we are off, speeding out to Anacapa Island, the closest island to Ventura and the best bet for diving on a day with spotty conditions. Before I can even think about it, a friendly young woman takes my breakfast order. And here I am--eating French toast on a boat in the open Pacific. Breakfast and lunch, as well as unlimited air fills, are included in the price. Total spent so far: $125.
Action at Anacapa
Anacapa, which consists of three small islets, is roughly 11 miles off the coast. Travel time from Ventura Harbor is about 90 minutes. We make three dives here, and none of them disappoints. With average vis upward of 40 feet and temps that don't drop below about 55 degrees, this is a Northern California diver's dream.
On our first dive we explore striking underwater pinnacles covered with abundant marine life, including strawberry anemones and a variety of nudibranchs. I see my first garibaldi, California's state marine fish, a bright-orange beauty that looks like a big, friendly goldfish. It is completely unafraid to approach me, and I watch it play hide-and-seek among the stands of kelp.
Nearby, a playful gray-and-black spotted harbor seal shows off its acrobatics, so naturally agile that we divers look hopelessly clumsy in comparison. The currents are fast and tricky, causing one diver to be swept past the boat during a free-floating safety stop. A crewmember throws out a line, and the diver makes his way safely back to the boat.
Topside, the view is stunning: Huge, barren rocks loom up out of the sea. But I remain focused on what lies beneath the surface and am already thinking about our next dives. After swimming with a harbor seal, I can't wait to see what's next.
Dive number two brings us closer to the island. The captain says there are some underwater caves here, but the current and the abundance of life outside the mouth of the caves keep me from exploring them. Heading up the line to my safety stop, I see a school of blue rockfish hover directly underneath the boat.
After three chilly dives, I opt for a soothing soak in the on-deck hot tub. Once my body temperature returns to normal, I go below and pack up my gear. Forty-five minutes later, I wheel my gear two docks down to my next boat, the Explorer.
The Explorer is a bit more expensive (a weekend rate of $110, which includes the night's stay, three dives, unlimited air fills, breakfast, lunch and drinks), but I am still under budget. Total spent so far: $225.
However, conditions are still not perfect, and the fog and choppy current send us back to Anacapa. I pair up with a twosome, one of whom is an instructor. His navigational assistance is a welcome addition during my first two dives, while we make our way through the rocky reef structures. We peer into cracks and crevices hiding lobsters, octopuses, moray eels and dozens of species of nudibranchs. On dive three, garlands of hydrocoral wave in the current, and huge abalone cling to the rocks. I look, in vain, for the giant black sea bass said to inhabit these waters. Instead, I see vermillion rockfish, several lingcod and schools of large sheephead, who pay me little notice.
The best part of the trip--aside from the fact that I didn't overspend my goal--is discovering how much variety these islands offer for a manageable price. I'd hoped to visit Santa Cruz Island, which is located about 20 miles from the mainland, but conditions did not permit. Santa Cruz is a good spot to observe the migrating gray whales that visit the area between December and March; blue whales also make an occasional appearance on this perpetually changing marine stage. And now that I know what awaits in these waters, there's no doubt in my mind: I'll be back soon.
Take Hwy. 101 and exit at Seaward Ave. then make a left onto Harbor Blvd. Follow Harbor Blvd. south for two miles, then turn right on Spinnaker Dr. Turn into the third parking lot entrance to Ventura Harbor Village in front of The Greek restaurant.
Head south on Hwy. 101 (Ventura Freeway). Take the Castillo St. exit in Santa Barbara. Take a right on Castillo, go to Cabrillo and take a right. Go to Harbor Way and take a left (this is the main harbor entrance).
Ventura Harbor is located 60 miles north of Los Angeles and 26 miles south of Santa Barbara off Hwy. 101.
Take Hwy. 101 and exit at Seaward Ave. Turn left at exit signal, onto Harbor Blvd. Go through five traffic lights; then turn right onto Spinnaker Dr. into the Harbor. Continue past the third Ventura Harbor Village sign and take the second entrance into the parking lot.
Take Hwy. 101 and exit at Telephone Rd. Turn left under the freeway, then go through five traffic lights (Telephone Rd. ends at Olivas Park Dr.). Turn right onto Olivas Park, which becomes Spinnaker Dr. after crossing Harbor Blvd. Continue past the third Ventura Harbor Village sign and take the second entrance into the parking lot.
Take the Seaward Ave. exit and turn left. The first light across the freeway is Harbor Blvd.; turn left. Go through five traffic lights; then turn right onto Spinnaker Dr. into the Harbor. Continue past the third Ventura Harbor Village sign and take the second entrance into the parking lot.