"Premature burial, premature burial," is the mantra stalking my mind as I push inside the tightening swim-through, making me regret reading so much Edgar Allan Poe during my formative years. I try and curb a brewing panic as the craggy chute squeezes me like sausage casing. I still cannot see the exit hole as the surge grinds me deeper inside. My buddy, Ben, is waiting at the other end, too linebacker-framed to attempt this. We are at only 13 feet, fresh into our shore dive at Shaw's Cove in Laguna Beach, but I may as well be leagues under the sea in a rock coffin. Ben's California bungalow sits atop the overlooking bluff, three house-rows back from the drop-off. Only minutes ago we were fortifying our innards with morning coffee on his porch, looking past banana tree leaves over a languid Pacific, before taking a steep concrete stairway down to the parchment-colored sand.
Laguna Beach is Orange County's unquestioned mecca for shore diving and snorkeling, hosting 14 sites (with average depths ranging from 20 to 50 feet) beneath cliffs topped with multimillion-dollar estates. The underwater portfolio includes the mini-wall reefs of Diver's Cove, a starfish-shaped reef chamber called Mermaid's Grotto in Fisherman's Cove and a ditched airplane resting in 40 feet of water in Wood's Cove.
None too soon the tunnel exit grazes my head and I'm free and clear. My nervous ticker slows down, no longer drumming against neoprene. My first thought, of course, is, 'That was great!"
We're diving in early April, and the water temperature is 53 degrees; vis is 17 feet. I spot Ben's bubbles ahead and follow them. We continue along the cove's west side, keeping the reef on our right. Adult garibaldi fill shadowy crannies with neon orange. Bat stars daub the rocks magenta and tangerine. Purple urchins, sea hares and green anemones are also plentiful among the multilayered fissures.
We spot a warty sea cucumber stretched across a rock at 30 feet, then ascend to a spot called the Crevice, an archway cutting west at 20 feet. The opening is the size of a Volkswagen Bug, so I'm less hesitant about shooting through this time. Spiny lobster hide on a shelf inside, but we can't take any, as lobster season (October through March) has just ended. Docile octopuses are frequently spotted tenants of these tunnel capillaries. This is a rich checkout spot, yielding barred sand bass, opaleye, calico bass and surfperch.
A larger passage ushers us into the neighboring cove, Crescent Bay, another dive haunt. Ben points at the corner of a rock. I see nothing, until the tip of the rock detaches from itself and swims away. It's a spotted scorpionfish, magnificently camouflaged. We surface, switch to snorkels to conserve air, and fin across the bay to the northwest side, to Seal Rock, the only near-shore site in Southern California where divers can mingle with the sea lions that haul out here. It's a long swim across a sand bottom, but not without spotting a pair of bat rays crossing the underwater desert like B-2A Spirit jets, wing on wing.
Seal Rock is often peppered with juvenile and sub-adult sea lions, but today only two animals are here. We descend 25 feet to the bottom and wait. As my air drops below 500 psi, an upside-down whiskered nose appears before my mask; it's a young sea lion, curlicuing downward like a peeled potato skin. It hovers, inverted, flashing its baby browns at me. Then, with a coiled twitch, it slashes out of sight. The charisma of these creatures makes Seal Rock a divers' magnet.
A few days later, while most Southern Californians are enduring morning freeway gridlock, we are diving Little Corona, a marine reserve at the southeast end of Corona del Mar State Beach, a half mile east of Newport Harbor. The western side of this cove is murky and dull. The eastern side, however, shelters an incomparable reef system about 100 yards out from the beach, marked by a boat buoy. Vis is 14 feet today, post-low tide. We follow the rocky reef spine at 20 feet, encountering an 18-inch cabezon guarding a rock spire. The elongated rocks sometimes appear one-dimensional from above, but descending alongside them reveals labyrinthine crevices. Wavy-topped turban snails lick algae, coexisting alongside ochre sea stars, eelgrass, red feather dusters and golden gorgonians.
The east reef area is a self-contained sanctuary; it's like coming across an oceanic chapel amid an otherwise moribund zone. Once picked over by divers and overrun by purple urchins, this mini-ecosystem is in the act of majestic rejuvenation, thanks to a reforestation program innovated by local dive instructors Gordon Lehman and Cliff Noland. In 1995 they began transplanting giant kelp plants at Little Corona-harvested from a donor site inside the Newport Harbor jetty-by tying them to the reef rocks with cord or rubber bands until each holdfast could reattach to the rocks. The divers' efforts have made this site the most successful example of kelp restoration in Orange County.
We cut left, angling south of Arch Rock, to a garden of giant kelp beds where sinuous 30-foot vines swing at us like hula girls. A juvenile halibut spooks out of the sand, giving me a start. Kelp bass, sand bass and rockfish are common sights. Horn sharks also cruise this drag.
Corona del Mar State Beach
Next day, we make a shore entry at the northwest corner of Corona del Mar State Beach. The breakwater jetty here, dividing Big Corona from the Newport Bay harbor entrance, makes for a mystical predawn dive. The jetty extends its finger of broken rocks due south, about the length of a football field, across a sloping sand bottom. The piled mega-boulders create an artificial reef, irresistible to sundry marine life. A sediment plume gives way once we get beyond the surge zone. The giant rocks on our right are alive with waving laminaria, sea fans, starfish, giant keyhole limpets and a rare green abalone.
It's early enough to witness the changing of the guard, when night creatures return to hiding as day creatures just emerge. A rock crab swim-crawls sideways over the sandy bottom, skittering up a baby bat ray. At 15 feet, a defensive garibaldi rockets in and out of mini-tunnel pockets, monitoring us. A sheep crab with a carapace like a hefty cobblestone squats atop a mussel-laden rock.
We slow up at the halfway point and shine our LED beams into the rock cavities. There are fish at every glance: senoritas, opaleye, calico bass. My light finds a half-hidden moray eel packing a glare from hell. There are also plenty of lobster tucked inside the rocks-hunted by salivating night divers during the season. Our depth pushes 35 feet off the tip of the jetty. We don't go any farther, since the channel fronts steady boat traffic. As we climb, the dawn's rays uncover a lone dolphin idling near the surface. It emits no sonar clicks, possibly listening for baitfish that come and go between Newport Bay's protected tidal basin and the open ocean. Or else we've caught it in a half-conscious state of rest. A godsend, either way.