Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 20
To the depthsSome of the best scuba diving in the world is just a hop, skip, and a boat ride away
BY JEREMY THOMAS
Want to get away from it all without going too far from home? Consider scuba diving as your next ticket.
At Ocean Sports in Lompoc, Shaun Crouse and fiancée Kimberly Park steer beginners through the process of becoming certified scuba divers. A veteran of more than 2,000 dives, Crouse takes students off South Coast beaches and to the Channel Islands—ranked one of the top 10 diving spots in the world.
Originally from Lompoc, Crouse worked on Catalina Island and lived on Kauai in Hawaii. When asked why he came back to the Central Coast, he offered up a simple reason: the kelp forests.
Whereas fish tend to stay in one place in tropical coral reefs, he explained, habitats change quickly in the kelp off Santa Barbara County, where the plants grow about three feet per day.
“Because they’re constantly moving around, a dive site looks different every time you go there,” he said. “You may be able to pick out rocks that look the same, but as far as animals and plant life, it’s completely different every time.”
For those interested in taking the plunge, Ocean Sports offers two avenues. Greenhorns unsure if diving is their thing can try the shop’s Discover Scuba Diving class. For $25, students can practice with full gear in the Lompoc Aquatic Center’s indoor heated pool, spending about an hour going through basic skills. If students find they like it, they can move on.
The other option, for water babies with no fear, is to head directly for the two-week open water class. Lessons are held twice during the week, followed by a pool dive on Saturday. Then on Sunday, students are taken out for two practice dives, either at the Channel Islands (weather permitting) or off the beaches. Students repeat the schedule for a second week and they’re certified for life.
Crouse said the basics are usually picked up fast; the most difficult part for beginners is making the initial effort and not getting frustrated.
“The biggest rule in scuba diving is never hold your breath, which is something you’ve been taught your entire life to do whenever your head gets underwater,” he said. “So it’s just about having patience with something you’ve never done before.”
Mike Martinez is president of the Lompoc Dive Club, a group of avid scuba divers and fishermen. Members meet during lobster season for night dives, travel to the Bay Area for abalone, and hold fishing tournaments and other diving events on the South Coast and the Channel Islands.
“You’re definitely out of your element, but at the same time for me it’s therapeutic,” Martinez said. “There’s nothing better than being under the water and just cruising through a forest of seaweed and watching fish and game swim by.”
To jump in, you need the right gear: a mask, snorkel, wetsuit, gloves, booties, and dive fins. Then there’s the weight belt, oxygen tank, and a regulator to reduce air pressure in the tank. One tank will last about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the diver’s skill level. The buoyancy compensator, worn like a backpack, can be inflated or deflated to adjust a diver’s depth.
Scuba gear can be expensive. Used gear can cost a few hundred dollars, while new gear can run a few thousand. Martinez recommends first renting snorkeling gear and getting acquainted with the ocean swell and waves.
“If they’re comfortable in the water and they feel good, most likely they’re going to be a confident diver,” Martinez said. “Some people just don’t like the ocean, and they don’t know that until they get all that gear on.”
While the Central Coast’s cold water or threat of sharks might scare off some people from ever trying to dive, Martinez said there’s nothing to fear.
“I feel you have more of a chance of getting into a life-threatening situation driving to work than you would in the ocean,” Martinez said. “As long as you keep your calm, there’s so much to see out there.”
From beaches on the South Coast, kelp forests can be found less than 30 yards from shore. When Crouse is with students, he goes no more than about 30 feet below the surface, deep enough to view plenty of sea life.
Of all the underwater sights, Crouse’s favorite is the harbor seals, which he compares to puppy dogs. They’ll approach and sniff around, he said, and enjoy being petted. Another is the octopus, which changes colors and is small enough to hold in your hand.
Of course, the biggest fear for beginning divers is the threat of sharks, though they’re a rare sight. While diving a coral reef in Hawaii, Crouse had a frightening encounter with a large Galapagos reef shark, which was circling the area for an injured fish.
“He wasn’t doing any posturing or being aggressive, so we just kind of sat there,” Crouse said. “I’d never been in a situation like that before. It was an adrenaline rush.”
Jack Ward, treasurer for the Aqualliers Dive Club at Vandenberg Air Force Base, has seen his share of sharks, too. Diving has taken him from an underwater cavern in Hawaii full of white-tipped reef sharks, to Cozumel, where he’s gazed into the black abyss of a 3,000-foot-deep trench. Ward used to hunt, but now enjoys catching lobster and taking underwater photos of creatures he encounters while diving.
“I love it down there,” Ward said. “Going in the water and breathing underwater, I find it a very natural thing and very relaxing.”
The Aqualliers began at Vandenberg in 1967, and the group is still going strong. You don’t have to be active military to join; it’s open to anyone with access to the base, including contractors. The club goes on dives every holiday weekend, oftentimes off base at the old Boathouse jetty or to the wreckage of the Honda destroyer disaster of 1923. They also dive the South Coast beaches from Gaviota to Carpinteria, as well as the Channel Islands.
Due to the terrain, cold water, and poor visibility, the region is an ideal training ground for divers, Ward said, because it makes other spots in the world seem easy.
“This is a great place to learn,” Ward said. “If you can get certified on the Central Coast and learn to dive here, you can dive anywhere.”
Certified for eight years, Martinez has been scuba diving all along the West Coast, from San Francisco to Mexico. His favorite diving spot is the west end of Santa Cruz Island; the Channel Islands as a whole, he said, are “phenomenal.”
“A lot of people think just because our waters are cold, that there’s not a lot of pretty stuff,” he said. “Here in our waters, it can be crystal clear. It’s not really warm, but the amount of life you see at the bottom is unbelievable. Everything is alive down there and moving.”
Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas wears a snorkel in the bathtub. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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