Arrived at the dive spot and immediately noticed the viz. It was pristine, as clear on the inside as we had ever seen it. Tropical. Then things got weird. We saw the squid. There were many of them. At least 10 visible on the rocks as we checked the water and viz from the high rocky lookout point. Most of them had their heads removed (probably by Gulls). Some were whole. At least a foot each. Phillip and I postulated some reasons for their demise: the rain bringing in bad water? the huge swell knocking them against the rocks? We didn't know, but the birds seemed to be leaving a lot of the carcasses alone on the beach. Quite strange.
Then things went from weird to very sketchy. Looking out on the ocean I noticed a flurry of activity outside the kelp, maybe 300 yards away, in the blue water where there was a noticeable current running. A group of gulls were dipping and swooping in a frenzy, something below was happening. Flying up and hovering no more than ten feet above the surface they hung as something thrashed beneath, throwing white water into the air with terrible strength. The look on Phillip's face was of bewilderment, eye-brows raised, almost in shock. I think my face was white. There was no need to guess what it was, classic feeding behavior of a large predator. The amount of thrashing and intervals between suggested it was probably just one, very large... After about 5 minutes of watching the splashes come every 20 seconds or so, the birds settled and the splashing stopped. I finally felt myself take a breath. Phillip gave a nervous laugh and looked at me, "well I guess we know it already ate." True, but not nearly convincing enough. Neither of us were prepared to move. We simply stared mutely out at the birds. Then two Kayakers came paddling in from deeper water back South, in moments passing the spot where the birds were gathered. Nearer shore, three other kayaks were anchored and the telltale fins and snorkels of freedivers could be seen slipping in and out of the kelp as they hunted the forests South of us, less than 100 yards away. The kayakers did not stop or seem to notice anything as they paddled by. Minutes passed without us saying a word. The divers kept diving, every now and then their fins lifting out of the water, only to slip into the kelp. The ocean had seemingly resumed normal business, a zero swell day, as calm as ever. Phillip and I exchanged some reinforcing words of encouragement to ourselves (which I most needed) and decided to suit up. The viz looked too damn good. Conditions were perfect. Good to go. We'd take precautions, hunt well on the inside, and work only the shallow reefs.
We started at our usual entrance and were immediately greeted by low swells carrying any number of dead squids. So strange! Then we kept on the drift out of the low tide shallows into about 8-15 ft of water and began to soak in the scene. It was truly amazing. So beautiful are late fall days like this in Central California. The few flexing kelp stalks that had survived the first big swells sprinkled and cut the light that streamed in above into sharp shadows that danced into life on the red corraline algae and colorful seaweeds below. The sun glimmered off the rocks and sand, so clear and bright it seemed almost to be shining in air. With each wave the seagrass that covered the boulder tops would ripple like hillsides in the wind. Everywhere there was life. Black abalone clung inside deep cracks beneath the boulders, tiny spotted sculpins guarded the entrances to cavernous holes like castle watchmen, rock crabs sidestepped from boulder to boulder - keeping ever to the shadows, and various species of perch darted in and out, schooling everywhere. I was a kid again. Checking the usual spots on the way to 'the cave', I swam almost like a seal, playfully, looking for Cabs in the shadows (although already having decided earlier that we probably wouldn't shoot any due to their likelihood of breeding during the fall). After about half an hour I came across a huge Opaleye and left it in it's cave. Then I realized why I had come, and got down to business. The next opaleye was not so lucky. I came upon 'the cave' and dropped to see that it was occupied by two enormous striped perch, some of the biggest fish I've ever seen from that species. I left them alone, gawking at them as they swam away as magnificent as any fish I've laid eyes upon. Phillip came down and looked in the cave which he handn't seen before, and I watched him disappear inside to take a look at the holes it contained, it is such an awesome spot. Soon after, I dropped to about 10ft of water near the wash rocks and swam slowly around the outcrop, scanning underneath the overhangs. At the last, deepest part of one side of the overhang I saw what looked like the face of a blind monkey staring back at me, blinded by my light. UNAGI. The Monkeyface had crouched up near the back of a hole, but it was too big for its own good. Right in the eye, sorry pal. Slipperiest thing ever, but I finally got him brained and on the stringer, which I put through both is eyes and then looped through his gills (This one's not getting away). Fish tacos check! Stoked! After 40 min hunting the shallows and building up our confidence in light of what we had seen that morning we moved South and out - toward the Gardens and deeper. The viz was stupid good. We stayed mostly in about 20 ft - 30ft of water, keeping an eye out for one another and trying to utilize our 6th sense/right brains as much as possible. Soon, however, the sketchy feeling washed away. The kelp rooms toward the outside of the forests were just too amazing. The sun shining through, very little cloud cover, water 60 degrees, heaven. Viz was easily 20-30ft. Fishwise it seemed like the schools of blues were unusually wary, which we thought to be a bad sign. It was strange and surreal the way they could de-materialze as we approached, as on more than one occasion they seemed to just disappear. But when we got out to about 30ft we found where they had gone.
The best part of the dive happened near the end, probably 3 hours in, when we found all the fish. We were about halfway between our entrance and the point, in the middle of the gardens in about 25 - 30 ft of water. Fish were everywhere. On the surface, a juvenile injured Ocean sunfish, probably 10 lbs, two feet across, was flapping, its dorsal fin apparently ripped off in an attack. Phillip and I exchanged the same kind of sketched out looks as we had on the beach earlier when we saw the fish's wounds, but we were more puzzled by the fact that nothing had come to finish it. Without Google to check if mola mola was good eats, we decided to not string it up. In retrospect I regret not putting it out of its misery, but we ended up just leaving it for nature to run its course. The sunfish was in an area with quite a lot of activity. The remaining kelp that had survived the big swells in this area were quite large and so interspersed, matching the topography of the boulders below, so as to create lovely rooms, about 20 sq feet each, that housed any number of species. It seemed like at one point there were twenty very large kelpies floating as if adrift by the kelp stalks, averaging around four kelpies per stalk, their pale scales reflecting ghostly in the filtered afternoon light as they hung suspended beneath us. At least a hundred small wrasses and blues circled us on top, investigating our stringers, as curious as flies. Beneath the surface layer of these fish swam larger shadows, big blues, grassies, olives, and perch. On my first drop I finned quickly through the first 10 ft of water and then let my momentum take me down, using a kelp stalk to pull me as I glided for cover. It was hard once I reached the bottom not to just look up and admire the scene above. It was one of the more beautiful visions I've ever taken in. I wished for a camera but in my hand found a speargun, reminding me in that moment that I had business here. At times like these, I thought, there is always a big fish nearby. A Lingcod was somewhere, sulking on the bottom, I knew it. I dropped down to my belly and surveyed the overhangs nearby, methodically, looking for a suitable hiding spot. I spotted one, a large boulder with a huge kelp stalk growing out of its roof giving it plenty of shade, and drifted near it. Indeed there was a gap beneath it, definitely enough of a space for home, so I slid the gun into firing position and switched on the light. The large distinctive spots of a mammoth Olive rockfish flashed before me, big enough for me to not even see there was a cave behind it. The spear hit it square in the flank, a little below the spine - behind the gills. The fish bolted, ripping the shockline from my gun into the cave as I braced my self against the rock and pulled back with my gun. It was too late, the spear shaft was caught, and I couldn't find where. Almost out of air and unable to get the spear or fish in my hands, I gave the line one last tug, assured myself it was a holding shot, and quickly ascended, racing my bubbles to the surface and gulping a big breath at the top. Phillip was nearby, stringing a chunky rockfish to his belt and reloading. I brought him over, apprising him of the situation. Graciously he dove down with me to figure out what to do. The olive was nowhere to be seen, the spear barely visible was braced horizontally against the mouth of the cave and so deep neither of us could get our hands on it. Upon surfacing, he simply said 'Sorry, I don't think that fish is still there, but we can probably get the spear out'. I agreed, reluctantly, that the fish looked like it had gone, and said 'last resort I'll cut the shockline.' We dove again, and again, and again. Taking turns, sometimes going together. Each time it seemed the fish around us were getting bigger and bigger, more interested, and closer (isn't that just the way it goes, whenever you're without the gun, the big dogs come in for a peak, F$#*!). I could tell Phillip was getting impatient, 'Did you see those fish?' he would say every time we surfaced. I was pissed, I wanted my gun. On or about the 5th (no joke) dive to retrieve the gun, Phillip spotted my fish, skewered, on the side of the boulder, emerging from another hole. He came up and got my knife (he had lost his somewhere) and went down and promptly brained it. 'It looks like a Dinosaur", he said. I grinned. "Ok we got this now, you go around here and I'll go around here..." he said, "and you'll push and i'll pull". We breathed up and dropped. I readied my stringer and got on the side of the hole where my dead fish was and stopped. Out of the gloom from the next kelp room came movement, a monster Lingcod, chunky and mean, slowly snaking its way into view, swimming directly for us. It saw me gawking at it and I swear it did not give a F*CK, as so often large Lingcod do. Honeybadger don't give a sh*t. I yelled underwater at Phillip, who's speargun was laying next to him on the other side of the boulder, but he didn't move. All I could see were his fins, half of him already underneath the boulder waiting for me to push the spear back through the hole. I yelled a few more times but he made no sign he could hear me, so I left him alone and focused on the Ling, tracking it until it settled into a deep shadow and became almost invisible. I kept it locked as I surfaced, waiting for Phillip to join me. Upon surfacing I glanced up quickly, immediately telling him the news. Then we dropped quickly, Phillip going for his gun, and I was astonished to find the spot I had been staring at to be empty. I scanned the area. Turns out I didn't have to scan long. Phillip was down near to me, his speargun now in his hands. He looked up at me, palms up, wondering where. He didn't see it, I couldn't believe it. I pointed at my skewered Olive. The 32"+ Lingcod lay there, it's massive head inches away from my Olive's face, eyeing its would be lunch. Phillip's eyes squinted in the shadows and still he shook his head, his left hand reaching for his flashlight. When he finally turned the beam on the area the look in his mask was hilarious: wide-eyed disbelief, sheer happiness and joy. He backed up until his 90cm Rob Allen was about a foot away from the Ling's head and let fly with both bands. It was like a twelve guage at close range. The Ling took the spear in the head, the tip hitting the rock behind him, and hardly shivered. Upon surfacing and braining, many high fives and whoops, and the Ling deposited on the Stringer, Phillip agreed it was probably the biggest Lingcod he'd ever taken.
We got the olive on my stringer, and then Phillip, finally, after about 5 more dives with much jostling and cursing, got the spear out of the hole. I don't know how, but he did. Muchos gracias amigo! During all this commotion, two harbor seals arrived and became as interested in our cave and our progress getting the spear out as we were. It seemed ironic that as as soon as we both were armed and loaded again all the fish that were once everywhere had been scared off. The kelp rooms were barren. No matter. 4 hours+ and I was freezing, but happy. It was a great dive, we headed in. EPIC day.
After four hours spent printing and cleaning fish, cleaning gear, prepping food, and sapping a few coronas, dinner was served. The deep fryer came out to party, and so we had deep fried monkeyface prickleback and blue meat Lingcod fish tacos with hand made tortillas, homemade san-tung sauce, tartar/tapatio sauce, avocado, cabbage, onions and white wine. Could not ask for much more than that!