Forget the Latte and Go for a Dive
By Iain Anderson
It is hard to imagine a bigger contrast in habitats. On the shore at La Jolla, a trendy suburb of San Diego, California, crowds of tourists watch a hundred seals as they lie basking in the sun. On the nearby roadside motorists jostle for parking while in the shallows of the sea, seals, sea lions, otters, sea birds and many other animals large and small hunt for food.
And there is plenty for them to eat for 24 square kilometres of seabed and tidelands, the San-Diego La Jolla Underwater Park, are protected from human exploitation. I have explored both habitats of La Jolla. The restaurants on shore serve great food and the view out over the bay is beautiful. But the best chowder or latte can’t beat the adrenaline rush of diving or snorkelling in the company of occasionally large animals, even if visibility is restricted to a few metres.
The water here can be cold and all of my experiences have been limited to the end-of-winter months of February or March when the water temperature can be a bracing 15ÂºC (or less). But I have discovered that snorkelling in this water with my 3mm surf suit is quite bearable if you wear a hood and boots. If the wind direction is favourable and not too strong the sea will be relatively calm and visibility not too bad.
Many of the animals of La Jolla can be encountered on snorkel. You will meet schools of fish at waist depth. Patches of rich green sea grass covering a rocky shore provide a habitat for bright orange garibaldi angelfish, each with its own small territory several metres in radius. Further from shore there are tree-high kelp plants. There are sea caves to visit. In amongst the rocks I have seen port sharks resting. A flat patch of rock, away from beaches and annoying humans, has been adopted by a colony sea lions. Early one morning I looked out to sea from a cliff over this spot and saw two groups of sea lions, numbering several dozen, just relaxing together at the surface with their fins in the air. During my snorkelling adventure I drifted close to one of the groups. A number dived and swam under me to check me out and as they did this I could hear them barking. Unfortunately my camera had a macro lens fitted to it and photographing fast moving objects in murky water was just about impossible. I tried barking back through my snorkel until I thought: perhaps I shouldn’t act too seal-like. With my black suit and fins I might look like a rather fat and juicy sea mammal to a much larger predator!
Near a pier belonging to the famous Scripps Institute of Oceanography one can do a shore dive, entering a rich habitat belonging to spider crabs, mollusks, sea pens, crabs, flounder, octopus and pipefish (to name a few). Further out from shore you come to the edge of a sudden drop off. My guide warned me about this as it seems some of his negatively buoyant clients occasionally fall off the edge. It was here that I encountered many crayfish, some crowded three to a hole. The La Jolla Canyon that lies beyond the tidal shallows reaches depths of 180m within the park.
My dive guide explained to me that before it became a marine park the area was protected as an archeological reserve. This was due to the discovery, in the shallows, of ancient artifacts that include bowls and other implements. Thousands of years ago, the near-shore shallows that we were diving in were above sea level and inhabited by native Americans.
La Jolla has always provided plenty to eat for its residents. Humans must use the cafÃ©s and restaurants but every other species can eat what is in the sea. There must be a lot to eat too given the large population of seals, sea lions and aquatic birdlife around. If you ever get an opportunity to visit La Jolla forget the coffee bars and restaurants and instead feast your eyes on the treasures of its shoreline both above and below the surface. But be warned, it might be a little cold.