We miss travel.
Here in San Diego, we’ve spent our pandemic days dreaming about turquoise waters and tropical reefs. But for the time being, we have nowhere else to go but our local dives sites.
Here’s the funny thing about diving in Southern California: although the region experiences so little change in seasonal climate, the ocean has all the emotional predictability of a toddler. One hour it’s playing nicely, full of joy and vibrance, and the next hour it’s throwing a temper tantrum. It’s cold, murky, and—on bad days—devoid of marine life. Very different from the places that we usually send travelers.
But we’re dying to get out of the house and get a breath of (compressed) fresh air. So, on an overcast morning in December, we squeeze into 7-millimeter wetsuits and wade out into San Diego’s most popular dive site, La Jolla Cove.
It’s a misadventure, to say the least.
There aren’t a whole lot of animals swimming around, and what few animals there are do their best to avoid us. The Garibaldi hide away in crevices as we swim by. There are no sea bass, no leopard sharks, no octopuses. We can’t even find enjoyment in the landscape. The visibility is so poor that we can’t discern any interesting features. There’s nothing to see but rock and sand. And did we mention it’s cold?
We head out to the La Jolla kelp forest, but we’re a little disappointed when we arrive. The kelp is pretty, but there’s just so little of it—a few small clusters of kelp trees here and there, clinging to life. Having been ravaged by climate change, the kelp feels more like a decoration than a major feature.
“You can’t really call it a kelp forest, anymore,” says the divemaster. “It used to be so dense and you could actually swim through it. But most of the kelp is gone now.”
The second dive is worse.
A powerful surge begins as soon as we sink beneath the surface. The surge kicks up so many particles that the visibility drops to 10 feet, and it looks as if we’re swimming through a starfield. It’s a battle of buoyancy control as we struggle to avoid being thrown against the rocks or tossed up to the surface.
Even one of the local Garibaldi is having a rough time. He’s turned sideways, mouth agape, hopelessly stuck on the same rollercoaster ride that we are.
It’s the worst of California diving. The conditions are so unpleasant that our discovery of a single horn shark feels spectacular.
We return to 15 feet of water, within 30 or so yards from the beach. The visibility is better here, and there’s no surge. Just a clean, bright sand bank.
Suddenly, the divemaster points up to the surface. A shadow hovers over us. Then it plunges into view—a California sea lion.
The sea lion darts through the water like an excited dog. It zips and zings around our group, initially keeping its distance, and then working its way closer.
Soon, we spot another sea lion. And another one. And another. Within minutes, we’re encircled by 7 or 8 sea lions. Our group kneels in the sand and watches.
The sea lions behave like a bunch of dogs that have been unleashed at a dog park. Most of them are juveniles and they’re overcharged with playful curiosity, which they exert by corkscrewing maniacally through the water.
They nip at the bubbles we blow. They lean in close and investigate our masks. They brush alongside our wetsuits, like they’re inviting us to play tag.
An adult female supervises. Occasionally, she dives at our heads and snaps her jaws. It’s an effective intimidation tactic. Don’t get too friendly with my babies! I can bite.
A smaller sea lion lies flat on the sand, right next to me, and locks eyes with me, as if to say, Look at us! We’re both sitting on the bottom!
When we surface, we find that the sun has finally broken through the marine layer, casting the shoreline in golden colors. It’s a sunny winter day in San Diego, the weather of which is quite reflective of our mood.
Yes, San Diego water can be cold, murky, and rough. But there’s also sea lions.
Home is not always a place we want to be. But, if you’re stuck in place for the holiday season, we hope that you’re able to find some wonder and joy at wherever it is you pitch your tent.
Happy holidays from our family to yours. We hope you have a safe (and snuggly) holiday season with your loved ones.